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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - June 8, 2012

Garden tips for June

Do you need a landscape janitor or a gardener?

by Jack McKinnon

What is the difference between a gardener and a landscape janitor? I have been both and they are both honorable professions. Where people get confused and disappointed is when they think they are getting one and it turns out they are getting the other.

Often I get calls about gardeners not doing what they are expected to do and what a homeowner can do to correct the situation. The first thing to do is to know what can be expected. Know how to ask the right questions and how to check to make sure it is getting done when the time comes to write the check.

Landscape janitors (often referred to as "mow, blow and go" gardeners) do clean up, turf cutting, edging and generally make pretty. Gardeners are plants people with education, experience and an interest in the design, health and significance of the garden in relationship to its owner and the rest of the world.

A garden is a living changing place that left to its own will revert to a jungle or a desert or some combination of the two. Good design can last centuries and good care can inspire poetry. The combination can transform a civilization.

Here are the tips:

1. A gardener knows the names of the plants she tends. Both the common and the botanical names are important. With this information the plant becomes a living history of continent, climate, culture, grandeur and problems.

2. The landscape janitor needs to know basic clean up of the plant like dead-heading (removing dead flowers), some pruning, water needs and possibly fertilization needs.

3. Care of turf (lawns) is simple if all that is needed is some green on the ground. Mowing, edging and fertilizing once a quarter will keep most turf going.

4. For the gardener an area of turf is the most demanding culture on the property. There is weed control, maintaining the species individuality, fungus management, aeration, thatching, watering control and mower cleaning and maintenance to reduce infestation. A careful fertilization program will keep the turf healthy and evenly green.

5. A gardener is a problem solver. He knows what pests are likely to infest a plant and either prepares to repel them, encourages natural predators or has a management plan in place if an infestation occurs. She will use the least toxic method first and escalate as needed until control is achieved.

6. Pruning is an art form with a living thing. Often I have had to do corrective pruning after plant abuse has been done with a power tool. When a garden looks like a Brontosaurus went through in the morning, something is wrong. This is not gardening; this is irresponsible. It is important to know if your gardener knows how to prune. A simple test on a small insignificant plant can save a lot of grief. If when the test is done, the plant looks sculpted and most cuts are hidden then this person is qualified to prune. If you have valuable plants like Japanese maple or a bonsai, I recommend hiring a master pruner.

7. Maintenance that complements the design of a garden can be done well by the average garden crew. The key is that they are managed well by a competent gardener. The homeowner can interview the owner of the business or the supervisor of the crew to insure the maintenance needed. Write down what is agreed upon for the weekly or monthly fee. This way there is some accountability.

8. Irrigation is quite important. If broken or not working correctly an irrigation system can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars' worth of plants in a short time. A maintenance garden crew needs to identify problems and repair them immediately, or report them to the owner in order to get an irrigation contractor on the job. This is important, especially in the summer.

9. Some plantings are changed seasonally and a good gardener has a sense of what is available in nurseries for color, fruit (in the case of vegetable gardens), foliar show and seasonal theme. Planting timing is important to understand in order for the best effect. Decisions need to be made a month in advance and in some cases (with bulbs in particular) several months in advance. This is where a skilled gardener is quite valuable.

10. Finding a good gardener is not easy. The best advice I can give is to know your garden yourself. This really helps when it comes to interviewing prospective contractors. Managing a maintenance gardener that does landscape janitorial work or working with an experienced horticulturalist is an investment in quality living that knows true elegance.

Good Gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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