If you live in a community with a homeowner’s association, you might wonder if your Maintenance Crews is doing the best job possible for your landscape. There are various practices that are considered beneficial for the long-term health and viability of plants and soil, and they are often disregarded by professionals. These include pruning methods, irrigation practices, and amendment applications. When these errors are made, the negative results are very slow to appear. But they will manifest in a general decline of the plant health and natural beauty of your landscape.

Maintenance Crews in HOA’s

We have all witnessed a typical crew of workers as they attack the shrubbery with gas powered hedgers, “sculpting” them into tidy shapes that resemble nothing Mother Nature ever intended. While this may look neat and orderly, the practice is actually harmful to the plant in the long term. And while I really liked the movie Edward Scissorhands, botanists and horticulturists will tell you that this method of pruning is a poor use of time, money, effort and resources.

A hedger’s cutting blades, unless meticulously maintained, get blunted, creating uneven cuts and even tearing the plant material. This kind of damage will leave the plant stressed as well as open to disease and insect infestation.

Best practices dictate that pruning should be undertaken for the overall health of a plant. Multiple branches – never more than 1/4 of the plant – should be removed periodically to ensure good air flow and a healthy, open branch structure. Of course, the plants should also be pruned to prevent encroaching on buildings, streets and pathways.

Another common, but incorrect practice is the overuse of the (dreaded) leaf blower. Routinely they are directed to blow every loose bit of plant material and leaf litter out from below the shrubbery, then they bag it and haul it to the dump. Rather than encouraging the continuation of this practice, I propose that small litter should remain in place and be encouraged to act as a natural mulch.

Mulch is well known to discourage water evaporation and to decompose over time, which improves the soil structure and encourages plants’ root zone health. Bare soil is incredibly bad for plants, as exposure to air and harsh weather can kill the beneficial insects that live in the ground and help the plants to thrive.

Irrigation practices are equally important to monitor. Many crews treat both the overhead spray-type sprinklers and drip system as if they were the same. Or, even worse, is when they have all the stations set to run for the same amount of time, not taking into account things like sun and wind exposure.

Rather, each station should run according to the plant material it covers, its directionality and the type of irrigation in that area. Turf areas should be trained for deeper root growth. Moderate, well-spaced run times can help achieve this. Shrubs and trees, with their naturally deeper root structure, should be watered less frequently but for longer periods of time. This ensures that the water is able to percolate down into the roots, giving them access to the moisture they need.

Finally, many maintenance companies will submit schedules for fertilization and herbicide and insecticide treatments. This necessary practice is often postponed or possibly skipped entirely. This can be avoided with monthly reports submitted by the crew leader or a landscape company representative. Keep a sharp eye on your calendar to ensure the crew follows the schedule, as many of these applications are time or seasonally sensitive.



If this all seems a bit much for your board members or property manager to monitor, consider hiring a qualified landscape consultant who can oversee these practices for your community. Many consultants are also able to assist in the RFP process and can be helpful in writing and negotiating new contracts with the maintenance and arbor companies.

Additionally, and possibly the best reason to have a consultant as part of your community’s landscape team is that they are able to guide you in fielding the inevitable resident requests with minimal frustration, using their years of knowledge and experience.

Well, summer has arrived and so have the drought restrictions, a regular part of living in Southern California!

The Summertime

Our local water municipalities are good at reminding us to water on certain days of the week. But we at Root & Branch wanted to give you some information and tips to make sure your landscape makes it through the season.

Not to get to science-y, but when a water agency tells you to water early or later in the day, it’s because of evapotranspiration which, in a nutshell, is the rate of which a plant and the soil lose moisture through evaporation. The factors that affect the rate of evaporation are solar radiation, temperature, humidity and wind.

Studies by the Universities of California Davis and Riverside all conclude that watering early in the day is better than watering your gardens in the afternoon. And by early in the day, we mean between 4 AM and 6 AM, when there’s less wind, soil temperatures are cool, and plants’ roots are most able to absorb water.

You might also have heard it is better to water less often but for longer periods of time. Turns out, there’s really good science behind that too. A plant’s root system typically reflects what we see of the plant above ground. Meaning short plants have shallow roots (think grass) and tall trees have large, deep roots.

So if you are watering for a short period of time you’re only getting water just below the surface. This provides water to roots within the top few inches of soil, which isn’t how most plants grow.  Watering for a longer period of time will allow the water to get to the roots at greater depths.

This provides water to the plant, of course, but also encourages the roots to grow deeper into the soil. This then acts as an insulator to the root system in high temperatures.

Grass is a terrific example of this! It should be kept longer in the summer – 2 to 3 inches is good, 4 inches even better. Not only does it shade the ground from the increased blade height, but it also encourages the roots to grow deeper. Also, again, a longer run time less often will encourage those roots to go deep, insulating them from the heat while the blade is insulating them from above. So, tell your gardeners to change the height of the darn mower!

If possible, consider upgrading your irrigation controller to a “smart” one.  Controllers now have moisture sensors and some can now connect to a local weather station and automatically make watering changes based on environmental conditions. As we mentioned, the water needs of plants are affected by sun, temperature, humidity and wind.  These smart controllers do calculations that take into account all these factors, as well as the type of plants they are watering, to make sure you provide the exact amount of water needed, and not a drop more!


If that’s not in the budget, consider at least using a water meter. Actually, if you have a garden you should have a water meter. This is the time of year when they are worth their weight in gold. See our blog post about water meters for more information on that topic.

Hopefully you and your garden can beat the heat this summer. A few adjustments – and maybe some tools – are all you need to make it happen for your plants. As always, feel free to comment below, we really enjoy your insights!

Shopping for succulents, especially at first, can be overwhelming with all the fanciful shapes and amazing colors. But how do you know if the plant that’s caught your eye is a healthy one that you want to bring home to add to your garden or collection?

First, does the plant have nice, fat leaves? Many succulents have leaves that are water storing machines, so they almost look juicy.

Choose Healthy Succulents:

Are the leaves droopy or are they nice and perky? If a plant has drooping leaves is that how it should look? Or does it have leaves that are shriveled? Both of these on the wrong plant can be an indicator that it has not received the necessary care it needs.

Mushy leaves are something to avoid on succulents. This is a sign of over watering. Also look for dark brown leaf tips, this can be a sign of both over AND under watering. How can you tell which it is? Break out your trusty water meter! (I’ll write a blog on my ABSOLUTE must-have garden tool soon!)


Check under the leaves for signs of insects. They love to hide, especially in the heat of the day. Signs of insect infestation include webs, tiny black/brown spots (if they shake off, it could be poop) and of course, the little buggers themselves. Also look into the base of the plant, another insect favorite spot. If you spot them and you want to be helpful, let the nursery staff know what you found.


Who doesn’t Love buying from the Sale Rack? It can be great fun and the discounts can make a plant lover swoon. It does help to know what you’re buying, but let’s be honest, who can resist a pretty plant on sale! Follow the steps above to be sure you’re not bringing home a problem.


If you’re in Southern California, here’s a few succulent-specific nurseries to add to your shopping list:

  • OC Succulents

  • Cactus Ranch

  • California Cactus Center


Author: C.J. Crockett

We’ve all been home for a while now, staring out our windows at what surrounds us. If you’re like most people, your view may be less than impressive. Or at least in need of “sprucing” up. Several people have asked me, “Where do I begin?” Well, here goes…


Best Landscape Design 101:


You need a plan. The best landscape designs are carefully planned and have a cohesive style throughout. Before you start digging, however, you need to do some thinking. What exactly you need to consider are layed out below.


Location, Location, Location


The conditions around your home should be considered first. This means both the climate where you live, along with the affect of external influences, such as large buildings or trees that cast shade. This phenomenon, called a microclimate, can be varied throughout your property. Finally, your proximity to some things, like the ocean or mountains for example, have a big effect on both plants and hardscape.


What’s it For?


Next, the desired use of the space should be considered. You might need a play area, a place to entertain, or just a quiet spot to sit and reflect. Make sure to account for all seasons and possible changes of household members, like new baby arrivals or teens soon to leave for college.


Who’s Going to Take Care of it?


It is important to know the time and effort you’re willing to expend, or to pay someone else to do it. If your schedule and finances are limited, you might consider a low-maintenance landscape. If you are retired and have a green thumb, the opposite may be true!


Tried and True Styles


There are no rules to designing an outdoor space, but it helps to decide on a style that would best fit your home and lifestyle. There are numerous traditional garden styles which you can model your own after. Or you can choose elements from several to create your own design. This article discusses some common garden types that may work for you.


A landscape design that is well-planned will encourage you to spend a lot more time in your yard. And if you have a yard you enjoy on a regular basis, it’s like gaining a room in your home! So if you’re a DIY’er and can spend some time working on your plan, you can have a beautiful, functional space to enjoy for years.


As a child I spent summer days laying on the grass or turf in the backyard, staring up at the blue sky with not a care in the world. My biggest concern would be if a half hour after lunch had yet passed so I could continue to swim “laps” in the blow-up pool.

I remember picking dandelions and blowing them to the four corners of the globe with glee, rolling races down hills of grass, and grass-stained knees and elbows – and the itch from it – all the memories of a time as a kid who grow up playing on grass.

The Fallacy of Turf:


Later on in life, as both an adult and a landscape professional, my views and knowledge of turf has expanded. By a lot. I came up in the landscape industry at a time were Marathon sod was king and fescue-type lawns ruled the roost. The instant perfection a green, manicured lawn offers the homeowner was enticing for sure. Especially to anyone who came to California from an area where a large, green lawn is a staple.


On a recent trip to the East Coast, I spent a good amount of time touring the landscapes of mansions of a time passed. Acres and acres of green lawn spread out before me at these estates. I imagined the former owners playing croquet and having staff serve a picnic on the lawn, their children playing tag nearby while a nanny looked on.

Per usual, I was taking photos to keep my designing mind – and the business it shepards – remaining fresh and new. I thought to myself, this lawn, this huge expanse of seemingly perfect green perfection, this is what people are trying to attain! This is the goal! This is what people who want a lawn envision when they look out their living room window. My thoughts turned to the care of such a large swath of green.


I wanted to know and see more. I got closer to the turf areas and the imperfections started becoming apparent. Uneven swaths of deep green, bare spots here and there, low areas where water would settle. Here in a setting where they had in some cases 60 gardeners working full-time to maintain the property, the grass looked no better than the lawn that I had rolled on as a child.

The weeds were rampant, spurge, clover and dandelions happily survived right alongside the annual over-seeding of some undetermined type of lawn. The crabgrass had found its way in, the zoysia and nut grass too. They all lived together in a carpet of blissful green harmony. And from a distance it looked like perfection. But up close it was a hot mess.


There are few things in life that bring me as much joy as a beautiful container garden with thoughtfully arranged planting material. Hmmm, well maybe a good bottle of red wine or a vodka martini, oh, sorry, never mind.

Plant a Container Garden:


Start with a clean container. If you’re re-using a pot, wash it well, inside and out, use a water and bleach solution. New containers should also be wiped down. Allow them to completely air dry before planting. I like to leave them in the sun for a day or two. This washing step also gives you a chance to see if the drainage is sufficient. If its not, now is the time to add a hole or two.

Few people really think about it, but healthy containers start at the bottom, with proper drainage & drainage material.

I prefer hard cell foam balls, in 1-2” size, depending upon the overall size of the container. These balls are lightweight, and impervious to water. Some landscapers prefer gravel, as it’s less expensive. Also in windy areas gravel can be beneficial, since it provides weight, which can add stability to the base of a container. If you’re the recycling type you might like to use crushed water bottles (with the cap on), as your drainage material.

No matter what material you use, be sure you allow enough space for the proper amount of soil for your plant material.


Next I add in a layer or two of weed fabric. This acts as a barrier between the drainage material and the potting soil. I’ve heard of people using coffee filters, which would probably be fine, but maybe not cost effective. Costco for 5,000 coffee filters anyone?


The next layer is where I never ever scrimp and that is the potting soil layer. My two current favs are EB Stone’s “Edna’s Best” available at H&H Nursery (in Lakewood, on Lakewood) or

Dr Earth’s “Pot of Gold” at Armstrong’s (they’re all over).

Measure the interior width and depth of your container, after you have added the drainage, to calculate volume. Sorry, don’t ask me how I know how to do this, I’ve done it for so many years it’s like autopilot. Google how to measure a cylinder or a square, depending upon your container for a simple formula.

Many brands of potting soil will be marked on the bag, them how many cubic feet or how many containers, of various sizes, they will fill. Smart marketing!

Never use soil from your garden or bagged “garden soil” in a container. Potting mix is specially structured to be lighter mixture, allowing for increased air and water movement, thus keeping the soil a more balanced ecosystem for your container plants.


And finally, we get to the part of container planting that people notice, the Plants! There are as many ways to plant a container as there are types of plants. But the “standards” are the standards because they do work. Use the “Thrill, Fill & Spill” method in a circular or square container. And in rectangular or trough like container, use a zig zag layout.

Add some starter fertilizer to the soil just before the plant material goes in. Another pro trick, is to put all the plants in the container before you take them out of their pots. This gives you a chance to move things around while you decide on your final placement and it’s a great time to check that your potting soil level is not to low or too high.


Toss in a bit of slow-release fertilizer and finish your container’s look with decorative gravel or small bark.

Water well and regularly while the plants adjust to their new home (where’s that water meter!!).

Remember to fertilize your containers every other month. Container plantings need regular fertilization to stay looking their best. Enjoy!