March 24, 2018

Waltham Voices: A monthly guide to maintaining your landscape

This is the first in a series of articles with tips for maintaining your landscape, using 90 percent less time and effort compared with traditional methods. Each month’s column will lay out what you need to do, based on the weather patterns here in Waltham. In other words, we will follow the local plant phenology (the study of how seasonal light changes and weather influence plant life cycles) for a do-it-right-the-first-time approach that provides safety, value, convenience and beauty through horticultural expertise and sustainable design.

-Safety: Removing hazardous sticks and branches, blocked sight lines, slippery areas and poison ivy, while maintaining effective lighting, drainage and security.

-Value: Adding to your property value through aesthetics, better air quality, rainwater management, reduced noise and an improved balance of shade vs. sun.

-Convenience: Using the proper tools and correct timing for results that last longer, keep you and your neighbors more satisfied, and provide faster completion of seasonal chores at lower cost.

-Beauty: While effecting safety, value and convenience, also gaining proper proportion, balance, form and density as well as color. Making everything from drainage management to the development of utility space meet your aesthetic standards that consider key views, seen from both inside and outside you home.

No matter the size of your property, these principles are the same, and become only more important within the small spaces typical of many Waltham yards.


January: Systems Documentation

You may perceive our cold Waltham Januaries as a rest time for landscape management, but in fact this is when we do critical work that sets the course for the year.

Most property owners are at the mercy of their memories to keep track of what has been done in their landscapes and the locations of the underlying systems. This causes waste when the person with the institutional memory leaves, and someone new must start fresh, or when contractors do harm or need to take more time and charge more money because of unknown factors such as the depth of pipe, location of wire, or species of tree.

The antidote to this is simple, and essentially comes down to the old adage “be prepared.” Use this cold month to identify and catalog all underground landscape systems, such as sprinklers, electrical service, invisible fencing, gas lines, water lines and septic, in a standardized site plan so everyone and anyone can follow and organize around it.

Then overlay this basic site plan with the plans for individual systems, such as irrigation, sick trees to prune, perennial weeds or known pest locations. Note future projects, such as integrated pest management (I.P.M.) programs and the drain intakes you plan to clean. Use these overlays to plan changes and budget time, money and any other limited resources. This documentation, along with photographs, will help you stay on track and convey your plan to others, such as contractors and the Waltham Building Department, to help reduce misunderstanding and error.

Here’s how:

-Always use a survey plan from the city of Waltham, removing elevation lines and numbers but with the correct outlines of impervious surfaces, such as the house, walkways, driveway, patios, shed, pool and so forth.

-Next, call 811 (Call811.com), the federally mandated call-before-you-dig number that provides information on all your underground utility lines. ;

-Use color coding to indicate each underground system – yellow for gas, blue for water, red for electric, orange for cable, and so forth.

-Finally, communicate with any contractors you may use. Explain that they may work on the property only if they add their work to a copy of this systems documentation, using the designated colors. Also, they must note and correct any inaccuracies they find, date and initial the document, and then return it to you.


One example: Shade tree care

We have a lot of mature, beautiful trees in Waltham, and one of the systems to document is shade tree care. It can be costly and often waits until unsafe conditions force action. We are safer and we save money by taking a proactive approach. Take pictures of bare-limbed trees on overcast days, from at least four compass positions, and mark the compass points on the photos for future reference. Highlight the limbs to be pruned in order to obtain competitive and clearly targeted estimates. With the site plan and photos in hand, the chosen contractor will possess first-hand knowledge and visuals that make it more difficult to take advantage of you or claim misunderstanding.


Brad Baker, of White Oak Consulting, is a Waltham resident with a degree in horticulture from Cornell University and more than 30 years of experience. ; He provides consultation and education in landscape design and maintenance. ; You can reach him through www.White-Oak-Consulting.com.

This article: 

Waltham Voices: A monthly guide to maintaining your landscape

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy – Back in college, I developed an oozing poison ivy rash all over my neck and arms and had to go on steroids — just because I inadvertently grazed the clothes of a friend who had gone tromping through the woods earlier that day. What’s worse, it happened right before the Dalai Lama visited my school. While my classmates were leaning forward in their folding chairs to capture his every syllable, I was shifting in my seat, clutching a bottle of calamine lotion, and desperately trying to look calm while the Lama talked about peace of mind — something I only know from reading the transcript. It’s hard to listen while your skin is on fire.

poison ivy climate change

So yeah, I’m pretty allergic to poison ivy. But a lot of people are — 80 percent of the population reacts to the vine with welts and maddeningly itchy rashes. So the fact that poison ivy plants are getting bigger and more poisonous due to climate change isn’t exactly welcome news. But that’s precisely what’s happening; scientific research indicates that with higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the poison ivy plant grows larger, and its “oil” (a.k.a. the awful poisonous stuff) becomes more potent.

Fortunately, someone’s already thinking about how we could do a better job getting rid of the plant. (Rabbits and deer might miss it — they’re immune to the ivy’s poison, so it makes a nice leafy lunch for them — but consequences to the overall ecosystem would be minor, experts say.) Last week a group of horticulturists, scientists, and nurses convened in Philadelphia for the first conference devoted exclusively to the nettlesome vine. Ivy eradication specialist Umar Mycka, who also works at the Philadelphia zoo, organized the small, four-day gathering. One of his goals was to swap itching remedies and removal strategies with other poison ivy experts.

poison ivy

“If you want to deal with a problem, you have to know what size problem you’re dealing with,” Mycka says. “These plants are so powerful to start with, it doesn’t take much of a touch from carbon to make it much worse.”

That’s exactly what scientists found when they planted poison ivy in an experimental forest at Duke University, piping in carbon dioxide to artificially raise the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to the levels it’s expected to be by about 2050. The result, published in 2006: like other plants subjected to a high-CO2 environment, the poison ivy plants grew 150 percent bigger, with 153 percent higher concentrations of their oil, called urushiol.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who co-authored the study, estimates that poison ivy plants are already growing 50 to 60 percent larger than they did 100 years ago. He told me that warmer temperatures are probably also pushing poison ivy-growing zones northward (again, as with many other plants), and urbanization is creating conditions amenable to the wily plant, which thrives in semi-developed areas with more sunlight.

“Think of heat islands or cities as climate change in miniature,” Ziska says. “There are higher C02 concentrations, higher temperatures. There’s a fragmentation of ecosystems. All of those factors allow poison ivy to enter an environment that it may not have been in before.”

At the Philadelphia conference, attendees had a chance to see poison ivy’s monstrous proportions firsthand. Mycka led them to a public park near the center of the city, where a large vine had been growing up a tree. Its weight after removal: 506 pounds. And climate change is going to make it worse? I can already feel my skin burning.

poison ivy

poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

Climate change means mutant poison ivy

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