Researching Maintenance

Hover mowers I have been searching for an industrial, air-cushioned hover mower. I have not found anything so far. Can you point me in the right direction?-Indianapolis

One manufacturer is Eastman Industries (Portland, Maine), which makes the Hover Mower. For information, call (800) 760-1680 or see their website at www.hovermower.com.

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Another is Husqvarna Forest & Garden (Charlotte, N.C.), which manufactures what was formerly known as the Flymo trimmer. Their number is (800) 487-5962 and their website address is www.husqvarna.com.

Gypped again I've read that gypsum can help alleviate soil compaction. How?-New York.

This is a persistent, but inaccurate, belief. Although gypsum offers several benefits (notably, it improves sodic soils by displacing sodium), it has no ability to directly alleviate compaction. Compaction is essentially a physical problem that requires mechanical remediation such as cultivation or aeration, as the situation warrants.

Shallow roots At our golf club, we have trees with surface roots. A board member is insisting that deeper watering will solve the problem. I think that most trees naturally are shallow-rooted. Who's right?-Arizona

In general, trees grow roots wherever conditions are right. Mainly, that means where oxygen is available and water is present but not excessive. Thus, tree roots growing on the surface typically are doing so because that is where they must be to get what they need.

Common conditions that can deprive tree roots of water or oxygen include: * The soil is highly compacted, which means that both air and water have trouble penetrating. Simply soaking the soil in such a situation will do no good, or even make the situation worse.

* The soil is poorly drained (perhaps due to compaction). In this case, the problem may be too much water, which displaces oxygen in the soil pores.

A soil probe can give you a general idea of how wet, dry or compacted the soil is at various depths.

Correcting such problems is not necessarily an easy task and involves both removing existing surface roots and correcting the underlying causes of them. Removing roots can pose considerable risk to trees, so you should consider hiring a consulting arborist before undertaking extensive work of this sort. Likewise, root-zone modification to encourage deeper rooting can be an involved and fairly expensive process, depending on exactly what's needed. Thus, involving an arborist to advise you-if not actually perform the work-would be prudent.

An important option to consider, where the site use allows it, is to spread a 6-inch layer of wood mulch under the tree out to the drip line. This preserves aeration, protects surface roots from physical damage, reduces further compaction and provides a smoother surface on which to walk or drive mowers, carts, etc. The mulch layer does not do much to remediate the root zone. However, it is an economical way of coping with the existing surface roots and preventing additional compaction from traffic. It also is a good preventive measure for newly planted trees.

Consulting I am a part-time consultant. How do businesses work with them? Do they have a horticultural consultant on staff, or do they refer clients to one?-Michigan

I spoke with two horticultural consultants about this. The first, Karen Kerkhoff, of Kerkhoff and Associates (Stillwell, Kan.), consults in the Kansas City area. According to Kerkhoff, few contractors seek her services directly, though they occasionally refer clients to her to address specific problems. In addition, Kerkhoff conducts seminars and finds that many local contractors attend them. Otherwise, however, they are not a significant proportion of her business. In a direct consulting capacity, Kerkhoff more often works with landscape architects, troubleshooting and developing soil recommendations, among other things.

Skip Kincaid, of Skip Kincaid and Associates (Kirkwood, Mo.), is an urban-forestry consultant in the St. Louis area. Like Kerkhoff, Kincaid works only occasionally with contractors. One reason for this, Kincaid thinks, is the competitiveness of contracting, which keeps prices low. Working with a thin margin, contractors cannot usually afford to involve consultants in projects. The exceptions largely consist of those who are successful in narrow specialties and command a more comfortable profit margin that can accommodate the expense of consultants. Kincaid more frequently works with architects and engineers, often to address special problems concerning trees on construction sites. Perhaps 30 percent of Kincaid's business comes from homeowners who call him directly.

One thing that Kincaid and Kerkhoff have in common is that they are both well-known in their respective locales, having previously worked in positions that brought them high public visibility. Not everyone has such an advantage, but creating more visibility should be a critical aspect of any consultant's business. Kincaid, for example, devotes at least 20 percent of his time to "indirect marketing." This consists, in part, of teaching short courses and seminars for various organizations, which Kincaid does for no fee. This type of activity establishes goodwill with agencies and other groups-park departments, Master Gardener programs and local governments, for example-which then often become significant sources of referrals. Likewise, Kerkhoff frequently teaches, conducts seminars and maintains contacts through professional organizations and industry activities.

Media reports of frog deformities abound. The frenzy began in 1995 with the now-famous discovery of multi-limbed frogs by Minnesota school children. Since then, environmentalists have trotted out the usual list of suspected causes (pesticides chief among them, of course) and the familiar refrain that frogs are "ecological barometers" warning us of impending environmental catastrophe. However, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that no one fully understands what is happening to frogs, or why.

That environmentalists will blame chemicals is practically a given, though evidence of their role in frog deformities is tenuous. However, some scientists also suspect increased ultraviolet radiation (presumably due to a thinning ozone layer), predation by fish or other animals and microscopic parasites as possible causes of frog deformities.

The latter factor has received significant media coverage lately. Dr. Stanley Sessions, a researcher at Hartwick College (Oneonta, N.Y.) and leading authority on frog deformities, has been studying trematodes, tiny parasitic worms that can cause frog deformities, since the 1980s. He believes they may be responsible for most of the deformities observed in wild frogs. Additional findings published this year by other researchers strongly support Sessions, making this the best-documented and most-likely cause of deformities.

Frog deformities are not new, with scientific reports dating back centuries. What is new is the degree of attention they're receiving. Aside from the mainstream media, organizations such as the North American Reporting Center for Amphibian Malformations (NARCAM) and the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (with their newsletter Froglog) heighten awareness through internet sites, among other avenues. These groups even encourage grass-roots or "backyard" reporting of deformities.

With such widespread awareness of something that few had even heard of 10 years ago, Sessions-whose own studies are among the most widely cited-questions whether "deformities are on the rise or the scale of the problem has been overblown. An analysis of [news] reports of deformities compiled by [NARCAM] suggests the latter." Sessions explains, "Numerous web pages on deformed frogs have fueled widespread controversy and alarm in the media from the very beginning, effectively performing an end-run around scientific research.sorting this out could be a scientific nightmare."

Landscaping adds significant benefits to a home, including attractiveness, energy conservation and screening. Conventional wisdom says that these benefits should translate into higher home values and sale prices. But do they? If so, how much? Without answers to such questions, homeowners may be reluctant to invest in landscaping.

To better define the value of landscaping, Clemson University researchers conducted a study of home sale prices and compared the value of otherwise-similar homes with varying levels of landscape quality. To do so, they obtained the sale prices of 218 single-family homes in Greenville, S.C., and correlated them with various characteristics including lot size and quality of landscaping of the homes in question as well as adjacent properties. Not only were the types, sizes and conditions of plants considered, but also the overall design. Thus, by the researchers' own admission, certain subjective elements entered the evaluation. Landscapes were rated "poor," "average," "good" or "excellent."

The results confirm that better landscapes result in higher home values. Homes with "good" landscapes were valued 4 to 5 percent higher than those with "average" landscapes, and those with "excellent" landscapes showed0 a 6 to 7 percent increase in value over those that were "good." The researchers also combined the "poor" and "average" categories and the "good" and "excellent" categories. The difference between "poor-to-average" landscapes and "good-to-excellent" ones amounted to 14 to 17 percent of home value, depending on lot size.

Homes adjacent to properties with less than "excellent" landscaping had slightly lower value, amounting to a reduction of about $1,000 to $2,000.

The researchers caution that the results of this study may not apply to other regions, where greater or lesser value may be placed on landscapes. However, results such as these provide more concrete estimates of the return on investment that a landscape can bring, and confirm the financial wisdom of a good landscape.

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