Ah, spring. Birds chirping, dogs barking, children shouting and laughing ... and leaf blowers roaring loudly enough to drown it all out.
It’s time to organize a metrowide movement to ban leaf blowers above a certain decibel level. My ban would bring our urban neighborhoods in line with 170 of the most livable counties and cities across America — from East Hampton to Westchester and Greenwich and Rye in New York; to Vero Beach, St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach and South Miami in Florida; to Birmingham, Ala.; Aspen, Colo., and Honolulu, Hawaii, and to at least a dozen counties in California (Delmar, Palo Alto, Laguna Beach, Los Altos, etc.), the state where, as so often happens, the movement first got traction.
Leaf-blower bans are sweeping the country for reasons the industry itself is fully aware of and deeply concerned about — so much so that it has launched its own pre-emptive strike. It has developed quieter products and encourages their purchase by the lawn service industry. A website run by an inventor of a (relatively) quiet leaf blower and sponsored by the lawn care industry offers a shining example. (Check out tinyurl.com/leaf-blower-ban).
This inventor skillfully sidesteps other issues that make leaf blowers noxious. They are huge gas guzzlers and their emissions foul the air.
I would prefer to see leaf blowers of all kinds go the way of the dodo, because they are just as ill-suited to the world we live in as that sad creature was. For all our mechanical ingenuity, we humans aren’t notably blessed with common sense. We persist in fouling not just other species’ nests but our own, from little other than sheer hubris and some twisted sense of individual entitlement.
Hey, no man is an island, remember? And in cities like ours you’ve got more than a million men, women and children sharing a few hundred square miles of land.
Most galling to me is that these gadgets are wildly inefficient. I’m a gardener and spend much of the summer outside fuming over guys who think it’s OK to disrupt my tranquillity so long as their own is protected. (They always wear ear protectors.) And to what end? I’ve spent considerable time leaning on my rake and puzzling over why it takes three leaf blowers to herd three leaves into a pile big enough to mulch. And why a single blower is often deployed for several minutes to chase a single leaf the full length of a driveway.
My conclusion is that it takes as long as the lawn service thinks it should take, for billing purposes. The customer is usually inside the house, doors and windows closed and the AC humming. They hear just enough to know their paid help is hard at work. Big noise equates to big labor.
The leaf-blowing battalions I’m most aggrieved by cluster in the “better” parts of town. Where I live, the average lot size is in the quarter- to a-third-of-an-acre range. The lawn services required to groom such lawns typically are heavy-duty pickups with trailers attached that are twice as long as the truck and loaded with not just leaf blowers but sit-down mowers, the latest generation of which resemble small Sherman tanks and are equipped with mulching equipment and blowers, too.
If it isn’t leaves the blowers are rounding up, it’s grass clippings. Again, why? Grass clippings are an excellent soil amendment. They are rich in nitrogen, and when they break down they also improve the texture of the soil, so that earthworms and other organisms have a super healthy habitat in which to further improve the soil by aerating it and adding nutrients (by pooping and decomposing). There is no need to rake, blow or bag grass clippings.
But regardless of whether it’s leaves, grass clippings or just random yard debris you’re rounding up, you can be far more strategic with a rake than a leaf blower. Rakes can remove heavy objects (animal poop, for instance). They don’t seize up from overuse, get clogged or run out of fuel. You can pick one up at the hardware store for a few bucks. If someone steals your rake (they won’t, trust me) it’s no big deal to replace it.
Plus, raking is terrific exercise. Most of us city dwellers spend way too much time parked in front of a computer screen. Raking targets weak back muscles and flabby biceps. And you don’t have to trudge off to the gym or hire a personal trainer. It’s free!
Rakes come in lots of different shapes and sizes; there’s even a collapsible version that lets you get in between bushes without sending the leaves you liberate flying off in all directions. The rake forms neat piles that stay put. You don’t end up moving the same leaf (and/or pile) multiple times. You can bag the leaves and take them to the compost site or shred them and leave them as fertilizer for your lawn and garden.
At a time when young people are turning their yards over to permaculture orchards and vegetable gardens to feed their families healthy food, keeping bees to help endangered pollinators, and building urban chicken coops (mine will be up and running soon) in part because the planet is facing its possible doom at the hands of fossil-fuel burning, do we really need more and bigger gasoline-powered devices?
I believe in homeowners’ rights to do what they like on their own property. But I also believe that when what some homeowners choose to do tramples on the peace of mind of others, and when that choice is manifestly wasteful and inefficient, it’s time to take action and pass laws.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, is a writer who specializes in environmental topics (firstname.lastname@example.org).