Ministry of Controversy

Leaf Blowers in the New Yorker

IMG_5270
It's been a while since we last tackled the contentious issue of leaf blowers, but action on that front is nicely rounded up in this week's New Yorker Magazine.  (Here's an abstract - the full article isn't online).

In case you don't get hold of the print version, my favorite quotes include one Californian's complaint about the "fine dust thrown up by these 200-plus-mile-an-hour bazookas – a biohazard buffet of diesel soot, brake-lining particles, fungi, mold, spores, and animal fecal matter".  And one leaf-blower-defender reacts to a neighbor complaining of the noise by suggesting he "get double-glazed windows and draw his drapes and just stay inside."

And you know what was weird in the article?  That all the references to "gardeners" refers to hired laborers, not to homeowners.  Not to US.  For instance: "The ban in Los Angeles galvanized the blower industry to join gardeners' and landscapers' groups in lobbying for a state law that would override such local measures".  I wondered why garden clubs are rallying on behalf of these things.  But this quote makes it clear who they're talking about:  "Gardeners almost never need all that horsepower, but the noise has come to symbolize their, well, masculinity

It's the Mulch!
Here's the chief defense of blowers for landscape crews: "You can't use a rake and broom on bark mulch – we'd be here five hours, and who would pay for that?"  But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power showed that a "grandmother using a rake and broom took only 20 percent longer to clean a test plot than a gardener with a blower."  And this sums it up: "Blowers are indeed superior on bark mulch – but one reason that bark mulch has become so ubiquitous is that it can be cleaned so easily with a blower."

There are two products mentioned that I hope we can test for Rant readers – the Amazing Rake (combination rake and scoop) and Haaga sweeper.

See Quiet Orinda, to learn about a fight to ban leaf blowers in Orinda, CA, which would become the 24th city in the state to do so.

The photo shows one "gardener" using the infernal contraption in my next-door neighbor's garden.  I not only have to go indoors when they're working there, but also close the windows.  Oh, and note the smoke coming out of the motor – and the absence of dead leaves needing to be removed (it was spring).

Posted by on October 28, 2010 at 12:22 pm, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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25 Responses to “Leaf Blowers in the New Yorker”

  1. Very nice for the guy in your photo with the leaf blower that his ears are so well protected… of course your ears are your prob, right?

    One additional issue with the leaf blowers are that the blow so hard that they usually just blow the leaves right out onto the streets, or neighbors yards. Ooops! No need to go and clean those up. Tomorrow the neighbors “gardener” will come by and blow them back.

    I am not a fan of leaf blowers. If my car needs a smog check, then these thing definitely should be banned.

  2. Kari Lonning says:

    Just as I started to read this, my neighbor started his leaf blower … so excuse me as I go close the windows. I can’t stand the noise, and the smell… It was such a beautiful day in CT that I had been enjoying having everything opened up. Oh well.

  3. Lisa, Ontario says:

    Could we also please ban all gas lawnmowers? The world would be such a quiet peaceful place, oh wait, then I could hear the stereo in the car passing by….I once lived in the country and thought that it would be quieter than in town, but no, all the farmers have even bigger horsepower.

  4. donna says:

    maybe someone can explain why “gardeners” blow the streets “clean”? sidewalks are bad enough (blown clean because **gasp** a few stray grass clippings did not make it into the mower collection bags), but why the streets?

  5. meemsnyc says:

    I just came from outside raking my leaves on the lawn. Our neighbors trees lose their leaves all over the lawn. It’s back-breaking work to rake and pick up leaves. I’ll take a leaf blower any day thank you.

  6. Tibs says:

    I can explain why you blow the streets clean: You do not want grass clippings and leaves in the street to clog your storm sewers. That means flooding. And there are usually city ordinances against putting your grass clippings/leaves in the street. Of course you can rake the stuff out of your street.

    The more ground cover I have the more I use my not-so-noisey electric leaf blower or leaf sucker-upper. Ya just can’t rake myrtle. Or bugle weed. Grass is easy to rake. And looks so prety when you are done. Kinda Zen like, theose rake lines.

    And gotta have those gas powered lawn mowers so when I do get the leaves out of the flower beds and ground cover by whatever method and on to the grass, my husband can mower mulch them and bag them and dump them on my compost pile or cover the veggie beds or back on the flower beds. Full size leaves take longer to composte and smother the beds.

    It is not just hired gardeners who love their gas powered equipment, My retired neighbors have a riding lawn mower, a push gas mower, a gas 4 wheeled push edger, a gas powered hedge trimmer, and a gas powered snow blower. His property is only 70′ by 150′. They love things immaculate. If they did not have the power equipment they could not maintain their property. They don’t have the means to hire it done to their high standards.

  7. Val says:

    Mowers seem to moving in the battery powered direction–at least one of my neighbors has one, and we’ll get one when our inherited gas mower dies. Can’t these infernal things go electric too? They are way way worse than any kind of mower.

  8. What amazes me is the concept that all of this free compost that falls from the sky needs to be removed. If it falls in my garden it stays there all winter. By spring it has either partially decomposed or been eaten by the earthworms. If it falls on the lawn it will get composted by the lawn mower. The stuff my neighbors bag and put out to the curb I steal and put in my backyard compost bins (I have THREE that I use just for leaves).

    Of course several of my neighbors use a lawn service that seems to require loud, smelly lawn mowers and leaf blowers every Thursday from spring through fall. I work from home and my office is in the front of the house so I have to schedule my work time around the lawn care guys. Even with the windows closed the noise is loud enough to disrupt my work. So yeah, I’m behind banning the pollutin’ things.

  9. Matt says:

    Leaf blowers really have no purpose. If you’re not going to go outside and rake the leaves yourself, you don’t deserve to own property. If you need one to keep your lawn free of leaves, you shouldn’t have a lawn under the leaf-drop zone to begin with. Raking is good! Exercise prevents diabetes and maybe an early death, which means more time to enjoy your garden.

  10. Deirdre says:

    My neighbor has an electric blower. It’s really quiet. I’m tempted to get one because raking leaves off gravel while leaving the gravel is impossible.

  11. Kandella says:

    “If you’re not going to go outside and rake the leaves yourself, you don’t deserve to own property.” Really? Don’t you think that’s just a wee bit narrow minded?

  12. Benjamin says:

    Holy mofo batman! This is what I’m talking about. All summer after having dinner I loved, needed, craved a walk in the garden. As soon as I got outside my neighbors began mowing, blowing, and edging. So I go back inside until sunset. Couldn’t breathe and my eardrums cracked. Guess they were done with dinner, too. You’d think with the rise of allergies (due to all the crap we eat, global warming, etc) we’d think more about clean air.

  13. Kmac says:

    Oh yeah, the blower article! I “leafed” thru my new copy of the New Yorker and when I saw the article I read it straight through before taking a bite of my lunch.
    Why you ask? Well I was once one of the ‘evil’ gardeners in Orinda, or should I say the ‘Lamorinda’ (Lafayette/Orinda area in CoCoCo…)I was not a mow,blow & go girl, we were gardeners getting paid $35.00 an hour per person (1995) to do very high quality maintenance work, thank you. All our equipment was top of the line:our mowers were all Hondas. For one account we went out and bought a little 17# all plastic 14″ Honda to do all the grass between the handset flagstones in a garden created by a very famous Japanese gardener.Loved that little mower, it never scalped a contoured mound and was so easy to hand carry over the little footbridge to where the grass was…Yup, over 20 years ago I was once rigged up to a hot little 2-cycle smoke belching Echo leaf blower and I gave one heck of a great blow job too – honest! Our client’s 84 year old grandpa actually came out of his apartment over the carport and told me so after I cleaned the sycamore leaves out from under his Jag w/ nary a trace of dust. I don’t think I needed to ever spend more than 20 minutes blowing; I certainly couldn’t have done it for more than 45 minutes.
    What I failed to find in the article is any reference to technique. Yes, technique! A good blower-jockey pays attention to the wind speed & direction, if the debris is wet or dry, and what surface(s) they have to blow against. I became very good at corralling the leaves neatly into themselves, thus making the piles tighter and easier to rake onto the 9′x 9′ square burlap (NEVER a plastic bag) which was then dumped into the mulch pile – all our houses had them. We’re talking estates w/ acreage. Endless 8′ high laurel hedges. Dwarf kumquat trees planted near ivy, so that the damned leaves had to be handpicked one by one. Hand raking was most always done in planter beds with annuals using a little 6″ Flexrake (endless mono planters of pansies or impatiens – yuk!) or ground cover like pachysandra. If my partner and I had to hand rake the gardens we maintained we would have never gotten paid for all the time it took. So glad that the newer blowers are quieter & cleaner. There needs to be some way to incentivize the maintenance gardeners or homeowners into trading the old dirty ones in for the newer cleaner ones.
    Oh, and to the whiners who insist you cannot rake gravel: please use the right rake: fine, well sprung steel tines that have a “soft” feel rather than a stiff feel (like a full sized steel Flexrake does.) And work in alternating directions allowing the gravel to stay behind…Oh yeah, I really got my raking chops down when I was grooming on the backstetch up at the track in Santa Rosa while I was in college but that’s another story……

  14. Idiot gardenrs also use blowers, and are the most people with lawns.

    Gardeners for hire have no choice, who is going to pay for that?

    There should be no blowers in the URBAN context. In the neck of the woods who cares?

  15. luise h. says:

    I guess I belong to the dark side. My leaf blower/vacuum is electric.I use it where I can’t rake.And to shred all those leaves that I raked into piles.They are then used as leaf mulch around the garden.And I Do the work in the morning while most of my neighbors are off at their jobs.

  16. luise h. says:

    And I forgot to mention,to me leaves are less of a nuisance but more of a harvest.

  17. Kmac is so right. Technique is everything. I still use the blower, but believe me, I cringe now every time I crank it up. Funny, how we become so much more aware of things like being the only noise in the neighborhood. So now I rake the bulk of the leaves, leaving the blower for the final cleanup.

  18. Kaviani says:

    I’ll support blowers if “landscaping” companies are willing to compost all their plant waste. But I know they won’t, at least in Austin, so I won’t.

  19. Bobbie says:

    I have an electric leaf blower, I’m 64 years old and can no longer rake my lawn like I did when I was 21, 31, 41, 51, nor 61. Oak leaves in Southern Wisconsin do not decompose over the winter. If I left them on my lawn, the grass will be smothered. I do mow/mulch as many as I can. BUT we’ve just had 3 days of high winds, I now have thick islands of oak leaves that need to be removed and put into my compost pile. This normal fall task will be made easier for me with a leaf blower and garden tractor with cart to haul away the leaves. After that chore I’ll be using the leaf blower to clean off my 130 foot long driveway of downed branches and leaves so that on this Sunday the trick or treaters will have an easier journey to my home.

  20. Potato Queen says:

    I’m not manic about others’ use of gas-powered tools, but I don’t like them myself: big power tools kind of scare me, the gas-powered ones especially (plus there’s the inconvenience of having to get the gas, beyond the noise and air pollution).

    Having said that, I just bought a leaf blower/vacuum-mulcher so that I could collect and mulch all our many many many leaves and compost, as opposed to raking ‘em all to the curb for the county to collect. My very smart and ecologically minded friend turned me onto the electric ones, and the one I got is quite nice. I don’t actually envision ever using it as a blower. But last weekend we vacuumed and mulched bags and bags of leaves in the front yard and replenished our two compost piles, and that felt pretty good.

  21. Laura Bell says:

    My daily stroll from the parking garage to my office (4 blocks) is marred by these insidious things. Even when the “blower jockeys” idle them to let me and other pedestrians pass, the dust & exhaust cloud remains. My allergies are fierce enough. I don’t need help from extra debris in the air. So I refused to have one. Instead my husband found us a relatively quiet electric mulching vac/blower combo. I love that it takes in leaves & gives me a bag full of lovely mulch which my blueberries & camellia adore. And if we absolutely must blow something around, we have the option.

    We also have an electric mulching mower, electric trimmer, & a battery-pack hedge trimmer. Quieter than their gas-eating cousins & no clouds of exhaust left to pollute the landscape.

  22. Nancy in Brooklyn says:

    Went crazy today looking for the article in my New Yorker. Not there. I guess was in LAST week’s issue?

  23. susan harris says:

    Nancy, it’s in the October 25 issue.

  24. emily says:

    I am a big fan of the leaf vacuum/shredder approach. Sucking up the leaves seems more efficient than blowing them around. But the big payoff is all those shredded leaves that I use for mulch INSTEAD of wood chips or bark. Saves me a lot of money and I understand it’s better for the plants, too.

  25. SJ says:

    I agree with Kmac it’s all about balance. I personally don’t use a leaf blower for my business. I have too many bad memories from the 90′s of having one strapped to my back for up to eight hours and being sick every day during fall cleanup from the fumes. (Although, I do own a chainsaw and a gas powered brush cutter that I use when the occasion does arise). But when the biomass is so heavy in the fall, especially on large properties, it does make sense to use one to clean up hard surfaces like driveways, patios and in some cases large beds and lawn expanses just to the job done in a timely manner and get paid!. What there is no excuse for is this business of firing up the blower to chase down six leaves off the sidewalk when a quick sweep with a heavy duty broom would have done just as well. It also doesn’t make sense to use one on small properties unless there are a lot of large trees and hard surfaces which need constant cleaning.

    I maintain about 30 gardens in all including 3 estate gardens – one trick I use is leaving a certain percentage of the leaves during the fall in the mixed beds as future mulch and fertilizer. As long as the lawn is neatly raked or blown, the borders well edged and the interior beds well maintained and pruned natural leaves can look almost as tidy as traditional mulch. I just make they are not piling up against any structures like the sides of houses or fences.

    I also agree with Matt, sometimes you reach a point in life where the property is too large to manage by one’s own steam. It is also expensive to pay a service to maintain the property a the high standard that many people expect. That is just a fact and I just don’t feel sorry for people that can’t afford to do it. I have enough clients that have newly retired or the bad economy has impacted and just don’t have quite the same amount of disposable income they had while working to pay for all services they are used to like the cleaning staff, the lawn service etc. Perhaps at that point they need to sell up and downsize to something they can afford and manage or at least lower their pristine standards and allow some natural leaf litter on the property or better yet get out there for even an hour a week and work in the garden. I think the best clients (and gardens!) are those that, even those with busy schedules or some health problems, still manage to put some time in the garden. It would also be a good trend to see people living on smaller lots and leaving the rest of the land to grow food and be used as wilderness preserves.

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