Leaf Blowers

In recent columns, I have addressed soil health as an emerging issue in global climate change, and described ways in which residential gardeners could participate in solutions to this high-level priority. The most important strategies for home gardeners in this connection include using mulches and cover crops to protect the soil from the elements; avoiding uses of synthetic chemicals, which attack the soil microbiome, and favoring regionally appropriate plants, including (for the Monterey Bay area) plants that are native to California and other dry-summer climate regions.

Today’s column focuses on uses of gasoline-powered garden equipment: leaf blowers, lawnmowers, lawn edgers and chain saws.

This equipment contributes to climate change and air pollution. The typical device uses a two-stroke engine, which, by design, does not burn the fuel efficiently, and instead emits large quantities of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. These emissions contribute to smog formation, climate change and acid rain, and hydrocarbons in particular can be carcinogenic.

Small trucks and passenger cars also produce worrisome emissions, but gasoline-powered garden equipment emit them at much greater rates. For example, leaf blowers produce 100 to 300 times as many hydrocarbons as does a small truck or passenger vehicle. Garden equipment with four-stroke engines perform significantly better, but still far worse than car engines.

In terms of environmental pollution, these are very dirty devices.

The California Air Resources Board has stated, “Potential health effects from exhaust emissions, fugitive dust, and noise range from mild to serious.”

Fugitive dust includes organic debris and “particulate matter,” which can include a variety of potentially nasty organic and chemical stuff that people should not breathe.

Noise pollution effects include annoyance, hearing loss (particularly by equipment operators), and a range of psychological impacts.

For more information, visit the website of Zero Air Pollution (www.zapla.org). This southern California organization details the range of health hazards associated with this garden equipment, wherever it is used.

Leaf blowers sometimes are used to clear organic materials, and leave bare soil. Making nature “tidy” in this way exposes the soil to the damaging effects of the sun and wind. The regeneration of healthy soil requires maintaining cover of vegetation or mulch materials.

Here are recommendations for ecologically appropriate uses of garden equipment.

  1. Minimize or eliminate the use of gasoline-powered devices in favor of manual equipment. Use rakes and brooms to clear leaves, a push lawnmower to cut grass, a long-handled edger to trim lawns, and a handsaw to prune limbs. These tools are consistent with a contemplative approach to gardening, and provide desirable exercise.
  2. When the task requires too much time and effort for manual equipment, use electrical devices. Battery technology is advancing to enable longer operation of small garden equipment; corded devices, although cumbersome, work quite well. (My corded leaf blower moves leaves nicely.)
  3. Negotiate with your “mow, blow & go” garden maintenance contractor to use manual equipment whenever possible. This might require a small rate increase, but everyone will be better for the effort.

We are certainly not alone in calling for shelving gasoline-powered garden equipment, especially leaf blowers. As examples, here are two community-minded professionals.

Ken Foster of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in Santa Cruz, has his crews doing good work with brooms. He has issued the Broom vs. Leaf Blower Challenge to make his ecologically sound point.

Joe Strang of The Quiet Gardener, in Pacific Grove, has been changing yards into gardens since 1982, using hand tools only (no noise or dust). See his message in the comments section of this post.


Hi Tom,

I enjoyed today’s Herald column and appreciate your efforts in educating the public regarding noise and gas pollution resulting from gardening equipment. I operate a gardening business, Joe’s Pruning, and have been trying to get other gardeners to use less harmful tools, specifically leaf blowers. The Police Department of Pacific Grove provided me with copies of the local ordinance explaining the maximum allowable decibel level of leaf blowers; virtually all gas blowers exceed the limit. I have been distributing copies of the ordinance to gardeners. In one successful encounter, a gardener passed on a copy to his boss, who tested the blowers used by his workers and found their decibel level exceeded the requirements, so he switched to less noisy blowers. Although, in Pacific Grove, gardeners can be fined fifty dollars for ignoring the ordinance, they must be caught in the act.
As for myself, I use a quiet battery-operated blower, usually very briefly at the end of my work. I edge with a spade and cut the grass with a push mower, and I advertise my service: for Quiet Gardening.

Thanks for helping to correct a situation that that no one wants but which, unfortunately has come to be tolerated.

Joe Strang

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