Until you’ve actually experienced it, concerns about leaf-blowers can seem dangerously close to self-parody by the privileged. A guy who mows his own lawn would be hard pressed to feel sympathy.
But when you have first-hand knowledge, and have lived in a zone where gardeners descend on a weekly basis using their machinery at full throttle for eight hours, the issue is genuinely more than mere annoyance. In areas of moderate leaf blower infestation it is un-neighborly; in the worst affected zones it approaches violation of the Geneva Conventions.
In many otherwise quiet suburban locales, the sound track on ‘gardener’ days is madness-inducing noise. It is loud and unrelenting and certainly in violation of the values of towns that take pride in a semi-rural character.
It is also unnecessary. Think back in time. Twenty years ago plenty of people had professional gardeners, but leaf-blowers were never a weekly daylong ordeal.
Although it is natural to focus on the devices, the root cause of this noise pollution is a decline in the skill level of the gardeners. Previous generations knew that the judicious use of hand trimmers and rakes produced gardens of superior health and beauty. Remember, gardeners of that era still had and used leaf blowers and power trimmers. The difference is that they also had knowledge of when not to use them. They understood that their charge was to maintain a thriving garden, not one that was merely tidy.
If you employ a gardener today, there is a high likelihood that even if he or she cannot identify a single tree in your landscape, they still feel that every shrub should be sheared into a geometric solid. To many of these gardeners, fallen leaves are regarded as enemy number one, to be blown into the ether. Ninety five percent of their work involves gas-powered tools run at maximum speed.
Routine ‘blowing’ of planting beds not only displaces the mulch (which owners paid to have spread in their garden!) it also breaks down the uppermost layer of the soil, called the crust, which acts as a crucial mediator in the microbial processes that maintain the health of the soil. In addition, it degrades habitat for beneficial insects which, when properly encouraged, do a good job of limiting insect damage.
After several years of weekly blowing your soil will have become severely compacted, overhead irrigation water will tend to run off, plants will become weakly rooted and more prone to fall-over, and an unsightly maze of surface roots will be exposed. When combined with weekly shearing, shrubs and hedges will be more susceptible to diseases, and will overall appear disfigured.
Because I believe that current gardening practices are the result of poor training, I am not an advocate of an outright ban on leaf blowers—they have a legitimate limited role. Instead, towns could initiate a citizen-empowered “Low-Noise Gardener” program using City Hall as a pilot project, where city gardeners as well as volunteer ‘docents’ could be trained. The key is to recognize which areas of a garden do not require blowing, and which areas should be raked first then get a final, leaf-blower polishing at the end of the job. Similar principles apply to other power tools in the garden. Docents could then visit individual properties, meet with existing gardeners and instruct them in these techniques, which in many cases actually saves time.
The participating resident, after giving a voluntary donation to act as ‘seed’ money for the program, would be issued a small sign with a certification number to post on their mail box saying their gardener is ‘Certified Low-Noise,’ and letting neighbors know there are alternatives to “all-blow-all-the-time” gardeners. If this program is successful, it should become self-enforcing; in a few years, gardeners will realign their own professional standards, and the program could ‘sunset.’ If mild self-regulation is not successful, a ban on leaf-blowers could be then be considered.