Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Trouble with Mow and Blow

String Trimming , and a cloud of dust and exhaust

The Trouble with Mow and Blow

I was just out in the garden having lunch when my neighbor’s mow and blow company arrived.  Soon there was the roar of gas powered edgers, mowers, and then blowers.  A half minute later a visible cloud of dust and exhaust drifted in to my garden.  I had to run inside to protect my food and lungs and ears from the onslaught, and close the doors and windows.  When I came out later my pond had a layer of film on it.  The real irony is that it is summer and the neighbor’s lawn didn’t need to be mowed.  They don’t water it and it hadn’t grown since the last time it was done.  The only reason it was being done was it was scheduled for maintenance.  The guy blowing was just standing there going through the motions, stirring up the cloud of dust that probably traveled for hundreds of yards through the neighborhood for everyone who was home to breath while the handful of leaves he was targeting came flying over in to my garden.

The only real benefit I could see from this ritual was that it provides employment for the guys who do it.  They drive around in a big truck with a trailer all day long like hundreds of other mow and blow companies, filling the air with hazardous pollutants and incredible levels of noise.  The people who do the work for the companies rarely wear protective gear and are subjected to the significant health risks of frequent exposure to hydrocarbons and dust and ear damage.  I’ve asked people if they are bothered by the impact of having the service and they often say “No, we aren’t home when they do it so it isn’t a problem”.

So, here are some of the facts on the matter.  2 stroke  engines which power most gas powered lawn and garden equipment produces 15 times the exhaust of an average automobile.  Using a gas mower, blower, or string trimmer for one hour produces the same amount of smog forming hydrocarbons as driving a car 200 miles according to an EPA report.  You can see their information at: 
This contributes to ozone and global warming that is expected to help lead to the extinction of up to 30 % of the species on Earth in the next 50 years!
Cutting out an existing lawn and replacing it with 3/4" River Rock

I am removing another lawn from one of my client’s gardens this summer and replacing it with 3/4 inch pea gravel.  It is only 5 feet wide and 25 feet long, but when we calculated the amount of money she spends on the mow and blow service a year it came to $3,600.  They routinely weed whack the plants in the beds and never actually pull any weeds in the garden.  Mow and blow is pretty much one of the most boring jobs around.  The guys who do it don’t seem to like to bend over, or sweep, or rake, or exert any more energy than is absolutely necessary to get the job over with.  I even had a guy run over a garden hose once with a mower while I was working on a mosaic project because he didn’t want to bend over and move it.  The hose was cut and water sprayed everywhere, and delayed my project by half an hour.  The same company chopped up my client’s garden knee pad, leaving shredded purple foam all over the lawn.  I don’t think the idea was to make the garden look better, just to get in and out of there.  Mow and blow is not a fun job, it is just a job.
Lawn replaced by a carpet of 3/4" River Rock, never needs mowing again!

I know there are a few, very few companies that will mow your lawn with a hand push mower.
  When I was a kid we had hand clippers for edging the lawn, or a round saw toothed edging tool on a handle for trimming along pavement.  We raked the garden with a hand rake.  Gas mowers have been around for a long time but the other equipment is a thing of modern society.  Leaf blowers became popular in the 1980’s for garden maintenance, and in 1990, 800,000 of them were sold in the United States alone.  It seemed to coincide with the rise in obesity in America.  People don’t do things that require physical exertion when it comes to accomplishing tasks anymore.  I’ve even seen an escalator leading to a Gold’s gym.  Wouldn’t want to climb stairs on the way to the treadmill.  Needless to say our carbon footprint has escalated as a result.  We are polluting our atmosphere at an alarming rate, and we don’t seem to care enough to alter the way we live.  Eliminating the need to use power equipment to maintain your garden is a substantial way to reduce your carbon footprint.

The health risks from mowing and blowing are rather alarming as well.  The state of California estimated that leaf blowers alone account as much as 5% of all fugitive dust sources in the state.  A few towns have banned their use, most notably Beverly Hills and Carmel by the Sea in California because wealthy residents didn’t like the noise.  But worse than the noise is the fact that using a leaf blower for one hour can propel the equivalent of a 5 gallon bucket of particulate matter in to the air.  This can contain pesticides and herbicides used in lawn and garden fertilizers, fecal matter from pets, and pollution that settles on the ground from all forms of air contamination.  This affects people with asthma the worst, and children and the elderly, but everyone gets a lung full in the end.

There is an old fashioned alternative, one that worked for decades before the advent of convenient power tools.  A well maintained push mower cuts grass better than a gas powered mower.  There are electric alternatives to the gas powered tools that don’t produce the exhaust, but they still make dust.  Rakes and brooms are quiet and you get some exercise while you do it which will make you healthier in the long run.  Having a more natural looking garden that isn’t spotless and overly groomed is a possibility.

I would love to see more alternative garden maintenance companies that use hand tools and push mowers.  It seems like there is a market there, like there is for organic food.  This planet needs all the help it can get, and we as gardeners should be playing an active part in making that happen, rather than making things worse because our aesthetic requires a neatly trimmed golf course and not a leaf in sight. 

And we can certainly use the exercise.  I recently had a garden tour come to lounge in my garden.  I have carpets and pillows on the ground, but everyone stood around.  I laid down to demonstrate the idea of reclining and relaxing and asked people to join me, but the most common excuse was that they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to get up again!  Time to get out a broom and start sweeping your walkways!
Once a sloped lawn, we replaced it with a generous bluestone path and lush plantings

My garden is quite beautiful and I don’t have a lawn to mow or weed or fertilize or edge or blow.  I save a lot of time that I can spend doing other things.  My neighbors don’t have to listen to me mow, or breathe the resulting pollution.  My garden is peaceful, filled with birds singing and the sound of trickling fountains.  It is paradise.  And then somebody starts up the lawn power equipment somewhere in the neighborhood and that peace is shattered.  Nature has once again been subdued and controlled and violated, and we take one more small step towards the end of a what was once magnificent planet.  And that makes me sad.  “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”.

Nature always wins in the end


  1. Amen!!

    Another beef that I have with the mow and blow companies is that no one knows how to properly prune bushes and trees anymore. They only pull the cord and whack away, not paying any attention to how the plant grows and its innate shape. And then, of course, they "blow" the trimmings away, not bothering to recycle. Grrr...

  2. amen to all that. Another gripe I have with immediate neighbors are large external air conditioning units that seem to run day and night. When it actually turns off when I'm out in the garden, I can feel my muscles unknitting.

  3. We had a neighbor who's idea of nature was opening the sliding glass door to the back yard while he watched TV. Unfortunately he was elderly and hard of hearing so the volume was turned up high. So the while I was gardening I had to listen to his TV programs and loud commercials. When I brought tomatoes to him and politely asked if they could turn the TV down a bit I was given a lecture on how he didn't want to be a good neighbor, he just wanted to be left alone. Oh my. We were relieved when after a few years they moved to assisted living.

  4. I am bidding on a scythe on Ebay this week. I live on 38 acres and the grass and weeds grow up under the electric fences, shorting them out. I used a 2-cylinder weed whacker for 3 hours one day and when I was done, my entire body vibrated for a half hour afterward. And though I wore ear and eye protection, the fumes from the engine are probably still in my lungs. My father used a scythe on our farm quite effectively, and I'm sure I can learn. I have had people suggest I get a blower for the barn, but I refuse. I love a clean barn, and that is why I have provided brooms.

  5. We raked the garden with a hand rake.Great Blog. Photos are too good . Article was very well written. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Wow, I love the result. This is a great idea. I don't like it when we mow our lawn because rocks hit our car and windows, I might replace the grass with river rocks instead. By the way, I work for an assisted living in Manchester NH . I hope you check them out. Thanks!

  7. The lawn care business is a billion dollars industry built upon the kid down the street that mowed lawns in the summer for extra money. The landscape environment is changing to meet the demands of the public with new products coming on line everyday. I consider myself a gardener which in some people eyes is the same as a mow and blow guy but there are differences and similarities. We use our rakes more but the need to use the blowers is far greater, a push mower is good for small yards but not practical in a commercial setting. Even a push mower with and engine is not very practical. We have a limited time to make your property look better than when we
    arrived, remember we are there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour on average, you the home owner live there 24/7 so if you can do some of the chores around YOUR home it may reduce the need for us to use the machines. I have been doing this for about 12 years and love it. I love the pictures too, i try to encourage my customers to take out their lawns and start a small farm or anything but a lawn. My front yard is a butterfly and bee haven with the occasional tomato, corn, potatoes growing as well.

  8. The EPA link in your excellent article leads to: "Sorry, that page was not found." Please let us know specifically which report you refer to. Thank you.

  9. I have learned to hate mow and blow companies. The debrie is all push into my yard by my neighbors mow and blow company. Our lots are so small I can't believe they are that lazy!

  10. then we tried to break up the sod into smaller pieces and beat as much of the soil out of it as possible with a hand cultivator tool. Of course I also took time out to save the worms before beating the dirt out of the sod lawn mowers lowes