by Jillian Steinberger
Gardens aren’t front of mind in winter, but in Santa Cruz the grass grows even faster with the rains, and brigades of “mow blow and go” teams are out doing battle. Their weapons are gas-powered leaf-blowers and other power tools. To them, brooms and rakes are for grannies.
Now citizens are debating the pros and cons of leaf-blowers, following bans and restrictions around the state from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and from Palo Alto to Beverly Hills. The group behind this is the independent Santa Cruz Leaf-Blower Pollution Task Force. Their goal is not an outright ban, but to gauge attitudes, and promote awareness, by asking citizens to fill out a 10-question “Leaf Blower Survey” (surveymonkey.com/s/2N9CWMV).
To date, over 500 residents have taken the survey which asks questions like, “In your opinion, how effective are leaf blowers?” and “Which of the following possible hazards are you aware of or cause you concern?”
Consumer-grade leaf-blowers emit more pollutants than a 6,000-pound 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor truck, according to car experts Edmunds.com, which has conducted extensive tests. The human and environmental impact includes high decibel noise pollution and carbon dioxide pollution. Gas-powered blowers send large amounts of particulate matter into the air that may contain pesticides, dog feces, molds, pollen, and heavy metals like lead and cadmium.
“I suffer from asthma and it drives me crazy,” says Santa Cruz resident Jessica Rumwell, a caregiver at Hope Services. She says her neighbor’s gardener blows debris into her yard.
Says task force member Catharine Gunderson, a resident of the Seabright neighborhood and a former schoolteacher, "There is an ever-increasing onslaught on peace at my home over the last few years from the blasting noise.” She describes seeing gardeners blow wet leaves into city storm sewers after rains, clogging them – a problem for city managers who must comply with strict storm water regulations to help prevent acidification of the ocean.A controversial issue But some local landscape contractors, such as Phil Roberson, owner of Aloha Landscape, say their businesses could collapse without blowers since it takes more time using rakes and brooms, resulting in higher prices for customers. The California Landscape Contractors Association backs up landscapers like Roberson.
They state on their website: “Most landscape industry estimates suggest that it takes at least five times as long to clean a typical landscape site with a broom and rake than it does with a power leaf blower.”
Task force founder Ken Foster, owner of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in business for over 25 years and a West Side resident, says “I used gas-powered tools for many years, so I understand how many landscapers and gardeners feel.”
However, he disputes that they are time-saving. Foster has performed tests where employees blow a landscape for 10 minutes, and then toss the collected debris back onto the landscape, identically. Then they sweep for 10 minutes. The tests have shown that a physically fit worker can sweep effectively taking about the same amount of time. This is healthier for employees who do not breathe fumes, get exercise, and are free from the ergonomic discomfort of carrying a heavy backpack.
Ultimately, says organizer Roxanne Evans, founder of the TerraGnoma Community Demonstration Garden, the group seeks to empower the community to solve the problem with a fair and level headed approach. “Education is emerging as the leverage point in addressing this issue,” she says.
The dominant aesthetic for California gardens – which fuels the mow blow and go industry – is lush green lawns surrounded by shorn hedges, and no leaf litter. Landscape water frequently makes up 70% of a household’s total water use, according to the Bay-Friendly Coalition – and the type of landscape described above tends to be the worst water abuser.
However, plants drop leaves for a reason. In this natural process, leaf matter breaks down and feeds worms and other organisms, which builds soil. According to an article in the Latin Post (Sept. 12, 2013), leaf blowers are “utilized by many misguided yard keepers to rid flower or garden beds of plant and organic matter – an odd practice considering said matter serves to nurture most gardens as natural fertilizer.”
As times change, so do aesthetics, house by house, block by block, supported by public agencies. To conserve water, many California water districts encourage drought tolerant landscapes with “Lose your Lawn” programs, which pay property owners up to $1 per square foot to mulch over their lawns and install drought tolerant plants. Such landscapes can incorporate leaf litter attractively.
For more information, find the Leaf Blower Pollution Task Force Santa Cruz on Facebook.com.