Category Archives: Environment

Alternatives to leaf-blowing

By Christopher B. Daly

In an earlier post, I laid out some of the case against getting rid of all the leaves that may fall on your land in the fall. This time, I want to explore some alternatives.

1. Do nothing. This is pretty extreme, I will grant you, especially in certain suburbs. It is the first step in a process that would logically culminate in turning your yard into a forest (at least here in New England). The trees on your land not only want to live, they want to pass on their DNA. To do that, they will produce thousands of seeds, and they will also try to shape the environment to favor their own kind. Thus, white pines will drop needles in profusion, changing the chemistry of the soil and physically blocking many of the pine’s rivals. So, if you really do nothing about your yard in this part of the world, it will soon look like the nearest patch of forest near where you live. This would not be the worst thing, but it will attract some notice, especially from neighbors who think the neighborhood should look like a golf course or a corner of Versailles. (Plus: you should probably not do absolutely nothing, or else you could end up with a forest of Norway maples, which would not be a really great outcome. See: alien invasives.) Still, if you’re up for it, go ahead to do nothing. Please let me know how that works out.

2. Fire your landscaper. Most landscapers are really not on your side. The ones I observe here in the New England suburbs are profit-maximizing businesses like any other. They want to sell you services and materials. So, they are not really interested in cutting back on the number of visits or applications of stuff like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. If you decide to keep your landscaper around, then at least take charge of the relationship. Tell your landscaper exactly what you want (and do not want). You can begin by telling your landscaper not to use leaf-blowers on your place any more. Tell him (or her?) that you request the use of rakes and brooms instead. Your guy may grumble, but remember: the customer is always right.

3. Mulch your lawn. This may sound technical, but it is about as easy as falling out of bed. All mulching means is that you shred your leaves (somehow) and keep them on your own property. First, the shredding. This can be accomplished in a pretty good fashion with a regular lawn mower. You will need to mow pretty often in the fall to stay ahead of the accumulating leaves, but this is better than nothing. You can even tell your landscaper to do this. Better is to get a “mulching mower,” which is specially adapted to shredding imagesleaves into a nice small size, which encourages them to rot, which is just another term for recycling. Rotting is a great thing for your yard — both lawn and gardens. In fact, without rotting, we would be buried in stuff that never got properly recycled. So, you shred the leaves, and if the pieces are small enough and there are not too many leaves, you can just let them drop. They will drop down to the base of your grass. There, the mulch will retain water in the soil (thus sparing you from another racket — irrigation systems. If you live in New England, you do not need an irrigation system, certainly not for the typical lawn and gardens. We get plenty of rain here.) The mulch will also rot into the soil, thus enriching it. There you go: no need to water, no need to fertilize.

4. Mulch your gardens. As the leaves pile up in the fall, you may find that they outrun your capacity to mulch them right into the lawn. That’s OK. You can run your mulching mower with the bag attachment andimgres collect the shredded leaves. When the bag is full, you walk over to a nearby garden bed and just shake the contents into the garden. Let them pile up two to three inches deep. Here, they are your friends. They will rot and enrich the soil; they will limit evaporation and help retain rainwater; they will also help to suppress certain weeds. Depending on the ratio of garden beds to lawn at your place, you might be able to use all your shredded leaves on your own property. Never buy any more mulch from the nursery. You don’t need it.

5. Compost. This too may sound arcane or just daunting. It’s not. Composting is just a fancy name for a program of deliberately encouraging organic material to rot. When you compost, you accomplish several good things at once: you create your own free, natural fertilizer; you reduce your flow of garbage and other waste that has to be dealt with; and you will capture more and more of your own organic material. Composting can be ridiculously simple. You can just start a pile on the ground behind your garage. Toss grass clippings and shredded leaves on the pile, in alternating layers. From time to time, mix them up. Come back a few months later, and — voila! — there will be a load of dark, rich material that looks like a composting-how-tocross between plain old dirt and peat moss. Help yourself to a shovel-ful. Take it to a flower or vegetable bed, pour it on, and mix it in. Or, you can shake it lightly over your lawn. Anything you want to grow will grow better with compost. Once you get the hang of it, you can add kitchen scraps to your compost pile (but no meat or fish, please, or you will get every raccoon and skunk in the neighborhood spending the night behind your garage having a real hooey!). You can also buy a composter, which is a container for all this stuff, or make your own. Oh, yes, one more thing: it will all go better if you can divert some rainwater from your garage roof and keep your compost pile nice and moist.

6. Start a hedgerow. Huh? This too is easy. Here’s the idea: in many parts of the world (Ireland, England, France and elsewhere), farmers traditionally divided their fields by allowing or encouraging certain shrubs to grow up along the borders. Think of it as a living fence. The hedgerow not only marks boundaries, it was also used to control livestock in the centuries before barbed wire. But there’s one more benefit, too: the hedgerow is a patch of land on your property that you can essentially leave alone forever. The leaves that fall on it can just be left alone. Oh, and there’s a super bonus, too: a healthy, established hedgerow is also a home for lots of beneficial wildlife, which will appreciate the leaf litter on the ground, the cover provided by the shrubbery, the possibilities for making homes, and the food provided by any fruit or seeds yielded by the plants in your hedgerow. Here’s a way to start: go out to the back boundary on your land. Pace off 10-12 feet. Mark that line. Then, just stop mowing or weeding that zone. In a few years, you will find all kinds of “volunteers” — plants that show up all on their own, thanks to the wind or animals that disperse the seeds, and set about growing. You might want to do a bit of sorting, so that you get a good mix of native plants about the right size. Evergreens like yews and holly will get you through the winter. Fruiting shrubs like viburnums provide color and fruit. Now, if you back neighbor would do the same thing, the two of you would have a hedgerow more than 20 feet wide, which will really transform your neighborhood.

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So, there you go. These are all cheap, low-tech, proven techniques. Try them all. And see if you don’t find yourself running a more natural landscape.

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Hey, Midwest: Keep your stinkin’ pollution!

By Christopher B. Daly

Those of us who live downwind of the Rust Belt states have been breathing their fumes since the early days of the Industrial Revolution. We have done a pretty good job (I know, I know: we have a ways to go) to clean up our own skies. Here in Massachusetts, we have a mix of nuclear, fossil-fuel, and alternative energies, and we have a comparatively high-tech economy that does not depend on digging up long-dead plants and dinosaurs and burning the carbonic residue. So, the last thing we want to do is have our skies polluted by your fossil-fuel plants.

Now, eight Northeast governors are asking the EPA to do its duty and actually protect the environment by cracking down on the Midwest sources of pollution. From the Times:

The East Coast states. . . have for more than 15 years been subject to stricter air pollution requirements than many other parts of the country. Their governors have long criticized the Appalachian and Rust Belt states, including Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan, for their more lenient rules on pollution from coal-fired power plants, factories and tailpipes — allowing those economies to profit from cheap energy while their belched soot and smog are carried on the prevailing winds that blow across the United States.

And, Midwesterners — While you are cleaning up your act, please do me a favor: Tell your industry trade groups to stop buying time on television to sell me on the virtues of “clean coal.” There is no such thing as clean coal and never will be.

Let’s grow up and move on. Don’t waste your time trying to cling to fossil fuels. The sooner you give them up, the better off you’ll be — not to mention everyone downwind.

Cough, cough! NYT

Cough, cough!
(NYT)

That is a power plant cooling tower in Kentucky. Below is a photo I took outside Xian, China, last spring. Believe me, we really do not want to sink to their level. The way to out-compete China is to pull away in terms of cleanliness, not dirtiness. (This was not a stormy day, either. Just another day in China.)

Cough, cough! Chris Daly

Cough, cough!
(Chris Daly)

 

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Fall leaves: let’s leave them where they fall

By Christopher B. Daly 

Ah, another late-fall day here in New England. Full of watching the winter juncoes arrive, harvesting the last root vegetables, and listening to the roar of the leaf-blower. Sure enough, where I live just outside Boston, Monday mornings in fall bring an invading army of landscapers. Just after most of my neighbors have started their commute to work, those of us who work at home bear the brunt of the commercial landscapers’ day-long assault.

I am not advocating a radical, tear-up-your-lawn, no-mow approach (although there’s no harm in that, either.) Nor am I advocating a ban on lawn mowers and a return to hand-powered mowers (although there too, I think we could do a lot better).

I am calling for a deep reconsideration of a practice that has become de rigueur here in the suburbs, but which our ancestors would have considered demented. That is the compulsion to remove every fallen leaf from our lawns, driveways, and walks.

According to an article in the New York Times, there is a growing trend (is there any other kind?) toward re-thinking the assumption that all leaves must be whisked “away” to somewhere else. As an ecologist could tell you, there is no such place as “away.” Everything goes somewhere.

Let’s consider the leaf.

A leaf is part of a plant that allows it to live by conducting photosynthesis, converting sunlight into energy, which fuels the plant. In doing so, plants take in carbon dioxide through their leaves and emit oxygen. In this way, leaves do an enormous amount of good for the planet and for each one of us — also known as “ecosystem services.”

So far, so good.

In this part of the world, though, most plants drop their leaves in the fall to prepare for the rigors of a snowy, icy winter in which there may be no liquid water available for many months. The leaves fall to the ground, where they form “leaf litter,” a mat of leaves that — if left alone — would eventually decompose and join the soil, enriching it with organic material. The leaf litter is the plant’s attempt to shape the environment in its favor, as for example, when a pine tree drops some of its needles to form a dense, acidic mat below that discourages other plants but favors more pine trees. (I suspect that almost every plant harbors a secret plan to take over the world.)

This is what brings some plants into conflict with some humans. The conflict is particularly acute between the deciduous trees (like oaks and maples) and the suburban homeowner. Suburban homeowners are, by definition, also suburban landowners, so they are involved whether like it or not in land-use policy.

Overwhelmingly, suburban landowners are putting their land to use in the same way: growing grass for lawns. They are, in other words, farmers who grow a single crop, which is to say that they are involved in “mono-culture.” Oddly, suburbanites devote a lot of time and money to raising that one crop, only to cart it away and pay to dispose of it. They do not eat it, and they do not feed it to any livestock (rabbits do not count).

Part of the expense in maintaining a grassy lawn is the cost of protecting that lawn from the leaf litter. If all the trees in all the yards in an area like the one where I live in New England were allowed to drop their leaves undisturbed, our yards would soon begin to look like the forest floor rather than a grassy lawn. The leaves in the leaf litter layer would overlap and smother most grasses.

Hence, the great fall mania for leaf clean-up.

Originally, most Europeans who settled in this part of the world did not bother with a lawn. They sensibly built their houses close to the road, leaving just enough room for a front garden. In back, most people would have had a historic_societybarnyard — a patch of hard-packed dirt between the house and the barn. Most of the rest of the land would be fields and orchards or it would be left more or less wild as a living resource for harvesting wood and foraging all kinds of useful things. Those ancestral New Englanders had real outdoor chores demanding their time and strength, and they could not possibly have squandered any time raking leaves just for the hell of it.

In the 19th century, the lawn made its debut, and in the 20th century, the lawn conquered millions of acres of U.S. land.

At mid-century, when I was a child, most suburbanites handled their own yard care. In my neighborhood in Medford, Mass., I can recall only one family that hired a landscape service, and they were the wealthiest folks around. Everyone else just got out there and took care of their yards, or else they hired a teenager to do it for them. People like my father waited until the trees had dropped nearly all their leaves, then he started raking at the point farthest from the street. He raked the leaves into a long mound at the edge of the street. Then he did what everyone else did: he took  some matches out of his pocket (where he kept them because he was a smoker) and set the leaves on fire.

For a child, this was one of the great rituals of the year, a communal festival of sorts, with great sounds and smells and the infinitely absorbing allure of an open fire. As children, we tended those leaf fires, blowing on them, feeding them with dry leaves, trying to build the biggest fire the adults would tolerate. photo-chicago-boys-raking-and-burning-leaves-wilmette-street-1955Yes, there was some danger involved, I suppose, but at that stage in our national evolution, children were expected to learn to handle risk, not to avoid it. If the tail of your jacket happened to get burned while you were squatting to blow on some nearby embers, that was a lesson learned.

Sometime in the 1970s or 80s, under the banner of the environmentalist goal of clean air, every town I know of in New England banned the practice of open burning of leaves. (Yes, the air is cleaner, but, of course, something was lost in the process, too, and that needs to be acknowledged.)

Which brings us to the present. Nowadays, a dwindling number of suburban homeowners continue to do their own gardening and yard work. More and more, my neighbors summon commercial landscapers (and not the kid down the block, who is too busy anyway). This brings us an odd sight: like soldiers before battle, the landscape workers, who are engaged in a supposedly healthful form of outdoor exercise, first gear up with headphones, surgical masks, and sunglasses. After all, they know better than anyone just how obnoxious the portable, gas-powered leaf-blower is, and they want to protect their ears, their lungs, and their eyes.

220px-Aa_backpackleafblowerThey need protection, too. The average leaf-blower emits up to 70 or more decibels of noise along with some amount of smoke from its unmuffled, two-stroke, gas-fueled motor. But that decibel rating is a figure for a single well-maintained blower. The ones I experience are often old and banged up, and the guys who use them often gang together forming sonic artillery three to four abreast. Motors roaring, they wave their tubes from side to side, like a sci-fi elephant.

If it’s wet, they just redouble their efforts, roaring longer and louder to try to move those wet leaves from here to there. If it’s dry, watch out. Blasting away with their jets of air leaving the nozzle at nearly 200 mph, the leaf-blowers move more than leaves. They also pulverize and aerosolize pretty much every other small thing on the ground: bird shit, mouse dung, mold, cigarette butts, dust, allergens, pollen, weed seeds — it all swirls together in a choking, irritating mini-cyclone of detritus. And, oh yes — if your landscaper sold you an application of a herbicide or pesticide, then some of those poisons are going up in the toxic swirl, too. No wonder the guys on the crew try to protect themselves.

Usually, they blow the leaves onto a huge tarp, which they haul to the street. Then, they use a giant vacuum cleaner to lift the leaf pile into the back of their truck. What happens next is another ecological crime.

They haul all the leaves away. In other words, they deplete the yard of a significant amount of organic material that would otherwise rot and recycle into the soil. So, the removal of the leaves seriously depletes the land of its natural fertility. This is clearly a demented activity. Why do homeowners let the landscapers pilfer this valuable material?

Then comes the kicker: the landscapers will be back in the spring to sell the homeowner a treatment with . . . artificial fertilizer! This is to compensate for loss of the free, natural fertilizer that the yard would enjoy if the leaves were left in place. This is the equivalent of a burglar selling you your own stuff back!

To make matters worse, the removal of all those leaves means that the landscaped yard has no leaf litter. That is, there is no part of the yard in which certain organisms can winter over and carry on their lives. Many beneficial insects depend on the leaf litter for food and shelter. Without it, the yard is nearly barren, featuring only the useless lawn. And of course, no bugs means no birds (unless the suburbanite also hangs a bird-feeder — another unnatural act; don’t get me started on that one!) as well as no toads or all kinds of other creatures that were here before us.

All in all, the landscaped suburban lawn is pretty much an ecological disaster. Too often, it is a wasteland of clipped grass and exotic ornamental shrubs, shaded by a couple of non-native trees like Norway maples. This is a high-maintenance, expensive, inefficient approach that alienates the homeowner from nature, exposes the landscaping crew and the neighbors to noise and air pollution, and impoverishes our landscape.

We can do better.

[In another post, I will try to suggest some ideas for bringing some ecological sanity to the suburbs. Meanwhile, get a rake and a broom.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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