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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Live and let live

Ah, winter again. 

Not long until the winter solstice

Footprints in this weekend’s snow reveal that even in winter there’s a lot going on in my yard that I don’t see. 

Squirrel prints, or something bigger?

I thought of this when I read Steve Aitken’s description of a painful experience in this month’s Fine Gardening (“I believe in a critter-proof garden.”) His first foray into growing lilies from bulbs ended when his flower buds became a meal for foraging deer: “. . . all that greeted me were some newly topless stems. And hoof prints.”

     I’ve had my unhappy wildlife interactions too, but not with anything bigger than a raccoon. Reading the FG piece, I realized that my experience with wildlife in the garden is pretty sheltered. If I lived a few miles west in Boston’s more woodsy exurbs, I’d be cursing at deer too. I might have bears eating birdseed from my feeders and coyotes howling in my backyard.

Luckily my lilies are safe from deer

    Back here in the first ring of suburbs, our yard hosts mobs of sparrows, sometimes flocks of starlings, and a coterie of small native birds that frequent the feeders. Turkeys rarely penetrate the fenced yard, and we’ve never seen a coyote on our third-of-an-acre property. 

     Nights bustle with mammal activity as opossums, skunks, voles and raccoons lead their lives nearby but mostly unobserved.  In daylight, rabbits have become an everyday sight in my yard in the warm months, and I occasionally glimpse chipmunks. Squirrels are so common that we ignore their acrobatic prowess.

If squirrels were rare, their abilities would amaze us

    In the city center rats, pigeons, squirrels, and European sparrows live as “human commensals,” species that benefit from a relationship with humans without affecting us directly. In my suburban town, a lot of animals have adapted to living near humans, but I wouldn’t say that they benefit. They’ve adjusted to our taking over their space, but they often pay a high price for proximity.

    For example, a recent sunrise revealed a dead opossum in the middle of a busy nearby street. Possums seem to be particularly ill-equipped for dodging cars, and in fact much of their mortality is caused by human activity. This one probably was trying to get ready for winter and thought she could cross that open space under cover of darkness (Here’s a link to some fascinating opossum information).

Opossum mother and babies
     So far I’ve had the luxury of enjoying animal sightings, after adjusting my gardening expectations. I learned long ago not to try to grow sweet corn, because raccoons were much better than me at sensing when the ears ripened. If I plant tulips, I know there’s a good chance squirrels will bite off the flowers as they open. I accept that I won’t harvest blueberries from my bushes, because birds will get there first. 

    But I’m not primarily a food gardener, and I can live without flowers that are too delicious for wildlife to pass up. Gardeners farther from the city may be trying to scare animals away or fence them out. Here in the suburbs, I try to offer a garden where we can all get along.

Dear readers, I'm going to take a break next week. Best wishes for happy and peaceful holidays. See you in 2017. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trees or solar panels?

For years I’ve wanted to install solar panels on our roof. My sister Kate is an environmental activist who was an early adopter of solar power here in New England. 

Kate and her solar array
 Since installing her solar panels in 1998, she has generated her own electric power, selling power back to the grid when she generates more than she uses.

    To enable this, she first made her house as energy efficient as possible. That’s the cheapest way to reduce your use and cost of electricity, Kate points out.

    More recently, my brother- and sister-in-law, who live in sunny Los Angeles, have been able to use their solar power to charge Bob’s plug-in gas-electric hybrid car, so a significant part of his driving is carbon neutral. 

Wouldn't it be great to power your car with solar-generated electricity?

    I would love to generate electric power at home like these inspiring family members and dispense with power from coal, gas and nuclear sources. The problem is that we live in an older suburb, so we’re surrounded by mature trees. That’s a good thing. After all, one of the basic recommendations for addressing climate change is to plant trees, because they sequester carbon. 

     They also shade the house, screen it from the wind, and even lower the ambient temperature in summer. These “ecological services” decrease our energy use for cooling and heating.

Street trees convey many environmental benefits

    I called a solar installer to ask if our roof would qualify for solar panels. Looking at satellite pictures of our lot, he said we’d have to ask the city to cut down our street trees to let sunlight fall on the roof. But our town has lost so many street trees over the years, there’s an active volunteer organization working hard to replant. I didn’t want to eliminate healthy street trees, even though they are Norway maples.

    I asked Kate for advice. She didn’t favor cutting down the trees either, to my relief. She pointed out that I can achieve my sustainability goal a different way. We can choose to get our electric power from renewable sources.

    So far I’ve found two suppliers that both look reasonable. CleanChoice Energy uses power from wind and solar farms from New York to Maryland. Mass Energy Consumers Alliance offers two plans, one strictly Massachusetts wind power, the other a mix of sources including twenty-five percent in-state wind,

solar, and anaerobic digester gas power and seventy-five percent “low-impact” hydroelectric power. 

We could opt for wind power

     Of course the electric power coming into our house won’t magically change to pure golden renewable energy. If we opt for the renewable sources, the energy we draw from the grid will be matched with energy from renewables. That will increase demand for renewable energy and, over time, help bring the price down. Right now we’ll have to pay an extra (tax-deductible) $20 per month for peace of mind. 

    In the current political climate, with the EPA on the chopping block, it’s a cost I’m willing to pay. That way we can still live surrounded by trees.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Fighting caterpillars from within

Winter moths are appearing on the storm doors again,
so I was eager to attend a recent talk by Professor Joe Elkinton. Elkinton is an entomologist at UMass who not only studies infestations of nonnative insects, he actually does something about them. His speech about gypsy moths and winter moths alerted me to a gardening quandary I’ll need to resolve.

Birch leaves chewed by winter moth caterpillars

    Gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar) came to Boston in 1868, imported by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, an astronomer in Medford, Massachusetts who was trying to mate them with silk worms. In an all-too-common scenario, they escaped from his custody and traveled across Massachusetts defoliating trees over vast areas. The last major outbreak was in 1981.

Life stages of the gypsy moth

     In an interesting ecological twist, gypsy moth populations were decimated soon afterward by a newly introduced fungus. This year’s drought changed the balance by limiting the fungus, so gypsy moths surged. 

    Elkinton said that biological control—introduction of organisms to kill unwanted insects such as gypsy moth—was tried as far back as 1905. In this approach, insects that control the pests in their homeland are brought over to do the same here. 

     Early on, one introduced parasitoid killed native insects, such as the beautiful luna moth (Actias luna).

The luna moth is a North American native

A parasitoid, unlike a parasite, ultimately sterilizes or kills its host. 

    That brought me to what I wanted to know from Elkinton’s talk. How can we be sure we won’t cause more problems by releasing new nonnative insects to control the ones we don’t like? His answer was, “Host range testing.” This means carefully evaluating the insect you’re planning to release, checking whether it will use native insects as hosts. Entomologists in this field only release parasitoids or predators that specialize in one nonnative insect, unlike goofballs like Trouvelot. 

    Winter moth (Operophtera brumata), also from Europe, got to the US in 1950 and has been a major problem in eastern Massachusetts since around 2001. The larvae, little caterpillars, tunnel into buds and eat young leaves of most of our deciduous trees. Elkinton has been releasing a tiny tachinid fly, Cyzenis albicans, to parasitize winter moth larvae. 

Winter moth caterpillar

     This is a long process. It takes three to five years after introduction to establish a population of the fly in a new location. To determine whether their efforts are succeeding, his team and volunteers harvest 120,000 caterpillars in May and check whether each contains flies.

    Elkinton revealed that my neighborhood has an established population of C. albicans. He predicted there will be enough of them next summer to make a significant dent in the winter moth population.

    Thereby hangs a sustainability dilemma. If I continue having my trees sprayed to kill winter moth caterpillars, I’ll kill the little flies inside the larvae as well. I’d like to let the flies do their job, but if they don’t, the caterpillars will defoliate the trees. I think I'll take a chance and skip the spraying.

Last foliage of the year. This ornamental plum could be defoliated by winter moth next summer if I guess wrong.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fungus among us

Thank goodness some rain fell this fall, although we’re still in a drought. Apparently mushrooms were biding their time, waiting for a bit of moisture before making their move. Once it rained, they popped up around the yard.

    These mushrooms are the fruiting structures of a group of fungi called basidiomycetes. The mushrooms are small parts of these organisms, which include extensive underground networks of hyphae, slender filaments that take up water and carbohydrates. A single individual fungus can send up fruiting bodies over an area as big as a baseball diamond.

    Invisible to me, even after welcome rain, are two huge groups, the saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi. Saprophytic fungi are decomposers, breaking down dead organic material, including wood, into nutrients plants can use. 

Mycorrhizal fungi join in a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. Thinner and more extensive than root hairs, their hyphae seek out water and nutrients from far and wide. They share these with plants in return for simple sugars.

Fungal hyphae

    Some mycorrhizal fungi excrete a sticky polysaccharide called glomalin that glues soil particles together in small clumps called macroaggregates. These clumps improve growing conditions for roots by creating pore spaces in the soil for water and air. As if that weren’t enough, fungi in the soil also sequester carbon, attack plant pathogens, and cultivate helpful bacteria.

    Luckily the best way to foster these useful partners is to stay out of their way. If I tilled my soil with a rototiller, I’d be breaking up their networks. If I sprinkled chemical fertilizer, I’d turn off their nutrient-collecting efforts. Fortunately there’s no call to do either in my garden. If I need to plant something, I get along fine by digging an appropriately-sized hole. Compost and mulch are providing enough nutrition for my plants.

Offering a home for soil fungi

    It turns out that by mulching with fall leaves and wood chips, I was unknowingly creating a happy environment for soil fungi. I learned about this when I researched the reasons for balancing types of ingredients in the compost pile. Before this I’d thought compost recipes were unnecessarily fussy.

    Compost professionals can titrate ingredients and conditions in their compost piles to determine the proportion of bacteria and fungi in the finished product. By managing the balance of “brown” high-carbon and “green” high-nitrogen compost ingredients, they can cause bacteria or fungi to predominate. Bacteria thrive on simple sugars from green plant material, and fungi prefer high-carbon woody material. 

    Compost high in fungi is best for use around trees, shrubs and perennials, whereas annuals and vegetables prefer more bacteria in the mix. This is because of what soil organisms do with nitrogen from the air. Fungi convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonium that long-lived plants prefer, whereas bacteria make nitrate that fast-growing short-lived plants particularly need.

    Making compost by recipe probably isn’t in my future, but it’s nice to know that my high-carbon mulches are friendly to soil fungi.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Skip the fall clean-up

It used to be good gardening practice to clean up your flower beds in fall. We cut perennials to the ground with the theory that leaving their stems standing would provide shelter for insects. How gardeners’ perspectives have changed!

    Now much of what I do in my garden is aimed at providing that very shelter, as well as food, for native insects. That means I shouldn’t cut down my perennials in the fall. I’m unlearning the habit, although my pruner hand still tends to twitch when I see those “messy” stalks.

Ox eye sunflower seeds and stalks will provide winter food and shelter for insects

    There’s a conflict between some of my favorite garden authorities regarding this fall clean-up issue. At the popular blog Garden Rant, Elizabeth Licata writes that tree leaves shouldn’t lie in yards through the winter because they “smother plants and soil.” All I can say is that I haven’t found this to be a problem.

    Elizabeth doesn’t want to get involved in shredding leaves, which I can understand. It’s work, but for me it’s well worthwhile. I like converting leaves into shreds that make pretty, useful mulch. 

Shredded leaves make useful mulch

Because of what I’ve learned this year, though, I’m shredding less this fall and leaving more leaves whole.

    I just discovered that another trusted authority, Jessica Walliser, is contributing to a site and newsletter at Savvy Gardening. I’d already learned from Jessica’s book Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden that winter stalks, leaves, and berries provide needed shelter for over-wintering insects. Her post “Six reasons NOT to clean up the garden this fall” provides useful detail. 

    Did you know that some butterflies pass the winter here as adults, some in chrysalises, and some as caterpillars? 

Black swallowtail chrysalis. Photo by S. Detwiler

All of these forms could be depending on us to leave them some leaf litter or hollow stems for winter quarters. Jessica advocates letting whole leaves lie to avoid cutting up insects sheltering among them.

    Then there’s the matter of winter food for birds. I’ve spent a fortune on birdseed that’s mostly snapped up by nonnative English sparrows. Both Jessica and George Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds, point out that birds can find more varied food in our yards if we’ll garden with them in mind. I’ve been working on providing a bird menu of berries and seeds on native shrubs and perennials. 

Native winterberry provides food for birds

It’s interesting to hear that hibernating insects are also food for birds such as chickadees that forage for them through the winter. 

    There’s a seeming conflict between trying to help insects survive and offering them as food for birds. But in fact these are part of the same goal. The idea is to grow plants as food and shelter for a large and varied population of insects, so many that birds can eat their fill and still leave enough for other ecological roles, such as pollination and predation.

This green lacewing eats herbivorous insects

     Jessica’s book explains in fascinating detail how predator insects can help keep your garden’s population of leaf-eaters in balance. That’s yet another reason to leave the welcome mat out for insects in winter.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Weathering disappointments

Back in April there was no reason to think this wouldn’t be a typical gardening season. Various weather phenomena were jockeying for position—spring rain, late snow, cool sunny days, warm spells.

Everything seemed normal in April

     Drought was in the running, but no one thought it could win. It was offensive, and it just didn’t fit with our New England (horti)culture. After all, we were well-informed, progressive gardeners. We knew our history, and we knew the climate wouldn’t deal us such a blow.

Not In Our Back Yard

    June and July were awfully dry. Against all odds, drought seemed to be pulling ahead. Other weather options tried to compete. Heat and humidity made a bid for the top slot. They seemed much more likely to win. Their kind had always won in the past. Clearly drought was going to fade. It couldn’t make a sustained run. We could all see its deficits. It wouldn’t supply the needs of our plants. It was just a matter of time until rain would take the lead, and we’d be back to a normal gardening summer.

    Pundits explained that drought was bound to fizzle out. Statistics showed that summer rain was by far the more likely pattern. Comparing this summer to previous ones, it was obvious that drought couldn’t maintain a lead in New England.  It might hold on in the Western states, but not here.

Clearly drought couldn't last

Everyone we knew was in favor of rain. It was more popular than ever. In the past eight years, rain had started us on the right path. Rain had promoted new growth that we all wanted to continue. Anyone could see that a balance of rain and sun was in everyone’s interest.

On a green path in years past

    As the summer dragged on, drought brought out the worst in us. It was tempting to water our own yards and forget about the gardeners who couldn’t. People were angry. 

Green grass wins out over community spirit

    We weren’t surprised when a scandal hit the news: drought was assaulting our most vulnerable plants. That was sure to clinch its defeat. There was a wave of outrage. State officials warned that if drought continued in the lead, crops would be destroyed and endangered animals would die. 

Drought was destructive

Gardeners would need to water less. We’d make some sacrifices for the common good. But that would turn the tide, surely.

    Despite some fall rain, a late October dirty trick put drought back on top. We hoped no one would be fooled.

    You all know the end of this story. Tuesday night we sat down to watch the returns, nervous but still certain that drought would be defeated. That’s what all the experts predicted. Rain was going to come, and we could stop worrying.

    Instead, we woke up Wednesday morning to face the reality: drought was still with us. In fact, we’d be dealing with the painful consequences for a long time to come.

    Fortunately the gardening world is made new every spring. We can still hope that winter snow and spring rain will bring lush gardens next summer. If only other disappointments faded as fast.

Gardens may be green next year, but will we lose our last chance to slow climate change?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Conventional wisdom that's wrong

With fall garden work in my future—spreading compost, chopping leaves for mulch, and generally preparing for the cold months ahead—I’m glad to learn that some conventional gardening wisdom turns out to be false. 

Time to prepare the garden for winter

My heroine Linda Chalker-Scott, professor of urban horticulture at Washington State University, has the research to prove it. Here are three myths we can forget about:

Nitrogen-sucking mulch
It used to be an article of faith that high-carbon mulches such as the ones I use—shredded leaves and wood chips—would use up nitrogen in the soil in their decomposition process, thereby leaving plants short of this important nutrient. 

Does wood chip mulch cause nitrogen deficiency?

Chalker-Scott found that it doesn’t happen. So we can go on spreading organic mulch without adding high-nitrogen chemical fertilizer to make up for the imagined loss. 

     There may be a narrow zone of nutrient deficiency just at the mulch-soil interface. That’s actually a good thing, because it’s where young weeds would try to get started. The lack of nitrogen will help keep them from succeeding. It doesn’t hamper the growth of plants with established root systems, though, because they feed further down under the soil surface.

Acidifying soil
Another shibboleth is the proposition that adding oak leaves or pine needles to compost or using them as mulch will acidify soil. Soil is not as simple as we used to think. Adding acidic components to soil is not like putting vinegar on your salad. The soil has a buffering system that prevents swings in its pH. People who mulch with oak leaves year after year see no change in their soil’s pH, and pine needles, widely used in the Southeast, make some of the best mulch there is. 

Pine needles make great mulch

If you really want acid soil, you have to add chemicals such as ammonium sulfate, which only works temporarily. Here in Massachusetts our soil is naturally acid, so we don’t need to add chemicals to grow acid-loving plants like blueberries and rhododendrons.

Winter wraps
Some people in my town wrap their broadleaf evergreen shrubs in burlap during the winter. This is intended to prevent drying caused by sun and cold winter winds. There’s some justification for this; leaves can indeed be killed when they lose moisture to evaporation and the frozen ground offers no replacement. 

     You may also see ads for anti-dessicants sprays that purport to prevent evaporation from leaves. Chalker-Scott found that using these materials is more likely to prevent your plant from taking in carbon dioxide, photosynthesizing, and avoiding overheating. 

    To my mind, wrapping rhododendrons and boxwood shrubs in burlap cancels the benefits of growing them in the first place. One of my main reasons for planting evergreen shrubs is the chance to enjoy their green leaves in the winter landscape.

Greenery is welcome in winter

     It turns out you can protect your shrubs best by making sure they’ve had enough water before winter starts and by mulching generously to hold that moisture in the soil. That way they can lose some water without ill effects.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

In from the cold

Cold nights are prompting me to bring non-hardy plants indoors. First it was the houseplants summering on a wire shelf unit in the driveway. Then Steve and I brought in bigger pots, the brugmansia (also known as angel’s trumpet) and hibiscus.

Brugmansia burgeoning on the porch

     We wouldn’t be able to do this as easily without our PotLifter, an ingenious apparatus that winds around large pots and allows us to carry them easily by holding handles. Otherwise I’d be trying to wrap my arms around these awkward, heavy pots myself to carry them up the steps and through the house to their winter quarters.

    The reward for this schlepping is blooms now and through the winter. As soon as I brought the Christmas cacti indoors, their buds swelled, and now the plants are covered with flowers. 

Christmas cactus going wild

    Our hisbiscus does the same, responding to its warmer indoor environment with a generous flush of bright red blooms. 

Hibiscus celebrating coming in from the cold

It flowers through the winter, though less profusely, while thinning its leaves, which turn yellow and drop off one by one. The next summer it fills in again, sprouting more leaves to soak up the sun’s rays.

    The reason these plants benefit from time outside is the vast difference in brightness between the indoor and outdoor environments. I found an interesting chart demonstrating this at This web page is about light treatment for depression, but the chart is equally relevant for gardeners. It shows that typical home lighting provides 100 lux, whereas outdoor daylight with a clear sky radiates 10,000 to 20,000 lux. 

     Light shining through windows is not as strong as outdoor light, and brightness drops off sharply with distance from the window. My shelf of houseplants sits on the north side of the house in summer, so the plants don’t get direct sunlight, which could be as bright as 100,000 lux.

    The extra solar energy allows the houseplants to store up lots of sugars they can use to make flowers and leaves through the winter. The brugmansia is our most dramatic example of this process. Brugmansia is a South American tropical shrub with dramatic pendulous trumpet-shaped flowers. Ours makes

coral-colored blooms nine inches long. 

Dramatic brugmansia flowers

They have an enchanting scent that’s most noticeable at night. 

     The growing season for this plant is so long that we have to move it indoors before it flowers. Unfortunately it doesn’t rebloom. The show is over for this year.

    In winter I can sometimes nurse the brugmansia along next to a large window. If it’s overcome by whitefly, I chop the stem off at the base and banish the pot to the basement. In spring the plant sends up new stems. I choose one as a trunk (this is called pruning for a “standard”). I move it outdoors by Memorial Day, and soon the plant is four feet tall again with large oval-shaped leaves. It’s impressive how much this plant can do with a summer’s worth of sunlight.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Soil needs plants

As I become more aware of the “underground herd” of soil organisms, I’m changing my perspective on soil, looking at it as a living system that interacts with plant communities. Two recent paradigm-shifting books shed light on this approach. They are The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, and Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.

    To my surprise, I learned from Rainer and West, “When soil is exposed to sunlight, rain and extreme temperature changes, it is damaged,” and its stored carbon is oxidized and released as carbon dioxide. “The longer a soil is exposed, the harder it is to vegetate later.” 

    Like many suburbanites, I’ve had the fond belief that unplanted areas would be fine for indefinite periods if they’re covered with mulch. 

I thought mulch was enough to protect soil.

Apparently this is better than leaving soil bare to the elements, but it’s not the best approach. 

    It seems that roots and plants’ “underground storage organs” (more on this somewhat risqué phrase in a future post) are crucial for building functioning soil. The channels dug by roots open up space for air and water. When roots decompose in fall and winter, their organic material stays behind as humus, storing carbon and nutrients in the soil. That’s good for plants and good for the climate, too.

Dense groundcover is healthier for soil

    Both author duos describe natural landscapes in terms of plant layers. Among the broad landscape types, my yard is closest to a woodland edge. In this kind of landscape there’s a canopy layer formed by trees, a woody understory of lower trees and shrubs, and an herbaceous layer of perennials and grasses, ranging down to the lowest plants that cover the ground. 

    This week I moved some bearded iris that were blocking our view of the fish pond and replaced some tired moss phlox (Phlox subulata) with five pots of bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Their spot is one of the most visible in the yard, within clear view of the kitchen windows. 

The fish pond in August

The bearberry plants join the groundcover layer, and I hope they’ll stay low and neat-looking. I had pulled out some moss phlox a few weeks ago and left the soil bare before covering it with bark mulch last week.

Bearberry and bare soil. I hope it will fill in next spring.

    Both sets of authors emphasize the benefits of a rich and diverse groundcover layer for providing habitat for insects and other small organisms. Native bearberry should help in this regard. I’ve certainly got lots growing at ground level. Over the years I’ve planted something in just about every inch of garden soil. 

    When I squeezed in those little plants I couldn’t resist bringing home, of course, it was to help the environment. As one of this year’s presidential candidates would say, “Believe me!”  And I’m willing to do even more shopping for the sake of the earth.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Big noise

When I commit murder, my crime will be caused by the scream of leaf blowers. 

I'm going to argue a leaf blower defense

Their piercing whine has escalated again this fall. It messes with my psychic equilibrium. It drives my husband out of bed at 7:00 on Saturday mornings. While almost all landscape contractors and many homeowners in my neighborhood use these infernal machines, the blowers don’t actually add value. What they do add is a lot of negative health effects, both physical and psychological.

    My city is now following a trend toward restricting use of leaf blowers. Last fall the aldermen held hearings on the subject, with landscapers contending that they need the blowers to make a living, while many residents complained they were being tormented by noise generated for others’ profit. The city is considering an ordinance to restrict use of leaf blowers to the periods from March 15 to May 1 and October 15 to December 1. 

     This change is too modest for my liking. Why should so many of the best gardening weeks of the year be violated by the noise of leaf blowers? I’d like to know I can enjoy peace and quiet when I step out my back door. Many people testified to lost time for work, conversation, and sleep when the blowers are nearby.

    Other than the obvious effects on quality of life, leaf blowers cause other serious problems. Landscape workers suffer some of the worst of them. 

Hearing protection for operators is often neglected

Sustained exposure to noise at up to 100 decibels, such as that generated by the blowers, can cause permanent hearing loss, raise blood pressure, and lead to coronary artery disease. 

     Some people call the machines debris blowers, because they’re used to move anything lying on the ground, not just leaves. In the process they lift dust, animal feces, landscape chemicals, and whatever else is on the ground into the air, where vulnerable people—especially children and elders—breathe them in. The inefficient two-stroke engines of gas leaf blowers also contribute heavily to air pollution. To top it all off, there’s evidence that the high-velocity stream of air actually damages plants.

    It’s not the case that a lush suburban landscape can’t be maintained without leaf blowers. In fact, Beverly Hills and Carmel, California were early adopters of leaf blower bans back in the 1970s. They’ve managed to struggle by.

This Beverly Hills homeowner has managed to cope without leaf blowers

    We don’t have to let marketing and available technology determine our landscape practices. Who says a neat yard is one with no leaves or twigs on the ground? 

In my neighborhood, custom demands no leaves on the lawn

Outdoors is not the same as indoors, thank goodness, and a lawn doesn’t have to look like a freshly vacuumed carpet. 

     We’ve been sold a bill of goods on this, and we’re paying for it every time we’re interrupted by the whine of the leaf blowers. If we could accept more natural conditions, where plant debris is allowed to decompose into the soil of garden beds

Decomposing leaves build soil

and—gasp!—even lawns, we’d save ourselves a lot of money and trouble, and we could dispense with obnoxious landscape machines.