Quiet Alternatives

For so many homeowners and renters in Montclair, maintaining a well-kept yard is not only a matter of responsible stewardship, but a point of pride. We want our lawns and gardens to look good in addition to providing useful spaces for outdoor play, relaxation, and entertaining.

Achieving that outcome does not require the use of gas-powered leaf blowers — and especially not for most months of the year, when there are hardly any leaves to remove.

Eliminating every speck of fallen organic matter robs lawns and gardens of natural fertilizers and soil-improvers while wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems. For best overall results, much of the work that leaf blowers accomplish would be better left undone, or done quite differently.

Moreover, less hazardous yard-care tools are available and effective. In addition to rakes, brooms, and lawn sweepers, these include battery-powered leaf blowers that have rapidly improved in power, longevity, and cost to use. Equipment manufacturers have made major investments in quieter, cleaner technologies, and it is time for us to expect their use.

Follow the science.

Grass clippings left in place fertilize lawns naturally.

Grass clippings are 80-90% water and break down very quickly after regular mowing. Returning short clippings to the lawn recycles nutrients and organic matter to the soil, feeding the grass naturally, and it does not contribute to thatch buildup. Read more about lawn care best practices from Rutgers.

Fallen leaves are a secret weapon to a healthy and beautiful yard.

Decades of horticultural research have shown that autumn leaves are a yard’s best resource for a healthy and beautiful spring and summer. Rather than raking or blowing them into huge piles for removal, leaves should be mulched (e.g., chopped into small pieces with a lawnmower) and/or composted, with numerous benefits.

Watch a 2-minute video to see the magic of mulch-mowing: faster, quieter, less polluting, and better for your lawn than blowing.

  • Feeding lawns and gardens. In the lawn, mulched leaves quickly sift down and provide essential macro- and micro-nutrients to the soil as they decompose over the winter and spring. Grass greens up faster in spring and there is less need for added fertilizers. A few inches of chopped up leaves can feed your garden beds in the same way, contributing to stronger and healthier plants the following year.
  • Improving soil. By adding organic matter to the soil, mulched leaves improve soil structure and nutrient availability. Clay soils become looser and better draining, while sandy soils gain capacity to hold water. Beneficial microbial activity goes up. Compaction and crusting go down. Best of all, the mulched leaves work themselves into the soil naturally over time — no tilling needed.
  • Reducing weed pressure. An enormous benefit of mulched leaves is that they reduce the number of weed seeds that germinate the following spring. A Michigan State University study found that leaf mulch applied in fall to typical lawn grass can reduce dandelion counts by 53-80% the following spring. Like any mulch, a layer of chopped leaves inhibits weeds in garden beds, too.
  • Insulating tender plants over the winter. Leaves, whether mulched or not, make great winter insulation for plants that may need a little extra help to get through the winter undamaged. By moderating soil temperatures and dampening cycles of freezing and thawing, leaf mulch helps perennials, shrubs, and young trees survive and thrive.
  • Making top-quality compost. Leaf mold — shredded leaves, partially decomposed in a bin or pile — is “the connoisseur’s choice for mulching perennial gardens.” It’s not for sale at the big box stores or nurseries, but readily available at virtually no cost for those who mulch their leaves and keep them on site. A small pile or bin can hold the equivalent of 25 bags of fallen leaves, once chopped up by a mower.

Leaf blowers pose dangers to beneficial wildlife and pets.

By blasting away the very top layer of soil and organic matter, leaf blowers desiccate and eventually eliminate the natural ground cover that protects and nourishes plants and wildlife. Bumblebees and butterflies, for example, need fallen leaves for habitat, while songbirds forage for food in this layer.

Leaf blowers send large amounts of fine dust and dirt airborne, increasing health risks for dogs, cats, and other domestic pets, including respiratory challenges, eye problems, nasal discomfort, and skin irritation. Their noise can also trigger “fight or flight” responses, especially in cats, which cause other negative effects.

Choose smarter tools.

Battery-electric leaf blowers are powerful, reliable, and cost-effective.

For homeowners, good battery-powered equipment is widely available and affordable, as a simple trip to a home improvement store will demonstrate. But at the commercial level, batteries need to last for many hours, and performance needs to be extremely reliable. Fortunately, the last 10 years have seen a “battery revolution” in industry, resulting in rapidly accelerating gains in the power, longevity, and cost-effectiveness of battery-electric tools.

The American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) conducts rigorous field testing of battery-electric equipment in commercial settings in order to give credible, independent advice about which brands and tools are capable of performing full-time, commercial-grade work and can replace gas-powered tools. The group has certified a wide range of commercial-grade battery-electric tools from leading manufacturers including Stihl, Husqvarna, Oregon Professional, and Ego.

These top-quality tools run on interchangeable lithium-ion batteries that last about as long as a tank of gas and can be quickly recharged. Some brands offer backpack batteries that give 10 hours of use before needing a recharge. They now deliver power comparable to their gas counterparts while being easier to start, lighter in weight, and much quieter.

Switching to battery-electric equipment entails upfront costs, of course. But by virtually eliminating operating costs for gasoline, oil, filters, and the like — and by giving adopters a competitive edge in being able to offer low-noise, zero-emission landscaping services at affordable prices — these machines can quickly generate positive returns on investment.

For small and medium jobs, simple manual tools excel.

Sometimes, old-fashioned tools still perform best. Especially for smaller jobs, rakes and brooms are often faster and more efficient than leaf blowers, which are better suited for large-scale tasks. They are of course cheaper, quieter, and cleaner, as well, with virtually no maintenance.

Lawn sweepers are another option that uses a brush to pick up lawn debris with no noise and no emissions. They are well suited for medium-size jobs.