Mown and Blown: The Problem With Leaf Blowers


I had just spent an hour sweeping our front porch, staircase and the sidewalk in front of our house. While I was sweeping I looked up to see the thick film of dirt covering the front of the house that I had spent months painting on scaffolding. Then I looked down the block and noticed a member of Los Angeles’ legion of mow and blow crews kicking up a huge cloud of dust. In an angry moment I later regretted, I glared at him and pointed at my broom. He smiled in return.

Why are leaf blowers bad? The reasons are almost too numerous to mention. Journalist Emily Green points out that during a drought,

It’s more important than ever to stop this practice and that leaves be left piled near trees, grass left where it falls after mowing and that leaf blowers not leave the truck. Any foliage that spills into streets should be raked. Leaf blowers in drought send dry earth airborne to lethal effects for asthma sufferers, particularly children and infants.

Tk by Tk Datetk.

Power Tools by Rubén Ortiz-Torres, 1999.

Los Angeles banned gas powered leaf blowers in 1998. The ban has never been enforced. Artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres captured, perfectly, the racial and class tension surrounding the ban in a series of customized power tools, including the tricked out leaf blower above. It’s hard to address the problems with leaf blowers without also getting into the thorny politics surrounding race, class and immigration.

Leaf blowers exist in a symbiotic relationship with “low maintenance” landscapes which consist of a lawn and brutally pruned hedges.  These water hungry landscapes provide neither food, beauty or habitat. (They are also not enjoyed by people: half of the suburban participants in a UCLA study of home life in SoCal never went into their backyard.  Another 25 percent went outside for a few minutes a week.) Yet this style of landscape is our dominant style of landscape because the homeowner doesn’t need to think about it, and the maintenance crews can move through the space with their machinery quickly. Volume allows these business to charge little for their services, which makes their services affordable to most homeowners, which encourages homeowners to keep their landscapes in a form easily serviced. In other words, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. And it’s a cycle we can’t afford anymore, for so many reasons. And for me, our reliance on leaf blowers is emblematic of all these problems.

I struggle with how to tackle the leaf blower problem. In a perfect world, the mow and blow crews would get horticultural education that they could then use to charge a living wage to maintain ecologically beneficial landscapes. Homeowners who couldn’t afford gardening services would discover the joy of gardening.

I’ve also thought of getting our neighbors together to discuss the issue and come up with alternatives, but I’m not sure this would work. So I’m going to toss the issue out to you, our dear readers.

Do you have a leaf blower problem where you live? Is this just an LA problem, or is it a national or international problem?

Has your city attempted a ban? If so, is the ban enforced?

Has your city provided education for gardeners?

Have you ever had a conversation with your neighbors about leaf blowers?

What are ways you’ve thought of dealing with the leaf blowers?

What solutions do you think could shift the mow and blow paradigm?

Picture Sundays: The Unintentionally Groovy Cover of the High Desert Corridor Envionmental Impact Report


Damien Newton of Streetsblog Los Angeles has caused the cover of an obscure bureaucratic document to go viral in our local cycling community. And with good reason. Some genius at Caltrans designed a cover by tossing clip art and 80s graphics into a Vitamix. Speculation is that the designer might be named Brad (note Brad the turtle chasing a chipmunk in the upper right corner).

Every time I look at it I see something new: psychedelic condors riding bicycles, butterflies transformed by contact with solar panels and what might be a portal to another dimension just to the right of the project i.d. number.

Saturday Linkages: Big Chickens, Drought and More

Why You Should Grow Pomegranates if You Can


If I could only have one tree I think it might be a pomegranate. Why?

  • Pomegranate trees have beautiful, bright red flowers in the spring and handsome yellow leaves in the fall.
  • They grow fast.
  • They have few pests.
  • They are drought tolerant.
  • They produce delicious fruit.
  • Require low chill hours.
  • They live long–200 years or more.

The big downside for, probably, most of the readers of this blog is that pomegranates are frost sensitive. And the fruit will split if it rains in the fall. But if you live in a warm, dry climate you need to get one!

The variety we have is Wonderful, not all that exciting as this is the variety at the supermarket. If I had to plant one again I’d probably choose a more exotic pomegranate. That said, Wonderful is still wonderful–big, juicy and delicious.

The time to order your bare root fruit trees is now! Our favorite source, Bay Laurel has a nice selection of pomegranates. Just order now for winter delivery, as they sell out. Pomegranates can also be propagated easily from cuttings and, along with figs and olives, are just about the only fruit trees that aren’t grafted.

Do you have a pomegranate tree? What variety do you have?

Compost Piles on Fire!

Image: Wikimedia.

Image: Wikimedia.

Call it a weird, unintended consequence of our ongoing drug war, but apparently indoor compost piles are igniting house fires all across the U.S. Pot growers stack up their leftover biomass and, soon after, the whole house goes up in a puff of smoke, so to speak.

It got me wondering about two things. What’s the biology of a compost pile fire? And do non-pot growing folks in cold climates commonly have indoor compost piles?

First the biology. BioCycle has a whole article on fire prevention in municipal composting facilities that covers this common problem.

So what situation(s) can lead to a fire? Here’s what can happen with a low moisture, large pile with little air exchange, combined with water getting into the pile in a place where there is enough air to support biological activity and chemical oxidation, but not enough to cool the pile.

An old, dry compost pile, or a pile of overs screened out of the finished product, is a case in point. Water seeping into the dry compost can restart microbial activity and initiate reheating. A “macropore” or crack from the hot spot to the surface often develops into a vent, or chimney. Air movement up through this vent draws more oxygen into the hot spot where heat is being generated, rapidly escalating the transition from a biological fire to smoke and glowing embers. Appearance of this hot, humid air at the surface can be an important indicator that heating is taking place inside the pile.

Compost pile fires are unlikely for most home scale gardeners. One preventative technique recommended in the Biocycle article is to keep piles smaller than 12 feet high. Not a problem for most backyard gardeners.

Now a question for our readers around the world: who, other than pot growers, have indoor compost piles?