Mostly, it’s the quiet. When I work outside what I like to hear is the breeze in the trees, the chattering of the chipmunks, the buzz of the bees, the singing of the birds, and sometimes even the caw of the crows.
The noise of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, rototillers, weed whackers and chain saws not only prevents people from hearing the sounds of nature, it forces them to don earmuffs to deaden the racket – unless they want to permanently damage their hearing.
My wife, Nancy, and I don’t use many power tools. Human-powered tools usually do a better job and are friendlier to the environment. It’s only a coincidence that I have trouble keeping gas-powered tools running.
The most common power tool in the American home is the lawn mower. Weekends in our neighborhood, we usually can hear mowers running from 9 a.m. to dark, sometimes in the distance as a vaguely discernible hum but often loudly, right next door – especially if we have decided to have a meal or drinks on the patio, with company. People often complain about loud Harley Davidson motorcycles, but gasoline-powered mowers are even louder.
They also are polluting. According to figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, running a new lawn mower for one hour releases as much pollution as 11 new cars being driven one hour each. The Union of Concerned Scientists says it is only eight times as much. Either way, it’s a lot. Older mowers, unregulated by the EPA, pollute even more.
Also, people are careless. The EPA estimates that more than 17 million gallons of fuel is spilled each year by people adding fuel to lawn equipment, collectively more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. What doesn’t evaporate into the atmosphere, adding to air pollution, sinks into the groundwater or flows into the ocean.
We own two mowers, neither of which is powered by gasoline.
For two seasons I used a human-powered reel mower, which did a good job as long as I mowed at least once a week and the grass was dry (which for the health of the lawn and the equipment it should be, no matter what kind of mower you use).
The problem came in late September, when the first leaves started falling but not enough were on the lawn to rake. The reel mower neither picked up the leaves nor cut grass well if it had leaves on it.
We then bought a battery-powered mower with a bagger – just for fall mowing, I told myself. It works really well at picking up leaves. Before the leaves start to fall, I can go 10 days between mowings. Since we bought the electric mower three years ago, I have used the reel mower just twice.
While the electric is less green than the reel mower, it still is quieter and less polluting than a gasoline mower.
My favorite human-powered tool is the broadfork or U-bar, used to turn the soil in the garden instead of a rototiller.
We bought ours from Lee Valley about a decade ago, but Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells one that is made in Maine and designed by famed gardener Eliot Coleman. If I didn’t already own one, that is the one I would get now.
Our broadfork has five 10-inch tines, about 5 inches apart, pointing downward from the bottom of the U. The upward legs of the U are about 5 feet long. To turn the soil, you step on the bar until the tines go all the way into the ground, and pull back on the upward legs.
It loosens the soil just enough in the spring for removing any weeds that have developed and for easy planting of this year’s crop.
Barbara Damrosch, Coleman’s wife and a great garden writer in her own right, said in a lecture last month at the Garden Club Federation of Maine convention that she uses the broadfork mid-season when she has harvested one crop and will soon plant another. She weighs less than I do and is in her 70s, yet she said that using the fork is easy labor.
The broadfork is not only quieter and more environmentally friendly than a rototiller, it is better for the soil. Regular rototilling destroys the structure of the soil, making it dusty and unable to hold moisture or nutrients. The broadfork is not recommended for breaking new ground, however, so if you are turning a lawn into a garden and can’t find someone young with a strong back to do it with a spading fork, you probably will have to rent a rototiller.
The power tool I hate most is the leaf blower, and not just because it is the loudest. Leaf blowers create a lot of dust in addition to the gasoline pollution. Unless you are blowing the leaves into the woods, you are going to have to lift the leaves anyway. Plus, if you are raking leaves off your lawn, raking removes thatch from the lawn, which improves its health.
And if you use the leaf blower to blow stuff off your asphalt driveway, shame on you! Use a broom and keep it quiet.
Unless people are felling trees or cutting lots of firewood to length, they don’t need a chain saw.
First, chain saws scare me, and not just because of the movies. For pruning out branches up to 6 inches in diameter, a good pruning saw does the work quickly. I prefer ones that are slightly curved and cut on the pull stroke (as you pull toward yourself), a type that’s usually called a Japanese-style pruning saw.
String trimmers not only trim grass next to trees, gardens and buildings, they come with attachments to cut brush, create garden edges, till small areas of the garden, blow leaves, shear hedges and more. Except for trimming grass, all of those jobs can be done better with human-powered tools.
For garden edging, we use a manual edger: a half-moon blade on the end of a long handle. It requires that you step on the blade to force it into the ground, but it isn’t arduous and it is quiet.
We still own a gasoline-powered trimmer. But when that breaks – and it will – I’m going electric.