What to know about 'mow and blow' | August 21, 2015 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 21, 2015

What to know about 'mow and blow'

Efficient, yes, but green landscapers urge a return to the rake

by Brenna Malmberg

When it comes to the value of using a leaf blower, opinions blow in all directions. Gardeners, landscapers and maintenance professional see benefits and damages from using the mechanical tool on residential lawns and gardens.

While leaf-blower bans and ordinances stem from concerns about dust, sound and carbon emissions, the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) does not support across-the-board removal. Leaf blowers have their place when it comes to clearing areas covered by rock, gravel, bark or mulch, according to a 1999 letter from its board of directors that was confirmed as current on July 20.

Since their development in the 1970s, leaf blowers have sped up the work of lawn-care professionals. According to the CLCA, the industry estimates it takes five times longer to use manual clearing methods, such as rakes or brooms, compared to leaf blowers. The CLCA also notes that the uptick in man-hours to complete one job without a leaf blower can increase maintenance costs for the homeowner.

Humberto Vasquez, owner of Humberto Vasquez Landscape and Maintenance, works from Foster City to Sunnyvale. He keeps a gas leaf blower, electric leaf blower and leaf rake at the ready, bringing the gas machine out only when ordinances allow. This means he stays tethered to an electrical outlet in Palo Alto if his leaf blower is needed and only brings it out when hours permit.

In his 10-plus years of landscape maintenance, he's never had any issue getting the job done inside local restrictions, he said. Vasquez does admit that as he steps down from gas blower to electric blower to rake, work efficiency decreases.

When his method changes, so does the price. Vasquez charges about $30 per visit for a very small lawn if he can use a gas leaf blower. If he comes two times a month, that's $60 a month. But here in Palo Alto, gas leaf blowers are forbidden, so he ups the fee to around $45 per visit, he said. If the homeowner wants to go machineless, he charges an additional $15 for his time. The cost to the homeowner, while small each visit, compounds during a year. In the above scenario, homeowners' rates range from $720 to $1,080 to $1,440 per year.

"When I need to, I use a leaf rake, but a leaf blower just takes less time," he said. "I can have my leaf blower at a lower speed, though, so I can go really slow so I don't blow mulch."

Bonnie Brock, owner of Bonnie Brock Landscape Design in Palo Alto, would rather that maintenance crews not use leaf blowers. But if the equipment is going to be used, since it is the more efficient option, Brock said homeowners need to learn about the right mulch for their yard and maintenance routine, lest the mulch be blown away.

In general, gardens and plants need 2-3 inches of mulch, Brock said. If homeowners opt for organic compost and mulch, they will spend $3,000 to cover 6,000 square feet. This averages to about $80 per cubic yard. Cheaper options are also available, such as regular mulch at $70 per cubic yard or arbor mulch at $30 per cubic yard. When buying mulch, people can also check to see if they qualify for $2 off per square foot through the Santa Clara Valley Water District Landscape Conservation Rebate Program.

"Once the mulch is in, you don't want a mow-and-blow service to come in and blow away thousands of dollars in mulch," Brock said. "Plus, it can wreck your plants."

For mulch to survive blowing, she recommends 3/4- or 1-inch bark mulch. Because of its weight, it won't disperse and will last three to four years. Otherwise, small mulch can soon disappear in as few as six to 12 months, costing the homeowner money, she said. In addition, mulch keeps plant roots cool so that they require less water and retain the water they receive.

Brock also advises her clients that leaf drop — fallen leaves from trees and plants — should be left in place rather than blown away. Leaf drop serves as natural compost, eventually breaking down into the soil and nurturing the plant.

If too much plant matter builds up, Brock encourages homeowners to collect it with a rake and save it for future use in a compost pile.

Brock has been frustrated with the lack of levels of service between fine garden care and quick "mow and blows." Outside maintenance services that don't know how to manage a low-water or native yard can disrupt a carefully planned, organic landscape.

"I'd prefer that they didn't blow at all," she said.

One program in the county is trying to address Brock's concern. The Santa Clara Valley Green Gardeners Program certifies landscape service professionals on subjects related to green gardening, such as responsible water usage and soil protection. As of March 26, 63 area services had been certified as Green Gardeners, including Brock. During the air pollution segment of training, teachers touch on leaf blowers, talking about different models and maintenance options.

"We help them make informed decisions," said Vishakha Atre, senior scientist with Watershed Water, the larger organization that runs the Green Gardeners Program. "The first option is to not go to a mechanical option."

Master Gardener Anne Firthmurray seconds the manual options because they can be more beneficial to plants and gardens. While blowing on a plant might not be inherently bad, she said, stripping away the mulch and moisture — what little there is these days — might be hard on the plant. Instead, she recommends raking and mowing mulch to where it provides the most benefit.

Landscape companies along the Peninsula have started to respond to homeowners looking for manual, high-end lawn services, such as Maniglia Landscape Services out of San Jose. One of its employees, Havier Sanchez, said they do most of their zero-machine landscape business in Palo Alto. He tends to yards and gardens without any type of leaf blower, mower or hedge trimmer; everything is done by hand. This broom-and-rake action takes more than double the time, Sanchez said.

"You can notice the difference," he said. "It's better for the environment. It's better for the plants. It's just better for everybody."

For more information about qualification for the Santa Clara Valley Water District Landscape Conservation Rebate Program, visit valleywater.org/programs/landscapereplacementrebates.aspx or call 408-630-2554.

Green Gardener classes

Fall 2015 Santa Clara Valley Green Gardener classes are scheduled for the following dates:

Wednesdays, Sept. 9 through Nov. 11, in English

Thursdays, Sept. 10 through Nov. 12, in Spanish

The classes will be held at the Sunnyvale-Cupertino Adult Community Education center in Sunnyvale. Registration information can be found at https://ace.fuhsd.org/.

Associate Editor Brenna Malmberg can be emailed at bmalmberg@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Joe Commentor, a resident of another community
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:32 am

Such a '1st World' problem. Just to read the article and to know time was wasted 'researching' the issues and 'interviewing' those involved shows how petty the lives of the Palo Alto cognoscenti really are.


Posted by Yah?, a resident of another community
on Aug 21, 2015 at 11:42 am

as opposed to the obviously full and rich life you are leading in your town Joe?
Keep it up. Living the dream.


Posted by Baylandsgal, a resident of another community
on Aug 21, 2015 at 1:21 pm

My theory is that there is a conspiracy afoot! Leaf blowers raise clouds of dust that settle on cars, windows, siding, etc. This creates a "market" for services such as car washing and house cleaning. By eliminating leaf blowing, everyone can reduce car washing and house cleaning - yay!
Seriously, blowing in planted areas removes all the good compost created by fallen leaves or from applied mulch thereby reducing the ability to retain what meager moisture remains in this long, hot summer. This also ssentially sterilizes rhe soil. Ban Blowers outright and quit the hand wringing.


Posted by Slow Down, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Joe Commentor - Hi Joe, what do you think is a bigger first world problem, complaining about noise and air pollution, or going to other city's newspaper's message boards, and complaining about people complaining noise and air pollution. You must be someplace where there is really nothing to complain about... Atherton?


Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura
on Aug 22, 2015 at 9:59 pm

I would love to be able to hire a vegan organic gardener who would go through my property picking up leaves with renewable bamboo chopsticks, but I can't afford that. I CAN afford someone to go through with a leaf blower and a hedge trimmer and clean things up a couple of times a month. Can Bonnie Brock come by and clean my property for a reasonable fee?


Posted by Slow Down, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 22, 2015 at 11:32 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Robbie - Did you try pricing a gardener with a rake, or just chopsticks? Because odds are you can afford a gardener with a rake.


Posted by Oh Robbie, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 24, 2015 at 2:18 pm

Ever pick up a rack yourself Robbie? I bet the cost of one week's gardener payment would cover the initial cost.


Posted by Reader, a resident of another community
on Aug 25, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Odd, throw down thousands in mulch, then let the gardeners blow it away to save maintenance costs. Frankly, I'd rather commit to the mulch and higher maintenance costs to lengthen the mulch life, reduce stress on the plants, and make it quieter for me and my neighbors.

Clearly, I am in the minority since all I seem to hear are gas-powered leaf blowers both at home and work (neither in Palo Alto).


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