Ah, autumn. Crisp, cool nights, apple cider donuts at the farmers markets, the crunch of leaves underfoot… and the infernal, deafening, aggravating noise that accompanies every fall season. I refer, of course, to the din of people whining about leaf blowers. Incessantly. On blogs, on social media, even at storied publications like The Atlantic, equal parts scorn and anger are being flung at leaf blowers and their operators.
Many of the arguments are sound. Yes, 2-stroke engines are notorious polluters, often incompletely combusting a mix of gasoline and lubricating oil before flinging it out the exhaust port. Yes, they kick up a lot of particulates. And of course, yes, they’re loud. You’ll get no argument from me there, none whatsoever. Where I will push back is when people say “they should just use rakes and brooms” or “they should just use electric/cordless blowers.” Why do I push back? Because such statements ignore the economic realities of performing landscape work in exchange for money.
What are lawn and landscape companies selling?
To a certain extent, you could argue that lawn and landscape companies sell plants, mulch, pavers, fertilizer, and any number of products. Generally, however, those products aren’t sold with particularly fat margins. The reality is that lawn and landscape companies (especially lawncare businesses) are sellers of labor.
To anyone who has never run a business, it may be mystifying to consider that after accounting for taxes, workers comp, overhead recovery, and profit, one must bill out much, much more for one laborer than that laborer is paid. The lawn care market is ridiculously price sensitive; I paid the exact same amount to have my ¼ acre lawn cut that I charged for ¼ acre properties in a similarly rural area way back in 1996.
So how does a lawn and landscape business make money? By utilizing tools and processes that get employees in and out of a property more quickly. My guess is that most people who use a lawn service would not be willing to pay 25% more to eliminate the use of blowers. Would you?
Is the problem the tool or the training?
We have some amazing tools available to us today that allow us to complete more jobs in less time than just with hand tools. The trick is knowing when to use which tool for maximum efficiency. What I hear people complain about the most regarding leaf blowers is “they’re in my neighbor’s small backyard all day with the blowers at full blast!” my first thought (after controlling for complaint hyperbole) is “that may be an untrained crew.” There’s a right time to use a rake and a right time to use a blower. Bob Vila knows what I’m talking about – check out what he has to say.
What will bring about the end of leaf blowers?
The only thing I can see leading to the demise of the leaf blower is lack of demand for what they do. We’ve seen that the news media and users of social media have both misinterpreted the NWF’s advice on how to handle leaves, but changing the very definition of a “fall cleanup” is the first step. Do you really need to get every last scrap of leaf out of your beds and off your property at the end of the year? Or can you let the leaves break down in your plant beds over the winter, and run a mulching mower over your lawn a few times to reduce the leaves to a fine powder packed with nutrients?
Yelling about leaf blowers is easy, in part because we love complaining about things we know we can’t change. Yelling about things we can change means we should probably be a part of the change, and that’s haaaaaaard. If you want leaf blowers to be used less, change your neighborhood’s definition of what a yard should look like come fall. Embrace what leaves can do for your plants if handled appropriately and be ok with the stray leaf or three blowing around come December. That’s what it’s going to take. If we’re going to demand that our lawns and beds be leaf-free every fall, leaf blowers are the price we’ll pay.