Friday, July 2, 2010

Power Down!

Lately, because of my desire to reduce my personal use of fossil fuels, I've been reading about powering down and using appropriate technology. Part of the concept involves matching the amount of power used to the requirements of the job. In other words, using the least amount of power necessary.

Being a gardener, I began thinking about all the gas and electric tools that get used in our yards—the lawnmowers,  hedge trimmers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, edgers, and rototillers, with the associated cacophony of sounds so eloquently complained about at Deep Middle: true pandemonium on a Saturday morning—and I use that word with a nod to Milton, who coined the word to name the hellish assembly hall of the devils in Paradise Lost.

Even worse than the noise is the in many cases unnecessary, always polluting, use of fossil fuel-supplied power. So I asked myself, what does appropriate technology look like in the garden? Where do we really need to use motorized tools? My conclusion is that, in your average city lot or suburban ¼ acre, mostly we don’t.

Now already I can imagine objections, from landscapers, for whom time is money, from persons who might be unable to physically complete gardening chores without assistance, and from persons who feel all physical work should involve power tools. Duly noted. I’d like to point out that good modern hand tools demonstrate a wise use of advanced technology: making well-designed tools that lessen our need for power tools. Teenagers need something to do besides use their smart phones. Gardening by hand can be therapeutic. Further, gardening can be good, healthy exercise. In summer, between bike riding, walking and gardening, I find I don’t have to go to the gym.

Herewith, I proceed with a list of tools, situations when they might be useful, human-powered alternatives, and ways to minimize the need for them though gardening practice.

Lawnmowers: If you have so much turf that you or your “landscaper” needs a ride-on, I hope you are maintaining a golf course or the playing fields of a large Midwestern land-grant university. If not, you should be keeping sheep or goats. Seriously. At home, scale down both lawn and mower: keep only as much lawn as you use and need, and start a prairie, savanna or permaculture garden with the rest. Many smaller lots don’t even need a power mower. Lots of folks in my neighborhood use push mowers, which work just fine. They make lightweight ones now that are very sharp and don’t take as much effort as you might imagine. They also sound...nice.

Power hedge trimmers: Why? On a great estate with formal gardens? Possibly. At home for six shrubs? Not so much. Bushes should be chosen so when mature, they’ll fit the space without hedge trimming. It’s bad for bushes, anyway. Most only need some occasional hand shaping, and periodic renewal by removing no more than a third of thick, old stems down to the ground at the appropriate time. I have deep sympathy for the poor bushes that receive military haircuts a couple of times a year and lack the opportunity to express their true shrubby natures. Few sights are sadder than an overly-disciplined forsythia that can barely bloom in spring. I myself have some ancient yews. When they need restraining, I use hand pruners to trim some branches down, increasing light to the interior, and then I smooth things over with the hand trimmers I inherited from my mother-in-law, who bought good tools.

Weed whackers: Useful in certain, large situations. We’ve used them in Thatcher Woods on young buckthorn colonies. This first year of the Prairie Garden at my college, which we’ve seeded into sod, we’re using one to keep everything at about six or seven inches, since we can’t burn until next year. In a small lot? If you have that many weeds, you have an opportunity to make a new garden bed by mowing, putting down newspaper and mulch and planting your chosen plants later. I might add that many birds and beneficial insects thrive in "weed patches."

Leaf blowers: An abomination used by “landscapers” and homeowners who then bag this precious natural resource and send it to the landfill. They make really good rakes these days, exactly suited to use by humans, especially those of the teenage persuasion. The principles of good soil health say most leaves should be allowed to lie where they fall under trees and bushes. Rake up the ones on your (small) lawn and put in the compost heap.

Edgers. Having never used one, I’m not sure I understand the concept. I have a favorite half-moon tool inherited from a grandparent that I use to keep the grass out of certain mulched areas.

Rototillers. A great way to stir up the seed bank and encourage more weeds, which especially like disturbed ground. In general, less tilling is better. Mulch is the gardener's friend. Some of my friends make raised beds. Not being a true vegetable gardener (see my previous post here), I can’t address appropriate methods with expertise. The permaculture folks have a lot to say about this. You could check Food Not Lawns, by H. C. Flores.

It all comes down to these questions: How much extra power do you really need to do the job? Is there a gentler, less violent, less polluting way to accomplish your goals? Should some goals and practices be altered so as to use fewer power tools?

 Note: The image  is from the delightful blog Early American Gardens, which is full of all kinds of interesting historical information. The latest post mentions my favorite early botanists, John and William Bartram.