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 Watch, 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 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 ace.fuhsd.org.