Sunday, May 27, 2018

About the book

Recipes for a New Earth is a clarion call to rescue the art of landscaping from the jaws of the Mow, Blow and Go mentality. It reveals how we are buzzed, poisoned and blown into submission by landscaping bearing the ironic moniker of the “green industry.”
Backed by three decades of pioneering field experience in ecological landscaping, author Ken Foster leads the reader on a journey that transforms noisy, toxic, wasteful landscaping into flower gardens brimming with butterflies and birds, medicinal herb gardens with spiral walkways and green rooftops growing endangered native grasses. Photos and “solution” recipes interspersed throughout help tell the story. This book meets the growing demand for hands-on, accessible information about the possibilities of ecological landscaping on an individual and community level. With a lively, irreverent, playful voice Foster addresses the urgency of global climate change and the end of cheap oil with innovative approaches like fossil free landscaping and the resilient neighborhoods project. Foster shares his creative vision with readers by shopping backwards through the urban waste stream. up-cycling concrete for walkways and sheet mulching lawns. Recipes for a New Earth is a passionate answer to the urgent need to craft our landscapes and gardens to support healthy neighborhoods and resilient communities.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Synthetic Turf, Artificial Grass or Stepford Lawns?

Since the early part of the 21st century there has been a trend towards installing the new generation of synthetic turf. This newfangled Astro Turf  with names like ‘Eco’' and ‘Omni Turf’ is being touted as the newest in ‘green’ landscaping. To be sure, there is an impressive list of ecological and access concerns that this turf addresses including:
• no need to water or mow
• no need to install irrigation
• no need to use pesticides to control weeds
• no need to fertilize
• no need to haul away grass clippings.

Some synthetic turf is even made from recycled plastic and is recyclable at the end of its life.
In addition to these benefits synthetic turf fields are used in New York City parks because they:
• Provide even playing surfaces
• Have padding that helps prevent injuries
• Can be used year-round and in most weather
• Do not need to be closed to protect or re-sod grass
• Last a long time with little maintenance

That’s the ‘Pro’ list and if I stopped here we might all run out and buy us some plastic grass because it looks like we have solved a bunch of issues all with one product, so what’s not to like?

Stepford Lawns =  pseudo green product
Remember the movie, The Stepford Wives? There’s a part in the movie where one of the Stepford wives gets stabbed and it messes with her wiring and she starts repeating, “I thought we were friends, I thought we were friends.” That’s what I imagine synthetic turf is saying when I stab it with my accusations of it being a pseudo green product.

I’ll start with the deceptively simple argument that my primary distrust of synthetic turf is based on the fact that it is not alive. It does not breathe and therefore it offers no oxygen as a byproduct. On a hot day plastic turf smells like, well, plastic.

The Cons: The downside of fantastic plastic
I have ridden my bicycle past synthetic playing fields on a warm day and the whole neighborhood reeks of melting, off-gassing plastic. Not an enjoyable smell. It certainly is not aromatherapy unless of course you're from the town of Stepford.
Synthetic turf often includes crumbled automobile tires called ‘infill’ to mimic the look and feel of soil. The “grass” is held upright and given some cushioning by adding a layer of recycled tire rubber. This infill is made up of particles 3 mm in diameter or smaller. Cool, a new way to recycle tires? Not so fast.

Chemicals of Potential Concern
 The crumb rubber used in synthetic turf systems is made primarily from recycled waste tires. The tires themselves contain several chemicals of potential concern COPCs, and undergo minimal processing to become crumb rubber. Direct and indirect methods have been used in studies to determine the presence of these COPCs in the crumb rubber. These studies have found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs), benzothiazole, and certain metals. Studies have also identified phthalates, alkylphenols and benzene, which likely become bonded to tires during their use. Direct analyses confirming the presence of these COPCs in crumb rubber have used vigorous extraction methods. Some COPCs have been identified through indirect methods including analysis of leachate in the environment near where recycled tire products were used or in controlled laboratory studies. Because crumb rubber is a recycled material, the presence and concentrations of COPCs is expected to vary between products and even among batches from the same manufacturer.*
For the COPCs in the crumb rubber to be a health concern for users of the fields, users would have to be exposed to high enough concentrations to increase the risk for health effects. The three possible routes of exposure for COPCs from crumb rubber are inhalation, ingestion and dermal absorption. Crumb rubber, or the dust generated from crumb rubber, may be accidentally ingested by placing fingers in the mouth or not washing hands before eating and after playing on the fields. Young children on the fields may eat the crumb rubber itself. Dust may be breathed in from playing on the field, or vapors that volatilize from the turf may also be inhaled. Some COPCs may also be absorbed through the skin by direct contact.*
Children, especially very young children, have many characteristics which make them uniquely vulnerable to environmental exposures. Children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults in the same environment and physical activity adds an additional factor to exposure through inhalation. Children also engage in hand-to-mouth behavior and very young children may eat nonfood items, such as rubber crumbs while on the fields. The protective keratinized layer of the skin is not as well developed in children and increases dermal absorption of COPCs as well as increasing evaporative loss of water on hot days. Children also have many more years to develop diseases with long latency periods after exposure. Risk assessments looking at inhalation, ingestion, dermal absorption and the risk for heat stress would have to combine these considerations to be as conservative as possible.*
Patti Wood, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Environmental Education, argues, “This crumb rubber is a material that cannot be legally disposed of in landfills or ocean-dumped because of its toxicity. Why on earth should we let our children play on it?” ** 

Guinea Kids
Our kids are now expected to play on a low level toxic surface. During strenuous activities they breathe in these toxic off gasses. Because plastic is not an inert substance, it both leaches and off-gasses pieces of itself. Plastics are known to contain xenoestrogens (zeno estrogens) that are endocrine disruptors. Exposure to xenoestrogens, which are found in pesticides, plastics and other industrial chemicals has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers in women and to decreased testosterone levels and prostate cancer in men. The damaging effects have been found in birds, fish, reptiles, rodents and humans. Exposure to even small amounts of environmental endocrine disruptors concern scientists because hormones such as estrogen act in the body at very low levels measured in parts per billion. This endocrine disruptor, xenoestrogen, can wreak havoc with the puberty cycle in the human body. With synthetic turf, there is direct and close contact with the lungs and skin of the growing bodies of children. This would not seem to me to be a great combination. When will we know if there is a detrimental effect on human health from synthetic turf? Unfortunately the jury is out and won’t report back for years to come. Just call our kids guinea kids.
There is some evidence to suggest that synthetic turf may harbor more bacteria than natural turf. For example, an industry study sponsored by Sprinturf, a maker of synthetic turf, found that infill containing a sand/rubber mixture had 50,000 times higher levels of bacteria than infill made of rubber alone. To address this, the company markets synthetic turf that is “sand-free” as a safer alternative and offers sanitation for those fields already installed. **

The low maintenance myth
The inconvenient truth about athletes is that they fall, spit, sweat and bleed. Since there is an absence of biological life as there would be with growing plants and living soil the sweat and blood or heaven forbid the dog pee does not have the checks and balances of a living system. Consequently Synthetic turf fields have to be doused with antimicrobial solution and washed down.
Proper maintenance of synthetic turf requires that the fields be sanitized to remove bodily fluids and animal droppings; manufacturers market sanitizing products for this purpose. According to Synthetic Turf Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, published in 2006 by the American Sports Builders Association, some synthetic turf owners disinfect their fields as often as twice a month, with more frequent cleanings for sideline areas, where contaminants concentrate. ** 

 The ‘heat island effect’ increased
Because the stuff is not living and breathing, the cooling effect is absent and thus the phenomenon known as the heat island effect is increased. The ‘heat island’ refers to urban air and surface temperatures that are higher than those of nearby rural areas.
One drawback that both fans and critics of synthetic turf agree on is that these fields can get much hotter than natural grass. Stuart Gaffin, an associate research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, initially became involved with the temperature issues of synthetic turf fields while conducting studies for another project on the cooling benefits of urban trees and parks. Using thermal satellite images and geographic information systems, Gaffin noticed that a number of the hottest spots in the city turned out to be synthetic turf fields.** 
The images below comparing air, water, bermudagrass, sand, asphalt, and synthetic turf surface temperatures illustrate how hot a synthetic field can reach during a warm day.
Synthetic Turf copy.jpg
Direct temperature measurements conducted during site visits showed that synthetic turf fields can get up to 60° hotter than grass, with surface temperatures reaching 160°F on summer days. For example, on 6 July 2007, a day in which the atmospheric temperature was 78°F in the early afternoon, the temperature on a grass field that was receiving direct sunlight was 85°F while an adjacent synthetic turf field had heated to 140°F. “Exposures of ten minutes or longer to surface temperatures above 122°F can cause skin injuries, so this is a real concern,” said Joel Forman, medical director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, speaking at a 6 December 2007 symposium on the issue. **
In addition to heat control, the International Hockey Federation requires that college teams saturate with water synthetic turf fields before each practice and game to increase traction, according to an article in the 19 October 2007 Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer. The article, which examined why local universities were watering their synthetic turf fields in the midst of severe ongoing drought in the U.S. Southeast, noted that Duke University received a business exemption to water the fields.**
According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, only 8 states have no restrictions on placing tires in landfills. Most of these restrictions have to do with preventing pest problems and tire fires, which release toxicants such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel, polyaromatic hydrocarbons PAHs, and volatile organic compounds VOCs.**
The storm water runoff from synthetic turf is considered toxic leachate leaching chemicals and toxin’s such as PAH’s, COPCs, cadmium and lead. Where does it go? Straight into our rivers, creeks and oceans.

Soil Food Web Deprived of Oxygen
Synthetic turf lawns are one more non-porous surface that disallows rain to soak into the soil. This causes some serious drainage problems. Because of the toxic runoff and drainage issues, this is a product that is not healthy for the watershed. The soil food web, the vast ‘web’ of life in the soil beneath our feet is under extreme duress under synthetic turf, primarily because this soil is deprived of oxygen. No oxygen, no life and since it is not real soil the ‘infill’ is basically lifeless. Much of the current product being installed today in playing fields is made from virgin plastic, a petroleum product that adds to global warming in its manufacture.

Divorcement from nature
There is a spooky similarity between fake grass and those perpetually perfect Stepford wives. Most of us moviegoers where appropriately horrified to watch the men in the town of Stepford cuddling up to their synthetic spouses. Our response was calculated by Hollywood and the punch line, “I thought we where friends” in the movie was a kind of reverse Judas kiss in the plot line. Of course having a perfect wife had its upsides but it was at the expense of a real life. Therein lies the rub. Synthetic turf is yet another salvo in our separation from nature and natural systems. We may not see this downside right off the bat blinded as we are with all the supposed low maintenance upsides. Nature deficit is a disorder that has snuck up on us as our artificial systems have developed over the years. Living in cities we are surrounded by the built environment. Inside we are in the clutches of the right angles of four walls and a roof, we send our children outside to play on artificial turf that never changes and our divorcement from nature is complete.

Intangible benefits to a field of grass.
William Crain of the City College of New York Psychology Department presents the idea that replacing grass with synthetic turf can hinder children’s creative play and affect their development. “Today’s children largely grow up in synthetic, indoor environments,” he says. “Now, with the growing popularity of synthetic turf fields, their experience with nature will be less than ever.” **
Natural grass does offer tangible benefits. According to Turfgrass Producers International, these include increased
  • pollution control
  • absorption of carbon dioxide
  • a cooling effect
  • water filtration
  • prevention of soil erosion. ** 
One of the great joys in my own life is to witness the cycles of nature, to revel in the changing of the seasons. While it is true that ‘natural’ turf is no shining example of a natural system, synthetic turf takes a giant step in the Stepford direction. Grass that is always the very same shade of green, never grows or changes and is off-gassing toxins instead of exhaling life giving oxygen in no way connects us with the patterns of nature.
Finally it must be asked what happens to synthetic turf fields when they are no longer usable? Industry estimates that synthetic turf fields have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years, whereupon the material must be disposed of appropriately. Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, says the infill could be cleaned and reused; put to another purpose, such as for rubber asphalt; incinerated; used in place of soil to separate landfill layers; or otherwise recycled. Typically, however, it is landfilled. **

Honest assessment of the issue
This account of the Pro’s and Con’s on the topic of synthetic turf vs. natural turf is by necessity a work in progress. My bias must be more than obvious from the title of this article yet I have made an honest attempt to find the primary Pro’s on the side of synthetic turf and then bring in the primary Con’s from my own and others experience. Every community must make their own determination hopefully after an honest assessment of the issue.
Sorry, image not available
Adi Talwar/City LimitsSoccer players examine the turf at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

NYC's Fake Grass Gamble: A 300M Mistake?In 1998, New York City began installing synthetic turf fields in parks and playgrounds, saying the artificial material would be more durable than grass. But a City Limits investigation finds that many turf fields are falling apart, including this one at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Triple bottom line really?
A final thought in this realm is to follow the money. Are there entities making profits from the manufacture and installation of synthetic turf that are less than congruent with the common good? This is worth asking. It wouldn’t be the first time product sales where driven by concern for corporate financial bottom line above the social and ecological bottom lines.

There is an alternative
The debate leaves many on the fence. Orlando Gil an assistant research scientist at New York University and soccer coach, is weighing both alternatives: “We want children to play outside, exercise, and play sports, but with pesticides and fertilizers in grass and chemicals in artificial turf, I don’t know which to choose.” **
My response to Orlando is that there is an alternative: organically managed natural turf fields. In general as a ecological landscape contractor I would rather install a food forest than a lawn any day yet when it comes to the essential function of play fields I believe there’s nothing like the real thing.

Our Children's Trust
Our children trust that we are providing them with a safe place to play. Our challenge is to live up to that trust amidst all of the marketing hoopla about synthetic turf. It is easy to be fooled by the alluring language of this supposed ‘green’ product.
- Ken Foster

Prepared for
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene New York, NY
** Excerpts from Synthetic Turf: Health DebateTakes Root by Luz Claudio

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Leaf blowers suck!

Or so says the bumper sticker on my landscape truck.
The funny thing is leaf blowers also blow, metaphorically speaking. It is a sad thing to hear the gardeners arrive with all their noise and have it still called gardening. I beg to differ.

I try to keep a level head and my language clean when I’m writing but when it comes to leaf blowers all bets are off.  My favorite descriptive term for these devices is “Polluting-Noise-Bazookas”.  I support a leaf blower ban and I recognize that I am in the minority within the landscape industry on this subject.

An oxymoron?
How can I be a landscaper and not be completely enamored with the omnipresent labor-saving device known as the leaf blower? This is a touchy subject or to be more exact, a noisy one. Everyone has an opinion about gas powered leaf blowers, from the folks like myself who refer to them as Polluting Noise Bazookas, to those who think of them as indispensable and use them as a primary tool in outdoor janitorial work. I thought it would be helpful to lay out the issue blow by blow if you will.
It is good to understand both sides of the story. Believe me, I know, I’ve been there.

“My Escape from the Land of the Two-stroke Back-pack Blowers”

Is the title of an article I wrote a few years ago to tell my story. While I do address electric leaf blowers, what follows primarily discusses the use of gas-powered leaf blowers because they are the main offenders in this story.
My friend Steve Zien is Executive Director of Biological Urban Gardening Services (BUGS), an international membership organization of professional landscapers. He states, “BUGS has opposed the use of leaf blowers for many years for a variety of reasons. There are many hidden costs when utilizing blowers regularly. The leaf blower is perhaps the most over-used and inappropriately used landscape tool. Autumn's tremendous amount of organic debris that requires collection might be considered appropriate use of this tool. However, the weekly routine of blowing abuses the soil and damages landscape plants while the noise creates ill will from neighbors and clients alike.”

Carbon Footprint
A conservative estimate is that there are six million leaf blowers in California to date. The majority are gas-powered. Everyday these blowers spew over 1.5 million gallons of raw, unburned, two-stroke fuel into California air for a total of over 540 million gallons per year. This dumps over 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide into California air, totaling over 18 million tons per year. This is a significant contributor to climate change.
*A Grand Jury convened on the subject of leaf blowers in San Luis Obispo County, CA, concluding that, "Considering the evidence...the health hazards citizens are exposed to from two-cycle leaf blowers outweigh the possible benefit they provide." The Grand Jury went on to recommend that all cities within that county initiate a phase out of leaf blowers.
*From Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento

The blow by blow on leaf blower abuse
What are the ecological, health and social impacts of gas-powered leaf blowers? Most professional gas leaf blowers are two-stroke. The two-stroke engine is a major polluter because it burns oil in addition to gas. The exhaust, along with the particulate matter that is blown into the air, lowers air quality, and foists noise pollution upon anyone within a few blocks’ radius.

1. Air Pollution
*According to the California Air Resources Board the types of air pollutants emitted when using a gasoline-powered leaf blower for half an hour are equivalent to those emitted from 440 miles of automobile travel at 30mph average speed. Compared to an average large car, one hour of operation of a leaf blower emits 498 times as many hydrocarbons, 49 times as much particulate matter, and 26 times as much carbon monoxide.
*Data found at Greenwich Citizens Against Leaf Blower Mania
Here are the results of an emissions test by Edmunds Video Productions titled Car vs. Truck vs. Leaf Blower  (December 2, 2011). Note that cars emit pollution over a long stretch of road, dispersing it, while leaf blowers deposit it all in one small area. The tongue in cheek conclusion of this video? It would cause less pollution to use the Ford Raptor Pick-Up to blow leaves than the two-stroke leaf blower.
Non-Methane Hydrocarbons (NMHC)Parts per millionNitrogen Oxides (NOx)Parts per millionCarbon Monoxide (CO)By percentage
2011 Ford Raptor Pick-Up Truck0.0050.0050.276
2012 Fiat 5000.0160.0100.192
4-Stroke Leaf Blower0.1820.0313.714
2- Stroke 50 cc Leaf Blower1.4950.0106.445

2. Dust
Leaf blowers are implicated in stirring up particulate matter (PM). The high-velocity air jets suspend dust and pollutants into the air. PM is composed of dust, fecal matter, pesticides, fungi, chemicals, fertilizers, spores, and street dirt which may contain lead, cadmium and organic and elemental carbon. Roughly five pounds of PM per leaf blower per hour are swept into the air and take hours to settle. A bad thing for those of us who breathe.

3. Noise
Ultimately the soundscape is sacrificed in the pursuit of the immaculate landscape. Many people and organizations say this is not an equitable exchange.*
Leaf blower noise disturbs our circadian rhythms, a bad thing for those of us who sleep.
  • The World Health Organization recommends noise levels of 55 decibels or less, and 45 decibels to meet sleep criteria. Gas leaf blowers generally measure at least 65-75 decibels at 50 feet away, and much higher at close range.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that noise levels over 75 decibels can cause hearing loss and are harmful to human health. 
*Data is from Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento  and  Greenwich Citizens Against Leaf Blower Mania
Leaf blowers may be one of the most egregious noise offenders but when you add lawn mowers, weed whackers and hedge trimmers it is truly crazy making. It is time to find a way to turn the noise off. 

4. Denuding the soil
Soil exposed to the gale force winds of a leaf blower end up denuded, a sad ending for the life in the soil. As its name implies the leaf blower’s primary benefit is gathering leaves for disposal. This is all well and fine from the standpoint of risk management – in particular, reducing the liability of people slipping on leaves on walkways, a concern of homeowners associations and businesses alike. Unfortunately, what goes along with this is the propensity of operators to use blowers to remove leaves from soil areas. When leaves are removed, soil is denuded of this natural mulch. Leaf litter benefits the soil by increasing organic matter, preventing erosion caused by wind and rain, and by keeping the soil cool in the summer months. It also saves water and reduces the need for irrigation. For these reasons, blowing leaves off soil areas is now considered a poor management practice, and should be avoided.

How necessary are leaf blowers really?
According to the California Landscape Contractors Association’s (CLCA) website, leaf blowers are an “extremely efficient and safe tool.” The CLCA further asserts that, “Most landscape industry estimates suggest that it takes at least five times as long to clean a typical landscape site with a broom and rake than it does with a power leaf blower.” CLCA believes many clients can't afford or are not willing to pay for the additional cost of landscape maintenance without the leaf blower. CLCA does not consider electric leaf blowers to be a viable alternative to gas powered leaf blowers. To sum it up, says CLCA, "…while we recognize public concerns with (gas) leaf blower noise and air emissions, these devices are absolutely essential for the economic well being of our industry."

If you must use a leaf blower catogory... Can we reduce gas leaf blower impacts?

There are numerous ways that leaf blowers are misused and abused. If leaf blower operators modified their practices it might ease the perception that a ban is the only solution. Indeed, CLCA says, “A leaf blower ban should be a last resort and enacted only after exhausting (ironic word choice) all other alternatives.”
Currently there are twenty California cities that have banned gas (not electric) leaf blowers. The problem is that no one is presenting the alternatives to this pervasive and vexing problem. Whose role is it to educate leaf blower operators? If contractors do not deal with the problem, by default it is left up to citizens who are already fed up. Mow, Blow and Go landscape companies don’t seem to care and in this void a ban starts to seem attractive.
To their credit, CLCA has published the following guidelines addressing leaf blower abuse:
“Educational programs should include the following information:
  • Generally speaking, leaf blowers should be run at half throttle most of the time. Low throttle speeds not only significantly reduce sound, but they also provide the operator with maximum control. Full throttle is seldom necessary.
  • Leaf blowers should not be used in residential areas at unreasonable hours -- early in the morning or late at night when people are likely to be disturbed.
  • Debris should never be blown onto adjacent property, the street, vehicles, people, or pets.
  • Crews should operate only one leaf blower at a time on small residential sites.
  • Rakes or brooms should be used to loosen heavier debris.
  • The full nozzle extension should be used so the air stream can work close to the ground.
  • The muffler, air intakes, and air filters should be routinely checked to make sure they are working properly.
  • Leaf blowers should not be used to move large debris piles from one spot to another.
  • If conditions are very dry, mister attachments should be used. They suppress dust.”
To this I would add another bullet point:
  • Outdated equipment should be replaced.
Further, landscape professionals and homeowners should be informed about the noise levels of leaf-blower equipment before purchasing. Most buyers, if properly informed, will opt for the quietest equipment, all other factors being equal. Unfortunately, some manufacturers do not disclose this information. To this end manufacturers should comply with the provisions of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) B 175.2 Standard for Hand-Held and Backpack Gasoline-Engine-Powered Blowers.
ANSI recommends that manufacturers do the following:
  • Adhere to the ANSI 175.2 sound-level test procedure.
  • Ensure that all equipment and packaging are clearly and durably marked with the decibel rating.
  • Establish a certification program to identify products that comply with the ANSI 175.2 standard.
Furthermore, we encourage manufacturers to amend the standard to establish maximum sound levels.
*Information found at …Land Care Network

Consider this!
Grandmother Proves Rake and Broom as Fast as Leaf Blowers 
excerpt from an article by Zero Air Pollution, an L.A.-based organization

In fighting the ban on gas-powered maintenance gardeners have argued that it would take them twice as long to do jobs if they had to use rakes and brooms. But Diane Wolfberg, a Palisadian grandmother in her late 50s, proved them wrong in tests conducted by the Department of Water & Power Leafblower Task Force last Thursday.
In three tests involving gas powered leaf blowers and battery powered leaf blowers, Diane cleaned the areas using rakes or brooms faster than any of the battery powered blowers and almost as fast as the gas powered leaf blowers and she did a better job in cleaning up the areas.
The full article can be found here… Leaf Blowers Slower than Rakes and Brooms 

Absolutely essential for the economic well being of the landscape industry?
When CLCA says, “leaf blowers are absolutely essential for the economic well being of our industry’, I reply, the whole calculation of the necessity of the leaf blower should take into account the value of peace and quiet. If the job can be accomplished by other quieter means (like rakes and brooms) then the argument becomes, must we allow leaf blowers solely for the sake of Mow, Blow and Go businesses? That is a different argument altogether because if I don’t like leaf blowers in the first place then why would I give a hoot for businesses that are largely dependent on them? I used to think gas leaf blowers where a necessary evil until I saw their larger impacts. While electric blowers are not as loud as gas blowers but they still make noise and cause particulate matter pollution, and I believe they should be used very sparingly.

“Broom vs. the Leaf Blower” challenge
I was inspired by the grandmother story and put this all to the test when I called for the “Broom vs. the Leaf Blower” challenge that took place in December of 2015. This field test challenge was set up with four judges. One with a decibel meter judging for noise pollution, one testing for air quality, one with a stopwatch judging for speed and one with a camera judging for thoroughness. My broom and I and my challenger with a two-stroke leaf blower had the exact same area to clean with the exact same amount of debris. As you may have guessed with my broom I won in the noise pollution and the air pollution categories. On a scale of 1 to 10 we tied at 6 for thoroughness and I lost by 14 seconds in speed. In other words as the headline in the paper declared the following day, “Broom sweeps the competition”. See the video of the challenge here…

The Blow Job without the happy ending.
More and more cities in California are banning gas leaf blowers precisely because of this unhappy ending. Even chickens exposed to loud leaf blower noise refuse to lay eggs.

The theft of the quiet soundscape 
 Often landscape companies forgo horticultural training for their employees in favor of power and speed. This comes in the form of two-stroke leaf blowers, string trimmers, hedge trimmers and mowers. Power and speed equals noise, exhaust and dust.
In the leaf blower’s wake, animals flee. Birds, bees and butterflies depart, and the plants wish they could. Often the leaves in one yard just get blown to the neighbors and now the neighbors are up in arms. Dust gets blown onto cars and house windows for someone else to clean up later.
I support a gas leaf blower ban because I believe we would have a healthier more peaceful world without them.

What are the alternatives?

There may not be an alternative to leaf blowers that does not require a different mindset.
My broom runs on orange juice and toast. - *Rakes and brooms are, by far, the safest, easiest to use and most inexpensive of all methods. They are also lightweight, easy to store, emissions-free, very quiet, require little maintenance and are not a target for thieves as a leaf blower is.
The message from this experience is that alternatives exist that can restore landscaping to an enjoyable endeavor for all concerned.
* Information found at the Clean Houston website

Stopping leaf blower abuse
When neighborhoods and the people in them are left in the dust of leaf blower abuse, there is a vacuum. The inaction of the ‘Green industry’ to address these problems is a call to action by the citizenry. The leaf blower bans that have been enacted fill this void. Education is essential and this blow by blow account of the issue is an attempt at that. If it falls on deaf, or rather ‘protected’ ears then I believe a ban may be the last best way to defend the basic human right to peace and quiet. According to a study by Palo Alto, CA. some cities do not regulate leaf blowers at all, and regulatory strategies in other cities "fall into six basic categories:  1) time of day/day of week, 2) noise levels, 3) area specific, 4) bans, 5) educational approach, or 6) a combination of the five." I vote for number 6. I believe a combination of efforts would be the most effective way to reduce leaf blower abuse.

A mockery of the art of landscape gardening
The Mow, Blow and Go approach makes a mockery of the art of landscape gardening. It is time to take the noise out of the landscape. As a concerned member of my community and as a landscape business owner I am willing to stand up and say: "I am a landscape contractor and I am opposed to leaf blower abuse. I support a ban." Citizens everywhere must organize to take back their right to peace and quiet by drafting a plan that meets the needs of the local community.

Landscapers have to be on constant guard against theft of these supposedly indispensable and costly pieces of landscape equipment, while nobody is too worried about the theft of a corn broom. The broom has no on-and-off switch and it runs on orange juice and toast. At the end of the day when using a broom there is no buying, mixing and spilling of the oil and gas mixture and no carbon footprint. One of the principles in the design science known as Permaculture is to “Use small and slow solutions”. The use of the broom meets this principle perfectly, especially when using the classic witches’ broom made from sustainably grown bamboo. My ride of choice. That’s why my next bumper sticker will say, “My other truck is a broom.”

Ken Foster, the owner of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping and the author of Recipes for a New Earth is the proud winner of the "Broom vs. Leaf Blower Challenge.  www.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Upside of Upcycling

I don’t usually get all gushy about cement. As a self-professed “softscaper” and plant lover I don’t have much use for the stuff. I opt for plantscapes and permeable surfaces over concrete. Then urbanite comes along and I’m just about ready to write a love sonnet.
“Urbanite” is the affectionate name for re-purposed concrete pieces. It’s a funny made-up-name for a common solution to a waste problem. I would even argue that the concept of urbanite could be raised to the level of metaphor because of its transformative role in restoring impervious, compacted, lifeless areas. This common resource is surprisingly available and is often used by creative landscape designers who seek building materials sourced from the urban waste stream. In ecological landscaping, urbanite is a material of choice and it has been a darling of the Permaculture movement for good reason.

 Surprisingly available resource[/caption]Urbanite is easy to like for these reasons:
  • It is a free material. However, it does take time to locate, and labor to load and transport.
  • It is upcycled, which is the process of converting waste materials or useless products into materials or products with new value.
  • There is no mining involved, unlike much of the raw material found in landscape supply yards which are mined in quarries. Flagstone and mossy field stone, for example. Yup, there’s a hole where that bolder once was.
  • It is versatile. It can be used for a variety of hardscape purposes like patios, walkways, stairs, retaining walls, raised garden beds – and even herb spirals.
  • It lasts. Isn’t that the definition of concrete?
The term “Cradle to Cradle” applies nicely to urbanite because it has been repurposed and can be repurposed ad infinitum. The upside of upcycling urbanite is that the embodied energy of the original concrete is captured. Embodied energy is a term to describe all of the energy that goes into the production of a product. It includes the manufacture, acquisition of natural resources, mining, transport, office administration and all other aspects of producing a product.  Reuse of building materials commonly saves about 95% of the embodied energy that would otherwise be wasted.

Its usability is urbanites primary benefit because the manufacturing process of concrete has one of the heaviest carbon footprints of all building materials. The high temperature needed for cement manufacturing makes it an energy-intensive process. The average energy input required to make one ton of cement is 4.7 million BTUs—the equivalent of burning about 418 pounds of coal. For ready-mix cement it takes from 1,075 to 4,085 BTUs per pound. A BTU, short for British Thermal Unit, is a basic measure of thermal (heat) energy and is one way to measure embodied energy. Comparatively, it takes 123 BTUs per pound to produce adobe brick.
One of the tasks of ecological landscaping is to reduce overall inputs by sourcing materials with low BTUs per pound or by finding ways to capture embodied energy by upcycling, enter urbanite. Often in the process of redesigning a landscape existing concrete walkways and patios can be carefully deconstructed and turned into urbanite for the regenerated landscape. A brilliant way of capturing embodied energy right on site.
Honor the hard work that goes into urbanite installation.[/caption]While the “embodied energy” assessment is an important piece in knowing the environmental impact of a product like cement, true full impact accounting takes it a step further by assessing all impacts on people and planet. In business this is referred to as “triple bottom line” accounting which includes “profit and loss” analysis in all the three realms of economy, ecology and equity. This includes considering the impacts of things like:  Strip Mining, Clear Cutting, CO2 Production, Air Pollution, Fossil Fuel Use, Energy Consumption, Resource Depletion, Polluted Runoff, Disposal Problems, Worker Health Problems, Support of Irresponsible Companies, Damage to Cultures and the Effect on Communities. This is a stunning list of impacts that to a surprising degree come with the production of cement, the “feedstock” of urbanite. While each of these impacts can be debated, what is clear is that urbanite is a creative way to turn a nasty problem into an elegant solution.
 Raised Garden beds using 'urbanite'.[/caption]The installation of urbanite takes some forethought. Like with other hardscape materials (such as flagstone), it is important to give urbanite a sturdy foundation. For instance, in preparation for installing walkways, patios or retaining walls, it is best to excavate 5 or 6 inches below grade and then install drainage rock and tamp well. The result is both good drainage and a solid foundation. This is important for liability reasons and because there are few things as disconcerting as a shaky retaining wall or shifting stepping stones.Because concrete pieces are often chunky careful stacking is best done using guidelines from the mason trade. Dry-stacking, which means the process of laying pieces together without mortar keeps the material expense low. For a safe, tight result stack level using a hammer and chisel to correct uneven surfaces as you go always using protective eye wear. Because urbanite is heavy stuff get plenty of help when lifting and use your knees! Finally, a new stain is a good finishing touch. This can be achieved using non-toxic stains like iron sulphate (which is also is a fertilizer) or a product called SoyCrete for that new finished look. With all these environmentally and socially friendly reasons, when it is designed well and installed correctly we are very happy to give it the affectionate moniker of “urbanite”.   - Ken Foster