Getting a yard tends to complicate people’s feelings about fall foliage. Maybe the changing leaves once conjured a childhood of leaping into big piles or weekend drives taking in the autumn colors. Now, what you’re peeping will eventually land on your lawn and consume your weekend.
How to choose a leaf blower
First, let’s deal with gas-powered leaf blowers, which are viewed about as favorably these days as smoking indoors.
Gas blowers pose serious health and environmental risks. They’re powered by a “two-stroke” engine that’s much less efficient than the kind used in cars. According to the California Air Resources Board, operating a gas-powered leaf blower for an hour is equivalent to driving a Toyota Camry for about 1,100 miles.
They’re also so loud that they can cause hearing damage, plus they emit noise at a low frequency, which means the sound travels far distances. They release fumes that contain carcinogens and cause headaches and dizziness.
Gas blowers do have one advantage: They are more powerful than their battery-powered counterparts. For most homeowners, though, that shouldn’t matter, because a typical yard doesn’t require maximum power. (Professional landscape crews, on the other hand, almost all use gas blowers to keep up with maintaining dozens of yards for hours on end.)
According to tool manufacturer Stanley Black & Decker, 85 percent of personal-use blowers on the market now are electric. “That’s been pretty steady over the last five years,” says Christine Potter, president of the company’s outdoor business unit.
Electric blowers come in handheld and backpack models, the latter of which is more powerful. They’re either corded or powered by a rechargeable battery. There are two other key specifications to consider: miles per hour, which is the speed of the air as it blows, and cubic feet per minute (CFM), which refers to the volume of air (and affects the amount of leaves moved).
Here’s how Dale Vogelsanger, senior lawn and garden expert at online retailer Power Equipment Direct, explains it: “If you have a small yard with a lot of leaves, you really don’t need a lot of miles per hour, because you’re not blowing them far. You need a higher CFM, because you’re moving a lot of product.”
If you have a larger yard without too many leaves, you should instead prioritize miles per hour, because you’ll want to move a small amount of foliage a farther distance. In a big yard with a lot of leaves, you’ll want high numbers for both. (In handheld electric blowers, CFM typically ranges from about 350 to 605, and MPH from about 95 to 250.)
Beyond that, there are lots of extra features available. Some blowers can convert into leaf vacuums, which suck debris into bags. Others have attachments that can shred leaves into mulch or clean your gutters.
Leaf blower bans
There are more than 200 jurisdictions across the country that have some law governing leaf blower use, says Jamie Banks, president of Quiet Communities, a nonprofit group focused on reducing noise and pollution. In rare cases, communities have banned all blowers, including electric ones. Others have banned the sale or use of gas-powered blowers. The most common regulation puts limits on what time of day or year you can use a leaf blower.
In D.C., where gas blowers were banned in 2018 with a three-year phase-in period, people who still use them can face a $500 fine. From January to Aug. 18, according to data released by the city under a Freedom of Information Act request, D.C.’s consumer regulatory agency received 452 leaf blower complaints. So far, 11 of those have led to fines.
California is the first state to pass a ban on the type of engines primarily found in gas-powered lawn equipment, including blowers. That law will phase out the sale of new gas-powered equipment by 2024.
The case for leaving the leaves
There is another option: “All of us need to [reconsider] this hyper-manicured aesthetic expectation that’s been in place,” says Daniel Mabe, president of the American Green Zone Alliance, which certifies landscaping companies for sustainable practices.
Mabe suggests using “people-powered” machines — a.k.a. rakes and push lawn sweepers — to consolidate some leaves. You can then shred them into mulch with a lawn mower or a leaf blower attachment, and spread them around as fertilizer. This method won’t leave your lawn pristine, but that’s the point. It’s part of a broader movement to trade perfect grass for more biodiversity.
“Leaf litter is an astonishingly rich habitat” for animals, especially insects, which lay their eggs there in winter, says Matthew Shepherd, director of outreach and education at Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. It also improves soil health, which in turn helps sustain plants that attract pollinators.
Xerces Society has a “Leave the Leaves” campaign, encouraging people not to completely tidy up fallen foliage. Shepherd emphasizes that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition: “You don’t have to keep your lawn smothered with them.” (He also stresses that the campaign does not apply to climates prone to wildfires, where collecting leaves is a matter of safety.)
“We’re facing all sorts of issues in our lives: climate change and loss of species and pollution,” Shepherd says. “Often, people are looking for simple things they can do, and what you do in your garden is a really straightforward, simple, direct action that people can take.”
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