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The health of our gardens, and the people who tend them

September 9, 2011 |  5:32 pm

Leaf blower 
The Dry Garden: Mow and blow crews -- and mow and blow gardens

Years ago, as a photographer and I were at work on a photo essay for a magazine about some of the more accident-prone people in Britain, we found that home gardeners were high among the klutzes known by U.K. emergency room attendants as “heart sink patients.” Evidently the repeated sight of them made the hearts of emergency room staff sink. Their favorite times for calamity were three-day weekends, when in numbers disproportionate to the general population they fell off ladders, cut their fingers and sprained their backs. The photographer and I hoped that the photo series might reveal something about the mad-cap determination of gardeners. However, before we had a chance to undertake the series in earnest, the photographer died in a plane crash.

Since moving to Los Angeles and taking up gardening, I’ve thought about that project every Labor Day weekend for more than a decade. Early on, I learned that public holidays here also routinely claim “weekend warriors”; however, Los Angeles emergency rooms are just as likely to receive hikers, surfers and various outdoorsy types for the simple reason that not nearly the same proportion of Southern Californians as Britons do their own gardening.

I have long wondered, does that by extension make gardening here safer? British gardeners tend to focus on fruit, flowers and vegetables. Injuries would reflect digging, pruning and the presence of thorns. Southern California gardens tend to be dominated by lawn and hedges. Many Southern Californians don’t mow their own lawns or prune their own hedges. To understand the injuries here, we’d need to study the generally poorly monitored population of mow and blow teams.

A 2010 U.S. Department of Labor statistic records slightly more than 18,000 landscape workers in greater Los Angeles. That sounds low. A far earlier survey by the California Air Resources Board highlights the risk of asthma and hearing loss to operators of leaf blowers. That sounds obvious. Studies conducted on farm laborers working with the same suite of pesticides used in lawn care suggest that home garden teams might also be more likely than the general population to develop the pesticide-related issues of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and having children with birth defects.

Nothing about the Labor Department’s estimate of a landscape worker’s mean annual income of slightly more than $28,000 suggests that anyone working in a mow and blow crew could financially deal with a health calamity on par with deafness, cancer of the immune system or a disabled child. The status quo is clearly unacceptable. Yet here we trip into the biggest pitfall facing a transition from turf to more environmentally beneficial complexes of trees, herbs, shrubs, succulents, meadow grasses (not turf) and flowers.

As obvious as it sounds, to make the change, Southern California’s homeowners would have to care as much about the land around their homes as the house itself. This would mean learning how to garden themselves, or paying skilled gardeners, not mow and blow teams. We would all have to adopt the thinking of the Long Beach Water Department, whose conservation managers have openly stated that their ultimate goal is for keeping private lawn to become as socially acceptable as smoking in a neonatal unit.

As for mow and blow teams, if they don’t already know how to garden instead of merely slash, dump and run, they would have to learn. Picture two $150 visits a month to check drip irrigation, to weed, to hand-prune and to clean up instead of four $60 passes with mowers and blowers. Fuel and machinery costs would drop. However, try telling that to a gardener who is carrying a loan on an expensive truck, mowers and blowers while assuring two employees a regular salary.

Drought is over
It seems clear that homeowners and residential mow and blow crews can’t effect necessary change alone. We need the entire grounds maintenance industry, along with landscape design and public expectations of what constitutes a nice yard, to change. We need civic leaders who understand that a healthy Los Angeles cannot afford lawn as a default landscape.

The situation has a corollary in food. If we want to stop the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, we need to know how to cook or have food suppliers hewing to healthful formulations. Or both.

Until Southern Californians collectively grasp this nettle, gardening here will be mowing and blowing. As such, it will remain one of the most polluting and dangerous things that homeowners hire out to people whose coughs they don’t hear and whose injuries they don’t see.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here on Fridays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook gardening page.

Photo, top: File photo of a man with a leaf blower in Los Angeles. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Photo, bottom: A Topanga-based garden designer of Rodgriguez & Satterthwaite took this photo last week on the 10 Freeway. She said she's been seeing them everywhere. Credit: Catherine McLaughlin.

 

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