Some kids grew up in the South in the '60s learning legacy skills—pottery, canning, farming. The thoroughly modern skill my brother and I perfected over a decade of sweltering summers was less romantic, but remunerative. We mowed lawns. Big grassy lawns, $2 a pop, which wasn't bad for adolescent chore pay in the age of Elvis.
Early on, our grandpa, who lived next door, bought a riding mower; my Dad followed suit, eliciting a famous, if regrettable, promise on the part of my brother: "You'll never have to beg me to mow again." My Mom still reminds him—usually in front of relatives on holidays.
So we mowed in tandem, playing "Rat Patrol," the two of us standing on the running boards, machine-gunning the evil German troops on our improbably green desert. We'd race our roaring jeep/ mowers around corners in high gear, one tracking to the side and about a foot behind the other one.
It didn't dawn on me that my hard-won expertise was environmentally suspect until about five years ago, when my husband, Don, and I visited our friend, Bernie, in Maryland. Bernie, an air quality specialist, had just gone to work for Montgomery County, where he spearheaded a local campaign to reduce pollution from gasoline mowers long before Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth brought climate change to a theater near you.
Two-stroke engines, like those in mowers and chainsaws, he explained to us, are inefficient and dirty. It seems that long after catalytic converters were routine on cars, Briggs and Stratton and other corporate defenders of suburban modernism had mounted hefty campaigns on Capitol Hill to protect your Dad's mower from similar regulations.
Bernie sniffed, "Lawn mowers have about as much modern technology as Bush has the ability to read."
The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees. The group calculates that one gas mower running for an hour emits as many pollutants as eight new cars driving at 55 mph for the same amount of time. The Environmental Protection Agency blames lawn mowers and other yard equipment for close to 10 percent of the nation's pollution. According to EPA scientists, our family's mower alone annually spews 87 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, and another 54 pounds of nitrogen oxide, both components of smog.
Given that lawn grass is the country's largest crop, covering 28 million acres (the size of Pennsylvania) or three times more land than is used to grow irrigated corn—well, that's a lot of mower pollution. And the EPA reckons Americans burn 800 million gallons of gas each year trimming their lawns.
Bernie has a bit of a track record with impassioned, if unpopular, efforts to "do the right thing" in workplaces. He had already taken on NASA and Big Steel, so local Maryland officials didn't stand much of a chance. To his surprise, they cooperated in a broad effort to educate homeowners on the benefits of buying smaller mowers, techniques to reduce emission of gas vapors when refueling, and the practice of avoiding mowing on Code Orange or Red days when smog levels were high.
All this caused me to look at the small sun-baked lawn in front of my house on the border between Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale. That spring I covered it with black plastic until the grass yellowed, and Don rented a tiller and plowed the whole thing under.
Of course, the construction site led to a certain unsightliness, and occasional public domestic disputes, in weeks to come as we labored to work topsoil into the clay mess that had been under the grass, dug holes and planted the quirky selection of small trees, bushes and perennials that live in front of our house today.
And we mulched, then mulched some more. After a couple of years, the need for mulch dropped off. Now four or five bags in late spring keeps the weeds and crab grass at bay. The maple tree now shades half the yard, but the bald cypress on the other side, still an adolescent in tree years, is not yet up to the task, so in hot, dry weather we still have to water. We're not maintenance-free, but we're close.
The drought fostered our latest addition: a couple of rain barrels on either end of the porch, and a couple more in back where we're growing an edible landscape: herbs and vegetables. So if Mother Nature starts messin' with us again, and August gets serious ... (Just a joke, you have our deepest respect, ma'am ... we're working on the pollution thing, honest.)
OK, so we managed one low maintenance landscape. I'm working on another in front of a historic house we've been renovating as a rental, which has a way-too-big lawn. That project turned me into a mulch thief. When the city cut down and mulched two trees across the street, I started showing up at 8 a.m. with a wheelbarrow to whisk the remains into our yard. But to be honest, making a large lawn into a forest is a slow process, and the mower is still very much needed. What to do?
Wattsbusters, an affiliate of Clean Energy Durham in the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood, demonstrated one solution at a water-saving fair last April. Several homeowners showed off newish models of manual "reel" lawn mowers. They were much easier to push than I had feared, and cut a neat swath in the Oval Park lawn. Tobin Freid, Durham's new sustainability coordinator, used to own one. "They're great exercise and good for someone with a small lawn," she told me, but warned that you have to mow regularly. If grass gets too high, a manual may not cut it.
Another option is an electric mower. Bernie, who paid $350 for a Neuton electric mower three years ago, raves about it. He points out that it makes almost no noise, and once you remove the battery, it is compact and easy to store. Also, it has a Pruis-like on/ off switch, activated by a device on the owner's keychain, making the mower a poor choice for a thief. Electricity in the Triangle comes from coal and uranium, so these mowers aren't completely green, but Bernie points out that a battery-powered electric mower can be recharged at night, when rates are lower. And the cost to run a Neuton is a fraction of that to mow with gas.
Freid, who is developing strategies for a (still unfunded) long-term greenhouse gas reduction plan for Durham, is excited about propane-powered mowers, which have very clean emissions, as an option for commercial and government landscapers. Unfortunately, they are costly and the tank is too large for small mowers. The thought of a propane tank on a mower gave me pause, but she pointed out: "They're actually very safe. It's no worse than having a tank on the barbecue grill on your deck, and people set fire to grills." Hard to argue with that.
After our neighborhood's listserv debate over urban chickens (currently illegal in Durham), I recalled a scene from my childhood. Some folks may remember the acres of tobacco warehouses that used to line Broad Street before the installation of the North Pointe Costco and townhomes. When I was a kid, I loved to ride by there in a car and scan for the sheep that wandered free inside the fence. My mom said they were there to mow the grass.
So thinking about that way-too-big lawn in front of our rental house, I announced one night at dinner, "I want a sheep!" Sure enough, while I was searching the Web on lawn mowing, what should pop up but an article titled "Wanted: one grass-eating animal."
In a letter to Pete Davies, of TerraPass, a reader named Julie wrote: "I'm looking for a small grass-eating animal with suitable grazing habits. A well-manicured lawn is my primary goal, and quality free-range meat is my secondary goal. I live on 1.5 acres, half of which is grassy and fenced."
Pete advised Julie to restrain her carnivorous instincts and referred her goatfinder.com, which rents out grass-munchers. That led to a slew of comments from readers who decried the bad habits of goats: that they eat bushes and trees. Several concurred that sheep are better grazers, but as one reader put it, "so stupid" that a sheep on a collar and chain will most likely hang himself, making sturdy fences necessary. Inside city limits, keeping any of the above would be illegal anyway.
One reader, a fan of Black & Decker's electric mower, crowed that he had used his Kill-a-Watt meter to calculate that he was spending only three cents of electricity to recharge each time he cut his small suburban lawn. Another suggested those who feel guilty about using fossil fuels purchase Terrapass carbon offsets, which funds investments in renewable energy. At $4 a gallon, maybe the cost of gas alone is reason to retool. Do the numbers: If you factor in the savings, there is a strong economic argument for going electric.