Alternatives to powered machinery

Although gardening is about as green a thing to be doing as you can get we all can be greener in the way we do it. Most of us use some powered machinery at some time, these consume energy profligately. Although each of us may not consume much energy each time it can add up to a huge amount in total in a year. Even kitchen gardeners can still have grass paths to mow and hedges to trim.

So though it is usually not often possible to dispense with power machinery totally it is still a big improvement if we use it less often. If we can dispense with it entirely there come other benefits- first you no longer have capital tied up in the equipment, you no longer need storage space for it and it can’t be stolen. Indeed there is then a good argument for hiring most tools that are not used that often such as cultivators, hedge trimmers and chain saws. And if hiring you will probably be using a more effective better maintained model that will start on demand. (As opposed to that ‘good buy’ quality one which has been quietly mouldering in a corner of the shed for the last eleven months.)

The next big consideration is the power source. Looked at from a green point of view; for the same horsepower petrol wins as electric is inherently much more polluting because of the losses in distribution. (Solar powered lawnmowers etc are exempt- but not exactly common.) However it probably takes less energy and resources to make an electric than a petrol driven device so it is a difficult call, the petrol wins for independence, the electric for convenience- and guaranteed starting!

Of course the biggest energy user has to be our lawnmowers. First of all there are an awful lot of them, secondly they are used often. (say every ten days through eight months of the year is at least two dozen up to thirty sessions) Thirdly; lawnmowers are gas guzzlers. Not just those boys toys Chelsea tractor versions but most mowers, especially the older models and the two strokes.

Down sizing will help. Get rid of the ride on and get the exercise. If you have a larger area stick with a power driven mower, if it’s smaller or you’re fitter go for one with powered cutting but no drive which you push. A power drive uses an awful lot of fuel! Of course the true fanatic will get a push mower, these are obviously the most virtuous but only work if you cut very frequently and most of us need power assistance. (Do not even consider scything the turf, my father handed down his scythe and taught me to use it. I can cut long grass but no way can I approach close cutting turf- though previous to the Victorians most lawns were so cut.) The commoner rotary mowers use more fuel than the older fashioned and neater cutting cylinder mowers- however these have to be used more often as they don’t work on long grass. Two strokes are thirstier than four, a small diesel lawnmower sounds like a good idea.

Whatever mower you have you can use it more economically if it is in good order. Most important have the blades in tip top condition, keep the ducts open and any grass screens clean. Have the engine well maintained; oil, spark plug and air filter all changed and then have it properly set up.

Using it can be more economical if you do not make it labour. It is more efficient to make fewer narrower part width cuts than to try to chew through heavy or over long grass in full width cuts. If it is very overgrown do not try to cut all the surplus off in one. It will work easier to do two or more cuts reducing the height by two stages, and working in a different direction.

Then there is reducing the frequency. If you strive for a super-neat effect then you will have to cut as often as the weather and subsequent growth demands. But can you reduce the super-neat area? Some shady paths may need cutting much less frequently than those in the sun, and the opposite if we get a scorching summer. Can some areas; say along the base of hedges, around trees or in orchards be cut much less often. These areas are much more comfortable if more regularly cut paths are made to allow for through traffic. You could even go for a wild flower meadow effect and then cut but once or twice a year. (You then need to hire an Allen mower type hay trimmer rather than a mower.

too close, especially in hotter drier weather is not good for turf but certainly reduces it’s recovery rate. Raising the height of cut to leaves more length to the grass keeps the grass greener and growing in droughts- but then it requires more cutting. As does returning the clippings; they are rich in nitrogen and so encourage growth, removing them robs the turf and impoverishes it slowly so reducing the need to cut slightly.

But there are other alternatives. Given movable netting fences, runs or cages to stop them getting at the crops then livestock can do an excellent job. Rabbits, guinea pigs and other small pets have all been tried but are only capable of coping with small areas. Hens and ducks do eat some grass and can maintain a fair area if moved about it regularly. Geese are superb and will maintain a close sward also getting rid of most weeds (sadly not stinging nettles, thistles and plantains). Geese are easy to confine though you need to protect young fruit trees etc from their depradations. Geese really are a sensible alternative to mowing though not for the smaller garden.

Goats are too dangerous to crops, too good at escaping from their allotted place and do not eat much grass. Sheep are less problematical and eat plenty of grass, and trees worse than geese, but are beyond the scope of most gardeners. However for those with an established orchard then geese and or sheep will do an excellent job. You will still need to do a couple of cuts a year to keep the pernicious weeds down. But otherwise you get a good sward, free eggs and it all fertilized for free.

I suggest that as mowers are used so often and by so many, we should concentrate on them. All the other power tools are used so much less often and by relatively few that they do not compare in total pollution. Even so we should try and reduce the footprint. The next commonest power tool used is probably the Hedge trimmer. Now I have cut a lot of hedges, professionally as well as for myself. It is undoubtedly quicker to use power- but it is noisy, heavy, dirtier more dangerous work and I loathe it. Give me a good pair of shears and I can work pleasantly, talk to neighbours or passer bys and have a much higher probability of finishing the task less exhausted and with a full finger count. And cutting with shears does not take as much longer as you may think. Almost as much time with a hedge is taken with the clearing up after as with the cutting. Make life easier by putting down sheets first. If you must use power then hire- it will have sharper blades for a start. If you use your own then sharpen and oil your blades frequently. Ywo strokes are much more thirsty than four strokes- which are rarer as heavier.

Nylon line trimmers are a recent innovation, very convenient for tidying up rough areas, long grass beyond the scope of most mowers and cutting over and above ground cover such as ivy. As with power hedge trimmers they undoubtedly cut the time down- but again with noise, danger and a real tendency to damage wild life, windows and the bark of trees. There is little advantage over shears or a hand held reap hook except speed and the shredding of the trimmings does mean less tidying up is needed than after shearing or reaping.

Shredders make one of the nastiest noises in the garden. Most are electric and consume heavy wattages- kilowatts making them inherently undesirable. Small hand powered ones are available but hard work. Chopping up stuff on the ground with a sharp spade works. I sold my shredder as it took too much time and effort to reduce the material –much of which could just as easily have been dealt with in a slow compost heap or wild life pile. A goat would do the same job though with risk of serious damage should it escape.

Cultivators are an uneconomical tool to buy. As they are used so rarely then these are far more sensible to hire. On a very large piece of ground they are almost essential for annual cultivated crops. But for a smaller plot could it not be done by hand? Price up the cost of a man (or woman) to dig it over - they may even be cheaper, and do a better job.

Then of course many of us use electric fan heaters. Their ease of use, reliability etc make them almost irreplaceable but their demand coul be reduced. Obviously we need to insulate and ensure what we use is the minimum. However with the costs escalating most of us need little extra encouragement to do that. One possibility is to utilise the house hot water system to provide background heating if the distance is not too great thus the fan heater only cuts in when most needed. It is a shame that the capital cost of installing solar or wind power is still so high. And likewise back to our lawn mowers- why can’t alternative technology make a mower that runs on grass clippings? Fermenting it to methane or whatever. Or is that a cow?