A Greener Way to Mow, Blow, and Go


As proprietor of “Indigenous Ingenuities,” a landscape design, install, and maintenance firm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Matthew Benzie pursues a multi-pronged program for greening his community. He uses organic products for coping with plant pests and diseases. He encourages customers to go native when it comes to selecting plants for populating their yards, and he sources his plant materials locally as much as he can. He also encourages clients to eliminate superfluous areas of lawn, and if they do insist on cultivating turf, he urges the use of alternative grasses and sedges that require mowing just once a year, or not at all.

Nevertheless, there are still some clients who opt for a patch of traditional turf. Benzie even has a green strategy for dealing with this. He has transitioned his lawn maintenance crew away from the gasoline-powered equipment that used to fill the neighborhood with racket and fumes. Instead, Benzie’s employees use quieter and emission-free, battery powered mowers, blowers and string trimmers. Indeed, even the transportation is quiet and emission free: Benzie’s operator moves the tools from job to job in a custom-designed, bicycle-drawn trailer.

How have the clients reacted? Benzie says that for the most part they haven’t noticed – at all. Because his new equipment is so much quieter, the homeowners, if they are inside when the lawn mower arrives, often don’t notice when the landscaper starts to work.

That’s good news for the homeowner and the neighbors, but even better for the equipment operators. The noise generated by conventional gasoline-powered lawn equipment, especially leaf blowers, takes a toll on landscapers, who must wear ear protection or face the likelihood of permanent damage to their hearing. The noise from the battery-powered equipment is considerably less, and so poses less of a risk to hearing.

The big difference, however, lies in the emissions. Much of the conventional, gasoline-powered lawn maintenance equipment relies on two-stroke engines which are particularly polluting, emitting disproportionate shares of benzene, formaldehyde and other carcinogens as well as fine particulate matter that has been found to contribute to stroke, various kinds of heart disease and asthma, among other conditions. The risk is, of course, greatest to the health of the operator who is exposed to the emissions for hours every day. Battery-powered equipment certainly has its own carbon footprint, but the emissions produced in fueling it are produced at the power station, which is much more carefully controlled in terms of pollutants than the sort of dirty-burning gasoline engines typical of the lawn maintenance industry. Furthermore, the battery-powered equipment switches off the moment the operator removes his or her finger from the throttle; the gasoline-powered equipment just drops to an idle, continuing to pollute, albeit at a lower level.

Benzie says that his switch to battery-powered equipment has been made possible by recent improvements in battery technology, improvements which enable them to deliver more power and hold a charge longer. Still, he notes, the technology is “not quite there yet” for him to abandon gasoline-powered equipment altogether. The battery-powered blowers, for example, are not powerful enough to handle larger leaf removal jobs. Benzie hopes, though, that as more landscapers invest in battery-powered equipment, the growth of that market will spark more competition among manufacturers with consequent improvement in the product.

If Benzie is right, then, who knows, the time when autumn in the suburbs is a cacophony of competing landscape crews and a smog of petrochemical pollutants may finally be drawing to a close.

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. If I were to hire a landscaping crew to “do” my yard, it would be this one. I think Matthew Benizie’s long on the right path. The reality around here (small town in east Texas) is that it will take millennia before our landscaping crews would even consider not mowing/blowing/sowing/cutting without making lots of noise with gas-powered equipment, and as far as DYI homeowners are concerned, “He who has the biggest gas-powered equipment” wins. While your post isn’t about me or my practices, for the first time ever in my gardening life, I used an electric weed-eater to “mow” my front lawn all summer long. I have a tiny front yard. I also used the weed-eater to mow in back where my garden lives and there’s not much grass. This was an experiment that worked for me.

  2. It’s a dream crew, but I fear we will never recover from the invention of leaf blowers. They mark the turning point to the dark side (even more than the internet, lol). Now that fall is ruined, this year my neighbors decided that blowers must be used in summer, too–on a code red air quality day at that! I am completely hopeless.

  3. If Southern California could clean itself up from the smog-suffocated hellscape it was when I was a child, the rest of the country can enact garden tools noise/tailpipe emissions zoning controls. Make it a status symbol to have the quietest lawn crew in the neighborhood! Blowers only do a half-assed job anyway. Leaves and trash are jammed under foundation and walkway plantings and look terrible! Potato chip bags as underplantings? Blegh!

  4. I’m all for the battery-powered equipment, although a lot of time will pass until it takes over the market. Also, I love the idea of going native when it comes to selecting plants. However, one thing I cannot agree with is the fact that alternative grasses and sedges ane better than natural turf.

    • I, too, am an admirer of well-grown, traditional turf grasses. But there are situations where other grasses and even sedges can provide a similar green carpet with far less maintenance. They don’t stand up to traffic as well as the traditional turfs, but in some situations can do the job.
      Glad to encounter a lawn maintenance professional with a progressive outlook. I’m sure your customers benefit from that.

  5. Has anybody ever looked into the plastic pollution caused by string trimmers? I was thinking about it. Where does all that string go? Into teeny tiny bits into my lawn. Dang. I love my string trimmer. What is the alternative?

    • You make a great point. I wonder if there is a market for a biodegradable alternative to the plastic string? Frankly, whether made from plant materials (jute, cotton, hemp) or from metal (wire of some sort), it would seem that these kinds of “string” would last far longer than flimsy plastic.

  6. I eschewed the leaf blower for a number of years when I first bought my house, but finally gave in. My neighbors are generous with their leaves. Both my string trimmer and my leaf blower are battery operated. Lawn mower is gas. But i’m Not happy with the life time of the batteries on these machines. After a couple of years, the battery will only take care of half of my modest suburban lot. To get a new battery, I might as well get a new machine since battery alone costs as much as a new machine with battery. Ugh!

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