What’s new in natural yards? March 2018

One of the earliest posts on That Blog highlighted the plantings at the Wisconsin governor’s mansion, as an example of respectable people having natural yards. Now, the governor and first lady of North Carolina claim that they have the first true natural garden at a governor’s residence.

First Lady Kristin Cooper took the lead on the project, which began last summer. The primary goal was to create a garden that would provide habitat for North Carolina’s native birds. In the course of doing so, the garden will also educate North Carolinians about the importance of habitat, and encourage them to plant similar gardens in their own yards.

The first lady and her husband, Governor Roy Cooper, are taking their job as natural gardening role models seriously – they’re already actively working on establishing a native plant garden at their own private residence.

The garden at the executive mansion was officially dedicated last October, during a Native Plants Week declared by Governor Cooper. The garden is 400 square feet and includes about 1,000 plants representing 25 native species. As the plants grow, they will attract butterflies, bees, and birds. In time, the garden itself may grow to cover a larger area.

In the next post, That Blog will visit New Jersey to see what that state is doing to promote native plants.

What’s new in natural yards? March 2018

Why are lawns seen as safe?

If lawns are so dangerous, why do so many people believe they are safe? One reason is that advertisers have spent decades telling us that lawns are safe.

In the post-war period, lawns actually were marketed to women. Advertisements persistently positioned lawns as a kind of outdoor extension of the living room. (This is why lawns are so often compared to carpets.) Lawns were depicted as safe, clean places for children to play, and women were told that not having a nicely-mowed lawn was akin to letting garbage pile up inside their homes or failing to cook dinner for their families. So, wives nagged their husbands to mow their lawns, and lawns continued to serve as a visual symbol, without regard to what they actually did to people and the environment.

As described before, people tend to perceive familiar things as safe. At one time, lawns were not common, and most people didn’t know why they would want one – lawns took a lot of work to maintain, and didn’t seem to provide anything in exchange. But as lawns became more common – driven by social pressure, which in turn was driven by images and meanings created by advertising – lawns and their accompanying equipment became normal parts of the suburban scene. People forgot that these things were dangerous, and stopped following safety precautions. More recent generations, who grew up with lawns, may have never been aware of the hazards just outside their home.

But industries haven’t forgotten. Pesticide manufacturers know that their products are dangerous. Lawnmower manufacturers know that their products are dangerous. These industries quietly lobby against bans and regulations on their products, while investing heavily in advertising to tell us that it is insects and tall grass that are the real dangers. In fact, there is very little evidence to support those claims.

Our brains have evolved shortcuts for assessing risk – shortcuts that don’t always work in the modern world, and that can be manipulated by what special interest groups tell us. By paying attention to where information is coming from, and by looking at the real facts regarding risk, we can make intelligent decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe.

Why are lawns seen as safe?

How do lawnmowers compare to guns?

Gun regulation is a topic of constant debate in America. Lawnmower regulation, in contrast, is not discussed much – although restrictions on lawns and lawnmowers continue to be passed in cities and towns around the country, apparently without much opposition.

Similarly, we hear a lot about gun violence, but rarely see lawnmower injuries reported on the news. Just because we don’t hear about something, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. How do these numbers really stack up?

About 74,000 Americans a year show up in emergency rooms with lawnmower-related injuries. Fascinatingly, the number of Americans non-fatally injured by guns is almost exactly the same: a reported 73,505 in 2013.

Guns are, however, far more deadly than lawnmowers. The 2013 figures report 33,636 deaths due to firearms. Only about 60 deaths a year are attributed to lawnmowers.

When looking at these kinds of numbers, it’s important to consider how much opportunity a person has to be killed by various things. That is, do guns kill more people than lawnmowers because guns are more common?

In 2009, there were an estimated 310 million guns in the United States, not counting those belonging to the military. The number of lawnmowers in the United States is estimated to be closer to 200 million.

So guns are more common, which could account for the higher rate of fatal injuries. However, lawnmowers are more widespread. Approximately two-thirds of Americans own at least one item of powered garden equipment, such as a lawnmower, leafblower, or edger. Only 30% of Americans own at least one gun.

Looking even more closely at the numbers, approximately 9% of Americans own at least five guns. So guns are concentrated in the ownership of a relatively few people, while lawnmowers are more evenly distributed. This likely means that the average person will encounter lawnmowers more often than they encounter guns – and guns are still responsible for far more deaths in America.

Does this mean that lawnmowers are off the hook? The answer depends on what level of risk you’re willing to accept in order to have a conventional lawn. But as we compare risks, it’s worth remembering that the average American is much more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than by a terrorist.


How do lawnmowers compare to guns?

How do push mowers compare to motorized mowers?

The homeowner who wants a lawn (a conventional lawn, that is; not the lawn-like alternatives described in a recent post) has two basic choices: a motorized mower, or an unmotorized mower. How do these options stack up? Let’s look at a few categories.

Cost. Unmotorized mowers – also called push mowers or reel mowers – cost less upfront than a motorized (or “rotary”) mower. Menards, a popular Midwest hardware store, offers push mowers for as little as $71. A gas-powered mower at the same store will set you back over $100. Push mowers also have a lower cost of ownership: you never need to put gas in them and, being simpler machines, they are less expensive to maintain.

Noise. Rotary mowers are loud enough to cause hearing damage with repeated exposure. Certainly they are loud enough to disturb the neighbors. Reel mowers are virtually silent.

Safety. Tens of thousands of Americans every year seriously injure themselves while using – or just being near – motorized mowers. It’s virtually impossible to hurt yourself with a push mower.

Health benefits. Using a reel mower burns approximately 340 calories per hour – similar to alternately walking and jogging, or to riding a bicycle at a leisurely pace. Operating a power mower burns less than 300 calories per hour, while driving a ride-on mower burns barely 100 calories per hour.

Environmental friendliness. The EPA estimates that Americans collectively spill over 17 million gallons of fuel each year in the course of refilling their lawn equipment. (The Exxon Valdez spilled “only” 10.8 million gallons.) Unmotorized mowers don’t contribute to this problem. In addition, push mowers produce no emissions and are less likely to accidentally dismember small animals that may be taking refuge in the grass.

Effectiveness. As explained in a recent post, motorized mowers tear the tops off of grass blades, causing severe damage to the plants and leaving them in an unhealthy state. Push mowers, in contrast, actually cut the grass, leaving a clean edge that makes it easier for the plants to recover.

Speed. When it comes to actually mowing the grass, motorized mowers are generally faster. But think of all the ways you save time with a push mower: You never have to buy gas for it. You never have to drain its tank for the winter. You never have to fight with it to get it to start. And you can use it at any time of day, since no one will hear you.

Whether you care about wildlife, your wallet, or your waistline, there are lots of reasons to trade in a motorized mower for one that runs just on people power.

How do push mowers compare to motorized mowers?

Why are lawnmowers so dangerous?

Previous posts on That Blog have explained how lawnmowers are known to injure their operators, nearby children, and uninvolved bystanders. It has been known for a long time that lawnmowers endanger users and passersby. In 1971, the US government rated lawnmowers as the second-most-dangerous product in the average household, and in 1955, the New York Times wrote that power mowers were the number-one hazard for fathers.

Why, then, do lawnmowers remain so dangerous? As in the previous post, it isn’t because it’s impossible to make them safer. Over the years, the government and other organizations have pushed for simple, easy-to-implement safety improvements.

In 1972, Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the new body quickly took on the lawnmower industry. Working with Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports), the Safety Commission produced a set of recommendations.

First, the Commission recommended implementing some safeguards against objects being launched by the mower blades – the number-one cause of lawnmower-related injury. Second, the Commission recommended limiting the noise levels of lawnmowers.

Third, the Commission recommended producing mowers with a dead-man’s switch that would stop the mower if something happened to the operator. The lawnmower industry replied that this feature would be worthless, as people would circumvent the mechanism (for example, by taping down the switch) to avoid the annoyance of restarting the mower every time they walked away from it. The Commission responded that the switch could be made to stop the blades, not the engine – but the industry still objected. Similarly, the industry did not like a proposal that ride-on mowers should be configured so that the blades do not spin when the mower is operated in reverse, a maneuver that is unnecessary for mowing grass but known to result in severe injury to children.

Finally, the Commission suggested that the warning sticker on lawnmowers – which  bore an icon suggesting that a person who sticks their hand under a lawnmower’s blades might receive a minor poke in the finger – should be replaced with a symbol that more accurately conveys the extent of injury that could occur to a person who does not exercise caution around lawnmowers.

It was this suggestion that made it clear that the industry was not opposed to safety standards because they were expensive to implement, or because consumers would simply circumvent them: it was because to implement safety features would essentially be to admit that lawnmowers are dangerous. Instead of making the proposed improvements, lawnmower manufacturers fought every regulation.

The misleading safety sticker can still be seen on lawnmowers today, and lawnmower-related injuries continue to happen to thousands of Americans every year.

safety sticker

Why are lawnmowers so dangerous?