illustration of a garden tree emitting sound waves

The garden: a place of restful contemplation, the sound of birdsong interrupted only by the rustling of leaves in a gentle summer breeze — an escape from the hustle and bustle of modern living. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Since the 1950s an ever-increasing battery of combustion engine-powered garden machinery has chipped away at the idea of the garden as a peaceful haven. A clattering army of lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, brush cutters, waste chippers and chainsaws launch regular assaults at this idyll. Most contentious of all, though, must surely be the petrol-powered leaf blower. The roots of this air-blowing harbinger of disquiet stretch back to the 19th century.

Japanese gardeners, charged with the exacting maintenance standards required for temple gardens, developed simple hand-operated bellows to aid their work. These had enough puff to remove twigs and leaves from the moss that formed an essential part of the horticultural aesthetic, yet were gentle enough so as not to rip the living moss from the rocks. They did so very quietly, no doubt.

By the 1970s the petrol-powered leaf blower was born — again developed in Japan. And it didn’t take long for it to ruffle feathers as well as leaves; conservative Carmel in California banned the blowers in 1975, and Beverly Hills followed suit a year later, citing them as “nuisances”. In spite of the resistance, by the end of the 1980s there were 1m blowers in use in California alone.

Regardless of its evident popularity, the opprobrium that the blower caused led to some unusual forms of protest.

In the late 1990s one Los Angeles grandmother, Diane Wolfberg, took on Los Angeles City Council’s parks and gardens department to demonstrate that a rake and broom could be as quick as a leaf blower, do a neater job and, of course, do it all much more quietly. Over three different tests Wolfberg remained unbeaten against a muscular gardener hefting a petrol blower.

Garden staff at Abington Park, Northampton, c1890
Garden staff at Abington Park, Northampton, c1890

The big problem with the blower, and all petrol-powered garden machinery, is the decibels — or rather the A-weighted decibels. A-weighted decibels — dBA or dB(A) — are an expression of relative loudness of sounds as perceived by the human ear. With the dBA system, the decibel values of low-frequency sounds are reduced, in recognition of the relative lack of sensitivity in the human ear to low frequencies. A blower producing a reading of 75dBA at a 10-metre distance is as loud as heavy road traffic from a similar range. For the operator it can be much worse — about 100dBA at the ear.

And the leaf blower is not the only culprit. Chainsaws can produce about 105dBA at a one-metre distance, brush cutters the same. Even the petrol lawnmower can kick out as much as 90dBA. And as the decibel system is logarithmic, the difference between 90dBA and 100dBA is a 10-fold increase. The quality and frequency of the sound is as important as the volume; few of us are likely to be troubled by a natural waterfall in full spate but the frequency and quality of the noise produced by many garden power tools immediately falls into the “highly irritating” category.

These sounds aren’t just irritating. In 1992 Dr Alice Suter reported to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, citing evidence that, while “high levels of noise and the resulting hearing losses contribute to industrial accidents”, even more worryingly “there is growing evidence that noise adversely affects general health, and the cardiovascular system in particular”.

In a report for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March 2011, Dr Rokho Kim was unequivocal, reporting that “exposure to excessive noise is second only to air pollution as a cause of environmental ill health”. Hearing damage is “an increasing predictable risk” above 75dB(A) according to WHO.

Kim’s comments are an echo of those by anti-noise campaigner John Connell, more than half a century earlier. He said: “Exposure to persistent, unwanted sound is detrimental to health, learning, productivity and quality of life.”

Connell founded the Noise Abatement Society (NAS) in 1959, when the UK had no consistent legislation in place or authority to turn to on matters of noise pollution. He invented practical solutions to problems, introducing the rubber bin lid and plastic milk crate. And he was clearly a highly effective lobbyist.

To demonstrate how it felt to be kept awake at night by noisy aircraft, he hammered on the door of the then aviation minister, Duncan Sandys, at his home at 2am. To the delight of the waiting press photographers, a bleary-eyed Sandys duly appeared on the doorstep in his pyjamas. Night flights were stopped soon afterwards.

Viking MA 443 cordless lawnmower
A Viking MA 443 cordless lawnmower

Connell also lobbied for Heathrow airport to be relocated to the Thames Estuary to reduce the impact of jet plane noise — the same location that the current mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has proposed as a new airport site, the so-called “ Boris Island”.

In 2012 the new trading arm of the NAS — Quiet Mark — launched in the UK. Quiet Mark has a team of acousticians that assess products, and works with industry to encourage the development of quieter goods.

Those who manage to combine improved quietness while still doing the job are awarded accreditation. Set up by Poppy Szkiler, granddaughter of John Connell who, along with her mother, inherited the stewardship of NAS, Quiet Mark now has more than 70 major brands on board and sponsors including Lexus and John Lewis.

Approved products include cordless brush cutters and hedge trimmers, cordless electric mowers, even, whisper it, a leaf blower.

Bosch AHS 54-20 LI cordless hedge cutter
A Bosch AHS 54-20 LI cordless hedge cutter

There is an intriguing-looking hybrid cylinder mower made by The Grass Group, with multifunction “cassettes” that enable the cutting head to be lifted out and replaced with a spiker or aerator.

Aimed at the professional market, it is high-tech kit designed mainly for groundskeepers charged with maintaining pristine, close-mowed surfaces such as golf greens, but could be the mower of choice for the home gardener with a penchant for stripes and silence.

Unsurprisingly, there is no combustion engine-powered garden machinery on the list, although manufacturers have been working to reduce the sound emissions and overall environmental impact of these machines, by switching from two-stroke to four-stroke power (four-stroke engines are less whiny, and have a lower rev range) and using lighter materials to reduce power needs.

Stihl BGA 85 leaf blower
A Stihl BGA 85 leaf blower

Not all manufacturers are represented under the Quiet Mark scheme, so the range of accredited products is not exhaustive. So while there are robot mowers from Husqvarna and Robomow, Honda’s Miimo (at 46dBA no louder than a standard refrigerator) is omitted, as is Bosch’s excellent range of lightweight cordless hedge trimmers (about 60dBA depending on the model). At these levels, sound emissions are around the same or substantially lower than the volume of the average conversation.

The days of the garden as a quiet refuge were numbered when the Wright brothers took to the sky but, in an ever noisier world, there is reassurance to be had from the knowledge that reduced noise emissions are a primary goal of most manufacturers.

Although a truly quiet garden would require a return to the days of scythes, hand shears and Japanese leaf bellows, a mower no louder than a fridge must be a step in the right direction.

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries, London

Illustrations by James Fryer

Photograph of staff at Abington Park: Popperfoto/Getty Images

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