There’s a story that has been getting a lot of attention from the media. In October, the state of California passed a law that, barring any unforeseen political or legal roadblocks, will phase out the use of gasoline-powered landscape equipment state-wide by 2024. And yet — that puts the famously progressive state 6 years, I calculate, behind Matthew Benzie.
“Forest forensics” is a method by which visual clues are used to reconstruct the history of how a woodland came to be the way it is.
Matthew is proprietor of Indigenous Ingenuities, a landscape design, build and maintenance firm in Doylestown, Pa. Matt grew up, he says, loving the outdoors. When he graduated with his landscape architecture degree from the University of Massachusetts, he decided that his professional endeavors should further his personal ideals. He returned to Doylestown, a picturesque town in scenic Bucks County where he had passed his teenage years. Doylestown wasn’t as self-consciously progressive as some of the communities where Matthew had lived since, such as Northampton or Asheville, N.C., but he felt he could make an impact there. So, it was there that Matthew founded Indigenous Ingenuities in 2013.
Matt’s goal was to earn a living, of course, but also to reinforce the connection between residents and their environment while also creating wildlife habitat and helping to heal the local environment. This involved some scrutiny of the profession he was entering. In fact, the so-called “green industry” isn’t always so green. We have traditionally relied on non-native plants that don’t serve pollinators or other local wildlife, and we have arranged these for visual display, too often without consulting how such a practice affects relationships within the landscape or between the landscape and the surrounding ecosystem. In addition, of course, this purely aesthetic approach to design commonly results in high-maintenance landscapes, arrangements that won’t survive without lots of labor and environmentally unsustainable inputs of resources.
Matthew and his team at Indigenous Ingenuities have responded by planning landscapes that rely on a backbone of native plants, and plants that are as much as possible sourced from local growers. Matthew minimizes lawn areas in his designs. He includes areas of turf with a purpose, such as play space for children, but doesn’t use lawn as the default landscape treatment. Moreover, where he does plant turf he prefers to use mixtures of fine fescues that require far less mowing than the traditional Kentucky bluegrass.
Good design is a foundation, but without appropriate maintenance, any landscape soon falls apart. Accordingly, Matthew included a maintenance crew in the staff of his company. He equipped this crew in keeping with his greener mission. Gasoline powered landscape maintenance equipment is disproportionately polluting. Operating a 2-stroke backpack blower, according to a 2011 study, emits 23 times as much CO2 as driving a full-sized pickup truck for a similar length of time, and more that 300 times as much smog-producing, non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC). Gasoline-powered lawn mowers are bad, too. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a new gasoline powered lawn mower produces volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides emissions air pollution in in in one hour of operation as 11 new cars each being driven for one hour.
Matthew wasn’t going to subject his employees to the hazards of operating such equipment, either. The noise from a leaf blower, which can be louder than a plane taking off, is likely to cause permanent damage to the operator’s hearing, and the unburned fuel that is spewed out in the blower’s exhaust exposes him or her to compounds identified as probable carcinogens.
In light of all this, Matthew opted for battery-powered mowers and blowers. Less powerful than their gasoline-powered equivalent, they were nevertheless adequate for the modest lawns he designed. To transport the new equipment, he bought a child carrier and had it converted into a customized aluminum cart that his employees could pull from job to job around the neighborhood with a bicycle.
Matthew’s employees have appreciated his consideration for their health. His customers call his crew the “Ninja lawn service” because their work is so relatively silent. Of course, the whole neighborhood benefits from that.
To hear additional tips about environmentally friendly, low input landscape maintenance, listen to the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.
Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books. He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature. His companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.