A Climate Professional Tries to Mow the Lawn

I don’t know how all of you feel about carbon, but let me tell you, when you work in climate change, carbon guilt is real.

I very rarely fly anywhere (maybe 2x in the last ten years), bought a very fuel-efficient car and live as close to work as I can, walk when I can, purchase renewable energy for my home at an additional cost (Canadian readers, ask me if you’d like more info on that), read a truly alarming number of climate books and articles, etc. etc., and still it feels like it’s never enough.

And scientifically, it isn’t.

Mind: I am not about to tell anyone else what to do about their carbon guilt, or even that you ought to feel carbon guilt. All I am saying is that I feel a lot of it, myself, and do my best to manage it.

This is the context in which I bought my first lawn mower when we moved into our home six years ago.

It’s a big lawn. It’s a 1965 suburban corner lot for a side-split detached house. It takes 45 minutes on a good day when the grass hasn’t grown much.

And we live in a time where spending ungodly amounts of energy creating an environment were weeds thrive* yet are not legally allowed to grow and where you are required to grow a plant that sprints upwards at the mere thought of rain yet must be kept below 8″ (eg. grass) or fines will follow. I truly think future civilizations are going to look back at by-laws about lawn maintenance and think we were the stupidest people ever. We’re worried about peak oil and petro-states and climate change and energy costs and fossil fuel consumption, and yet we have actual laws that necessitate people to spend rising amounts of money on increasingly scarce energy with disastrous environmental and social outcomes to give our real estate a regular hair cut. There are wildfires burning out of control all over the world, spurred in great part by climate change, but is there a single municipality thinking, you know what? Grass could be a great carbon sink and all of those gas mowers are not helping. Maybe we should loosen the noose a bit.

Nope.

So here I am, a single mother with limited time and a lot of carbon guilt, legally required to keep the grass growing but not more than 8″ tall, and determined not to use any fossil fuels in the pursuit of this.

In the six years since I’ve moved in I’ve owned THREE battery-powered lawn mowers.

Do you know how much a climate-friendly tool has to suck before I’ll hate it?

It has to suck a lot, Dear Readers. Let me tell you how much.

First Mower

Black-and-decker plug-in. It worked for a few months, then wouldn’t start. At this point it was still under warranty, so I brought it in. It was the charging cable. It took weeks, in which my lawn continued to grow, and I received some warning letters from the local by-law office. Thank you, neighbours!

It worked again for a few months, and then stopped. Now out of warranty, so I had to pay for the new charging cable myself. This time, I also hired someone to mow the lawn while it was being repaired so I wouldn’t get a fine.

Then it worked again for a few months.

And stopped.

Nuts to this, I thought. It’s cheaper just to buy a new mower.

(This model is no longer for sale. I can’t imagine why.)

Second Mower

Ryobi, where the battery charges indoors and the machine folds up so you can store it in a shed. It has a five-year warranty. This should be better, thought I.

91 days later, one day after the Home Depot return period, the mower would no longer start.

Home Depot wouldn’t take it back, and Ryobi told me that even though the machine was obviously defective (91 days!) I had no recourse but the warranty. There is no service email address on their website; the service contact form doesn’t work; and the folks answering the service phone line are obviously told not to say or do anything that might incur any sort of obligation. There was no way to take it up the ladder.

The service company is 40 minutes from my house and only open during business hours and on Saturday mornings. Grumbling, I brought it in.

Repair guy tells me he sees this with Ryobi mowers all the time. Several weeks later, I have it back. Several weeks in which I have once again been paying someone to mow the lawn so I don’t get a ticket. It is, by this time, late in the south Ontario mowing season, so I mow the lawn once or twice and put the machine away for the winter.

In the spring, it won’t start.

Again.

I take it back to the service centre.

And, knowing that calling, emailing and filling out forms on their website are useless, I resort to twitter.

This is going to get expensive for you, if I have to take this in to have it repaired twice a year, was the essence of it. You would have been better off allowing me to return or exchange the mower when I first called.

And I kept it up. Politely. They shared with me an email address–that doesn’t exist anywhere on their website; you can check–to get resolution. I emailed, and waited. No response. Tweeted again. This went on for a while, and then finally someone from the company wrote back.

We can send you a new mower, they said.

Great, I replied; but what is the warranty on it? I didn’t trust the machines at this point and thought I was most likely to end up with a dud, and no receipt for getting it repaired.

No reply.

Send us your address, they said.

Great, here it is, I replied; but what is the warranty on it? How does that work?

We’ve mailed you the new machine, they said.

Wonderful, I replied, and thank you, but what is the warranty on it? What do I do it if it breaks?

There is a full warranty, they replied.

Third Mower

The new mower is fancier than the first one, which is a nice touch: it’s self-propelled.

Not so nice?

It worked once.

I mowed the lawn with it once.

I mowed with it once, folded it up to put it in the shed, and the very next time I brought it out, it wouldn’t. I tried it with two fully charged batteries (I checked them in compatible devices–no problem) and two keys.

Email: Hey. I just went to use the mower for the second time, and it wouldn’t start. Same issue I had with the first one. Honestly you guys really need to address this problem in your machines. In the meantime, I’m going to need a receipt or something to take it to the service centre.

No response. Ten days pass.

On twitter: Hello. I emailed the service person I’ve been talking to. The replacement mower is broken and I need paperwork to bring it to the service centre.

THEY BLOCKED ME.

Dear Readers, I can’t say if my experiences with the actual machines is typical or not. Maybe I have the only two fragile, persnickety, battery-powered lawn mowers ever manufactured by Ryobi. It’s possible.

But I leave it to you to determine for yourselves if anything about this scenario reflects how you would want a company to respond in the case of defective products.

A service contact form on the website that doesn’t work–an email address only given out in case of twitter complaints–beleaguered service call centre staff who aren’t allowed to help people who call in or forward complaints on to management–and then when someone’s twitter complaints makes you look bad in public, providing them with a replacement machine and no warranty paperwork.  And then when the replacement machine has the same issue the first one did, blocking them.

On the plus side, I’d already brought the first Ryobi mower in for servicing, so it is working. For how long, who knows?

What I normally hear is something like, “LOL, just get a gas mower!” Please don’t. I am completely opposed to burning any kind of fossil fuel in the pursuit of anything as trivial as grass length. A better indictment of the values of 21st century North America than “sure we’re running out of gas and oil and yes the planet is on fire and definitely we’re losing biodiversity and pollinators and of course energy is increasingly expensive and all of this is awful and terrible and we care so! much! But we’re still going to pass laws to require you to spend ever more money on fossil fuels to destroy your property’s biodiversity while contributing to the climate emergency. Here’s your fine.”  It is actually a hill I’m prepared to die on, and would be prepared to pay a whole lot of fines to make a point. Though of course I’d rather not.

~~~~~

*All of the plants defined as weeds for the purposes of early 21st century lawn maintenance are what’s known in ecology as colonizers: they have a need for lots of sun and lots of space, can’t tolerate shade, and can grow like the dickens. They do very well in clearcuts, after fires or rocklides or other natural events that clear out the tree canopy and competition, and they really really love lawns. If you really want to get rid of weeds, what you need to grow are trees–lots of them–because weeds hate shade.

8 thoughts on “A Climate Professional Tries to Mow the Lawn”

  1. Oh yes the old push mower…. good idea. SO VERY FRUSTRATING. We have consumer laws in Australia, that override any company warranties and goods need to be “fit for purpose”. Should a product not work for a time frame that a reasonable person would expect (eg $10 toaster 1 year, although mine’s been going for about 10, or $1500 washing machine 5-8 years) the company is obliged to remedy or replace or refund the product and they help you if the company doesn’t comply. I’ve used them often and it still surprises me how many companies or organisations state “oh we have our own rules” where I remind them the Australian law overrides their own. Good luck… oh your by laws seem a little over the top re grass!

  2. Both my daughters have houses with small plantable areas. They have covered them with rocks and grow a few hardy lilies etc. For a big lawn, I guess you could pave it? I had a big one and used a hand mower for quite a while. The big one here is cut with a gas engine by JG. I am not going to tackle an acre expanse.
    Maybe a lot of shrubs surrounded by mulch?

  3. I have the green works battery powered mower. This is its 4th season. It took me a while to work out getting the batteries properly charged. I suspect if I re read the instruction manual I would figure out where I was going wrong. The batteries have never lasted long enough to cut the area that they claim they will cut, and I’ve found that having a third fully charged battery on hand means that by the time I’m mostly done the lawn and the batteries are dead, I can swap out one of the batteries for the fully charged spare and get the lawn whole finished.

    1. I will keep that in mind the next time I’m buying a mower–and it seems likely there will be a next time. So.

      How does the green works one store away? Can it spend time in a shed or does it need more room?

  4. My reply make take some patience to read and could provide some options, however, these options may take some time and initial physical effort that you may not want to get involved with given your time constraints. I am not trying to tell you what to do or influence your decision in anyway. In simple terms not agenda on my part.

    There have been studies that show a properly fertilized lawn (which does not take much fertilizer) actually has lower phosphorus leaching than a lawn that is not fertilized at all. This is because the phosphorus bonds to the negatively charged soil particle and a lawn with good cover sees almost no soil loss whatsoever. Most phosphorus pollution (aside from poorly performing sewage treatement facilities) is from farmers fields when soil is washed into lakes, rivers and streams and involves soil erosion or leaching of manure from farmland. Adding surface applied manure to a farmers field is terrible for the environment when applied in the fall. It is difficult to apply at any other time because there are usually cash crops being grown. There is also research that has shown that turf provides an amazing cooling effect (and in some cases greater than trees) on the world around us plus the benefits of preventing erosion.

    If you wanted to stay with a lawn you can start overseeding with the new advanced types of fescues that are extremely drought tolerant and require little fertilizer other than during establishment. These varieties actually fair better with no fertilizer once established. Many golf courses are being converted to these species in low maintenance areas and areas in play because they don’t grow as quickly and therefore don’t require frequent mowing.

    A second option involving fescue grasses if you wanted to start from scratch is what is called a “tall fescue”. There are a myriad of different cultivars which provide different growth habits and some stunning reddish colours as the season progresses. I don’t know the exact cultivars, however, there are varieties that don’t grow taller than 10″ and possibly shorter which look really cool and therefore don’t require mowing. If you were planning on a revamp of your property this could be part of the “landscape” just like other people do who eliminate their lawns and choose to have perennial gardens whether they are bushes or perennial flowers. If you explained this (not that you should need to do this, but, in today’s world of intrusive neighbours) to the city or whomever is harassing you about your lawn maybe they would close their “pie holes”.

    Ontario Seed Company based in Kitchener, Ontario specializes seed (obviously) and can provide endless information.

    Another option would be to get mulch and cover your whole property about 6″ deep to kill the grass underneath and dig holes here and there to allow for planting of cool things like Butterfly Bush, Milkweed and lots of perennials. I have cone flowers, echinacea, shasta daisies, asters, blackeyed Susan’s to name a few. There is also a “weed” which are really wildflowers and I am not sure what it is, but, it is similar to black eyed Susan. It is different and in the past I would pull it out of the garden, however, this year I let it grow and it turned into a four foot tall flowering plant that attracted a huge variety of insects and also bees. I have seen some very interesting bugs and actually saw a Clear Wing Moth (that I did not know existed) and looks and flies like a Hummingbird. One of the coolest things I have ever seen. The mulch seems expensive at first, but, if you contact one of your local tree companies (Davey, Beswick) they would likely dump loads at your home free of charge. They want to divest themselves of this material.

    I hope you don’t take offense to this information.

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