Sound and fury in the garden

Times Staff Writer

IN a Hollywood film, the garden surrounding an ideal American home would typically have a thick, cool lawn, sculpted hedge, a flowering tree with a circle of marigolds planted around the base. On the soundtrack, there might be bird song, squeals of children playing, maybe the squeak of a porch door.

The impact is so appealing that it could make an Eskimo set up a lemonade stall. It's even half true. For the most part, our streets are every bit as presentable as the ones in the movies. Reality only departs the ideal with the audio. In real life, the prevailing sound is more likely to be a 400-decibel quartet of lawn mower, leaf blower, weed whacker and pruning saw.

Anyone who has bought into the look and only later discovered the sound will recognize the irony. You've attained your dream home, and it's unlivable.

First comes defiance -- phoning the police to find that, as is the case in the city of Los Angeles, noise regulations allow lawn crews to work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. Then comes anger, when your neighbor won't stop weed-whacking during your daughter's wedding. Then comes acceptance.

You call the double-glazing company and decide that outdoor living was a fiction sold by sections like this.

The search for a solution can be an exercise in frustration. National legislation is unlikely. Not everyone is as continually assaulted by garden noise as Southern Californians. People in Michigan don't wake up to the roar of lawn mowers on Christmas morning.

Locally, it takes the kind of neighborhood generally referred to as an "enclave" to produce meaningful noise restrictions. Across most of the Southland, one person's high holy day is his neighbor's day to do yard work.

The likelihood that garden noise will breed enemies is not only predictable, but high. On a street with 11 homes per block, and garden noise immediate from across and behind, or from 33 properties, a resident on a street with lawns and sculpted hedges could expect as much as 33 hours of garden noise every week.

There is recourse for noise from only one of the tools: leaf blowers. Los Angeles banned gas-powered leaf blowers, largely to reduce air pollution. However, the ban seems to have escaped notice of almost every mow-and-blow crew in the city. Try calling the LAPD's Leaf Blower Hotline, (800) 996-CITY, and you get recorded options to report cracked sidewalks, dead animals, potholes, blocked storm drains, traffic problems, burnt-out street lights, illegal dumping and any number of urban complaints -- except, that is, leaf blowers.

Some argue that garden noise is our fault. We can't expect yard workers to rake for what we pay them. Others contend that cheap lawn care is part of the black economy of undocumented workers and outside legislative influence.

But is it really so far gone? Do we really have to close the earning gap and solve immigration for a day's peace in our gardens? At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair circa 1997, there is a third way. We could grow quieter plants.

As odd as it seems, there are such things as noisy plants. A simple solution is to look at plants not just for their appearance, but for what it will take to maintain them.

How helpful it would be if garden centers that sold plants put tags on them specifying not only the amount of sun and water needed, but also the amount of noise generated by the maintenance. The tag for a flat of typical lawn sod could read: "Full sun, regular water and more decibels than a Ted Nugent concert."

But they don't. Noise calculations are up to us. As a rule of thumb, if it has to be cut often, it's noisy. For example, grass is easily the noisiest plant. If you love lawn between your toes, and you can't teach your toddler to walk in a cactus garden, then you must have it. But maybe you don't need so much that baby will never have an uninterrupted afternoon nap.

Consider only keeping grass where you use it. Imagine if in our frontyards and parkways, where lawn is mainly ornamental, grass were replaced by shrubs, mulch or gravel and trees. The 33 hours of noise every week could be cut to 16 1/2 right there.

Edges. By replacing the lawn bordering on sidewalks and streets with different groundcovers, say a mixture of gravel and dymondia, it could be watered less and grow less. Edging with a weed whacker, a tool that manages to combine the worst aspects of a swarm of irate hornets and a dentist's drill, could be done once a month instead of once a week. Or even every four months.

The best way to put leaf blowers out of business is to learn to love leaves. Forget the marigolds under the flowering tree. Forget grass under the tree. Instead, try keeping the shaded area under the leaf canopy mulched, and the tree will do what nature intended: become self-mulching. Soon you will have birds feeding on the worms and grubs in the mulch, and bird song instead of an 85-decibel roar.

Sometimes it's not our plants that need changing, but our aesthetic. Hedges are only noisy if we sculpt them with buzz saws every week. Our standard plants -- box, ficus, Carolina cherry, holly, oleander, Texas privet -- all seem to need constant pruning because we fertilize so heavily and then water until our gutters runneth over.

Left to their own devices, these are actually hardy plants. They need cosseting when they are first put in, but once established, they should need only occasional water. Pruning could be done quarterly.

Once the plant is easier to shape, it's worth devoting time to hand-cutting the hedge to put enough variation in the surface that it doesn't become a plate for dust and spider webs. The slight unevenness allows for a pleasing play of light and shadow.

There is no better way to spend a drowsy afternoon. As leaves rustle in the afternoon breeze, it may hit you that this is, indeed, the American dream.

Emily Green can be reached at emily.green@latimes.com.

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