Bye Bye, Mower-and-Blower Gangs. The Electric Robots are Here.

Submitted by Laurel Kenner

The Town of Greenwich, a green oasis an hour from Manhattan, has long tolerated some bizarre landscaping practices.

Every morning except Sunday, pickup trucks begin driving along the Town’s tree-lined streets. The trucks are laden with large gas-powered lawnmowers and, in autumn, leaf blowers.

The trucks park. A few men jump out. They unload the equipment and fire up the engines. The decibel level is said to exceed torture levels. No one can sit outdoors while the machines are in the neighborhood. The noise penetrates walls. There is no escape.

Sadly, that’s not all they do.

The crews spray everything with herbicide and pesticide, ensuring that no birds, bees, or butterflies mar the pristine lawns.

They gather up the grass clippings and haul them to the dump so that none of the nitrogen-rich material can renew the soil.

They blow every smidgen of topsoil and leaves onto neighboring yards or into the street so that drains can’t handle storm runoff.

They carve every shrub into a ball, as Cass Turnbull turns in her grave.

And they use rather too much fertilizer, judging from the algae collecting in Town rivers and ponds .

This is known as “landscaping.”

Everyone loathes the mowing-and-blowing racket and the rest of the lawn business. No one has peace. No one can sit outside when the landscapers are in the neighborhood. The noise penetrates walls, so there is no escape.

The landscapers claim to be protected by right-to-work laws. Apparently, it makes legal sense for landscape companies to exercise their right to drive people crazy.

A Robot Takes a First Step

People can agree on common-sense solutions, and that is what is happening in Greenwich.

It only took 40 local environmental groups, the support of First Selectman Fred Camillo and the other two selectmen, a group of students, a Swedish manufacturer, and one entrepreneurial Norwegian.

In a step toward ending mower noise, a robot named Farmer Joe, made a debut on the Town Hall lawn on Sept. 21, cutting grass in total silence as reporters and local leaders looked on.

Farmer Joe looks like a big orange Roomba. Among his wonderful attributes:

— silent

— no gas fumes

— flexible hours

— no workplace injuries

— he remembers everything

— he leaves grass clippings on the ground to restore nitrogen to the soil, lessening the need for fertilizer and landfills

“We love his work ethic,” said Patricia Sesto, the Town’s director of environmental affairs.

Could robots really take over the job of maintaining Greenwich’s 8,000 acres of lawn?

Robotic mowers have been widely used on big lawns around hospitals and public buildings in Europe for years, but the hiring of Farmer Joe in Greenwich seems to be a first in Connecticut, said Erik Horn, who imports the robotic mowers from Husqvarna, a big Swedish maker of landscaping equipment.

“The technology is here,” Horn said. “Battery-powered equipment will replace all gas-powered equipment.”

Horn emigrated from Norway seven years ago, settling in Old Greenwich. He was so appalled at local landscaping practices that he founded a company, Pyoor, to provide sustainable landscaping services.

A large model like the one being used by the Town runs $3,200, which includes guide-line installation, setup, and charger. A residential version designed for lawns of less than an acre costs $1,800.

With landscaping fees on the rise, a robot could turn out to be economical, even with higher electricity bills.

“Greenwich residents should be able to breathe clean air and enjoy their properties,” said Jane Brash of Quiet Yards Greenwich, which is seeking to replace gas-powered landscaping with electric mowers and blowers.

Camillo and Selectwoman Janet Stone McGuigan were careful to acknowledge the four Teamsters standing toward the back.

“There’s a lot of work to do here in town,” said Camillo. In 10 years, the robot will seem “so yesterday,” he added.

After the speeches were over, I walked over to ask the Teamsters if they are worried about being put out of work by the robot.

“Somebody’s got to maintain Farmer Joe, said Roger Taranto, business agent of Local 456, which represents 500 municipal workers in Greenwich.

He said he has questions about the mowers, though. “What are we doing with the batteries? I personally see that as a problem going forward.”

The solution to that one: remove the lawns.


Also from Laurel Kenner:

Turn Your Hell Strip Into a Heavenly Flowerbed