Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Noises, or undesirable sounds, and noise pollution are receiving increased attention once again online (www.noiseoff.org), in articles, and books (such as recent ones by George Prochnik or Garret Keizer). An often cited report by the World Health Organization in 1999, and more recent one in 2009, list many diverse health effects from noise on humans. In addition to hearing impairment, excessive noise may cause behavioral changes including negative ones, sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disturbances, and impaired task performance. While the options for reducing noise from off our properties are limited, there are many ways we can reduce noise in our landscapes and gardens.
It is a misconception that landscape plantings will significantly reduce noise coming from off our properties. To be really effective at reducing noise, a planting of tall evergreens would need to be perhaps 50 feet wide. Similarly, walls and fences really need to be 8 feet high or more to have much impact on noise reduction. More important than the material is its construction, as sounds will flow through gaps and under fences. To be really effective, fences and walls must be higher and more solid than most budgets or town regulations may allow. Distance between you and the source is the best way to reduce noise, but least practical in most cases.
Although landscape plantings, berms, walls and fence may reduce the noise from off-site a small amount, their main effect is from visually screening the source of the noise. Psychologically we perceive less noise if we don’t see the source. One rule of thumb is that if you can see the source of noise, you can hear it.
Another means to reduce our hearing of noise from off our property is by masking it with sounds we like, or at least providing a distraction, such as from music. Just make sure, if music through outdoor speakers, that what is pleasing to you doesn’t travel off your property as noise to the neighbors.
One of the most popular garden features to add pleasant sounds is water. This can be as simple as a manual well, small recirculating pump, and lined whiskey barrel half. I have such a feature near a window, so I can appreciate the running water from inside. Of course cascading water makes a gentle background sound. Put in a waterfall or fountains for more water music. Such constant water sound is on the same frequency as many undesirable noises, but it is more desirable and if close by will dominate—termed “white noise”.
Consider preserving and enhancing those desirable natural garden sounds you have, but may not have noticed, such as a babbling brook. Encourage more and different birds for their songs. To do this, provide nesting and protected areas, food year round, water, and other attractions. To me, one of the best garden sounds is the wind blowing through pine trees. Or think of the rustling leaves of beech and oak, which cling to their branches long into winter.
When considering sounds in your garden, leave no stone unturned. You should even think about your path surfaces and the sounds made by walking on gravel or wood chips.
Garden ornaments for sound include all sorts of whirligigs–those features on sticks that move in the wind–such as birds rotating their wings or men sawing wood. The plastic circular ones are popular with children and are colorful as well. Wind chimes are popular, too, with some tuned to various notes. If you like the seacoast, consider the triangular metal chimes that sound like buoys.
To be able to appreciate such pleasant sounds, and to reduce the noise that can be unhealthy to you and annoying to neighbors, here are ten questions to ask.
–Does your mower have a good muffler? If you’re looking for a new mower, consider a less noisy, electric, or manual reel type if not a large area.
–Do you really need to mow so often, or as much area? If a large area, try mowing the high traffic parts and zones near drives and your home more often, the rest only once or twice a year. Consider putting more lawn into perennials, shrubs, and groundcovers.
–Do you really need to have edges of beds so neat? If so, perhaps you can use the string trimmer or power edger a bit less often? Of can you use manual edge trimmers? Consider pavers or other edging products to keep grass from beds.
–Do grass clippings get on your walks and drives when you mow? Then consider a mulching mower, or just changing the direction you mow and clippings are discharged, rather than getting out the power blower. What about just using a wide push broom?
–When cleaning gravel from lawns, especially in northern landscapes after winter plowing of gravel drives, can you use just a rake instead of a power sweeper?
–Do you really need to use power blowers for leaves? If just a few on a lawn, they’ll turn into nice recycled organic matter with the next mowing. With our penchant for neat and tidiness, we feel such look messy rather than just a natural process. If many leaves, and a small area, will a rake work rather than power blower or vacuum? If lots of leaves over a large area, this means trees and shade and perhaps other plants growing better there than lawn. I recently saw a neighbor sucking leaves with a power vacuum from between rocks in a roadside ditch. Perhaps the rocks should be replaced with grass, native plants, or a permeable pavement?
–Trees need pruning? Will a handsaw do the job rather than chain saw?
–Shrubs need shearing? Will hand loppers work rather than electric or power models? Choose the right plants at the beginning, with the shape you want, and with plenty of room to grow, and you may not need to shear. So often those cute small plants we bought grow to cover windows and doors, so need major surgery. If a plant grows to the right height, with a desirable shape, consider just leaving it alone. Shearing doesn’t need to be a rite of spring or summer.
–Do you really need to use the power tiller so much, or at all, in your garden? This traditional garden tool does a great job bringing weed seeds to the surface, and breaking down organic matter which is so important to soil health. Consider if mulches in rows could be used instead. Just cleaning beds in spring and raking, but with no-till, often works just fine.
–If you have a larger property, do you really need a gas-driven power cart to get around, haul tools, or move bulk materials? Would a garden cart and wheelbarrow suffice? If not, what about using an electric and quiet golf cart? Electric trimmers and tillers are less noisy than gas ones.
If you really do need to use some power equipment, consider how you might reduce their use. In addition to reducing the impact on the hearing of you and others, and related health issues, using manual tools result in health benefits of increased exercise, less use of expensive fuel, and less air pollution.
A truly appealing garden appeals to all our senses, including the often overlooked one of hearing. Close your eyes and listen. Does your garden sound as pretty as it looks? If not, make some design changes or add some features to create the paradise you want. Assess whether your gardening practices are contributing to noise pollution and, if so, how you might reduce this often overlooked environmental impact.