How does your garden vac?

A new `labour- saving' device has emerged to blow, slurp and mulch its way through our backyards and our lives
Margaret has a secret but it's the kind that everyone already seems to know. "I'm the phantom lawn mower," she says proudly. This means that, when her neighbour is away, she runs over and mows his scruffy lawn. "He should be grateful. It was about knee high, you know," said another neighbour with hearty approval.

"Isn't that illegal?" My question is ignored as the discussion returns to the irritation - nay, the agony! - at having to look at a neighbour's long grass. Love thy neighbour but not his lawn is their view: a Good Samaritan is not afraid to mow.

Margaret is American but she could be British. The whispers here also reveal similar secret mowing missions. You can see their point of view. Their gardens are perfect. Marigolds march in military lines. Roses fear to drop a petal. The grass looks like photosynthesised velvet (it's amazing what you can do with electric nail scissors these days). The edges are so abrupt that insects and errant burrowers will need motorcycle stunt bikes to cross.

Such perfectionists are aghast at the idea of a neighbour who claims to be creating an environment for nestling hedgehogs or a nettlepatch for days of wine and butterflies. Fortunately for all, this spiral of obsession is interrupted by autumn, which is egalitarian enough to mess up to everyone's garden.

But now Mother Nature has met her match. No, it's not God who has intervened. It's garden vac - the "labour-saving" device that blows, sucks and mulches its way through autumn with such drama that a TV mini-series cannot be far behind.

"We effectively invented a new garden care market with the garden vac," says Flymo's marketing manager, Andrew Mackay. Before Flymo launched its first garden vac in 1993 only 5,000 were sold in Britain. "Now it's in excess of 100,000 per year and that's worth pounds 10m to pounds 12m. This is our peak season - some 60 per cent are sold in October and November.

Down at the DIY shop many of these things are labelled in a way that might attract Arnold Schwarzenegger on a dangerous day for dahlias. The Flymo petrol-powered Blowervac (pounds 99.99) looks like a lethal weapon, while one Black & Decker number claims to blow up to 180mph. There is much talk of "high impact" and "top velocity". The "LeafBuster" is so impressive that it will no doubt need a high-protein diet and its very own garden shed.

The claim is that the garden vac is the easiest way to tidy "the outside of your home". Call me paranoid but this use of words is worrying: could it signal a plot to make the garden an extension of our front rooms? Such tidyness will require constant strimming, vaccing and clipping. The real give-away is the use of the world "labour-saving". Every housewife (and husband) knows this is a ploy to get us to raise our standards, clean more and therefore buy more products. Our homes are full of labour-saving devices and we have less leisure time than ever before.

This is all bad news for your common-or-garden hedgehog: there is no room for common nature when your garden is blow-dried. Margaret would not allow such a thing.