Garden tool

Choosing a mower: the world of walk-behinds offers many options

IF YOU ASKED a representative sampling of Americans to define lawn mower, I suspect their answer would be about the same as mine: “A lawn mower is one of those machines you see lined up in front of hardware and garden stores. It has a gas engine on top and a blade that spins around underneath.”

lawn mower

Not only has the walk-behind rotary mower, whether push or self-propelled, won a well-nigh inviolable place in the hearts and minds of the American people, but it is also ubiquitous. We buy more small rotary mowers with a 3.5- to 5.5-horsepower engine and a cutting width of 18 to 22 inches than any other grass-cutting machine. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute reports 5,150,000 of these machines were sold in 1992. Riding mowers and lawn tractors came in second at 1,052,000.

But the dominance of the little walk-behind mower in the market does not mean that it is always the best choice, even for those five-million-plus customers in 1992. The world of walk-behind mowers is much larger than it may look. If you’re in the market for a new mower, a survey of some other possibilities and a reassessment of your own particular requirements may suggest a better option. Or you may find that the old standby remains your best choice after all.

Reel mowers

Remember what the definition of lawn mower was before the gasoline-powered rotary mower conquered the field in the fifties? It was the reel mower, and you pushed it. It’s been pretty much in hiding for nearly 30 years, but it is making a modest comeback. In addition to being Ecologically Correct it is kinder to grass than a rotary mower, especially one with a less-than-sharp blade. (A dull blade shreds and shatters the grass, providing access for disease and accelerating evaporation in hot weather.) The reel mower’s shearing action works like a pair of scissors, leaving a smaller, cleaner cut. A neat, surgical wound heals faster and is less prone to infection than a messy laceration.

I recently tested an American Lawn Mower Company Deluxe/Light mower on my bumpy, oddly shaped country lawn that is a bit more than half an acre and has a goodly share of trees, rocks, and outbuildings to maneuver around. It is not, in short, a straightforward or an easy lawn to mow. Using the 18-inch reel mower it took me one hour and 45 minutes to mow the lawn, no longer than the same job takes me with a 20-inch push rotary mower. And because this reel mower is light and extremely smooth-running, it requires no more effort than the rotary mower, if indeed as much.

Are there any negatives to using a reel mower? Yes, a few. The maximum height setting on reel mowers is two and a half inches, and not all models can be set that high. For the warm-season grasses favored in the southern United States, that maximum height is adequate. It is usually fine for cool-season grasses, too. But in a hot, dry summer in the North, you may want to keep some cool-season grasses at three to four inches. Reel mowers are also a disadvantage if there are tough, spiky weeds in your lawn because they will just roll over them. Finally, if for some reason you miss a mowing or two when the grass is growing fast, it is brutally hard, if not impossible, to bull your way through that overgrown grass.

Rotary mowers

Rotary mowerOn the other hand, were first developed as rough-cut machines, and they still excel at handling the less-than-manicured lawn. They can be set higher than reel mowers, they will do in those spiky weeds, and they can handle rougher, longer stuff. With a little juggling and two or three passes, even a small rotary mower not specifically designed for rough cutting can convert a patch of nearly knee-high weeds into something that looks like a lawn, and if you miss two weeks of mowing, you just set the deck up a notch or two and mow away.

Clearly, a reel mower won’t let you off as lightly for your sins of omission as will a rotary mower. You have to mow when it’s time to mow if you want to keep the job pleasant and leave only fine clippings that will decompose readily. All in all, however, it seems to me that anyone who has a small lawn and is prepared to be regular and vigilant in mowing it would do well to consider a push reel mower. Ideas on what constitutes “a small lawn” will differ, of course. The idea of mowing half an acre with a push reel mower may strike you as madness, but remember that the time required isn’t going to differ greatly whether you’re using an 18-inch push mower or a 20-inch power one. Power or the lack thereof doesn’t determine time savings; the width of the cutting swath does. Surely for thoroughly domesticated urban or suburban lawns the push reel mower is the most rational choice.

The option of a power reel mower exists, too, if you want the clean cutting action of a reel mower without the push. The prices on these mowers are in keeping with the complexity of their construction. The National Mower Company, for example, offers only one model with a 3-horsepower engine and a 25-inch cutting width. The price: about $1,200. Its maximum cutting height of two inches makes it very much a candidate for the smooth, well-kept lawn composed of grass varieties that tolerate lower cutting. Tru-Cut offers three home owner models with a 20-inch cutting width and engine options of 3 to 5 horsepower. The commercial models have 25- and 27-inch cutting widths and 5.5-horsepower engines. John Deere also sells a line of power reel mowers. In all cases, prices are steep and cutting heights low.

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Choosing a mower: the world of walk-behinds offers many options (Final part)

High-powered high wheelers

The usual solution resorted to by home owners facing an acre or more, or even upwards of half an acre, is the riding mower or lawn tractor. With cutting widths ranging from 30 to 50 inches, these machines can lop a third to more than half off your mowing time. For people who want the faster cutting speed but still prefer to walk, there are two other types of machines to consider. Both will let you cut a wider swath while still enjoying the exercise afforded by a walk-behind mower.

The first of these are what I call the high-powered high wheelers. These machines are superior to, and should not be confused with, the less expensive highwheeled models mentioned earlier. These mowers also take advantage of the flotation and hole-hopping ability of large wheels, but because their engines and their balance points are located over their rear-wheel axles, they turn and pivot easily, a capability enhanced by swiveling, caster-type wheels in front of the deck. In addition, the large models of this type are powered with 8-, 8.5-, and 9-horsepower engines that are far more ruggedly constructed than consumer-grade mowers, so they can safely and efficiently handle extensive rough-cutting chores. This versatility makes them ideal for rural owners who have not only lawns but other areas that need a mowing once or twice a season to keep the place neat and the alders out. (more…)

Choosing a mower: the world of walk-behinds offers many options (Part 2)

Small rotary mowers

Small rotary mowerWe’ve already touched on the main reasons why the little rotary mower has become Our National Lawn Mower–modest price, adjustable cutting heights, ability to handle rough patches and grass that has been allowed to grow too tall. If these are the virtues you want and if your lawn is small enough that a 22-inch swath (the largest on this class of mower) is sufficient to let you mow your lawn in what you consider a reasonable amount of time, then the small rotary mower remains a sensible choice.

Note that there are two types of rotary mowers–push and self-propelled. On push rotary mowers, the blade is mounted on an extension of the crankshaft. That’s it. Self-propulsion in mowers this small has always seemed to me a questionable proposition, adding weight, complexity, and expense to an admirably simple machine. The push mower has next to nothing to break or readjust. If the engine runs, the mower works. (In fact, a 1990 Consumer Reports survey showed that self-propelled mowers go into the shop for repairs 40 percent more often than push models.)

As far as effort is concerned, you have to walk around behind either type of mower. The lighter weight of most push mowers requires little additional energy in straight mowing, and it allows you to maneuver the machine easily around obstacles. If you disengage power to the wheels of a self-propelled mower to maneuver in tight corners, the machine becomes heavy and unwieldy. By and large, self-propelled mowers are heavier and bulkier than push mowers. Then, too, with a push mower, you can walk as fast or as slowly as you want without having to shift gears or adjust the throttle.

Because push mowers are so simple there are no significant differences in design from one make to another. Every company offers a mulching mower, often with bagging or side-discharge options. There are, however, differences in size and power that may seem small on paper but will matter to you in terms of how good a fit the mower is for you physically and how well it will do the work you want it to do.

Weights vary from around 50 to 90 pounds. If you want a mower you can whisk around easily, you’ll want to choose a lighter rather than a heavier model, realizing there will be a tradeoff in durability. The wider the cutting width, the shorter the cutting time. The difference in mowing times between a 20- and a 22-inch width, however, will not be immense.For dramatic reduction of mowing time, you need a dramatically wider mower, though cutting width is not the whole story. A 20-inch mower with a 5-horsepower engine, for instance, may have the power needed to slice through heavy stuff at a faster pace than a 3.5-horsepower mower with a 22-inch swath.

And then there are the subjective matters of fit”: Can you adjust the handle to a height suitable for you? Are the handle and controls manageable for the size and strength of your hands? Is this machine going to prove friendly to you the user, or become an enemy you hate to go out and face every week? (more…)