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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.”
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.
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.
On 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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