How I Learned to Love My Reel Lawn Mower

Reel Lawn MowingAll you need to know about buying & using a push reel mower.

I live in a subdivision in Bozeman, Montana where the grass is always greener in the neighbor’s yard, but somehow always longer in mine. Everybody’s expected to keep up with the Jones’ when it comes to keeping a clean and orderly yard — which means lots of weed control as well as trimming the blades of grass to near golf-course perfection.

But, as my neighborhood has filled in with houses, I’ve realized how much time and effort we’ve all been putting into our lawns. The guy down the street has one of those mini-tractor jobs. The family across from me uses the old self-propelled model that’s heavy and although it’s motorized, you still have to push pretty hard to get it to go anywhere. Our yards are alive with the high-pitched whine of motorized lawn mowers every summer.

After having a summer snooze disturbed by the whir of yet another super-charged motor (Did you know that there’s even a U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association?), I decided to try something different. Not new exactly. Reel lawn mowers have been around for years, but the latest models, available online from earth-friendly stores offering garden supplies, are new in that they aren’t your grandpa’s heavy, rusted and hard-to-push mower. These are actually much lighter than the motorized ones and are pretty darn easy to use.

So now I have a well-groomed lawn, I’m cutting down on pollution by using a man-powered lawn mower (see EPA Lawn Care Facts) and the ‘hood is definitely a lot quieter with one less motorized mower around. It works for the environment and it works for me. Maybe it will work for you, too.

How They Work

Most motorized push mowers use rotary blades. The cutting edge is parallel to the ground and goes around and around in a clock-wise motion (or maybe it’s counter-clockwise, but you get the point).

By contrast, a reel mower’s five to eight spiral steel blades spin at an angle perpendicular to the ground. As you push the mower, the reel turns and snips the grass in a scissor-like motion. It provides a finer cut than a rotary mower — no ripping or tearing — and seals the grass blade, which keeps moisture in and lawn diseases out.

Also, unlike power mowers, which create a vacuum that pulls up the blades of grass as it cuts, the snipping action of a reel mower causes minimal disturbance to the natural growth pattern of turf. This interwoven network of leaves (blades of grass) just above the soil level is a key element of turf’s natural ability to retain moisture and crowd out weeds. Reel mowers cut the grass in place, reducing the vertical height but leaving the grass with blades of varied lengths.

Professionals grounds keepers prefer the cutting action of a reel mower because it allows them to cut at the lowest recommended height and still maintain a beautiful healthy look. It also produces a natural mulch by dispersing clippings in a fine spray (no clumping) that decompose quickly. Left on the lawn, these clippings release nutrients into the soil. Over the course of a growing season, that mulch is equivalent to a free application of organic fertilizer.

How To Use

Back when your grand pa was using a reel mower, the common grass cutting technique was to saw – pass the mower back and forth in a sawing like motion. That’s because the blades weren’t all that sharp. Today that’s unnecessary. Just walk at a normal pace and a single pass (or sometimes two) will suffice.

Always cut to the shortest recommended height. That makes it an easier job for both you, the pusher, as well as for the reel push mower. You’ll want to keep your grass at a proper mowing height (no more than three to four inches) and try to mow no more than one-third of the grass blade at a time. This helps feed the soil and ensures that your lawn will have deeper roots, which makes the grass healthier and discourages weeds.

Stay Regular. That is, it’s better to mow a little bit and frequently instead of waiting for the grass to be too high. Usually once a week will do the trick.

Overlap your mowing lines. Overlapping wheels while bicycle racing causes accidents. In the case of your lawn, overlapping the mowing pattern is a good thing. It makes it easier to mow and helps catch any errant grass blades that the push mower missed the first time around. (One good hint: if you get sloppy and wait until your grass is too tall to cut, try increasing the amount of overlap between passes.)

Variety adds spice to life and to mowing, so experiment. Try mowing in different patterns and seeing what makes your lawn look best. Heck, if you’ve really got a lot of time on your hands, you could work on becoming the next Picasso of the playing field.

To every season, there is a method of cutting. You may find that you need to change your mowing technique as conditions change. For example, grass grows fast in the spring and is brimming with moisture. You may need to set your push mower at a higher cutting height and mow more frequently than in the fall when the growing season is coming to an end. Similarly, during the peak of summer and summer heat grass has less moisture and is thinner. You may need to reduce the mowing height to get your lawn to look its best.

Avoid long gaps and tall grass between mowings. Tall grass means too much work and it will be harder on you and the mower.

If dandelions or other “willowy” weeds take up residence, you’ll find that mowing isn’t the best solution. This is because they are so tall that when the mower pushes over them, they do not spring back up to be cut by the blade. You’ll be pushing and the mower will be cutting, but the weeds will escape. Instead of futile mowing, either start attacking weeds with the mower while they are still short enough to be easily cut or explore other forms of weed control.

Comparing Mowers

REEL MOWERS. These mowers appeal to environmentalists, cardio junkies and the frugal. They are cheaper than motorized mowers both to buy outright as well as to maintain. You are the motor so there’s no engine noise — unless you tend to whine about lawn care — and no pollution. Another advantage of reel mowers is that their blades won’t shatter as they hit rocks, pipes or other objects hidden in the grass. Unfortunately if a high-speed rotary blade hits something hard it can shatter. A disadvantage of manual reel mowers is that they are more work. (For many people, though, getting exercise while mowing is actually a boon.) They also take longer to do the job and you have to mow more frequently since using a push mower to mow tall grass is not a good idea. Also a reel push mower is best for smaller, flatter yards (some folks say yards need to be 2,000 square feet or less to be suitable) that don’t have a lot of brush or thick weeds.

RECHARGEABLE ELECTRIC. This type of mower does have an engine, but since it’s powered by battery it’s the most environmentally friendly of the motorized lawn mowers. Because it’s running on limited time — usually about 45 minutes — it’s best for lawns that are up to 5,000 square feet and no more. Like the push reel mowers, they produce no toxic fumes.

ELECTRIC MOWERS. They are good for homeowners with small to medium-sized lawns. They operate using an extension cord, which generally allows operation about 100 to 150 feet from the electric outlet and have a 16 to 20 inch cutting swatch. They don’t weigh a lot and are easy to start. They are limited in range since they operate with an electric cord.

How To Buy

Before you buy, make sure a reel mower is right for your type of lawn. If you’ve got a small yard that is relatively flat and devoid of nasty weeds, a push mower is perfect. On the other hand, if people joke about how hilly your yard is and it’s infiltrated with thick weeds that a push reel mower won’t be able to easily cut, you may be better off with a different kind of lawn mower.

Note: The Scotts Classic Mower (shown here) is made in the USA and includes an adjustable height range of 1-3″ and an extra wide 20″ cutting width. Ideal for most applications, it produces a near perfect cut every time.

If you and your lawn are good candidates for a push lawn mower, you can buy a basic model for under $90. Generally prices increase with the quality of the cut (more blades and/or specialized cutting abilities) and the lighter the mower. Even a top-of-the-line push mower, like the Scotts Classic Reel Mower, will only set you back $150 or less, about where motorized mowers start in pricing. A seated lawnmower with all the “trimmings” can easily set you back more than $1,000 and we’ve seen over-hyped deluxe models that go for $3,000 or more.

Proper Care

Push reel mowers provide a clean, precise cut preferred by lawn care professionals. They are low maintenance and designed to provide years of dependable service. No engine means fewer headaches. Gas, oil and spark plugs are not required and you won’t be making unnecessary trips to the hardware store to get expensive parts.

Proper care is easy with these simple steps:

1. Wipe your mower off occasionally. The cleaner you keep it the longer it lasts.

2. Keep the cutter bar properly adjusted, but don’t over tighten. You may find that over time and with the vibrations associated with mowing, it loosens. (See your owner’s manual for details.)

3. Regularly lube the lawn mower’s bearings and cutting edges. WD-40 works or use a similar product.

4. Consider purchasing and using a sharpening kit on your mower’s blade. Check and see what your mower’s manufacturer recommends.

Give a Hoot – Don’t Pollute

A dirty secret of lawn care is how much gasoline powered lawn mowers pollute (see One Hour Of Grass Cutting Equals 100 Miles Worth Of Auto Pollution).

The pollution comes in two forms – noise and fumes. We all know about the noise – you hear it every time you step outside into your yard on a summer day – but the amount of polluting that motorized lawn mowers produce is astounding.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, gasoline-powered landscape equipment (mowers, trimmers, blowers, chain saws) account for more than 5 percent of our urban air pollution. The EPA also says a new motorized push mower can produce as many hydrocarbons – a major pollutant – in one hour as 11 new cars! A new riding mower’s polluting can equal an hour’s worth of pollution from 34 new cars.

Although some lawn mower manufacturers have fought pollution controls for years, the EPA was on the verge of setting new emission standards for lawn mowers as well as other motorized lawn care equipment during the summer of 2006. If the EPA goes ahead with new standards, most likely manufacturers will have to add plastic gas tanks and impermeable lines to reduce gas evaporation as well as adding catalytic converters to cut emissions.

The easiest way to not pollute, of course, is to simply ditch the Internal Combustion Engine and buy a push mower.

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