Reel Lawn Mowers
Mow Better… Get Reel
By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural
You know the advantages of reel lawn mowers. They start every time. They’re much quieter than gas-powered mowers, so quiet that you can mow early Sunday morning without waking the neighbors. They’re fuel-free unless you count those bowls of cereal or peanut butter sandwiches that power your engine. They don’t degrade air quality (lawn mower engines are terribly inefficient and emit more than 10 times the hydrocarbons per amount of gas burned than auto engines). Not only are reel mowers great for the environment, they require little maintenance and are a great means of exercise. And, they’re cheaper than gas-powered mowers, both in initial outlay and operating costs.
What you may not know is that they’re better for your lawn than gas-powered, rotary mowers. Rotary lawn mowers tend to tear off the tops of grass blades, leaving them exposed to disease. Ever notice how the tops of each grass blade turn brown after mowing with a gas machine? A reel mower snips the grass, like scissors, leaving finer trimmings to mulch in your yard. This mulch not only nourishes your lawn, it prevents weed seeds from germinating. Rotary mowers also create a vacuum as they pass (that’s why they’re great for cutting tall, droopy weeds). They literally vacuum the mulch layer off the ground, providing an opportunity for weeds to find space to take root. Reel mowers will cut shorter (approximately 1-3/4 to 2-1/2 inches depending on the model) without disturbing the soil surface.
No doubt you’ve heard of the drawback associated with reel push mowers from some disgruntled neighbor or relative. They’re just too much work. They’re hard to keep sharp and don’t cut evenly. They leave the dandelion crowns standing.
These concerns are mostly a thing of the past. New materials and technology have made reel mowers lighter and more efficient. And a few changes in your lawn care strategy will not only make life with a reel mower easier but will result in benefits to your yard — and your health — as well.
Reel Life Story
My first experience with reel mowers came more years ago than I care to remember. As the proud new owner of a five-acre homestead outside of Port Angeles, Washington I inherited a modest yard in front of the old farm house with borders of lawn between the garden and small orchard. Coming straight from an in-town apartment, I had no garden supplies. But in the corner of the woodshed I found an old reel mower. It had seen better days, carried a spot or two of rust and handled like a wheelbarrow. But a few trial pushes through the yard released a shower of clippings. I was in business.
But business was tough. I spent most of my time repairing fences, cutting brush and caring for an ambitious vegetable garden. The wet Pacific climate encouraged quick growth and my attempts to mow the lawn every couple weeks were met with frustration. As the grass grew longer, I found that it tended to fall in front of the blades. True cutting took multiple passes. I finally broke down and bought a used gas lawn mower. With blades set high, I chopped the grass down in one long afternoon every few weeks.
And that’s when the problems really started. Weeds began to pop up everywhere. Part of the yard was taken over by a mossy thatch that crowded out the grass. Beneath the trees, the grass thinned out or disappeared all together. I became discouraged and let the yard grow out of control.
Once, when I was pushing the fuming power mower through the mess that was my yard, the old-timer who sold me the place dropped by as he infrequently did, to see how things were going. A veritable encyclopedia of gardening advice – he’d coached me on keeping the bugs out of my cabbage patch and disease from the fruit trees — he took one look at me trying to push through the jungle without killing the engine and signaled me to stop. “I think you’ve got a problem,” he chided.
He took me to the woodshed in more ways than one. There we found his old reel lawn mower and he showed me how to sharpen the blades. We took off the handle, propped the mower on its side and made room to “backlap” the blades to a fine sharpness. He explained the inner-workings of the reel and the importance of springs and ball bearings. “I used to take this thing apart, just for fun,” he told me. We greased and oiled everything we could reach. After reassembling the mower, he sent me back out to finish the job – with the power mower.
“Get that grass down to size, then, in the next few days, go over it again with the push mower,” he commanded. “Do a little bit each day. Overlap your rows. Stay on it. Don’t let it get too long or you’ll have a heck of a time.”
I did as he directed, mowing a bit every few days, usually in the evening when the birds were settling in the trees and the neighbor’s cows could be heard calling off in the distance. It was a perfect way to end the day. In a few seasons, with the old-timer’s help, some weed pulling, replanting and supplementation, I had the kind of thick neat lawn that anyone would be proud to hold a picnic on.
Back To the Future
Push mowers, invented in 1830 by Edwin Budding near Stroud, England (you can see one of the originals in the London Science Museum), have improved since I discovered that old reel back in the woodshed. Today, they’re lighter, smoother rolling and made of stronger alloys. Blades stay sharper longer — about twice as long as a power mower’s spark plug lasts — and some machines are designed for specialized uses such as cutting thick, low-growing Bermuda and Zoysia grass. With a little care and planning, a push reel mower will not only give you years of quiet, fuel and pollution-free service. It will help you keep a better lawn.
Reel lawn mowers are best used in smaller, level yards. The wider a mower is, the harder it will be to push. Steep hills can make mowing difficult (as they do with power lawn mowers) but maneuverability with a reel mower, especially those with rear wheels, is better than with most power mowers. Still, a reel mower may require pulling the mower back and pushing it in the new direction (see “Reel Workout” below). This assures a clean cut as it trims any grass missed while rotating the reel.
Push reel mowers tend to run over tall weeds, like dandelion flowers, rather than cut them. But a reel lawn mower makes weed control easier. You’ll want to inspect your lawn for obstructions as you mow. A rock can chip mower blades. I always cleared twigs and fallen fruit from beneath my trees before making a pass with the mower.
It’s best to consider the type of grass you’ll be mowing and the height you prefer. Most mower reels contain five blades and are fine for cutting Kentucky blue grass and other common grasses. Thicker grasses found in the South and areas prone to drought, like Zoysia, Bent and Bermuda grasses, are best handled by seven blade mowers. Most mowers will trim down to an inch, some to a half-inch. Consider the amount of moisture your lawn receives and the kinds of use it gets so that you’ll know just how short to cut.
You can use a basket to catch clippings but be warned that only a percentage make it into the grass catcher. Best to leave the basket off entirely and let the clippings serve as natural mulch. Clippings from reel push mowers are smaller and tend to break down more quickly than those from power mowers.
Sharpening kits make honing your mower’s blades much easier than the file method employed by my old friend. Most new mowers won’t need sharpening over their first couple seasons. After that, sharpening ahead of each mowing season will keep your blades in top condition. And, as I found out on the farm, sharpening may become as much of a late winter ritual as starting seed indoors.
Let’s Get Reel
Let’s not kid ourselves. Mowing a lawn is work and you’re the one supplying the energy. Large yards, like out on my old homestead, may require two or more mowing sessions to complete. Some experts suggest that a yard over 3,000 square feet is too large to mow with a push mower. But his depends on your strength and endurance as well as the time you have. Youthful, in-shape mowers might find 3,000 square feet a modest challenge. Old guys like me might want to do it in three or more sections.
Broken, uneven ground will make it harder to push the mower. And the more obstacles you have to navigate, the longer the job will take. Reel mower wheels are on the outside of the blades, leaving a bit more uncut space than a power mower does when circling obstructions. Also, because they are set lower, reel mowers won’t go over sidewalk edges or a stone path like power mowers. You’ll spend more time trimming with a reel mower than a power mower.
For the cleanest cut, you’ll need to overlap your mowing rows by about a third. This assures a more even cut and reduces the effort required to push the mower. Sure, you can cut it wider than one-third, but you’ll leave stray blades standing. Overall, your yard will look better if you overlap your cut. And because you’re snipping the blades rather than slashing them, your yard will stay greener and healthier.
You’ll get more exercise with a reel mower than just walking behind it. Reel push mowers engage the arms, back and shoulders as well as the legs and you just might find that gym membership unnecessary after regular sessions with your mower. The act of pulling the mower back as you round corners will noticeably strengthen your arms, shoulders and pectorals. No, really. Forget that rowing machine and get mowing.
Let’s not overlook the aesthetic value of a reel mower. There’s nothing like the smell of fresh-cut grass, without gas and oil fumes mixed in. Hearing the swish of a reel mower as it spins through the grass adds to the audible world of birds, children playing and other nearby activity, making you part of it, rather than being walled off by the roar of a combustion engine. And there’s nothing like that feeling of achievement — and the sense that you’ve done something good for yourself as well — when stepping back to admire your work. In these times of fluctuating fuel prices and environmental concerns, there’s sincere satisfaction knowing that you’ve done no harm while doing good for your yard. Isn’t it time to get reel?