Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reel-ly mowing the lawn

This is the second post in a series discussing human-powered tools that I use. Here I’ll consider human-powered reel lawn mowers.

In the previous post I mentioned that Mike and I have a large property for a suburban area, a full acre (a little under a half hectare for those of you who use more sensible metric units). When we bought this place 12 years ago most of the property was covered with a combination of various lawn grasses and weeds, as are most urban and suburban lots in the U.S. With this much lawn, and living in an area with a property maintenance code requiring lawns to be six inches or less high, most people in the U.S. would either hire a lawn maintenance company to do the mowing or buy a riding lawn mower to maintain it themselves. We chose not to do either. Riding lawn mowers are expensive to buy, use, and maintain, require a lot of storage space, perpetuate dependence on motors and fossil fuels, and don’t provide beneficial physical activity for those people capable of it such as ourselves. Instead we bought a gasoline-powered rotary lawn mower, not self-propelled, the kind you have to push. It’s dependent on fossil fuels, it’s noisy, it’s potentially hazardous, and its vibration hurts my hands, but it’s less expensive to buy and maintain than a riding mower and because I have to push it, I get exercise while using it. As the trees and gardens I’ve planted have grown, I’ve been able to reduce the space needing to be mowed and thus the time needed to use this mower, but I still need to mow a third or so of the property often enough to satisfy code requirements.

Several years ago I bought a human-powered reel lawn mower that was advertised as able to cut almost any kind of lawn grass and could be set to a cutting height of up to 3 inches. Our lawn has a mix of cool-season grasses that reel mowers cut well and tough warm-season grasses that most reel mowers cut with difficulty if they can cut them at all. The high cut setting helps to keep the mower from jamming when it runs over twigs. With huge pin oak and silver maple trees in the properties on three sides of our lot, twigs (and branches, and sometimes limbs) find their way onto our lawn regularly. With the high setting most twigs and small branches can be mowed over without their jamming the blades.

To my disappointment, the reel mower seemed to be of limited use. It cut the grass and broad-leaved weeds in the front yard though not the sedges and stringy plantain flower stalks. But I found it so difficult to use on the warm-season grasses and quackgrass-infested portions of the back yard that I gave up on using it there, though I continued to use it to mow the front yard. Furthermore, the clips holding the handle onto the attachment posts on the reel assembly have a habit of popping off, and I once had to replace the entire handle assembly due to metal fatigue. To its credit, the company I bought the mower from has replaced all these items for free, though I would not again purchase a mower from them. We bought a sharpening kit, which Mike uses at the beginning of mowing season to sharpen and adjust the blades.

This year Mike must have adjusted the blades much better than in past years. While the mower was harder to push than it had been in the past, as I pushed it to the shed where it’s stored I noticed that it had cut the mix of warm-season grass and weeds despite it being over a week since the last lawn mowing. In past years the reel lawn mower had not been capable of cutting the grass and weeds in this area at the height they were then. Inspired, I kept cutting that part of the lawn. You can see the difference between cut and uncut areas in the photo at the top, taken on May 9th, about the time when the warm-season grasses start to grow strongly in this area. Maybe the key to mowing with the reel mower lay with proper blade adjustment. It was time to try an experiment: could I now cut the entire lawn with the reel mower?

By the end of June I had learned the answer: yes, but with qualifications. It turned out that not only do the blades need to be properly adjusted, but the lawn must be cut no less often than once a week during that time, the mowed rows should overlap a greater distance than I overlap rows mowed with the powered mower, and zoysia needs to be double-mowed with the reel mower I use (mow north-south first, for instance, then east-west). Mowing once a week with a gasoline-powered mower required about four hours; with a reel mower it required about eight to ten hours. Once the plantain flower stalks began to appear, the reel-mower-cut lawn suffered in appearance compared to the power-mower-cut lawn, but otherwise no difference in appearance was apparent to me.

From a physical-workout standpoint the reel mower won out over the gasoline-powered mower. I had no trouble bicycling up hills, for instance, during that time, having built up stamina from mowing the lawn. I also preferred using the reel mower to mow the entire lawn for its lack of vibration and noise, the reduced time and cost to maintain it and its not using fossil fuels, and because I did not need to wear steel-toed boots while using it, as I do when using the gasoline-powered mower. But the extra time I spent mowing the lawn had to come from not doing something else. In my case it came from not weeding the vegetable garden in a timely manner. As I’ll discuss in a later post, not weeding proved to have detrimental effects on vegetable crop yields and on the appearance of the vegetable garden. When I returned home at the end of July after three weeks away on family business to a garden taken over by weeds and a need to harvest potatoes and onions and plant fall crops right away, I realized I needed to re-think the best strategy for mowing our lawn. Mowing once a week in order to use the reel mower won’t work with the size lawn we have. I can mow every two or three weeks, even less often in a drought, if I mow with the powered mower as I have done in past years, but I wanted to reduce its use. Eventually I figured out a mowing strategy that reduces powered-mower use to a minimum. I’m back to using the reel mower where it works best, in the front yard. I use other means to mow the rest of the yard.

Reel mowers work best and are easiest to push when you cut the lawn often, so that only 1/3 to 1/2 of the grass blade is being cut each time. In the St. Louis metro area, that translates to no less frequent mowing than once a week from April through June and September through October as well if we are receiving normal rainfall. Less frequent mowing might work in the hot and usually drier months of July and August, especially for those of you who have bluegrass and fescue lawns. Reel mowers are most appropriate for those of you who have less than 1/4 acre (about 10,000 square feet) of lawn, to keep lawn mowing time minimized. The majority of urban and suburban properties are 1/4 acre or less, and many are 1/8 acre (about 5,000 square feet) or less. If your lawn falls in this size range and is all or mostly composed of cool-season lawn grasses such as bluegrass and fescue, I recommend ridding yourself of fossil-fueled mowers and getting a reel mower instead. Choose the best one for your needs from this chart. You can buy the reel mower from that site (I will if I need to replace mine in the future) or see if a retailer in your area carries it. Some big-box stores and smaller hardware stores carry reel mowers these days.

If your lawn is mostly composed of zoysia or bermudagrass, look at this blog entry for the best reel mowers to cut these tough grasses. Then consider carefully the size of your lawn and how much time you have available to cut it to decide if a reel mower is practical for you. I would not want to use a reel mower on a lawn of this type that was more than 5,000 square feet (about 1/8 acre) in size, preferably less than that. But you might think differently.

While reel mowers require less maintenance than powered mowers, they do need to be kept properly sharpened and adjusted. How often you need to do that, and how it’s done, varies among the different mowers. Be sure you know what to do and how often to do it, and what equipment is needed, for the mower you obtain. Some companies include the equipment with the mower. In other cases you can purchase a sharpening kit to do it yourself or take the mower to a sharpening service.

If your lawn has a lot of weeds like sedge and plantain which reel mowers do not cut well, you may want to consider ways to reduce the coverage of weeds, or using other human-powered tools to whack off those weeds after mowing is completed. A grass whip, weed cutter, or scythe are all possibilities.

Next post we’ll look at another option for mowing lawns and discuss the mowing philosophy that I worked out this summer.


  1. Claire: I applaud your efforts and persistence! A few years back I considered getting a reel mower, but weekly (or more frequent) mowing is not something I'll do. So instead I worked on reducing my lawn areas, converting that mowing/maintenance time that a reel mower would require into digging new beds and planting.

    So my gasoline push mower gets used every couple of weeks (or maybe only once a month in dry months) for 45 minutes or so. It seems like a good compromise to me.

    (I've considered battery-powered mowers too, but the prospect of running out of charge halfway through kills it for me. Plus you also need to mow more frequently. Bleh.)

    It's not work, it's gardening!

    1. We are doing the same thing: reducing gasoline mower usage by reducing lawn areas and mowing less often. I heartily support that approach. It sounds like you have come up with the best response to your situation. I'm still working on mine (check the next post for more details).

      Our previous house was on a much smaller lot. I mowed that lot with a corded electric mower. That mower was more comfortable to use than our gasoline mower (maybe because it was not as powerful) and I managed to avoid running over the cord, but the mower quit working after only a few years, for reasons unknown to me. The possibility of running out of charge before finishing mowing is why I passed up a battery-powered mower at that time in favor of a corded version. And I'm not sure that an electric mower, corded or battery-powered, is preferable to a gasoline mower on environmental grounds. Around here, since coal-burning plants provide most of our electricity, I think gasoline mowers might actually pollute less.

  2. Hi Claire. Excellent experiments. It will be interesting to hear about the differences in yields with the competition from unwanted plants too.

    Generally, the wildlife provide free mowing services here, but Stumpy and Co can't keep up at this time of year (late Spring) and that translates to about 3 days of pushing a small Honda push mower about the place. It's a big job as it covers over a hectare of grass.

    Ride on mowers can be hazardous on slopes as the centre of gravity is so high. Small tractors have a similar problem too.

    My lady gifted me a sharp hook for weeding under the fruit trees which I'll have to do soon. I'll let you know how it goes. It is forged from a single steel ingot.

    1. You have much more grass than I do! But at least Stumpy and friends help you out with the mowing much of the time (though I know they take occasional rewards for their service in the form of plants you would prefer they did not eat).

      We don't have much in the way of large herbivores in the immediate area. The densely packed houses in the subdivisions that surround our street discourage deer. A few blocks away and on the other side of the railroad tracks, however, there are a goodly number of deer. I'm glad to not have them as they love to eat vegetables and perennials. The local rabbits eat grass and weeds but are not large enough to do my mowing for me.

    2. And do let me know how the hook for weeding works! Do you stand up while using it?

  3. When it comes to backyard lawn care, I try to count on my spouse. Unfortunately, he travels for two weeks every month. If I need to mow the lawn during his travel, I use a corded electric mower. We have discussed the possibility of a more eco-friendly mower for our backyard.

    Kristina Cobb @ Denny's Lawn

  4. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

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    1. Hi Mary, thanks for the compliment! I don't have a lot of time to blog but will do what I can.

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