Going for a ride
When choosing a mower, first decide whether you need a riding mower or a non-riding one.
Riding mowers, the more versatile of which are dubbed lawn tractors, generally aren’t necessary for yards under a half acre. They are expensive, require a certain level of maintenance, and need generous storage space.
However, if you have a large property that takes hours to mow, a riding mower can be a godsend. And depending on the design, a riding mower can double as a garden tractor.
Check out the accessories available—they can include a towing cart, a dethatcher, a snow thrower, and a snow blade. Also look into how easily the accessories attach and detach.
Other things to consider when looking at riding mowers:
• How wide is the deck? The wider the deck, the fewer the passes needed to mow an area.
• Consider the engine position. Rear engines usually give better front visibility. Front engines usually mean more power.
• Check out the speed control. It might be a gear lever and clutch-brake combo, a foot pedal control, or a hydrostatic drive system. Hydrostatic systems don’t have a clutch, so they are easier to operate, but they add hundreds of dollars to the price tag.
• Consider a warranty. Riding mowers and lawn tractors are reputed—either fairly or not—to have poor reliability compared to other major appliances.
• Give the mower a spin. Each riding mower handles differently. Some pedals require long, strong legs to press them down adequately. Also check out how easily the mower maneuvers. Zero-radius mowers make the sharpest turns.
When push comes to shove
If you don’t need a riding mower, look at gas-powered self-propelled mowers and gas-powered push mowers.
Self-propelled mowers (photo 1) are good if you need to mow slopes or ditches, if you have a large lawn, or if you don’t have enough upper-body strength to push a mower. However, self-propelled gas mowers also are heavier. Further, if you’re trying to mow a steep slope and the ground is wet, the weight of the machine can tear up the slope and make the mower dangerous to maneuver.
Check to see if the self-propelled mower has a rear- wheel drive or a front-wheel drive. Rear-wheel-drive mowers are easy to move in a straight pattern, while front-wheel-drive units require more guidance to keep straight.
Push mowers (photo 2) are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than self-propelling ones. And since they have fewer moving parts, they’re less likely to break down or develop problems. On the other hand, if you have limited upper-body strength, the lack of self-propulsion might present problems.
Much ado about mulch
A mulching mower finely shreds grass and drops it back on the lawn. Not only does this make mowing easier (no clippings to empty out), but it’s also better for the lawn. Clippings create mulch around grass blades, which conserves moisture and deters weeds. The clippings quickly break down, feeding the soil and improving its texture over time.
Some mowers are designed to be mulching mowers only, while others have kits that turn them into mulching mowers. Either way, they cost slightly more because they require more horsepower to operate. Also, they require a sharp blade to work well. And mulching mowers don’t cut tall or wet grass as well as non-mulching types.
Electric mowers (photo 3) are extremely quiet and have zero emissions, an important issue since lawn mowers create a surprisingly large amount of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency says low-horsepower gasoline machines, such as lawn mowers and leaf blowers, account for 10 percent of the country’s smog. And running one gasoline-powered lawn mower can create as much pollution in one hour as 50 cars driving 20 miles.
The cord on an electric mower limits how far away from a power source you can mow (usually around 100 feet) and also creates the potential hazard of mowing over the cord. Cordless models are available, but the batteries are short-lived (about one hour), so it’s wise to have a spare battery.
Electric mowers are best for fairly tame lawns. They’re not very powerful, which can be a handicap if you have lots of sticks or taller, rough grass.
Old-fashioned reel mowers are back. Their greatest virtue is that they are low-tech and cheap (about $100). They’re made of lighter materials than ever before, but still, on a larger lawn or on slopes, they’ll give you a workout. Sticks tend to jam them, and they don’t cut particularly evenly, especially in tall or damp grass. But they’re an easy way to keep your lawn moderately well mowed with minimal fuss—parents like them because they’re a relatively safe way for older children to mow the lawn.
It’s important to keep reel blades sharp. Sharpening kits work fairly well, but professional sharpening is recommended.
Choosing a mower—
Our buyer’s guide to getting what you need
Best for: flat lawns that are 1 acre or larger.
Advantages: Doesn’t require physical exertion. Lawn-tractor types can do double-duty with various attachments.
Disadvantages: Very expensive, requires ample storage space, not practical on slopes or in yards with lots of trees and other obstacles.
Price range: $750 to $4,000
Gas rotary, self-propelled
Best for: lawns with slight slopes or very large lawns.
Advantages: Self-propulsion makes mowing easier, especially on slopes and when mowing for longer periods of time.
Disadvantages: More expensive than other types, except for riding; the heavier machine can dig into soil on steeper slopes.
Price range: $500 to $900
Gas rotary, push
Best for: small to medium-sized lawns.
Advantages: Less expensive than some other types; good for those who don’t mind a workout.
Disadvantages: Can require significant effort to mow slopes or large lawns.
Price range: $200 to $600
Best for: small lawns, especially those with slopes.
Advantages: Quiet with no emissions. Light weight makes for minimal effort and ideal mowing on slopes. Minimal maintenance.
Disadvantages: Not very powerful. Limited by an awkward cord (usually about 100 feet long) with corded models; battery-powered models tend to have short-lived (an hour or so) batteries, so an extra battery is recommended.
Price range: $100 to $500
Best for: lawns of less than 1,000 square feet and slopes.
Advantages: Inexpensive, low-maintenance, safe, quiet, great for a workout, good on steep slopes.
Disadvantages: Tends not to cut evenly when grass is too tall, too coarse (such as Bermudagrass or St. Augustine), damp, or drought-stressed. Twigs can jam the reel.
Price range: $100 to $150
Veronica Lorson Fowler is a garden writer in Ames, Iowa.