Lawn Mowers for the 21st Century

Reel, electric, & battery-powered

Mowing the lawn must be a guy thing. Those big, gas-powered mowers are loud, stinky, and a little dangerous. They spew as much pollution per hour as 40 fairly new cars. As with most large power tools, however, there's a kind of cachet that goes with those big machines.

Women tend to prefer slightly smaller machines that are less noisy and easier to start. When it comes time to cut the grass, there aren't many women who think, "Hey, you know what I'd really like to do right now? Yank on a cord a lot, breathe noxious fumes, sweat, and pollute the air!"

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the gas-powered mower—some might even appeal to the most manly of mowers—like reel mowers (the kind you push and which require some endurance), as well as electric mowers and battery-powered mowers. On the cutting edge, but too expensive to review are solar-powered and robotic mowers that might appeal to the technologically inclined.

There are downsides and upsides to each, but depending on the size of your yard and the type of foliage you have, one of these mowers may be just perfect for you.

"Reel" lawnmowers

If you don't have an acre of lawn to mow, reel lawnmower might be a good choice. Lacking engines, they aren't as noisy or polluting as gas-powered machines. They are safer than using a rotary mower (we all like our big toes where they are, thanks) and are a great way to get a little extra exercise. (An average 170 pound person can burn 400 calories per hour.) One may run you about $80–300 depending on the manufacturer and quality, but you'll save money in gas and maintenance.

Lightweight plastics and alloys have been incorporated into newer reel lawnmowers, so they are less cumbersome and more maneuverable than their clunky ancestors. With a bag attachment, you can collect clippings for the compost pile.

There are several downsides to this mower. Reel mowers work best when the lawn is fairly small, uniform in texture and thickness, and flat. It's hard to mow heavy grass thick with weeds, on lumpy lawns, and we won't even discuss hills and dales. The type of grass can make a big difference too.

The first spring mowing can be an issue. Rapid growth as a product of March and April rains means thick, high grass that can be hard to cut. By the time weather dries out enough to mow, you'll need a scythe to cut it. This can be problematic throughout the growing season if you tend to have a fair amount of rain. Because reel mowers are designed for just grass, tree litter like twigs or big leaves can get stuck in the mower and you'll have to remove them by hand. That causes a lot of annoying starting and stopping, so rake the yard first if there's a lot of fallen debris. Reel lawnmowers also can't be used during fall to shred leaves for the compost pile like rotary mowers can.

Going electric

Electric mowers are a bit more expensive than reel mowers—running about $200 - $500—but for the most part they're very durable and easy to use. There's no yanking on a pull cord, and though noisy, they aren't as noisy as a gas engine. Electric mowers are comparatively low-maintenance and work perfectly for lawns that are 1/4 of an acre or less. In many respects, running a corded electric mower is very similar to using a vacuum cleaner. Most models have height adjustments and allow bagging grass clippings just like their brawnier, gas-powered cousins.

Like all electronics that need to be plugged in, the mower's downside is that it'll only go as far as the cord can reach. This isn't normally a problem unless you have a larger yard. For obvious reasons, you won't want to run the mower when it's raining. And pay attention! If you aren't watching what you're doing you could drive right over your cord. Buy a long extension cord in a bright color. Yellow or orange work well.

Cordless rechargeables

Previously, you had to have a power outlet nearby to plug the mower into, but mowers are now available in cordless, rechargeable models. Battery-powered mowers are easier to use than the plug-in type, but the battery doesn't hold a charge forever, so you need a small lawn or a spare battery. Rechargeable mowers cost about the same as the corded electrical models, around $200-$500.

Some rechargeable mowers have a narrow cutting width, but since they're highly maneuverable, it's easy enough to make up for it. Most batteries completely recharge in 16 hours or less. The major downside is that most cordless mowers use lead-acid batteries which pose both a manufacturing and disposal conundrum from an environmental standpoint.

Should you lose the mower for good?

Lawns are very attractive when they are carefully maintained and they can provide cooling around your home and provide an air conditioning effect during the summer.

They can, however, be as labor intensive as the most demanding garden. You need to understand your grass mix and its growing cycle in your particular climate. In many areas, no matter how carefully you cultivate your yard, native grasses can overtake your desired grass mix in just a few years. Weeds are a constant problem and watering can be very expensive to say nothing of the time it takes to fertilize and groom it to keep it attractive.

Many homeowners have found that they can get rid of their lawn mower all together by creating rock gardens, planting native plants, or creating an edible garden of perennials.

With just a small lawn combined with garden beds of attractive natives and well-chosen perennial flowers and ornamentals, you can have the best of all possible worlds. Regardless, of your choice, there will always be something to do in the yard or garden.

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