Gardening Articles: Care :: Tools & Equipment

Choosing A Lawn Mower

by Maggie Oster

Whether your lawn is a lush, velvety green carpet or, shall we say, less than perfect, the odds are high that you cut it with a lawn mower. For most of us, this means the type known as "a walk-behind rotary power mower."

With prices ranging from about $150 to $700, you might wonder about the value of some mower features and whether you need them all.

Do you want the mower to pull you along as it cuts, or do you want to push it forward? Most gardeners opt for the former, called "self-propelled," but you'll find lower prices among the latter.

Self-propelled mowers have the controls on a lever or bar within a few inches of the main handle. Current safety regulations require you to grip that lever in order to operate the engine. Once the lever is released, the engine automatically shuts off. It's an important safety feature but can be a nuisance.

What's new?

A new feature, called a blade-brake clutch, on some of the high-end walk-behind mowers allows you to let go of the drive lever without the engine stopping. This means you can pause to pick up a branch or a toy in the way without having to restart the machine.

Another fancy new feature is hydrostatic drive. It allows for continuously variable speed control and a reverse gear. It also provides better handling on slopes and in wet conditions.

Variable-speed mowers have some of the advantages of hydrostatic mowers, but at lower cost. To enjoy the conveniences of a blade-brake clutch, look for a mower with either a hydrostatic or variable-speed drive.

How much do you dread trying to start the mower? If you battle with any kind of gasoline engine, consider the ease of electric ignition. A rechargeable battery starts the motor with the turn of a key rather than a yank on a starter rope.

Not withstanding the ease of electric start, all the newer, gas-powered engines are much easier to start. Most have a push button priming system that squirts gasoline into the carburator, and a simplified throttle system. Many mowers also have the pull cord up on the handle so you don't have to bend to pull it.

Another option for those who don't want to deal with gas engines at all is an electric mower. They start with a switch and run quietly.

Mulching mowers are pretty much required these days, simply because it's more sensible to leave clippings on the lawn than send them to a landfill. Mulching mowers have a doughnut-shaped deck (the piece that covers the blade and holds the engine) and a multipitch blade. The outer section of the blade pulls grass up and cuts it, then the air currents created within the deck cause the clippings to keep swirling around until they are finely chopped. Air pressure forces these tiny clippings down into the turf, where they decompose.

Don't worry about leaving clippings on the lawn; they enrich the soil, resulting in greener, more vigorous turf.

Some mowers can only mulch; others -- called "3-in-1" -- can mulch, bag, or discharge clippings to the side. If you go this route, be sure that you can easily (without tools) change back and forth among these options.

One advantage of the 3-in-1 type mower is that it allows you to save clippings for the compost pile. Baggers are also handy in autumn for collecting shredded leaves for mulching or composting.

Bagging mowers shoot clippings to either the side or rear of the mower. Side-baggers tend to be lighter and less expensive. Rear-baggers offer greater capacity and allow the mower to trim closely in whichever direction you're mowing. Because it's something you'll do innumerable times, check the ease of removing the bag.

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