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Way to Mow: Choosing the Right Lawn Mower for You

by Jessica Groach, All About Lawns Columnist

If you're like most people, you have a love/hate relationship with your lawn. A properly maintained lawn can be a beautiful, relaxing place for your family to enjoy. Lawn care, however, can be a real pain in the grass--unless you invest in the right mower.

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The key to proper lawn care is choosing just the right mower for your needs. Considering the wide range of lawn mowers available today, purchasing a mower can be a daunting task. We've assembled the following information about lawn mowers, so you can compare options and select the best lawn mower for your lawn.

What to Know Before You Mow

You know you need a mower, but that doesn't mean you should head right out to the showroom. First, assess the following:

  • How big is your lawn?
  • Are there any slopes or steep grades?
  • Are there obstacles like trees or flower beds?
  • How dense is your grass? This will determine your blade size and rotation.
  • What is your environment like? Consider whether noise or air pollution is a concern for you or your neighbors, or whether there are young children or animals around. Also investigate your neighborhood's zoning laws: are there restrictions on noise, certain types of engines, or other zoning issues?
  • How much can you spend?

Write down your answers to these questions, and take them with you as you shop.

The Lay of the Land

Those who mow speak in a language all their own. Here's a "primer" of some basic terminology:

  • Bagging vs. Mulching: A good mower should bag and mulch. Bagging is great in the fall, for chopping up leaves or catching those occasional pebbles or twigs on the lawn. At other times of year, you might prefer to mulch. Mulching shreds the grass clippings into tiny pieces, then redistributes those pieces evenly across the lawn surface. It's free fertilizer, and there's no bag for you to change or dispose of.
  • Deck: The deck is essentially the casing that houses the blade. The longer the deck, the longer the blade, the more grass you cut, and the faster your mowing time. For big lawns, choose a longer deck. Aluminum and plastic decks don't rust, but steel is more durable.
  • Horsepower: Walk-behind mowers are usually between 6 and 10 horsepower. Riding mowers are usually between 12 and 18. Mowing speed depends on horsepower, as well as the rate of blade rotation and the width of the deck. Don't pay extra for more horsepower than you really need.
  • Turning radius: This comes into play more with riding mowers. The smaller the turning radius, the more maneuverable the mower is around shrubs, trees, or even as it doubles back on the lawn.

So now that you have the basic terms down, you're ready to compare lawn mowers.

Self-Propelled Mowers

If your yard is large and/or sloped, buy a self-propelled mower. Choose one with adjustable speeds, so you can set your mower to move at a comfortable walking speed. A mower with a blade-brake clutch won't shut off if you let it go, so you can bend over to pick up a toy or a branch. Self-propelled mowers cost a bit more than most walk-behind mowers, ranging from $500 to about $900.

Push Mowers

If your lawn is fairly level and small, a push mower may be for you. These versions are relatively cheap and easy to use, but it takes a bit more work to push them. Push mowers are less complex than self-propelled mowers, so they break down less often. You can pick up a push mower for about $150; in fact, Consumer Reports' top-rated push mower is about $200.

Electric Mowers

Electric mowers are as easy to start as flicking a switch; they're very quiet, which will make your neighbors happy; and they're better for the environment than gas-powered motors. But unfortunately, they often require a cord. If you've ever vacuumed a large space, you know what a pain a cord can be, and with a lawn mower, running over a cord can be dangerous. Cordless versions are available; these run on rechargeable batteries, which drain in about an hour. If you buy a cordless electric mower, buy a spare battery. And be prepared to mow more often, as they aren't made for deep cutting. You can find a top-of-the-line electric mower for about $200.

Reel Mowers

These retro favorites are making a comeback as yards get smaller, homes get closer together, and protecting the environment becomes more of a concern. There's no engine, so they're trouble free and very quiet. They also tend to cut closer than motorized mowers, so you don't have to mow as frequently. And they're cheap; you can find a great reel mower for about $100 to $200. The downside? They can be hard work if your lawn is at all large or hilly.

Riding Mowers, Lawn Tractors, and Garden Tractors

If your lawn is an acre or larger, you'll need a riding mower. Don't confuse riding mowers with lawn or gardening tractors. A riding mower's cutting deck is in front, while a lawn tractor's cutting deck is mid-mounted. This makes a riding mower more maneuverable, but a lawn tractor can accept attachments like power tillers, post-hole diggers or snow plows, making it more functional. Lawn tractors have a hard time on hills, especially when the grass is wet, due to their weight. A garden tractor has large wheels and greater ground clearance. They're designed for what Michael MacCaskey of the National Gardening Association calls "ground-engaging tasks," which include tilling or carrying soil.

A riding mower of any sort can cost you $1000 all the way up to $9000, depending on how many "bells and whistles" you have. High-end riding mowers come equipped with extras such as cup holders, CD players, cruise control, and sun shades.

Where to Shop

Buy your lawn mower from a dealer or retail store that offers equipment options for your mower. Service dealerships are best for people who have neither the time nor inclination to tune up their own mowers, but non-servicing dealerships usually offer the best prices. Dealerships tend to carry more brands at a better range of prices than major chain stores. Buying a used mower may be the cheap way to go, but it also may mean that you can't get replacement parts later. Finally, check any model with a current recall list before you buy--mowers often get recalled.

So now you know how to mow; get off your grass and go shopping!


About the Author
Jessica Groach-Santina is a freelance writer with a background in media and promotions. She also teaches first-year writing courses at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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