Documents: Garden Design:

Choosing A Walk-Behind Mower

Part 2
by Larry Hodgson
September 9, 1999

In the previous column, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages, not to mention the pricing, of electric, battery-powered, gas-powered, and reel mowers. In this article, we'll study other elements you'll need to choose from in purchasing a lawn mower.

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

Mulching mowers (available both in electric and gas models) are designed to cut grass into very fine pieces so that the clippings simply disappear into the lawn as you mow, eliminating the need to rake or bag clippings. Some mulching mowers will also do the same thing for autumn leaves (talk about reducing your work load!) or may have a special insertion you have to add for that purpose. Although a mulching mower theoretically doesn't need a grass chute, you'd do best to choose one that than does have a side or back discharge shoot that you render operational, if needed, for those cases where the grass is simply too high for mulch mowing.

Non-mulching rotary mowers will feature either a side or back discharge chute. The side discharge chute offers you the option of bagging the clippings or letting the machine throw them to the side (hopefully onto your lawn, not your driveway!). Although the grass catcher for these models is usually sold separately, buying it is worthwhile if you don't intend to leave the clippings on the lawn, as raking can make a long day's mowing even longer. On the other hand, a side grass catcher can make mowing near walls and objects more awkward or cause the mower to tip sideways when it is nearly full.

Rear discharge machines are easier to manoeuvre, but also more expensive, partly because a grass catcher is always included. With a rear discharge machine, you'll probably want to bag the clippings anyway: if you take the bag off, you'll be shooting clippings all over yourself! Some do feature a rear deflector, a hinged door at the back which not only helps prevent the clippings from covering your legs, but is also a safety feature, protecting you from flying stones and debris.

You'll also find mowers than can convert from rear-baggers to side-chute mowers to mulching mowers. If you're looking for versatility, they're the obvious choice.

Other Mower Features

There are a wide variety of other features you should consider when buying a lawn mower. Here are a few of the most important ones. Unless otherwise mentioned, all the features below are available on both electric and gasoline rotary mowers.

Mulcher and Shredder Attachments: Many modern models of side or rear discharge mowers offer an optional mulcher and/or leaf shredder attachment.

Flip-over handles: They are standard on many hand-reel mowers and smaller mulching and side chute rotary mowers. Rather than turning the machine around at the end of a row, you just flip the handle over and head back in the opposite direction.

Self-Powered Mowers: On these models, not only will the motor turn the blades, but also the wheels. They're considerably more expensive (often costing nearly two times more than a similar hand-push model) and, with more moving parts that can break down, require more maintenance, but can be very useful on large or steeply sloped lawns. Self-powered does not mean easy to manoeuvre, however, especially when cutting around flower beds and other obstacles. Look for a model that allows you to mow with the self-power mechanism off when you are doing precision work or you may find the effort you've saved on having the mower drive itself is lost trying to keep it under control. And variable speed is must... unless you want the mower to drag you around!

Electric Starters: Most gasoline engines require a couple of tugs on a pull-cord to start the engine, but, for a price, you can get an electric-start mower. Before choosing this option, talk to your dealer. Some electric starters break down with alarming frequency.

Blade-Brake Clutch: New models of mowers generally include a blade-brake clutch, a valuable safety feature causing the blade to stop turning within 3 seconds when you release the handle (and without turning off the motor in the case of gasoline engines).

Removable Dethatcher: Dethatcher attachments (they resemble a strong-tined lawn rake) can be added to the front of some models and help remove thatch as you mow. They are best adapted to self-propelled mowers, as they make using a push mower very strenuous.

Deck Width: Lawn mowers have a range of different deck sizes, ranging from as little as 18" for small reel mowers to over 23" for some rotary mowers. Obviously, the wider the swath you cut with each pass, the faster your lawn will be cut. On the other hand, wider mowers are heavier and more awkward. If you want a mower that is more than 22" in width, you should consider a self-powered model. And before you buy a wider-than-average mower, check that it fits through the gate or shed door!

Vacuum Action: This feature causes the grass to be pulled into an upright position for a more even cut, then sucks the clippings into the grass catcher rather than pushing them, leading to less blockage. It is usually available only on top-of-the-line gasoline rotary mowers.

Heavy-duty Wheels: It's got to the point where wheel mechanisms on lower-range lawn mowers break down more often than any other part! Models with wide, heavy duty wheels and sturdy wheel mechanisms last longer, cause fewer problems and deliver a better cut.

Lever-Activated Height Adjustment: If you change the mowing height often, you'll appreciate single lever height adjustment: just squeeze the lever and all four wheels can be raised or lowered at once. Available on many upper-range models.

Fold-Up Storage: Hand-reel mowers are usually easy to put away and take up little space. Rotary mowers are much more bulky, so, if space is at a premium, you might want to look at models featuring collapsible handles. Remember though that these handles may be more subject to wear and tear than standard handles.

Guarantees: Lower-range models may offer only 1 or 2 year guarantees; heavier duty models usually offer 3 to 5 year ones. On the other hand, if you follow the manufacturers instructions to the letter, you can expect even an inexpensive mower to last 10 years and more under normal use... and heavy duty models may well outlast their owners!

Where to Buy Your Mower

There is no doubt that you'll find the best prices on mowers in chain and discount stores. On the other hand, the salespeople there can rarely answer your questions and service is perfunctory at best. Unless you are very knowledgeable about lawn mowers and able to do most of the repairs yourself, you'd do better buying from a lawn equipment specialist who can supply parts and service. They'll be able to direct you to models with a reputation for problem-free use or hidden but useful features. And by buying from the same company that will be servicing the mower, you can expect excellent, rapid and personalised service.

Selecting the right mower for your needs does require a little effort on your part... but if you've chosen well, you might well never need another mower for as long as you own your house!

Larry Hodgson

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