MOTHER'S buyer's guide comparing push, gas and electric lawnmowers.
My dad figured out the perfect low-work, time-saving way to
deal with mowing the grass: He made me do it. Since then
I've had a love-hate relationship with my lawns. I don't
enjoy mowing them any more now than I did when I was 13,
but as soon as the grass gets the least bit shaggy, I feel
the need to cut it.
The longer I put it off, the guiltier I feel, the more it
calls and the more difficult the job becomes.
I could take a cue from my dad and hire a teenager, but I
remember how I used to run the mower over rocks — gouging
chunks of metal out of the cutting blade and sometimes
bending the driveshaft — without thinking twice about it.
There's always the farmyard approach, fencing in the lawn
and running horses, cows or sheep in there. But fencing is
expensive, there are vet bills, shelter for winter, flies
in the manure . . .
Or I could plant zoysia grass. This stuff stays short but
has the texture of a stiff-bristled scrub brush and is only
green between the last and first frosts. Forget that. Some
MOTHER readers are trying to lose their lawns and plant
permaculture gardens, but for many of us, at least some
lawn is a fact of life.
Besides, I remind myself, think of the advantages of real
lawn grass. Even without fertilizers, weed killers and
heavy irrigation, a neatly mown, low-care lawn gives your
property an inviting, park-like look. And if you want to
catch the clippings, they are magnificent additions to the
compost pile, providing as much nitrogen as cow manure.
Laid down thickly in the garden, clippings make weedproof
paths. They also make fine, nutritious mulch for all kinds
of vegetables. Farther out, you may have a meadow or an
orchard that requires mowing only once or twice a year to
keep down volunteer saplings, noxious weeds — such as giant
ragweed, poison ivy or poison oak — and thorny customers
like multiflora roses and greenbriar.
The beauty of a lawn or meadow, as well as the benefit of
usable outdoor space, makes mowing worth the work. As with
any chore, however, the right tool makes the job go easier.
Let's look at the tools available and consider their
merits, comparing push, gas and electric lawnmowers, and starting with the nonpolluting, human-powered
Reel Mowers: $100 to $225
Hand-pushed reel mowers offer multiple advantages over
gas-powered mowers: no noise, no noxious air pollution, no
danger of flying rocks, low maintenance and no worries
about getting them started. Plus you get a great aerobic
workout every time you use them, burning about 300 calories
The secret to easy cutting with these mowers is frequent
mowing. If you let the grass get too long, the reel mower
blades will tend to bind up or take an inordinate amount of
pushing to get the mower through long grass. Cut when the
grass is no more than an inch longer than you want it. A
quarter acre (100 feet by 160 feet) of lawn can be cut in
about an hour with a reel mower. For areas larger than
that, you may want to go to a walk-behind, gas-powered
cutter, either push or self-propelled.
Electric Mowers: $400 to $670
You can buy corded electric mowers that run directly off of
your home's electricity, but keeping the cord out of the
way as you mow is a challenge on all but the smallest
lawns. On the other hand, cordless electric mowers offer
the same advantages of reel mowers: less noise, pollution
and maintenance than gas-powered machines, easy starting,
plus a good workout. They are an especially green choice if
you live where electricity comes from hydroelectric dams -
rather than coal or nuclear power plants — or if you enjoy
free electricity from your own home solar-electric system
or wind generator.
Cordless electric mowers include batteries that have to be
plugged into an outlet after each use to recharge. They
generally are not self-propelled and tend to be heavy
because of their batteries. If a small person will be using
the mower, test drive it at the dealers.
Even greener than a cordless electric mower is the new
Sunwhisper solar-charged mower. The Sunwhisper features two
Siemens photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that charge a Black
& Decker 24-volt, CMMI000 cordless electric mower. You
can either mount the PV panels on your garage or shed roof,
or mount them right on the handles of the mower. As long as
the panels are facing south in full sun, they will keep the
mower's battery charged for about two hours of mowing per
week. If you need an overnight or cloudy-day charge, you
still have the option to recharge by plugging into a home
The Sunwhisper solar-charged mower sells for $670 plus
shipping from FreePowerSystems (www.freepowersys.com). The Black & Decker 24-volt mower lists
Push-Type, Gas-Powered Lawn Mowers: $150 to $350
You might ask why you'd want an engine-powered mower you
have to push rather than one that's self-propelled. There
are three reasons. First, the push mowers cost less.
Second, while self-propelled mowers are fine on large lawns
without many obstacles, the mower you push can be more
easily guided through tight spaces, around trees and
shrubs, and around island beds. Plus its forward or
backward speed is your walking speed. Third, all but the
most serious full-time homesteaders will benefit from a
weekly aerobic workout behind a push mower.
Most mowers of this type have four- to six-horsepower
engines. Avoid any that are underpowered, as they can stall
in high grass and won't make as clean a swath. Look for
engines with clean-burning, overhead valves, rather than
side-valve engines. Make sure the mowing platform can be
adjusted up to 4 inches off the ground. Weeds are
suppressed and lawns are healthier when the grass is
longer. Short-cropped grass exposes roots, and low mowers
can hit rocks or scalp the soil over rough spots.
Self-Propelled, Gas-Powered Lawn Mowers: $200 to $800
Self-propelled, gas-engine mowers reduce some of the
physical work of mowing but cost somewhat more than push
versions. If you decide to buy a self-propelled model, be
aware of several factors that can affect their performance.
First, if you are planning to leave your clippings on the
lawn, look for a mulching deck. This is simply a series of
baffles and blades fixed to the underside of the housing
that covers the rotating blade. When grass is cut, the
baffles recirculate the grass clippings until they are
reduced to fine mulch, which disappears quickly.
Many self-propelled mowers have safety features, such as a
blade-brake-clutch. For the blade to operate, you have to
hold a lever down as part of the handle. When you pause the
unit or release the clutch lever, the blade stops
Some mowers offer a drive system that adjusts to your
Riding Mowers: $800 to $3,200
Big lawns require significant mowing time. Riding mowers
have the great advantage of giving you a place to sit down
while you spend that time. They are lighter and smaller
than heavy-duty lawn and garden tractors, without the
latter's features, such as power take-offs for snowblowing
and tillage, and blades for grading. In effect, they are
lawn mowers with seats.
Features to look for include a short turning radius, which
can run from zero up to 26 inches. A turning radius is
measured by steering the mower into the tightest circle it
can make. The radius of that circle is the turning radius.
A zero turning radius means you can stop the mower, turn
the wheels and zip off in any new direction you choose. A
short turning radius is handy for lawns with lots of
obstacles, trees and flowerbeds.
Many riding mowers come with mulching decks, a good idea if
you want to recycle your clippings back onto the lawn. The
mulching deck will chop the clippings finely, so they
disappear into the lawn. Make sure the riding mower has a
powerful engine of at least eight horsepower, so it can lug
you around the yard as well as cut the grass.
Brush Cutters: $750 to $1,600
For rough work — such as giving a meadow, orchard or wet
spot a once-a-year mowing — there are plenty of
brawny-bladed trimmers, high wheel mowers and brush cutters
on the market.
Bladed trimmers are handhelds similar to string trimmers,
but are sturdier. They usually have two handlebars, gas engines
with one or two horsepower and metal blades that hack
through brushy stems.
High wheel mowers and brush cutters come with plastic
string or blades. String trimmers work well on light, juicy
weeds and grass, but for getting through small shrubs and
saplings, you'll probably want a bladed mower.
One Motor, Many Options Starting from $1,100 to $1,600
Many homesteads need more power equipment than just a
mower. Rather than buy a mower, tiller and snowblower, all
with their own motors, gears and wheels, you might want to
consider a machine that can run several attachments from
the same engine. For example, the Italian BCS tiller is a
quality machine offered by mail from Peaceful Valley Farm
Supply (www.groworganic.com). You can
remove the tiller and attach a mower, brush cutter or
snowblower to this machine. The DR Field and Brush Mower
offers similar flexibility and efficiency. You can buy the
brush mower, then add a lawn mower or snow thrower. The BCS
tillers start at $1,100 and the DR starts at $1,600. If you
have a need for multiple power equipment functions, why not
talk to some of your neighbors and see if you can form a
co-op to purchase and share this kind of machinery?
Electric Mower Enthusiasm
Denise Rubens of Rocky Ridge, Maryland, takes the issue of Earth-friendly mowing seriously — so seriously she uses two cordless battery-powered electric mowers to manage the needs of her 2-acre yard. Her large mowing area has steep hills with thicker grass in the spring, and this terrain pushes the limits of these mowers. However, she was determined to do the job without storing gasoline or creating harmful emissions.
Her first mower was the Black & Decker Cordless Mulching Mower, Model CMM625. Purchased four years ago, this mower offers a 3.5 horsepower engine, an 18-inch blade, and 12-volt lead/acid battery, which charges fully in 24 hours. On a single charge, the mower can cut up to 10,000 square feet, depending on the condition of the grass. However, Rubens had to stretch her mowing over several days in order to allow for recharging time. Despite this inconvenience, she continued to mow in this manner until she could upgrade. "When the mower gets tired, so do I," she says. (Cordless electric mowers generally are not self-propelled. )
Desiring more power, Rubens purchased Black & Decker's Model CMM1000 earlier this year. This upgraded model features across-the-board improvements. It offers a five-horsepower engine, a 19-inch cutting blade and a 24-volt battery, which can recharge in just 16 hours. The CMM1000 cuts a larger area on a single charge, about 19,000 square feet. This mower is bigger and heavier than the CMM625, but what it loses in maneuverability it makes up for in a shorter recharge time and slightly larger cutting swath.
"For areas where there is thick, wet crabgrass, the CMM1000 does the job," says Rubens. "On the other hand, the CMM625 is better on slopes because it's lighter and easier to manage. Both mowers have their strengths and weaknesses, and since I have both, I use them. My area is larger than average, but the CMM1000 can easily handle a modest-sized yard alone."
— Amy Krouse
Mowing Brand Reliability
According to Consumer Reports magazine, John
Deere mowers have the best record when it comes to
reliability. In a survey of 50,000 consumer responses
about mowers purchased between 1996 and 2000, John Deere
models had the fewest repair problems in both the
self-propelled and riding mower categories.