Folks were maintaining lawns and cutting meadows long before the advent of power tools — motor-powered tools that is. Lawns belonging to early European aristocrats were kept trim by gangs of gardeners wielding grass-trimming scissors. Peasants who tilled those same estates made hay with scythe and rake. That work, which was every bit as tedious as it was grueling, stimulated the minds of 19th-century inventors who, lucky for us, spawned entire industries aimed at offering better ways to manage rank vegetation.
Today hundreds of mower models are available to tackle the landscaping job at hand. No single type qualifies as the best for all purposes. "The best mower" for yours will depend on whether you're interested in maintaining a nicely manicured lawn, managing native grasslands, improving pastures, or just beating back weeds. Here's a roundup of a few of the largest and greatest to help get you started.
The amount of variation in mower types boggles the mind. Some mowers make the cut with a multi bladed reel that sheers the grass against a fixed-bed knife. Indeed, this so-called reel-type mower was first invented in the early 1800s. The reel mower is specifically adept at making fine cuts suitable for formal lawns and golf courses. In today's terms, the reel mower is one of the finest finish-cut mowers available. Reel mowers can be human-powered or motor-powered, and in the case of large estates and country clubs, gangs of connected reel mowers are pulled, pushed, or otherwise powered by tractors. Most other types of finish-cut mowers utilize engine-powered horizontally spinning blades. The small devices are either pushed by the operator or are self-propelled (the operator walks while the engine powers not only the blades but the wheels that drive the machine).
The next step up in finish mowers involves some means for the operator to ride along. These riding-type finish-cut mowers include zero-turning radius (ZTR) machines, three- and four-wheel riders, and lawn tractors with a mowing deck attached. Larger rotary-type finish-cut mowers tend to be mounted on a compact tractor's three-point hitch. Many rotary mowers trail behind the tractor, and some mount between the front and rear wheels. Large finish-cut mowers that mount to the front of equipment such as tractors and utility vehicles are also available.
Rough-cut mowers are at the opposite end of the spectrum from reel mowers. These brutes are powered with their own engine or through a tractor's power takeoff (PTO) — one or more exposed spinning shafts that can be used to power a variety of implements. (Some are also powered by hydraulic systems.) These machines are capable of munching tall weeds, grass, crop residue, and saplings up to several inches in diameter. This means you can mow less often, even allowing your meadows to mature, providing valuable wildlife habitat. These mowers are what you need to maintain a wildflower meadow or cut back pastures for intensive grazing. Most rough-cut mowers use heavy, horizontally-oriented rotary blades that cut, shred, and pulverize their way through vegetation. Some rough-cut mowers are flail-type. Rough-cut mowers are perfect for managing meadows and ditches.
If you prefer a nicely manicured look for your back 40, a hybrid mower might be in order. There aren't many hybrid rough/finish-cut mowers out there. Some of the largest capacity hybrids make the cut with a series of small-hinged hook- or T-shaped blades (flails) attached to a heavy, horizontally oriented shaft or drum that rotates at high speed during operation. This so-called flail mower works by slinging the legion of little cutters at sufficient speed that they sever, shred, and pulverize coarse vegetation. Because the flails can swing upward when they hit a root or rock, flail mowers can be used on ground too rough for fixed-blade units. When spun fast enough, some of these mowers make a cut clean enough to please all but the most discriminating property owners. Other hybrid mowers tend to be beefed-up rotary-style cutters with strong, fixed blades that can be turned fast enough to make a clean cut on the lawn and are strong enough to stand up to coarse material.
If you have a big yard in the country, in all likelihood you will need at least two mowers, depending on how much open land you need to trim. If you have a relatively small yard — a half-acre or less — you can probably get away with a walk-behind motor-powered lawn mower. But even if you need a riding mower to manage an acre or more of lawn, you will probably want a small walk-behind mower to get into tight areas, trim around trees and shrubs, and use in other places where you don't want to drive a rider — such as a steep bank or the edge of your pond. There are many walk-behind mower choices. If your lawn is postage stamp-sized, consider the human- powered reel mower or a cordless electric mower.
Once the lawn grows beyond half an acre or so, consider a larger self-propelled mower. ZTR mowers are available in sizes suitable for lawns up to several acres. These machines are usually steered with a pair of levers, can turn in place and make short shrift of the mowing.
If your yardwork goes beyond mowing, consider purchasing a garden tractor with a mower deck, in addition to other implements such as tillers, blades, carts, or rakes. The garden tractor isn't as maneuverable as the ZTR, but it is good at going straight and pulling tools through the garden. A lawn tractor is a lighter-duty version of the garden tractor. It makes a good riding mower and trailer-tow vehicle, but in general, its transmission isn't up to the task of heavy garden work.
As the lawn gets larger, you might look for larger and more powerful finish mowers. Several manufacturers offer trailing mowers that can be pulled by small tractors, ATVs, or UTVs. If you already own an ATV, a self-powered trailing mower makes an excellent choice. Likewise, if you already own a compact tractor and have acres of lawn, you might consider purchasing a finishing mower deck that mounts to the tractor and is powered by it.
Depending on the amount of open area you need to maintain, you may want to add a rough-cut mower to the mix. If you have only a few field acres to mow, a self-powered mower pulled by an ATV or UTV is ideal. This is also where you might consider a hybrid, but rough country mowing is hard on any mower and can affect the finish performance negatively. Your garden tractor can also motivate pull-type mowers over hill and dale, but its relatively short stature makes it difficult to see over tall grass and weeds. That tractor's lack of suspension will also make for a rough ride, which will invariably lead to frame damage or worse. As the acreage you need to mow grows, it would be best to step up to a rough-cut mower that attaches directly to your compact or full-sized tractor.
In general, you will find good quality mowers wherever you look, but some (typically lighter and less costly) "consumer-grade" machines are designed for relatively light use where other (heavier and more costly) "professional-grade" models are designed for more frequent and longer operation. If you mow an acre of grass once a week for five months of the year, the lighter duty machine will probably work and last well. If you mow more often or have substantially more acreage, you will want to choose a heavier-duty model.
For best results, talk to friends, read everything you can, scour the Web, and find a knowledgeable salesperson at a trusted dealership to help sort through the choices. As with any tool, spending a bit more up front can lead to real economy over time.
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