Adventures in Green Lawn Care

Reader Contribution by Leigha Dickens
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I hate mowing the grass. It’s hot, it’s messy, it usually triggers my hay fever, and it’s one of those repetitive tasks that never seems to get done: a few days after you’ve finished it, you have to go and do it all over again.

In addition to merely hating an odious chore, the environmentalist in me cringes to ponder the utter ridiculousness that is the American Lawn: that we would supplant native plants with exotic ones, waste such water in nurturing them, kill their competitors with potentially toxic chemicals, and nurture their roots with fertilizers that create runoff and are energy intensive to produce…only to go and use a fossil-fuel powered engine to cut them all short again at regular intervals. Back before Facebook, in the days of chain emails, my aunt once forwarded to me an amusing imagined conversation between God and St. Francis, highlighting this ridiculousness.

And it’s not only Americans: on a trip to Australia some time ago, when the country was deep in the middle of a drought (as it often is), one of my sharpest memories is the many apologies my Australian friends felt the sincere need to offer, because all of the grass was brown.

So in my own personal quest to rise out from under the Lawn Paradigm, but maintaining a desire to keep my neighbors from hating me, I purchased a “reel mower” two years ago, and stalwartly used it to try and maintain what I believed to be an acceptable level of shortness to my small urban plot of grass—no fossil fuels, pesticides, or fertilizers required.

And it worked. Sort of. Pictured here is a section of my tiny suburban lawn, fresh-cut with the reel mower. 

The upsides were that the simple technology accomplished the job much easier than I thought it would. It blasted through clover very much like the proverbial hot knife through butter, and I have found it vastly easier to turn and maneuver over the bumps and hills of my Asheville lawn than even the lightest of self-propelled push-mowers. Modern reel mowers are made of very lightweight materials. It is quiet, doesn’t assault the user with gas fumes, and reel mower manufacturers claim that the spinning blade which scissors grass, as opposed to a chopping blade which whacks the tops off, provides a healthier cut for the grass.

The downsides include a slightly longer mowing time, as some areas have to be mowed over more than once to get an even cut. Ok, I thought, I can handle this, since I’m not inhaling gas fumes when I do this, it’s just a chance to spend more time outside. Yet by far the biggest downside emerged around mid-June, when several types of grass and even more types of weeds begin to go to seed. Then they shot up thick, hardy stalks that required several runs of the reel mower to be cut, stalks that grew so quickly that they soon become too tall to be cut at all, and the reel mower just knocked them over instead. One week of vacation later, and my yard was a sea of foot-high grass seed stalks.

I began to despair. Was this why all of the neighbors were whispering surreptitiously behind their hands as I walked by?

I tried to beat this, also without fossil fuels by means of a swinging grass scythe, but ultimately was defeated. I resorted to borrowing my parents’ old gas powered mower for the weekend, resolving to do better in future summers about keeping ahead of the grass height.

Some species of grass do better with the reel mower than others. Clover, as I mentioned, does wonderfully, as does fescue, while Bermuda and St. Augustine type grasses present more of a challenge. Weeds like plantain and dandelion can also present a problem when they get tall enough. Keeping everything short can help prevent these weeds from spreading—but once again, that means keeping up with it. In the most prolific part of the growing season, that may mean mowing it nearly every other day.

Conclusion: If a beautifully manicured and weed-free lawn is what you’re after, then conventional lawn-mowing is going to be the most headache-free way to achieve this—although if you could supplant high-maintenance species with more drought-tolerant ones, you would aid in the goal of water conservation. However, if you just want to get it mowed so the neighbors don’t complain, then a reel mower might well be for you, as it does the job and even looks pretty nice if you can stay on top of it.

And if you just hate having to take any time at all to work on the lawn, then a rock garden may be for you.

Leigha Dickens is the Green Building Coordinator and resident building scientist at Deltec Homes, Inc in Asheville, North Carolina. Deltec manufactures round, energy-efficient, high-quality and highly wind-resistant homes. Learn more about green building with Deltec Homes at