Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
Reel (push) mowers have been around for many years, but have been all but replaced by the ubiquitous gas-powered rotary lawn mowers. Per hour of operation, however, a gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a typical auto. To reduce the environmental cost of lawn mowing, a new generation of reel mowers has been designed which operate much more effectively than the old push mowers, and with zero impact on the environment.
Last spring I decided to replace my power mower with one of these new reel mowers. I bought a new reel mower for $180 and put it to the test on my lawn, which is approximately 2500 sq ft. Here are my conclusions after a season of use.
Ease of use
At first it seemed surprisingly easy to push the mower. By the end of the mowing session, however, I noticed a light sweat on my brow. These newly designed reel mowers are easier to use than the clunky ones I used as a teenager, but they are not effortless. Still, after a season of use, I’m satisfied with the overall ease of use. It gives the light aerobic workout I need after a day sitting at the computer.
The reel mower does the job of cutting the grass but the lawn doesn’t look as perfectly cut as when I used the rotary power mower. The lawn looks cut, but not manicured. I’m satisfied with this. In theory, because the reel mower cuts with a shearing cut, the grass tips stay greener and the lawn looks healthier. After one season, I don’t see much of a change in how the lawn looks in this regard.
In general, using the reel mower was pretty easy but there were a few things to learn. Our lawn winds around a vegetable garden, a few trees and shrub beds. It took several sessions to figure out the best cutting route to get the job done quickly and easily. Some other considerations are:
- How much more time does it take to cut the lawn? – With the power mower it took about 30 min. to cut the grass; with the reel mower it takes about 40 minutes. (my lawn is 2500 sq ft) Corner areas slow the job down because, unlike the power mower, you have to push the reel mower forward, then back a couple times.
- Tall grass is a problem – The reel mower will not cut tall grass, such as the odd bits of quack(swamp) grass growing in my lawn which can grow to 8″ seemingly overnight. There are only a few small patches, so I can yank them out as I go, but if there were much more of this swamp grass, the reel mower would be inadequate for the job. A simple solution for this is to buy a grass whip (around $15) which makes it easy to whip down the bits of grass which the reel mower may miss.
- Only about half the cut grass is picked up by the basket – Reel mowers contribute to the health of the lawn by ‘grass cycling’, that is, they leave the cut grass on the lawn. These cuttings add nitrogen to the lawn, a natural fertilizer. If you don’t want the ‘look’ of the cut grass on the lawn, you can use a basket attachment. However, the basket only catches about half the cut grass, because the blades throw the grass in a forward direction.
- Edge-cutting is not as close – The reel mower has its wheels outside of the blades while the rotary power mower has the wheels inset; the power mower is able to cut closer to the edges of beds and fences. I use an electric weedeater to trim the edges and fenceline, so this doesn’t matter too much.
- Coarse grass and weeds are harder to cut – Reel mowers are more likely to push over hawkweed and other coarse plants in your lawn, especially if the blades aren’t sharp. In contrast, lawn blends made up primarily of fine fescues are thinner and more compatible.
In conclusion, I found the reel mower was pretty easy to use and effective at cutting the grass, with the following considerations:
- It’s important to be timely in cutting the lawn – If the grass gets too tall between mowing sessions, it will be considerably more work.
- Lawn size should be under 3000sq ft – Unless you’re sharing the work with a helper, it gets to be a chore with a larger lawn.
- A trimmer/edger is helpful for edging – Unless shrub beds and other lawn features are edged with flat paving stones which the mower wheels can ride over, an electric trimmer/edger may be necessary for neat edge trimming.
Once these adjustments were learned, there was considerable satisfaction at having maintained a lawn without using a gas powered mower. I don’t miss the noise and fumes of the old mower, or the jugs of gas and oil in the garden shed. It’s been a liberating experience.