Folks maintained lawns and cut 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 scythes, and 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, whether you are interested in maintaining a nicely manicured lawn, managing native grasslands, improving pastures or just beating back the weeds, there are literally hundreds of mowers to choose from. We’ve included here a roundup of a few of the latest and greatest types to help get you started.
A mower by any other name
As with many fully evolved creatures, the amount of variation in mower types boggles the mind. Some mowers make the cut with a multiblade reel that shears the grass against a fixed bedknife. 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- or engine-powered, and, in the case of large estates and country clubs, teams of connected reel mowers are pulled, pushed or otherwise powered by tractors.
Most other types of finish-cut mowers utilize motor-, engine- or PTO-powered horizontally spinning blades. The smaller of these devices are pushed by the operator, and some are self-propelled (operator walks). The next evolutionary step 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 dedicated riders; and lawn, garden or subcompact tractors with a dedicated mowing deck attached. Larger rotary-type finish-cut mowers tend to be mounted on a compact tractor’s three-point hitch, although many trail behind, and some mount between the front and rear wheels. Large finish-cut mowers that mount to the front of equipment like tractors and utility vehicles also are available.
Rough-cut mowers are at the opposite end of the extreme compared with reel mowers. All these brutes are powered with their own engine or through a PTO (some are hydraulic) located on the vehicle to which they are attached. These machines are capable of munching tall weeds and grass, crop residue and saplings up to several inches in diameter. 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 (see the Image Gallery for an example). Rough-cut mowers are perfect for managing meadows and ditches and, in locales where the climax ecosystem is forest, keeping it out of your open fields. If you are looking for that nicely manicured look in your back 40, a hybrid mower might be in order.
There aren’t that 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 coarser vegetation. When spun fast enough, some of these mowers make a cut that’s clean enough to please all but the most discriminating lawn 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 tough enough to stand up to coarser material.
So many choices when looking for the best lawn mower
In all likelihood, you will need at least two mowers and possibly three, depending on how big your yard is and how much open land you need to keep trim. If you have a relatively small yard — say a half-acre or less — you can probably get away with a walk-behind motor-powered lawn mower. This, of course, depends on how ambitious you are and whether mowing grass is part of your exercise regime. Even if you mow 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 — like a steep bank or the edge of your pond. Walk-behind mower choices are many. If your lawn is postage stamp-sized, then you should consider the human-powered reel mower or a cordless electric mower and skip the hassles associated with maintaining gas engines.
Once the lawn grows beyond half an acre or so, you will want to consider a larger self-propelled mower. ZTR mowers are available in sizes suitable for lawns up to many acres. These machines are usually steered with a pair of levers (often called lap bars), can turn in place, and make short shift of the mowing. Many ZTR manufacturers also offer attachments such as blades, snow throwers, rotary brooms and rear hitches to help owners get more out of them, but they are definitely not quite as versatile as similarly powered compact tractors.
If your yard work goes well beyond mowing, then you might consider purchasing a garden or compact tractor with a mower deck, in addition to other implements such as tillers, blades, carts, rakes, loader, you name it. The small tractor isn’t as maneuverable as the ZTR, but it is good at going straight and pulling tools through the garden. The 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. If you anticipate needing a mounted tiller and loader in addition to the mowing deck, then the somewhat larger and much heavier subcompact tractor is in order.
As the lawn gets larger, you will look for larger and more powerful finish mowers. In addition to the largest professional-grade ZTR mowers, several manufacturers offer trailing mowers that can be pulled by small tractors, ATVs and UTVs. If you already own an ATV, a self-powered trailing mower makes an excellent choice. Likewise, if you already own a compact or utility 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 should 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 negatively affect the finish performance. Your garden tractor also can 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 also will 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 subcompact, compact or full-sized tractor.
Before you take the plunge
As you research mowers of various kinds, you will notice a broad variation in prices for what appear to be the same capacity cutter. Mowers are rated by their cutting width, engine power and/or gearbox input power rating. Look more closely, and you will discover that similarly rated mowers can vary substantially in weight, and they might have very different sets of added features, such as a manual height control versus hydraulic. While weight isn’t everything, in a tool that will get used and abused, thicker steel, heavier blades, larger spindles and shafts all point to a machine built to go the distance.
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 work and last well. If you mow more often or substantially more acreage, you will want to choose a heavier-duty model. Marketing departments are savvy to the whole image thing, so you might find some models touted as “prosumer grade,” “heavy-duty,” you name it. Ask the sales person how much it weighs, how much it costs, its spindle-bearing size, and the length of its warranty if you aren’t sure just how heavy-duty any machine in question is. And find out what its average lifespan is — if you can.
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. If possible, speak with a service department manager or technician to find out which brands/models wind up in the shop the most. As with any tool, spending a bit more money up front can lead to real economy over time. Since there are so many makers and so many different mower models, we’ve included only a sampling below.
Watch your swing
For the more physically adventurous, the scythe makes a great mowing tool for everything from lawns to borrow ditches, to weedy patches to small meadows and even areas covered with light brush. Not all scythes will make the cut for all situations, but there is a blade out there that can do what you need done — you will also need to develop some skill with this ancient tool. Once you become comfortable swinging the scythe, you may find mowing to be a meditative and calming workout.
There are at least two different types of scythes out there, the Austrian (European in some references) and American styles — both work well for cutting weeds and mowing slopes. The American scythe’s blade is generally constructed of thicker steel, and you really want to use a grindstone to whet it. The American-style snath (handle) is usually round in cross section and features adjustable handles that help you get the right fit. The combination weighs about 7 pounds. You get plenty of momentum to motor through thick growth, and light brush — with its heavy weight, it is not ideal for mowing lawns.
The Austrian scythe has a pronounced crescent shaped blade as opposed to the American’s arched shape, and it is made with thinner steel — relying on its specific three-dimensional shape for strength. To keep the Austrian scythe blade sharp and hard, the cutting edge is peened and dressed with a curved whetstone. The peening draws out an incredibly thin, hard and sharp edge, while the whetstone keeps the edge true as a day in the field progresses. The Austrian scythe weighs little more than half a comparable American style. Custom made snaths fit to your specific dimensions are readily available for this style scythe — and various blades are also available for cutting all manner of vegetation.
If you don’t want to deal with internal combustion engines and have sufficient area to mow, you may be well served by an electric mower. Walk behind units may be battery powered or plug in — and you can easily maintain a quarter acre lot with one. The corded versions have unlimited run time, but you have to manage the cord and hopefully keep it out of the blades’ path. Battery powered units can go anywhere untethered, but when the battery runs down, your only recourse is to charge it up or drop in another charged one to finish the job. Electric riders are generally battery powered and can be good for mowing up to a couple acres (or more) depending on model, make and options. The battery packs for these machines are expensive so it may be prudent to plan your mowing in such a way as to make cutting the lawn a 2 day proposition. Cut the front today, recharge the unit and cut the back tomorrow. If your yard is relatively flat and an acre or less, you might even choose a robotic electric mower. Mowing robots pretty much look after themselves and the yard. Once you let the machine know where the perimeter is it will venture out of its garage/charging-station and cut on a prescribed schedule. When it needs more juice, it simply heads back to the garage for a fill up. With ever advancing battery technology, the electric option for small to large yards is no gimmick.
Editor-in-Chief Hank Will has used everything from sheep, geese and chickens to people-powered reel mowers to high-horsepower tractors to keep the vegetation in check.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.
Let your sheep do the shearing
Among the earliest of manicured lawns, English manors were often surrounded by vast, neatly trimmed acreages known loosely as greens. These large estate lawns were generally manicured by a crew of hand-shear and scythe wielding staff or more economically by carefully managed groups of livestock — often sheep. Employing sheep to do the mowing has the added benefit of fertilizing and aerating the lawn at the same time it is mowed. Add to all of that the dethatching capabilities of sheep feet, and you might wonder why folks choose mechanical mowing machines at all. The answer lies in the fact that keeping sheep requires some effort and care, and your yard and garden beds need sheep-proof fencing (or the services of a savvy shepherd) to keep them on task — on the lawn. However, if you have sufficient interest and infrastructure, employing the flock to keep the yard in nice trim is a great way to reduce the hay bill, while gaining growth on the animals and more time on your hands.