You Don’t Need a Lawn Mower

Not a Fancy One, Anyway

TLDR: Reel mowers are a cheap, eco-friendly option, but don’t expect your lawn to be showcased on HGTV.

About a year and a half ago I moved from an apartment complex to a rental house that was a block down the street from my landlady. Lawn maintenance became a concern ex nihilo and remained such even when my landlady was out of town. Our neighbor was particularly old and particularly disengaged in any activity other than silently measuring the length of grass and number of weeds of her neighbors’ lawns.

I bought myself this bad boy and saved myself at least $100.

A Scott’s Elite 16″ Reel Mower

This is a push reel mower. You can get one of these for about a hundred bucks at Home Depot, or Amazon sells similar models for around the same price. Because the basic design of a mowing cylinder of blades dates back to the early 1800s, I can’t imagine there’s much of a difference between competing brands.

J. Ten Eyk’s 1825 patent for a lawn mower

It’s worked remarkably well, considering how old the design is and how little I spent on it. And, I mean, you can spend a lot of money on a lawn mower, if you really wanted to. But you don’t want to. Because you’re not maintaining the Gardens of Versailles.

Why Should You Buy a Reel Mower?

  • They’re significantly cheaper than their gas counterparts (though certain electric mowers come close in price—I haven’t tried those)
  • It’s much quieter. If you live in the suburbs, you hear the steady summertime hum of lawn mowers from sunup to sundown. I found, and successfully avoided mowing over, a small nest of infant rabbits a few weeks ago. Their faint squeaks could be heard above the quiet chopping of my reel mower. Things may have been much worse for everyone involved had I been using a noisy mower.
  • It’s a mandatory workout. Are you working out 30 minutes a day? Probably not. But the scrutiny of the HOA, nosy neighbors, and the likelihood of Lyme-disease-carrying ticks in the area are motivation enough for people to mow their lawn regularly. Having a push reel mower will require effort of you. Though they’re really not as difficult as people would have you believe—with the right leverage my four year old can push one.
  • Maintenance is cheap and easy. You can buy a sharpening kit online for $15 and spend a half hour outside getting your blades nice and shiny. You’ll have enough leftover compound to last the life of your mower.
  • No more gasoline, batteries, or extension cords. That’s a win for the environment and your wallet.

Why Shouldn’t You Buy a Reel Mower?

Reel mowers don’t give the nicest of trims. Here’s a before and after shot.

photo of unmowed grass
Before mowing
photo of mowed grass
After mowing
Two tall, seeding blades of grass rise up from an unkempt lawn

Part of the ugliness is inherent in the grass and soil quality here; nevertheless, a reel mower has problems with grass that’s several inches tall. If you take your sweet time in between mows and let your grass grow a foot long, you’re going to need something else. These tall stalks spring right back up when I mow over them. But if you’ve already got a string trimmer or lawn scissors (which you will probably need regardless of mower type to clean up around trees and edges), these aren’t too big a deal to pick off after a mow.

It also has a problem going over sticks. As it is, you shouldn’t be mowing over debris, but the blades won’t toss chunks of wood into your shin like a gas mower. Instead, they’ll prevent the reel from spinning and will require you to bend down to remove the offending stick.

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