A grassy lawn sets off this handsome house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Illinois. In semi-arid Denver, grass require irrigation; and large lawns are falling from favor in the wake of drought.
When push comes to shove, manual reel lawn mowers are turning around the turf industry as clean, green mowing machines. Though technologically simple, reel lawn mowers offer complex benefits. Compared to their power rotary counterparts, reel mowers are quieter, safer, easier to maintain, more beneficial for the grass, and easier on the environment.
Demand for these charming, nostalgic throwbacks is growing. The cutting edge models depart from the old wooden handled, cumbersome cast iron icons of yesteryear, yet today’s reel mowers still encourage one to relax and take things at a slower clip.
Originating in England in the 1830s, early advertisements touted the reel mower as “an amusing, useful and healthy exerciser for the country gentlemen.” By 1896, prices ranged from $2.20 to $4.75 per mower. When post-war industrialization introduced the power rotary mower, reel mowers fell out of vogue. By 1953, power mowers outsold reel mowers, and reel mower manufacturers were forced to cut back.
The grass is always greener...
The grass is always--or at least usually--greener on other side of the fence where a manual reel lawn mower is used. Reel mowers promote healthier turf because the mower blades scissor-cut the blades of grass, as opposed to power rotary mowers that rip, tear or chop grass. The reel seals the cut end of grass, allowing blades to retain their vital fluids, making for a moister, greener lawn. Horticulturists claim the sealing action also prevents the invasion of disease into the turf. Power-mowed grass that has hemorrhaged its fluids dries out and yellows more quickly than grass cut by a reel mower.
Reel lawn mowers sprinkle fine grass clippings, as opposed to the clumps coughed up by power rotary mowers. Consequently, the clippings dispersed by reel mowers don’t require raking or bagging. Instead, they can remain on the lawn, forming a natural mulch that prevents evaporation, keeps the ground cooler and adds nitrogen ultimately equivalent to a free annual application of chemical fertilizer.
The Professional Lawn Care Association of America points out that grass clippings are 90 percent water by weight, so they decompose quickly and do not form thatch. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn is known as grasscycling. Grasscycling is good news for rapidly filling landfills, where yard trimmings make up the second largest component of municipal solid waste.
Grasscycling is just one of many environmental benefits of reel mowers. Along with reducing obnoxious noise pollution, reel lawn mowers reduce carbon monoxide emissions. One study indicated that a lawn mower can emit in 30 minutes what a new car emits in 172 miles of driving.
Safer for operators and wildlife
And if all that weren’t enough, reel mowers are safer. They’re kinder and gentler to baby rabbits, toads, snakes and other critters that may have taken up residence in the lawn. And reel mowers offer safety to the person mowing the lawn, too. The Consumer Product Safety Commission Emergency reports that each year emergency rooms typically treat about 55,000 people for injuries involving power mowers. Reel mowers aren’t likely to inadvertently cut off fingers or toes along with the grass. And they don’t throw rocks or debris the way power mowers do.
Reel lawn mowers power up when the person pushing starts and stop when the pusher does. They always start. They never needs gas. Or oil. Or sparkplugs. There’s no key, no adjusting the idle, no yanking the cord anywhere from one to 100 times. There’s no electricity needed and no necessary tune-ups, aside from an occasional turning of a screw, a blast of WD40, and perhaps sharpening the blades every other year.
Manual reel lawn mowers aren’t for everyone. But for people with a small lawn or a big concern for the environment, for those who want a workout while doing yard work, for the homeowner who wants to trade in maintenance hassles for a little peace and quiet, reel lawn mowers are the real thing.
NOTE: Published in a slightly different form in my CREATURE COMFORTS column that ran in The Denver Post circa 1997.