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Spending Quiet Time in Your Yard

Steve Dryden
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 15, 1999


I marvel at the ability of certain neighbors to fire up their power mowers at just the moment when, drink in hand, I step out onto my back porch to enjoy a summer evening.

Of course, I've been guilty of similar warm-weather transgressions, revving my Sears Craftsman (vintage: 1987; sound level: Boeing 747) at dawn on Saturdays, oblivious to those sound sleepers who completed their lawn duties the night before.

Is there hope for more peace and quiet in suburbia? There could be, if certain trends in lawn care hold up. Last year, the American Lawn Mower Co./Great States Corp. in Shelbyville, Ind., which manufactures almost all of the non-power reel mowers in the U.S. market, reported record sales of 300,000 of the scissors-quiet machines. That's up from 155,000 reel mowers sold in 1990 and a mere 84,000 in 1985.

"In the past 10 years, they have really come back," said Pete Prather, a mower salesman at Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda, which sold 83 reel mowers last year. Prather, who has worked at the store for more than three decades, pointed to "the need for exercise, smaller lawns and the environmental situation" as reasons for the renewed customer interest.

Before World War II, almost everyone who had a lawn used the reel mower. Then postwar homeowners switched to the gas-powered rotary mower, which seemed to give a better cut with greater ease. Manual push mowers were disdained as clunky and old-fashioned.

In recent years, design and material changes have made reel mowers lighter and smoother to operate. The manual mower, of course, has a long way to go before it wins the counter-revolution (in 1997, 6.8 million walk-behind and riding power mowers were sold). But for those who wish to pamper their lawn, reel mowers are the best option, according to many horticultural experts. The revolving blades slice the grass cleanly and seal it, keeping moisture in, while the gas-powered rotary blade rips the grass ragged, leaving it exposed to disease and prone to discoloration at the tip. "I bought mine because the noise drives me nuts and the gas-powered mower is polluting," said my Bethesda neighbor, Mary Stojic, who has an 18-inch reel mower. "The grass looks fine, and if the blade is sharp, it doesn't take any longer to mow the lawn than with the gas mower."

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is phasing in regulations that are expected to reduce emissions by about 75 percent in rotary models produced by the year 2005, the machines still make noise and emit fumes that annoy homeowners. They also need annual tuneups at a service center, unless you are mechanically minded enough to do them yourself.

Martha Collins of West Hyattsville has the type of lawn that reel mowers were made for: small (200 square feet). She also grows a warm-climate grass, zoysia, that can take a lower cut than many of the cool-climate varieties. She doesn't miss the spark plugs, pull cords and trips to the gasoline station: "I had enough of that aggravation when I had to mow my parents' lawn," she said. Her 16-inch mower also is easier to store and maneuver than a gas-powered machine.

Bob Kersey, president of American/Great States, which has made reel mowers for more than 100 years, said the basic design is unaltered from when his grandfather started the company, something to consider in an age of runaway technology.

Still, to get the best performance, you must pay attention to your lawn's needs and the limitations of a manual cutting machine. Reel mowers work best when grass is dry and has been cut frequently. You can't whack down that eight-inch-high spring jungle grass with a manual mower. The answer is to mow the lawn before it gets above four inches high, although this is not always possible if the owner is traveling or spring rains delay the first mowing of the season.

Experts recommend that most of the turf grasses used in the Washington area be kept at a height of three inches. Most reel mowers, though, cut shorter – about 2 1/2 inches. The exception is the Scotts Classic model, which does go to three inches, though it is at the upper end of manual mower prices, retailing at $159.99.

Models start at $90 or less. Even at $159.99, the reel mower is cheaper or competitive with gas or electric mowers. Don O'Meara, owner of Alpha Lawn Garden Equipment in Falls Church, urges customers to spend a little more and get a better-quality reel mower. Otherwise, "you can end up paying more just to get it sharpened." He charges $50 for a sharpening and suggests one every three years or so if the mower hasn't been damaged by an encounter with a rock or root.

The reel mowers produce a cut so clean and neat that some people use them to trim their home putting greens, said Strosniders lawn-shop manager Jeff Lemon. When the regular grass "gets out of control, people come in and rent power mowers," he said.

American/Great States can be reached at 800/633-1501 or at its Web site:

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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