Ah, summer weekends in suburbia: barbecues, laughing children on bikes, and...what's that? I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE LAWN MOWER!
Sick of my noisy, smoky internal-combustion machine, I stepped back in time and bought an old-fashioned push mower. It starts every time. Its only noise is a soothing ka-chick ka-chick ka-chick. Its sole emission is a fine shower of clipped grass. I often leave the simple apparatus out on the front lawn after its weekly run and let my neighbors know that they're welcome to borrow it. The hope is to spark an environmental groundswell, perhaps to hear the birds sing on weekend mornings. But no one takes me up on it. Not that they don't admire my lawn.
Despite my own local failure, push mowers are catching on across the country in their quiet way. Sales more than doubled from 1985 to 1995, to about 250,000 units, according to American Lawn Mower, the industry leader. To be sure, it's a mere divot of the stagnant 5.9 million-unit power-mower market. But new Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards for gas mowers, scheduled to go into effect next year, could complicate life for the power crowd and drive push-mower demand further.
TRIM AND SIT. Read a brochure for a push--or reel--mower, and you'll wonder why people would use anything else. The machines are not only environmentally unimpeachable, quiet, safe, and cheap, but proponents claim they cut the grass better, with their clean scissors-like snip. Some of the claims are true, some a bit exaggerated. Thanks to lightweight alloys, today's mowers are a lot lighter than that old clunker in Grandpa's garage. They're much easier to push than before, and the revolving blades, which rub against a stationary blade to behead the grass, now keep their edges for months at a time. Consequently, it's little more work than a push-power mower, provided the lawn isn't too shaggy or larger than half an acre.
With reel mowers, parents can cut the lawn and baby-sit at the same time. That's because there is no noise to drown out any crying or shouting. And since the mowers are safer, kids can play nearby (though they often clamor for a chance to mow, which can slow things down). Another advantage is that the manual mower spreads the grass evenly, not in big clumps like the power mowers. The grass simply disintegrates into the lawn, so you can avoid raking and even cut down on fertilizing. For neatniks who insist on gathering the clippings, the manufacturers provide bins for $15 to $50. But they are generally not a good idea. Every once in a while, the machine needs a foot nudge--and you can't get your foot to the blades if the bin's in the way.
A big problem with push mowers is that they can't handle tall grass or cut through any twig thicker than a knitting needle. The blade goes ka-chunk and freezes. This can get frustrating. You have to pull the blade back with your foot, and then be sure to kick the twig onto the mown side of the lawn. One more negative: Reel mowers do even worse on wet lawns than power mowers. If the wheels skid, the blades don't move, leaving grass uncut. My advice: Drink a leisurely cup of latte to the roar of your neighbors' mowers while your grass dries.
ROUGH CUT. The standard reel mowers are American Lawn Mower Deluxe Lights. Nothing fancy, they go for $65 to $90, according to the width (14 to 18 inches), and they cut grass to a maximum height of 2.5 inches. Sears Roebuck sells a version of these under the Craftsman label. Another American product, licensed to Scotts Co., has two extra wheels in back instead of a roller. This Scotts Classic allows for a higher, 3 1/2-inch cut, recommended by some lawn doctors to retain moisture, and usually sells for $125. American Lawn also produces a $100 seven-blade mower for thick grasses, such as Bermudas, that are common in the South. It's important to ask, before buying a reel mower, if the machine is well configured to your grass.
The priciest option is the Agri-Fab Silent Reel for $210--about the same as an entry-level push-power mower. The Agri-Fab's whirling blades don't quite touch the stationary blade; they pinch the grass instead of snipping it. It's quiet and easy to push. As for the virtues of snipping vs. pinching, or tearing the grass, as pmwer mowers do, these are the kinds of questions that keep lawn lovers arguing long into the winter.