Cardio Lawn Care

Jessica Patton Pellegrino
A Reel Mower Is a Quiet, Emissions-free Way to get a Workout from your Yard Work—Among Other Benefits
I bought a reel mower a couple summers back to reduce pollution, both the air and the noise kind. We have a bona fide suburban yard—it’s modest in size if your frame of reference is farmlands or mansion lots; in a city, it would be a park. It’s all relative, but few would qualify it as too small to justify a power lawn mower. A ride-on mower wouldn’t even be out of the question, depending on the age and fitness of the rider. But I was sick of the stinky racket of our old gas mower, especially in the vicinity of a then-toddler, several fruit plants and a vegetable garden, and figured that while it might take longer to get the job done, I was willing to take over said job (much to my 15-year-old’s disappointment—ha) in exchange for quiet Saturday mornings and soot-free broccoli.

While I knew the benefits mentioned above of a reel mower, and that its cutting method is supposedly less damaging to the grass (and therefore enables the grass to better resist pests and disease), I didn’t anticipate how much I’d like using it!I’m not a fan of a workout that calls itself one. I’ve never understood the appeal of the gym—all those miles run and spun and climbed to nowhere—but find pushing my way through the grass and clover once a week to be exertive and weirdly enjoyable … and with a satisfying end result to show for it, beyond an exercised body.

I can mow with bare feet, at 6 a.m. or midnight, with the animals loose and my four-year-old playing nearby—any of which done with a motorized mower would likely be harmful, either bodily or to neighborly relations. The pluses for the living critters in my midst are reason enough to go manual. Last time I mowed, the dog sprawled nearby in the sun, hauling herself another few feet away each pass I made. The bolder of the hens followed right behind, munching the fresh salad in my wake. One of the cats rubbed against my leg as I walked. My daughter played in her wading pool. My husband took a break from repairing the deck and reclined in a lawn chair. We talked without having to shout. I heard the neighbors across the fence, in their pool, where they were not enduring the din of our mower.

Reel mowers start at around $150 and weigh from 15 to 45 pounds. (Some good comparisons and prices can be found here). Ours is a Brill Razorcut, which we picked based on solid reviews, a price tag of under $200 and the non-contact blade design, which equals low-to-no maintenance. The blades are actually flat, not sharp, and don’t come into contact with other metal, so they just have to be adjusted to the proper cutting height, not sharpened.

We still have a gas weed whacker for the edges our push mower can’t get to (and that chore still falls to my teenager), but it’s so loud that last time I mowed I edged the grass by hand with garden shears, instead, effectively giving the lawn a haircut. While crouching and snipping one’s way around garden beds might be tedious or strenuous on one’s knees, this slower and more deliberate approach surely helped prevent the untimely death of some lolling coneflowers and creeping strawberries.

A novice’s tips when switching from a power to push mower:

* Mow weekly. Waiting longer than a week results in a more difficult task, requiring a repeated back-and-forth motion akin to vacuuming.

* Leave the grass clippings where they land, in order to protect the lawn from heat and provide it a good feeding. If the grass is longer the clippings need to be mowed over a few times to make better mulch.

* Allow more time. I usually mow the backyard one day; the front another. Considering that one can carry on a conversation or attend to one’s kid while doing so, and can mow at times of day that would be socially unacceptable with a power mower, the time increase works out. And if you’re skipping a workout and mowing instead, it’s actually a time-saver!