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How high to mow?

Whether you are new to lawn care, want to have the most beautiful lawn in the neighborhood, or want to minimize your water usage, knowing how high to cut your grass is key to success. How do you know what is the best mowing height for your lawn?

The best place to start is on your state’s leading agricultural university’s web site, or by contacting the trained volunteers at your local Master Gardener program. The advice you get from these folks is the best, because their advice is the result of scientific testing in your local climate and soils.

Search the university’s web site for its turf management program. Here you will find guidance for all aspects of caring for your particular lawn grass, including watering, controlling pests, fertilizing and mowing. Check out the recommendations for how often and how high to mow your lawn at different times of the year, and for special circumstances such as helping your lawn to survive drought. You can even find photos to help you identify your turf grass, in case you are not sure what it is.

The information is often presented in a chart with a range of recommended mowing heights, such as “1.5 to 3 inches”. Choosing a height at the higher end of that range has many benefits. The blades of grass act as solar collectors that nourish the plant. Taller grass provides more energy for the grass and shades the soil so that moisture evaporates more slowly. The longer blades feed the roots more efficiently, encouraging deeper roots. Deeper roots mean the lawn will require less water and therefore be more drought tolerant because the deeper soil stays moist longer. Your lawn will not only be more drought tolerant, it will have a greener, lusher appearance. Taller grass tends to discourage weeds. Some weed seeds must have direct sunlight to sprout, so the taller grass casts shade on those seeds, preventing them from sprouting.

Taller grass means less work. Turf management experts say that it is best to mow often enough that you are cutting off no more than one third of the length of the blade in any mowing. If you set your mower to mow at one and a half inches, then you must mow every time the grass grows a half inch. If set it to three inches, you only have to mow every time the grass grows an inch.

Choose the best cutting height for your lawn and your grass will be greener, healthier, need less water and have fewer weeds than a lawn that is mowed too severely.

© Marjorie King
All Rights Reserved
Originally published in 2009, revised April 2015


How fast do you have to run to make a reel mower work?

Q: My neighbor says that reel mowers don’t work. He says he can’t get the reel to spin fast enough to cut his grass, even if he runs. How fast do you have to run to make a reel mower work?
A: You do not have to run, or even to walk fast to get your reel mower to cut the grass. You will get the same great scissors cut when walking at any speed.
“Push” or “manual” reel mowers are “ground driven”. That means that, unlike power mowers which are engine driven, the cutting mechanism on a push reel mower – the reel – turns when the wheels turn against the ground. The wheels cause the reel to turn because there are pinion gears inside the wheels. There are teeth on the pinion gears and teeth on the inside of the wheels. The teeth mesh together so that when the mower is pushed and the wheels turn, the pinion gears also turn. The pinion gears are attached to the reel shaft, so when the pinion gears turn, the reel spins at the same rate.
How fast the reel spins depends on the “gear ratio” or the number of teeth on the gear relative to the number of teeth on the inside of the wheels. Mascot Silent Cut reel mowers, for example, have 14 teeth on the pinion gears and 63 teeth inside the wheels. The result of this is a 4.5 ratio: the reel spins four and a half times for each turn of the wheels. It does not matter how fast the mower is pushed. Every time the wheels turn one time, the reel will spin 4.5 times. The gear ratio is about the same on each of the several reel mowers that I have checked.
The Mascot “10 inch wheels” are actually about 10.25 inches in diameter, which means they are a little over 32 inches in circumference. So at each rotation of the wheels, the mower will cover about 32 inches of ground. The reel is spinning 4.5 times for each turn of the wheels, and there are six blades on the reel. So we multiply the gear ratio by the number of blades and learn that the reel blades will make 27 passes at the cutter bar, making 27 cuts for every 32 inches of travel. A five bladed reel mower with the same gear ratio and the same sized wheels would make 22.5 cuts for every 32 inches mowed.
Your pushing speed is not important, but the number of blades on the reel is important. Choose a mower that is designed to cut your turf grass and push it at your own speed. How the number of blades affects the cut is another blog. For now, just remember that you do not have to be a track star to get a great cut from reel mower.

Which is better: Rear Roller or Rear Wheels?

Q: Some push reel mowers have rollers on the back and some have two smaller wheels. What purpose do they serve and which one is better?
A: The rollers or wheels on the back of a reel mower stabilize the mower and keep the cutter bar in position while you mow. Without them, the cutter bar would be moving up and down resulting in an uneven cut.
I think the rollers are better. Lawns are not usually, if ever, perfectly flat. If you have wheels on the back, those wheels will drop down into any little low spot in the lawn, perhaps allowing the cutter bar and reel blades to hit the ground. This is called “scalping” and it is not good for the grass. For some types of turf grasses it can lead to dead areas on your lawn. Scalping dulls and can even damage the mower blades.
A roller, on the other hand, will keep the blades always at the highest point of the lawn surface, and therefore prevents scalping. Because the roller does not follow every little contour the way the wheels do, it gives the lawn a smoother appearance and makes the mower a bit easier to push. Most of the mowers that we sell have rollers on the back.

Master Gardeners for the Best Lawn Care Advice

Q: You suggested that I contact the local Master Gardener Program. What is that?

The Master Gardener Program is an organization that provides free horticultural information to urban and suburban dwellers. It operates under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)Extension Service and your state’s agricultural university.

The Master Garden program originated in the early 1970’s when the folks at the Washington State University cooperative extension recognized a growing need for availing accurate information to urban dwellers. This mission differed from that of the USDA, a federal agency whose focus is more toward commercial farms and ranches. Urban and suburban homeowners were seeking reliable information about everything from lawn care to home vegetable gardens, fruit trees, soil amendments, garden pests and even indoor container gardening.

There are Master Gardener programs all over the United States. Volunteers receive intensive, university-level education in every aspect of home horticulture including sustainable gardening and integrated pest management.  The classes are taught by university professors specializing in each topic.  All of the information shared by these volunteers has been tested in the local climate and soils.

Locally tested information is important because of the variety of soils, climate, plants, water availability and other factors. What is good advice in one geographic area can be bad advice in another geographic area. For example, in some parts of the United States turf experts recommend watering your lawn in the evening. This allows the lawn to absorb the maximum amount of the water, and minimizes the amount of water lost to evaporation. In other parts of the country, watering in the evening can lead to fungus problems in the lawn.

In return for this wonderful educational opportunity, volunteers promise to share the information in their communities via email, telephone, publishing articles in local newspapers and newsletters, hosting information tables at fairs, festivals and other public events.

Your local Master Gardeners can help you choose an appropriate turf type for a new lawn. They can identify your existing turf grass and recommend the best mowing height and frequency of mowing for your lawn.  They can help you solve all kinds of lawn care problems, from insect or weed invasions to areas where grass just won’t grow. They can show you how to test your soil and recommend the appropriate soil amendments.  Overwatering or incorrect watering are the most common lawn care mistakes. The Master Gardeners can tell you how much to water, when to water and how to measure the amount of water you are applying.

The Master Gardener Program is a wonderful, free source of information. Everything they tell you has been tested in your local climate and soils. Look for them at your county fair or visit their site even if you do not have a visible problem with your lawn. You could be using more water or fertilizer than necessary. You might even apply to be a Master Gardener volunteer.

Please click here to find a Master Gardener Program near you.

Are you a Master Gardener or have you ever contacted a Master Gardener for help?

Mascot Silent Cut Reel Mowers for Bent Grasses or for Upright Grasses.

Q: What is the difference between a Mascot Silent Cut Reel Mower for Upright Grasses and a Mascot Silent Cut Reel Mower for Bent Grasses?
A: The upright and bent grass mowers are identical except for the wheel size. The Silent Cut 18 Deluxe Reel Mower for Bent Grasses has nine inch wheels. This mower has a minimum mowing height of approximately ½ inch and a maximum mowing height of 2 ¼ inches. The same mower fitted with 10 inch wheels becomes the Silent Cut 18 for Upright Grasses, with a mowing height range of about 3/4 inch to 2 5/ 8inches. Likewise, fitting the Silent Cut 21 with nine inch wheels reduces the mowing height range of that mower by approximately one half inch.
We call the original Silent Cut 18 – the one with the nine inch wheels – a “bent grass” mower because the “bent grasses” are usually cut to a lower mowing height than the upright grasses. Bent grasses include Bermuda, zoysia, centipede, seashore paspalum and St. Augustine. St. Augustine is a bent grass but should be cut at heights similar to the heights of the upright grasses.
Upright grasses have blades that grow straight up from the root. The most common upright grasses are tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye. These grasses cut to a greater height, usually from two to three inches or more.
Sometimes we hear from homeowners with two different grass types. Perhaps they have tall fescue in the front yard and Bermuda in the backyard. Which push reel mower will work best in this situation? The answer is to look at the recommended mowing heights and find one that will work for both lawns. Check with your state’s agricultural university for recommendations specific to your local region. Call or email me if you need help figuring out the best mower for your particular situation: Margie at 888 384-1033 or marjorieking@reelmowersetc.com.
Do you have two different types of grass in your lawn? Did you find one lawn mower that will work on both types of grass?

What are upright grasses and bent grasses?

Q: What is the difference between “upright grass” and “bent grass” and how do I know which one I have?

A.: Turf grasses are divided into two main types: upright and bent.  Upright grasses include fescue, bluegrass, annual rye grass and perennial rye grass. These grasses have blades that come straight up out of the soil. Upright grasses thrive in more humid regions with moderate temperatures and are often called “cool season” grasses. They are prevalent in Northern lawns but can be found in Southern United States too, especially in irrigated lawns.

The bent grasses include Bermuda, zoysia, centipede, seashore paspalum and St. Augustine. These grasses spread by rhizomes and stolons which creep along the ground. Rhizomes are roots that usually grow just beneath the surface while stolons are stems, which usually sprawl at or just below the surface.  Fine blades grow upward from the stolons, or stems, which are sometimes called “runners”, thus the name “bent grass”. The bent grasses tolerate higher temperatures and drought conditions better than the upright grasses and so are common on the Southern United States and other warmer regions throughout the world.

Mowing height recommendations for all turf grasses vary from one region to another, but generally the upright grasses are cut higher than the bent grasses. One exception is St. Augustine. Although it is a bent grass common in the southern states, universities throughout the south recommend cutting it to heights similar to those of the upright grasses.

If you are unsure which grass type you have, or if you have a mixture of upright and bent  grasses in your lawn, then the best approach for you is choosing a mower with a mowing height range that works well in your lawn. You can also find out what kind of grass you have by contacting your local Master Gardener program.

Do you have an unusual situation in your lawn that makes choosing a mower particularly challenging?

How often does a reel mower need to be sharpened?

This question is difficult, if not impossible, to answer.  There are so many factors that influence the sharpness of a reel mower.

Lawn size is the most obvious.  A mower that mows a half acre a week will need sharpening more often than a mower used on a small city lawn.

Lawn condition counts, too. Are you mowing tough weeds or hitting sticks, acorns or other lawn debris? Is your lawn rough and uneven? Are you mowing the grass short, so that the blades are “scalping” the lawn – hitting the ground with the mower blades?  Scalping will dull the blades very quickly.

Plant fibers become stronger and tougher when they are wet. Moisture is detrimental to the steel blades. So if you cannot avoid mowing wet or damp grass you will need to sharpen more often that the average reel mower owner. You can help your mower to stay sharp longer by cleaning the blades after each use.

Manufacturers often mention sharpening frequency in their sales materials. Manufacturer estimates range from once a year to once every eight years.  Each manufacturer may use a different method to arrive at this estimate. Those who have been selling reel mowers for many decades may base their estimates on feedback from their customers, and are probably offering the most accurate estimate.  Manufacturers of new models may be guessing, based on the perceived quality of their blades. One manufacturer may estimate conservatively while another is more optimistic than realistic in their estimate. Read the sales materials carefully. Some reel mower manufacturers say their mower will never have to be sharpened. Instead of sharpening you will replace the reel after a few years. Customers rarely replace a reel because it is the most expensive part of the mower. It is not easy to replace. If it is worn out, chances are the rest of the mower is also worn out.

Mowers with a narrow mowing width tend to appeal more to folks mowing a small lawn. Mowers with a wider mowing width are often chosen by people mowing a large lawn.  So if the manufacturer is selling a reel mower that is usually used to mow a small lawn, their estimate of time before sharpening will probably not apply to an owner using the same mower to mow a larger lawn.

How particular are you about sharpness? Do you enjoy sharpening things? Some customers tell me that they sharpen their mower once a month. Unless the mower is seeing extremely heavy commercial or institutional use, this is probably not necessary. These customers like to sharpen things and they like a really sharp edge. Some reel mower owners say their decades-old mower has never been sharpened, and it works just fine. So personal preference is a key factor in how often you sharpen your mower.

Your reel mower will become more difficult to push when the blades are dull. If you pick a blade of freshly cut grass it should have a nice clean cut straight across the tip. If that tip looks ragged and uneven, it is time to sharpen.

There are things you can do to protect your blades to maximize the time between sharpening.  Spray a bit of WD40, silicone spray or other light lubricant on the reel blades and the cutter bar. The cutter bar is the fixed blade at the bottom of the reel mower, which is sometimes called a bed knife. The lubricant will protect the blades from the moisture that is present even in dry grass. Lubrication will also make mowing easier and quieter.

Check the lawn before you mow.  Remove twigs and other debris with a rake or lawn sweeper.  Be especially on the alert for small pebbles and wire or other metal objects.

After mowing, clean the clippings off the reel and cutter bar.  Manufacturers differ on cleaning instructions. Some say to wash the mower with a hose, some say to use a cloth dampened with water and a mild household detergent. Check your owner’s manual. If you do use water be sure that the mower is thoroughly dried before putting it away.

Reel mowers are gaining in popularity. As a result, it is easier than ever to find a service shop that will sharpen them. Do-it-yourselfers will find that reel mower sharpening kits are easy to use and can save a lot of money.  There are kits that are specific to a particular brand of mower and kits that work on most reel mowers, even mowers that are 50 years old or more. Mascot makes sharpening kits for push reel mowers, gang reel mowers and even power reel mowers. You can see them at www.reelmowersetc.com.


Thinking about buying a reel mower?

Are you thinking about buying your first push reel mower? If you are doing online research, you may have noticed the mixed reviews. People who love their reel mower often say that their manual reel mower is easier to push than a power mower, gives a better cut, is quieter and easier to maintain than a power mower.  Detractors complain that reel mowers are difficult to push, don’t give an even cut and won’t cut weeds.

The happy customers understand how reel mowers work and they chose the right reel mower for their lawns. The unhappy customers usually have unrealistic expectations or has been given misinformation about reel mowers. They may not have chosen the best mower for their needs.

Reel mowers work best, and are easy to push, when used regularly.  Reel mowers cut like a pair of scissors, with the reel blades spinning around and meeting the “cutter bar”, sometimes called the “bedknife”, at the bottom of the mower. Grass which is too tall cannot get caught between the reel blades and the cutter bar, so it does not get properly cut. This is not a limitation for a well-maintained lawn.

Turf management experts at universities all over the United States recommend cutting no more than one third of the length of the grass at a time. Cutting more than that off with any mower puts a strain on the grass. So if your goal is for your lawn to be three inches high after you cut, then you should mow it when it is no higher than about four and a half inches.  A reel mower that is made for cutting at three inches can easily handle that. If you are cutting Bermuda or one of the other bent grasses commonly found in the southern states, you are probably setting your mower to mow to 1.5 inches. In that case, you would want to mow before the lawn exceeded 2.25 inches in height.

The scissors mechanism that works best on regularly mowed lawns also explains why people often say that “reel mowers can’t cut weeds”. Actually, a reel mower can cut almost any non-woody weed, as long as it is not too tall. The problem with weeds is that they tend to grow faster than the grass. So the weeds that tower above the lawn do not get caught between the blades and therefore do not get cut. It is not because they are weeds; it is because they are too tall.

The reel mower scissors cut is a superior cut. You can tell what kind of mower was used to mow a lawn by picking a blade of grass. The grass cut with a reel mower has a nice clean cut straight across the blade.  A rotary mower rips the grass, leaving ragged brown tips. Many Reel Mowers, Etc. customers have noticed that their lawn looks greener and more even when cut with a reel mower.

Choosing the right reel mower for your lawn, and your family, is important.  I will address that subject in other blogs, or you may call me toll free, M-F 8-4 PST at 888 384-1033.for personal assistance.

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