Mowing down my troubles

the author mowing the yard

When my wife and I moved into our first house, my biggest concern was not that it needed paint, or that the driveway was rutting out, or that the carport was infested with spiders — though all of that was true. No, my biggest concern was the yard. It’s a fairly small yard, only about a quarter-acre; most of the lot is wooded. But however small the yard, however shady and littered with rocks and stumps, I was still going to have to buy a lawn mower. And I really, really didn’t want to buy a lawn mower.

For one thing, we didn’t have much money, especially after moving expenses, and I hated to spend scarce funds on so small a yard. More than that, though, I hated the memory of cutting grass as a boy, lugging around a big, loud, cranky mower, the heat of the engine and the smell of the fumes making July’s boiling heat even more intolerable. For a while I toyed with buying an old-fashioned reel mower, of saving money and being eco-friendly, but everyone I spoke with warned me off the idea. “It’s a lot of work,” they all said. “I used one once, and it didn’t work very well.” “The blades don’t stay sharp.” “They’re hard to push.” Everybody had a story. Nobody liked reel mowers.

So I gave in. I bought a brand-new, $250 mower with, as my father taught me, the best name-brand engine. The first time round the yard it ran beautifully, clipped the grass to an even three-inch flattop, didn’t so much as cough at the overgrown hairy vetch and onion grass or the twigs that littered the ground.

The second time out it ran beautifully again.

The third time out I ran over a stump and bent the crankshaft, and that was the end of my $250 mower. The engine was designed to prevent such a calamity, so that a soft metal key would shear off and stop the motor before it suffered serious damage, but the best laid plans of mice and men, you know, come to naught before a hardy dogwood stump. It was simply the machine vs. the garden, and the garden won, by knockout, in the third round.

By now it was late August, and the yard would survive the remainder of the season unattended, so I put the mower away and mulled over my options. I could spend $175 for a new engine, which I couldn’t afford. I could buy a whole new mower, which I really couldn’t afford. Or, I could buck the advice of friends, family, and department-store salespeople, and buy a reel mower.

Come spring, I was still feeling disillusioned with technology. I bought a reel mower for $100 from the feed-and-grain store where I buy my dogs’ food. I was amazed. Rarely have I been so happy with a purchase.

The difference between a gas mower and a reel mower, of course, is technology. The reel mower has less of it; it’s simpler, quieter, more unassuming, less powerful. Sometimes the power of technology is a good thing, but like any power, technology can be isolating. When I cut the grass with the gas mower, the engine drowned out all other sound (except the roar of my neighbor’s mufferless pickup truck, but that’s just bigger technology). It’s a dangerous machine; a stray pebble or twig could seriously injure someone, so Kathy and our dogs waited inside. The birds and squirrels didn’t wait for my say-so but evicted themselves. I worked alone.

Now, the dogs can stay out in the yard and keep me company while I mow. The puppy plays chicken with the mower, darting up to it, growling, dancing back warily, barking triumphantly when he finally scares the nasty thing back into its shed. The noise from the vacuum cleaner leaves him whimpering; I can only imagine how he’d respond to the roar of a gas mower. I wouldn’t let him close enough to find out.

That’s the first thing you notice about a reel mower—the quiet. Not silence, mind you, but also nothing like the headache-inducing roar of an unmuffled gasoline engine. Just the low clickety-clack of sharp metal blades, like someone trimming hedges in a hurry. It’s the kind of sound I could imagine remembering from my childhood, if we had cut the grass with a reel mower: like the snip-snip of my mother’s scissors cutting coupons from the Sunday paper, or the nasal grunt of my father’s crosscut saw. A relaxing, reassuring sound.

In fact, by comparison, the whole job is relaxing now. The gas mower was heavy to drag out of the shed and heavy to push around the yard; the reel mower rolls lightly and carries comfortably. It’s narrower, so I have to make more trips across the yard, and sometimes I have to go over a spot twice, but it’s still easier work than before.

And it’s not such a production to mow the grass with a reel mower. I don’t have to drive to the gas station before I mow, nor do I risk the maddening frustration of running out of gas with a tenth of an acre to go. I can mow a little now, a little then, touch up a few long patches while I’m waiting for the charcoal to heat up in the grill, even mow in the cool of the early morning without waking up the neighbors. I’ve even discovered that the mower cuts best if you push slowly, at a steady pace: too fast, and the grass will bend over without catching in the blades. As fast-paced as life so often is, isn’t it good that some things still have to be done slowly?

But, you may ask: does the yard look as good as it did after a gas-mower trim? Well, that’s a tough question. The yard never looked all that great to start with. To say we have grass is perhaps too kind; we have vetch, crabgrass, plantain, and one lush, dark green, two-by-four-foot remnant of the “real” grass we planted last year. This spring we gave in and overseeded the whole yard with clover, to fill in the bare patches and choke out a few of the other weeds. But it isn’t much of a lawn.

That said, the yard looks almost as good as it did when I had a gas mower, and every bit as good as it needs to. I suspect that a gas mower would clip a weedless lawn more evenly than a reel mower, but who has a weedless lawn—or needs one? People spend too much time working on their lawns. If it’s green, soft enough to walk on in bare feet, and short enough not to hide snakes, it’s good enough for me. (Anybody who feels otherwise doesn’t have to come to my cookouts.) There are more important things than lawns to think about in life—like the people and animals living on and over them.

For two years Kathy has cultivated colonies of birds, carefully mixing seeds to support all the native species. We hung two houses last year, which were so quickly occupied by chickadees and wrens that this spring I built three more. A couple of months ago while mowing the back yard I heard a chickadee chirping insistently in a nearby branch. I noticed that I was mowing under one of the birdhouses, and when I stopped I could hear a faint chorus of peeps from inside. I backed off to mow the other side of the yard, and sure enough, in flew the mama chickadee with a fat bug in her beak. If I had simply drowned the chicks out with my gas mower, would I ever have noticed they were there? Would the parents have bothered to nest at all in so noisy a neighborhood?

Probably not. Nor would I have spotted that scarlet tanager last week while mowing along the driveway, the first one I’d ever seen. Such a beautiful bird—seeing him made my morning as bright as the red of his breast. I’m glad my technology didn’t keep us apart.

Tips for owning and using a reel lawn mower

  • To prevent rust, spray the blades with WD40 or a similar compound after each use. I push the mower back and forth a few feet with one hand while spraying with the other, to be sure to get both sides of each blade.
  • Watch for sticks in the path of the mower and pick them up before you run them over. You’ll have to pick them up anyway; small twigs will jam the blades. If you roll the mower back the twig will fall out, but over time they’ll put unnecessary wear and tear on the blades.
  • Every year or two, depending on how heavily you use the mower and how careful you are with it, you’ll need to sharpen the blades. You could do this with a file, but there are kits available to sharpen the blades on most reel mowers quickly, easily, and accurately. Ask for them in hardware stores or where you bought your mower.
  • Don’t rush! It will be tempting to push harder or faster through thick patches of grass, but I’ve found that a moderate, steady, firm pace cuts cleanest. Normal walking speed is probably fine. If you go too fast, the mower blades may not have time to catch the blades of grass.
  • If the grass is too long, the mower may push it over without cutting it. Coming at it from a different angle may help. But for those occasional tough stalks that seem to grow six inches overnight, I recommend a different hand tool—a sort of manual weed-whacker. It resembles a rake, but the business end is a thin, flat, heavy bar of metal with ridges on either side. The metal bar is set at an angle from the handle, so that if you hold the tool in one hand and swing it at your side, the bar rides parallel to the ground. If you swing it at the proper height — it’s a very natural and comfortable motion — the metal ridges catch the tall stalks of grass and cut them off.
  • If you have a large patch of really tall grass to mow, it might be easiest to borrow a gas mower (or maybe even a scythe)
    the first time out. After that, using a reel mower will remind you to keep the grass cut!
  • Relax. Have a glass of iced tea or a beer. Stop mowing every now and again and watch the birds or your children playing. You’re
    supposed to enjoy your yard, after all!