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GARDENING : Make Sure You Choose a Mower That Can Cut It


Whether you're a gardening novice or have a green thumb, it's easy to be dazzled by the ads telling you it's time for a new lawn mower. The way some models are designed and marketed, you'd think the seller should be giving you a pink slip and registration along with your bill of sale.

However, there are a number of things to think over before paying between $150 and $800 for a machine that can either keep your lawn healthy or kill it.

The main consideration is the type of lawn.

"That's the biggest mistake I see people make when buying a mower," says Eric Flemings of Los Alamitos Mower and Saw. "They might have a Bermuda lawn that needs to be cut short, and they'll get a rotary mower, which is just not up to the job."

If you're not sure what type of grass you're growing, take a small sample to a nursery, where the staff can tell you what it is and how low it should be mowed. Most lawns in Orange County are either the short-cut Bermuda, or fescue, which should be cut long.

"For the Bermuda, you should look for the front-throw reel mower," says Flemings. "That's like the old-fashioned push mower that can be either hand-powered or have an engine attached."

The old reel mower, while energy efficient and quieter than gas-powered mowers, is probably most often seen in Norman Rockwell prints. While still available, it's not around much anymore primarily because most lawns need to be cut higher than the old reel mower can reach.

"We get a few calls about them a month," says Tat Domen of Domen Lawn Mower in Stanton. "But usually the people who want them have the wrong kind of grass."

The most common mower is the rotary, which comes with either a gasoline or electric engine on a four-wheel deck, with a blade below and a grass catcher in back or to the side. The placement of the grass catcher may be an important point when looking at mowers. If your mowing path goes around several trees, planters and other obstacles, you may want to look at rear-baggers, which can be more easily maneuvered around the yard.

If you've been mower shopping lately, you may have noticed the recycling mowers, designed not only to cut your grass but shred the clippings in such a way as to create a mulch for your lawn. They save the time and trouble of emptying catchers and raking, and they also help you comply with landfill regulations, since it has become more and more difficult to dispose of yard clippings.

"The recycling mower really isn't so new," says Cal Kato of Al's Lawn Mower in Laguna Niguel. "They've been around for a number of years, but they have a renewed emphasis since everyone's concerned about filling up the landfills."

Recyclers can be among the more expensive mowers, typically costing from $500 to $750 for the big-name models by Toro, John Deere and Ariens. However, they're also the choice of many professionals, since gardeners don't like to empty grass catchers any more than you do.

"They're particularly good when cutting tall fescue," says Kato. "That's the tough grass you see at almost every new home site. It lends itself very well to recycling."

To work effectively, recyclers shouldn't be used to mow the lawn after you've been on vacation for a month. Cutting more than 1 1/2 inches is usually too tough a job, and the clippings will be too visible to be called mulch.

For those interested in recyclers, the experts recommend looking for mowers with the most horsepower. "Because they cut a great deal, their engines work harder," says landscaper Mike Neal of Fullerton. "You need to have a mower that's going to put out at least 4.5 horsepower or you're going to get bogged down in the tall grass."

Those who want to conserve energy but don't have the right lawn (or back) for a reel-type push mower might want to consider the electrics. "There are a number of electric mowers around," says Flemings. "But you've got to be careful when buying them. They're often priced really low, and they might seem to make a lot of sense, but if they're cheaply made, they're not going to last. Look it over to see if it seems as sturdy as the gas-powered mowers."

Another factor to consider is the size of your lawn, which is critical when you're trying to keep track of an electrical cord. "Electric mowers are good for lawns up to about 1,000 square feet," says Kato. "After that, managing the cord can be a problem."

Self-propelled mowers could be the way for people who are interested in getting the job done quickly. These operate by using a portion of the engine's power through a transmission that drives the lawn mower like a tank through the roughest terrain in the yard.

Not surprisingly, the self-propelled mowers are popular with gardeners who aren't interested in putting extra energy into pushing through a carpet of thick grass. "I almost always see older people buy the self-propelled machines," says Domen. "The younger people on a budget buy the cheaper mowers without it."

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