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The kindest cut: People are reconsidering the merits of old-school mowers

By Katie Scarvey
kscarvey@salisburypost.com
Ann Bourque says she’s always wanted a reel mower. She used to cut the grass with one at her grandparents’ beach house when she was a kid. She never forgot it.
Her old gas-powered mower died in April, and she decided that was the perfect excuse to make the switch to a push reel mower.
The mechanism of these mowers hasn’t changed much over the years. But today’s models are lighter and easier to push, and some can go years between sharpenings.
Bourque says she loves the “simple beauty and effortlessness” of her mower.
“Gone are the days of the loud, intrusive gas-powered mower,” she says. “Gone are the days of colorful four-letter words streaming from my mouth uncontrollably at the realization of an empty gas tank.”
Bourque says that she has gotten many comments from passers-by as she mows, everything from “Can’t you afford a real lawn mower?” to “That’s so cool! I didn’t know anybody really used one of those.”
She and her husband Peter agree that one huge difference with the reel mower is that they no longer smell like gas and oil when they come in the house after cutting the grass.
Robert Van Geons is another Salisbury resident who bought a reel mower this year.
“I like it,” says Van Geons, who has a small, fenced yard on South Church Street.
Like the Bourques, he appreciates the simplicity of his new mower (and notes, for fairness’ sake, that his wife Tara is the one who uses it most).
He warns that those cutting with reel mowers must keep on top of their yard maintenance.
“If anything gets over the top of the mower in height,” he says, “it is pushed under and not cut.” And, he points out, “a little twig will jam you right up.”
But all in all, he feels a reel mower was a good choice for his small yard.
The Bourques and Van Geons are part of a growing trend of homeowners looking into mowers powered by human energy, not gasoline.
Abby Buford, a spokesman for Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, says that while she can’t reveal sales figures for the company, reel mowers are definitely becoming more popular.
Junior Lyman, who works at Bernhardt Hardware in Salisbury, says he thinks they’ve sold about four this season. Bernhardt’s carries several models, but only one ó a 14-inch Great States selling at $79.99 ó is currently in stock.
Typically, several factors go into the decision to buy a reel mower.
For the environmentally conscious, a reel mower is a lifestyle choice.
Although gas mowers do not require huge amounts of gas ó for a smallish yard, probably not more than five or six gallons a year ó cutting grass the old-fashioned way will certainly help reduce one’s carbon footprint.
Using a reel mower also ensures that the user won’t be responsible for any of the 17 million gallons of gas the Environmental Protection Agency estimates are spilled each year as people gas up their mowers ó more than what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, one gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving at least 55 miles an hour for the same amount of time.
Older two-cycle engines are particularly polluting, by some estimates emitting 90 times more pollution per gallon of gas than cars or trucks.
Setting the many environmental benefits aside, cutting with a reel mower will also, theoretically at least, benefit one’s grass. Reel mowers are widely recognized for a cleaner, more precise cut that is less stressful to grass. Golf courses use reel mowers for the superior cut they provide ó although these gang-type mowers are typically pulled behind a gas-powered tractor.
With a reel mower, clippings are cycled back into the grass, providing moisture and nutrients. If you don’t want the clippings going back into your lawn, attachments that catch the grass are available.
Consumers would do well to research the many brands of reel mowers before buying. There are big differences between lower end mowers (the Task Force brand, for example, retailing at about $90) and higher end machines.
David Temple of Ipswich, Mass., started out with an inexpensive American-made mower and used it happily for the first year, he says, but realized that by the third year it “wasn’t cutting at all.”
His wife did some research and discovered the German-made Brill. For more than a decade now, Temple has been selling them, along with other “environmentally positive” products like rain barrels, at his Web site, peoplepoweredmachines .com.
A higher end mower like the Brill may run from $200-$250. Mid-range brands can be found from $100-$200.
Paying a little extra on the front end may be wise if it encourages you to stick with a gasless regimen. A cheap mower won’t be such a bargain if it’s abandoned after a season or two.
Although his business has been growing 10 to 15 percent a year since he started it 12 years ago, Temple has seen sales spike 25 percent this year.
The rising cost of gasoline is part of it, he believes, as well as the fact that people have awakened to the need to do something about the environment.
If you have a small lawn ó a half acre or less ó it makes “so much more sense” to use a reel mower, Temple says.
And besides being an environmentally friendly way to cut the grass, using a reel mower is a good way to get exercise, he adds.
Customers are often worried about reel mowers cutting grass shorter than they are used to, he says. But because a reel mower is a gentler way to cut, the health of the grass is not affected even with a short cut, Temple says.
Although old-school mowers may not be for everyone, homeowners with smaller yards may want to at least weigh the advantages and disadvantages of “getting reel.”
 

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