"I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." —Henry David Thoreau
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.
The driver pulled over and rolled down his window, laughing.
“I haven’t seen one of those in years!” he exclaimed.
He pointed to my lawn mower, a Scott’s Classic reel mower, a lightweight reproduction of the clunky wood and steel beast I wearily powered through heavy rye grass in our upstate New York yard as a boy.
The driver joked that maybe he'd make his kids use a mower like mine. Two boys sat in the back, humorless and worried, as he drove away.
A few neighbors thought I had a screw loose when I began using my reel mower regularly over seven years ago. Maybe they thought my lawn would go to seed and drag the neighborhood into economic decline. My next door neighbor needles me about the racket, but I can hear him clearly over the gentle whirring of the blades, and after we chat for a few minutes, my mower starts right up again without a pull, and without me swearing at it, though sometimes it needs priming with a few gulps of Gatorade.
I haven’t completely given up my power mower. During the spring, when the right combination of rain and sunshine thickens the lawn and the height gets away from me, I may resort to it, but that amounted to a couple of times last summer, and I went the entire previous year without starting it up once.
The environmental benefits of giving up a gas-powered mower are significant. My reel mower keeps about 80 pounds of new carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere each year.
According to the EPA, gasoline yard tools contribute 5 percent of the carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides that make up smog in many cities.
Running a gas-powered mower for one hour is about the same as driving a new car for eleven hours! And we’re so clumsy at gassing up our yard tools that we spill 17 million gallons of fuel every year—more than the Exxon Valdez dumped into Prince William Sound!
Plus, the neighborhood sounds like an airport on summer weekends.
I wondered if others had gotten the bug to try powering their own mowers, so I called Smitty’s Lawn & Garden Equipment in Olathe, where Jim Honeycutt told me that he gets some inquiries but few takers. He said most buyers are put off by the $140 price-tag on the Husqvarna model he sells.
That surprised me because I realized that, while I only spent about $100 for my mower, even a higher-priced model is still a good deal considering the years of service and low maintenance these machines require. Mine is seven years old and only needs sharpening every other year or so (which I do myself). I used to spend $50 or more on preseason servicing for my power mower. Honeycutt also pointed out that most reel mowers are pretty basic and similar in operation, and that any brand name will offer a quality product.
It’s not harder to mow the lawn.
I can lift the mower with one hand and maneuver it easily through areas that are a pain with the power mower. Also, walking behind it and pushing it is pleasant. It’s not very loud, doesn’t smell, and you quickly find yourself at the kind of brisk pace you’d enjoy on a hiking path. I do a lot of criss-crossing to catch stray blades.
Some yards may be too large for this type of mower. Mine is a suburban quarter acre, and we’ve added ground cover and two berms to reduce the amount of grass—and the amount of chemicals we need.
A reel mower may not be right for everyone, but if everyone who could use one made the change, imagine how much cleaner our air would be--and how much quieter our neighborhoods.