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Mowers And Mowing - Choosing The Right Mower And Maintaining It

In this article I hope to offer a little help in the choice, maintenance and use of mowers. This is a lot like buying a car, or any other consumer durable for that matter, as you are presented with a bewildering choice of makes, many of which can be seen at the GardenAdvice recommended supplier of mowers at  mowers-online.co.uk

A wrong choice will leave you saddled with something which, while it may be adequate for the job in hand, is wrong enough to be damned annoying. Let us see if we can shed a little light on this knotty problem.

Firstly, as I am sure you know, there are two main types of lawnmower available to the home user: cylinder or rotary. There are other types, such as flails, but their use is mostly confined to verge cutting and similar heavy work. Let us begin with a look at rotary machines. Whilst not normally associated with the maintenance of fine turf, such machines do have their advantages. Firstly, they are very simple. What could be more simple than a huge great blade, firmly attached to the crank of an engine, hammering round at a rate of knots, completely mangling anything in its path? No setting up required, just gas and go, as they say. Rotaries are also very versatile. If you have, for arguments sake, a reasonable lawn plus an orchard to look after and your budget doesn't stretch to a mower for each job, then a rotary is what you need. If you buy one with a rear roller and a grass bag, you can take off the bag, raise the cutting height and blast round the orchard to your heart's content. That done, you can re-fit the bag, lower the cutting height and make a reasonable job of the better quality grass areas. Turf experts, myself included, tend to be a little sniffy about rotary mowers, but they have their place and fill it very well. When buying one, the most important criteria, apart from price (and whether it matches the curtains), is tip speed. What, I hear you ask, is he babbling about now? Simply put, tip speed is the speed at which the tip of the blade rotates in relation to its speed over the ground. This simple relationship determines how good a finish the machine gives. Obviously, if the machine is pushed by the operator (not a nice thought) then he or she can walk at different speeds to obtain a different affect. However, a self propelled machine moves at a set pace and therefore tip speed becomes important. Baffle your local lawnmower vendor next time you go mower shopping by asking the question "Oi mate, what's the tip speed on this model then, boyo", or words to that effect. (After all it may not be a boyo, might it). They should be able to answer this question and if they can't then the manufacturer should be able to. This is the sort of question a professional mower buyer would ask, so why should you not let people know what you are talking about. It helps prevent the age old problem of cutting through salesmen's hype. All other things being equal then, let tip speed decide which model you buy.

However, what if a rotary mower does not slake your lust for a better quality lawn, what then? Well my friends we now move on to my favourite subject: cylinder mowers. I can be a boring old fart when it comes to this subject, so stop me if you start to nod off [fall asleep]. What is the attraction of the cylinder mower? Simple enough: it gives a superior cut, that is all. Some golf courses are using rotary mowers on the fairways now, but in my opinion it will be a cold day in hell before a greenkeeper will let a rotary on to the greens or tees. Why is this I hear you ask? Again, the answer is simple: a properly set up cylinder mower cuts, a rotary bashes its way through the grass. If you want a really outstanding lawn, you must invest in a decent cylinder mower. Now comes the rub: cost. In my local mower shop, you can pick up a decent rotary mower for about £500 and that gets you a good 'un. In contrast, a bottom of the range cylinder mower will set you back at least "One Large One" [£1000], not cheap. However all is not lost, as you can get a darn good cylinder mower secondhand, if you know where to look and what to look for. Some years ago I worked on an estate where my machinery budget was a little stretched, to say the least, but I was determined to get a decent mower, as I was in the middle of getting the lawns looking like a job. I got an ex council, golf green quality mower for less than a grand [£1000] and it did the job very adequately. It had a good, professional quality engine on it, although it looked a little rough, but nothing that a coat of paint wouldn't put right. The machine was nowhere near worn out, as most councils have a replacement policy where by machines are disposed of after a set period of time. The mower itself thought it was on holiday, as it went from working all day every day, to doing two days a week with me. It also got two oil changes a year, regular jet washing, backlapping every time it rained and all the grease it could eat. In short, it became a pampered little mower for which it richly repaid me by never breaking down.
So, get out there and sort yourself a bargain. Study the Yellow Pages and find a supplier of machinery to the professional trade. They won't care that you are not a professional, all they are interested in is the colour of your dosh [your money]. If you talk nicely to them and they are not too busy, you may even persuade them to bring the mower to your house so that you can see it in action and ask any questions you may have about its operation. Take the usual precautions and you will get good quality at the right price.

Now, maintenance. Thankfully, mowers are, generally speaking, dead simple. They are not encumbered with catalytic converters, computerised engine management systems, nor are their engines hidden under artfully designed plastic covers to keep interfering fingers at bay. Being simple, they also respond to simple maintenance schedules, which can be carried out by any sensible person. First, and most importantly, keep the darn thing clean, especially at the beginning of the season when the grass is usually pretty soggy. I have lost count of the times people have complained that their collecting rotary is not collecting. A quick glance under the deck will doubtless reveal enough stuck on crap to sink a battleship. (A word off caution here: never turn your mower on its side to look under the deck without first removing the spark plug lead. I don't care how many blade brakes or safety devices there are new fingers are not available on the NHS [from hospital]). The removal of said poo will effect a cure. While we are on the subject, if your collecting rotary has a cloth bag and is not collecting efficiently, hold said bag up to the light. Can you see anything? No. I guessed not. The answer to your dilemma is to clean that bag. Now, you are no doubt aware that grass is a swine to get out of cloth. Grass which has been applied by a hundred mile an hour gale is going to be a real swine. If you can't shift it with the regular hose, there are two courses of action. Either soak it for a couple of days in a vat of water containing some washing powder and then hose it, or cart it down to the nearest garage which has a coin operated jet wash and give it major stick. People may think you are mad, but they will get over it. Whatever course of action you decide upon, your machine will be transformed, believe me. If you keep your bag clean in future, you will have no more trouble with naff collection.

Cylinder mowers respond similarly to a good clean. If you look at the path the grass clippings take from blade to box and clean the areas said grass passes, or contacts, you will have a sweeter running, happier machine. Obviously, jet washing the grass box is totally unnecessary, which is another reason to feel smug about being a cylinder mower owner.

Anyhow, back to maintenance. After external cleanliness, take care of the inner mower and give it an oil change. If you only use the mower for a couple of hours a week then an annual oil change is a good idea. It isn't a complicated job, the person who sold you the machine should show you how to do these jobs when you hand over your hard earned wedge [money]. Of course, you could let the dealer change the oil when you put in the mower for its annual service, but why should they get all the fun? Apart from these jobs, there isn't a lot to do to a modern mower, apart from oiling any pivot points on controls, cables, etc, and ensuring it is cutting nicely. With a rotary, this is fairly straight forward. Just check the cutting edge of the blade with eye and hand. If it is a little dull then either give it a rub with a file, attack it gently with an angle grinder if you have one, or remove it and get your dealer to grind it for you. A cautionary note here. Be careful to remove similar amounts of metal from both ends of the blade or you will destroy its balance and you know how nasty unbalanced things can be (just ask 'er indoors [wife]). Seriously though, if your mower is badly out of balance, it will shake itself to bits in a matter of minutes. As a youth, I was mowing a bank with a well known brand of mower when about an inch broke of the end of the blade. By the time I had pulled it up the bank all I had left was the handles. You can bet that that took some explaining. Even a slight imbalance will make the machine unpleasant and tiring to use, so beware. If the blade looks like the dog's been at it, then go bonkers and buy a new one, you know it makes sense. You'll probably save the cost of the blade in petrol anyway, as the motor won't be working half as hard trying to push the blade through the grass.

Those of you who decide to take the cylinder mowing route will now come up against the issue which I believe puts most people off cylinder mowers: setting the damn things. If the sales wallah tells you this is easy it is time to get the old sceptical look out (you know the one, slightly raised eyebrow, head tilted slightly back, gaze directed down the old nose etc. Similiar to the look James Bond used to give Q when he showed him some new backward firing wonder weapon). Get said salesperson to give you a demonstration of the technique required and if you are met with inaction and a stony silence then I suggest you take your "flexible friend" elsewhere. Seriously though, setting a cylinder mower is a real swine but it can be learned and like all skills can be improved with practice and imagine the glow of satisfaction from getting it right.
My advice is this: when buying a new mower try to get one with click adjusters (photo to follow). These make life very much easier, as all you need to do when the mower starts to "go off" (leaving the grass partially cut, especially when wet) is give the adjusters a tweak to restore the cut to excellent. Owners or buyers of older mowers will be faced with a more difficult set of problems, as click adjusters are quite a recent innovation. It would be difficult if not impossible for me to go through all the various combinations of locking devices which various mower manufacturers have used through the years, but most involve releasing some kind of locking device and removing the slack with a bolt or screw mechanism. The main thing to remember is that too much slack is bad, too tight is much badder. (What?) I always use a cigarette paper for setting mowers up because they are just the right size and thickness for the job. (I know smoking is a filthy habit but how will I set my mower if I give up?) If you don't have any cigarette papers then buy some, there is no substitute. If, when turned, the blades cut cleanly through the paper and requires the minimum of force to turn it and does so in several places along its length then you have cracked it. Lock up those adjusters and go mowing. A well adjusted mower should sing like a Merlin [aircraft] on full bore and as you become more experienced you will learn to recognize the sound. A badly adjusted mower sounds like a knackered Morris Minor [old car] attempting Porlock Hill on a hot day towing a caravan.

If your mower proves difficult to set then you may need to get it re-ground and in extremis, a new bottom blade fitted. This is not half as drastic as it sounds. All that is involved is the mounting of your mower onto a special machine which grinds your cylinder until it is perfectly round in relation to its centre and then grinding the bottom plate to match. If this sounds horribly technical, get the fitter at your mower shop to explain it to you. They should be more than prepared to do this, as they will soon be parting you from a chunk of your money and they should be prepared to show you what you are spending it on. If they ask you if you want the cylinder relief ground, politely refuse, as I have found this is a waste of time. However, it is worthwhile having it back lapped, as this really puts a good finish on the cylinder and ensures a stonking cut. I might even show you how to do it yourself one of these days. It's just another of those jobs that you can get done, but is much more satisfying to do yourself.
The use of mowers is nowhere near as complex as their buying and maintenance. Its a piece of cake, really, isn't it? Just fire the swine up, walk up and down, stopping occasionally to empty the grass box. Well, yes and no. It is indeed that easy (or I wouldn't be able to do it). However, with a small change in style, you can make a good job into a beauty. Try varying the direction in which you mow. Try going up and down the lawn one week and across it the next. You will see a difference in the way the grass looks in no time. It will look much smoother because the grass which used to hide when you went over it the same way every week, is now exposed and gets cut. For a really flash affect try cutting the lawn on the diagonal. This takes a bit of nerve, but give it a go, you will have to leave the comfort of a nice solid edge to guide you and fire the mower across the middle of the lawn for your starting cut, but fear not, you can do it. Next time you watch a cricket match (you do watch cricket, don't you?) or a football match for that matter, try to work out how many directions the pitch, outfield or whatever has been cut in. (Don't take any notice of that flash type at Aston Villa who goes in concentric circles, he's on something). You will undoubtedly see that said grass has been cut in at least two, if not more, directions. This is how professional grounds keepers get such a smooth, velvety finish.

That's about it for my ramblings on the subject of mowers and mowing, so I will shoot off now and let you get on with it. Should you feel the need for further advice on specific aspects of turfcare, please feel free to contact me on thebeardedwonder@gardenadvice.co.uk.


Goodbye and happy lawning,

The Bearded Wonder







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