Get Reel When Mowing

Photo © Linh Nguyen

Grass waits for no one. Sun + water + a couple days = a lawn waiting for some attention. So, out comes the noisy, gas-powered mower at seven o’clock on Saturday (to beat the heat of the day) thrashing the tops off the green-jungle of a front yard, frightening the resident garter snake, and wafting fumes into the window of the neighbor who is cursing the early morning weekend wake-up call–all for the love of a manicured lawn. Does it have to be this way? No. Options are a wonderful thing.

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Photo © Richard Barry

Before addressing mower options, remember that minimizing the size of your lawn, or eliminating it altogether, is the best option for creating vibrant, wildlife-supporting habitat. The above image is the front yard of a Habitat Network Member who achieved this goal by transforming their entire front yard into native gardens. It can be done. If this choice isn’t for you though, don’t fret, we’ve still got options for you.

bocce ball

Photo © John Mayer

Lawns do serve a purpose. An ideal surface for a game of bocce ball, open space for American Robins (Turdus migratorius) to hunt for wiggly worms, and a comfortable terrain for the family dog to relieve themselves. But as far as robust habitat for wildlife, lawns cut it short.

Photo © Julie Orr

Maybe you like some lawn in your landscape. Work on reducing its size to include only what your family needs to fulfill lawn-loving activities. Or, consider replacing your lawn with a native species of grass that requires less energy and resources to maintain. Explore our series on native lawns to learn more.

Lawn Mower Comparison

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Now, getting down to the reel question. What kind of mower do I pick? This depends. Lawn equipment emissions were unregulated until 1995 when it became apparent, due to air pollution problems, that manufacturers needed guidelines to minimize the emissions generated by landscaping equipment. Gas powered lawn mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, etc., emit carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere contributing an estimated 5% of the United State’s air pollution. To put this in perspective, using an old-school gas powered mower for one hour is equivalent (measured by emissions) to driving a car 100 miles. EPA regulations helped to curb these emissions, but gas-powered equipment still comes with environmental costs.


Photo © WFIU Public Radio

Riding mowers, known to emit the highest emissions, are the most expensive, and users burn the fewest amount of calories to operate them. Riding mowers are often preferred by those who have large lawns to maintain, though they’ve been found to be the most dangerous. In the United States, between 2002-2007, 66,341 riding mower injuries resulted in open_in_newemergency room visits. If safety and attracting and supporting wildlife sound like good goals, consider shrinking the size of your lawn and getting rid of the riding mower.

Accidental Spillage

Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A gas-powered anything turns out to be pretty messy. Many people have accidentally spilled fuel in the garage while trying to fill the gas tank of a mower. Each of those tablespoons adds up to over 17 million gallons of spilled fuel each year.


Photo © Chris

If you have a small lawn, or are working towards minimizing the size of your lawn, consider using a push mower to decrease emissions and save gas. A bonus to making this switch is that a push mower workout (gas or electric) burns approximately 300 calories per hour. Not all push mowers, however, are created equal.

electric mower

Photo © Keith Jenkins

An electric powered push mower gets slightly better ratings than gas. They eliminate the gas-smell, decrease noise, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 80 pounds a year. If you want a state-of-the-art robotic electric mower, check out this version by Husqvarna. The kicker is, unless, you are using an alternative energy source, electric mowers do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions as fossil fuel combustion (coal, natural gas, etc.) is most often the source of the electricity. To escape the noise, smell, AND emissions, using a human-powered reel mower is the best option.

frog in grass

Photo © B.B. Wijdieks

RUN Wildlife RUN!

Snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, and other critters living in your yard will be terrified of any mower. Riding and engine-powered-push mowers, because of their speed and noise, are likely to cause animals to make a run for it. To provide a safe escape route, Habitat Network recommends mowing from the inside of your turf area towards the outside, instead of starting on the edges and moving towards the center. Starting in the middle encourages the animals to flee away from the movement of the mower, rather than in the same direction the mower is heading. Reel mowers can be dangerous to wildlife, too, but because they are operated at a slower speed, animals are probably able to escape the blades more easily.
reel mower

Photo © Megan Whatton

Reel mowers have a lot going for them:

  • Economically, they are the most affordable option of all the mowers.
  • They emit no greenhouse gases (after manufacturing).
  • Neighbors will never know you got up at 6am to mow the lawn, since they are pretty much silent.
  • They might even help you fit into that summer bathing suit the way you want since mowing with one burns about 360 calories per hour.
  • Newer models don’t require frequent blade sharpening, which originally made reel mowers unappealing on the maintenance scorecard.

As the technology has improved, reel mowers have been seeing improved ratings and reviews from a wide variety of people adopting them for all kinds of reasons.

cut grass

Photo © KenSr199

Perhaps one of the most important benefits for lawn-lovers, though rarely discussed, is that reel mowers are better for your grass. They have a sharper snip that leaves the grass cleanly trimmed allowing it to grow back thick and healthy. Engine-powered mowers tear the tops off the grass blades, as pictured above, leaving the tips browned and weakening the quality of the grass over time.


Photo © Chris Alcoran

Newer reel mower models are lightweight and easy to maneuver in small areas. The clippings that come off the mower are finer and if you leave them where they are cut, they help to suppress weed seeds from establishing in the grass. This makes dandelion problems a bit less severe in a reel-mowed lawn.

uneven terrain

Photo © George Morris

Reel mowers are not without their weaknesses. If the lawn is uneven or hilly, using a reel mower may not be your best option. Lawns that are kept too long or allowed to overgrow will be difficult to maintain with a reel-mower, they do their best work on smaller, flat lawns that are regularly trimmed. Though a workout is achieved with a reel-mower, the added time it takes cut your lawn is a commitment you must be willing to make.

Want a Real, not a REEL workout?

Consider an old form of meadow and field maintenance called scything. This is a manual form of cutting back tall grasses using a sharp and effect scythe. A Habitat Network user writes about his experience with this tool in his property. If you are looking to manage a smaller area of grass while getting an excellent work out, this might be your ideal method.


Photo © Juli

If you’re ready for a reel, choose your model carefully. Research the brand and company. Take the time to read consumer reviews. Each mower has unique features that may or may not meet your ideals. Consider the size of your lawn, generally a manicured area under 3,000 sq ft is recommended. Don’t purchase a mower that is heavier than you can maneuver. Lastly, examine the shape of your lawn, as reel mowers can be tricky to use around edges or curves.

If you have a lawn, the reel-mower is our recommendation. Using a reel mower can become a whole family affair–the young, the old, those needing to lose a little around the waist–all are likely to benefit from getting reel when mowing. This might be one of those little changes you can make to your landscaping practices to really change your relationship to the land, without sacrificing tradition and aesthetic preference.


Photo © Evan Long

Tell Us About Your Mowing Practices

When you map a lawn, you can tell us about how you manage the grass. First, click on the lawn habitat which will become highlighted in yellow and will appear under Habitats and Objects in the site explorer to the left of the screen.

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Click on the green info button and choose characteristics. Pick which kind of mower you use, what you do with the grass clippings, whether the grass is native or nonnative, etc.

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