Eco-Healthy Lawn Care: Is a Reel Mower Right for You?

I have a love/hate relationship with grass. It’s just so high-maintenance. You have to water it to grow, and then when it grows you have to cut it. Not to mention the peer pressure from the neighbors to keep your lawn nice.

I managed to avoid cutting the grass for thirty-four years, and then last summer I moved into my first house: a house with an attractive yard to mow. I found myself comparison-shopping for a lawn mower.

I am a bit intimidated by the power mowers. They’re loud and dirty, and I have a fear of cutting off my foot. I decided to look at reel mowers. I bought one, and I’ve had it for almost a year.

This is what I like about a reel mower:

1. A reel mower does not have an engine, so you don’t have to buy gas or change the oil. You don’t have to breathe in the exhaust. You push it, so it gives you some exercise, but you don’t smell like a power mower when you’re done.

2. It’s apparently better for the grass. It has a cylinder with blades that rotate as you push, cutting the grass with a precise scissor-like action instead of shredding it. The clippings fall back into the grass, so they nourish the grass without being noticeable.

3. It’s quiet. You can mow early in the morning during the coolest part of the day without disturbing your neighbors.

4. You can use it around kids. I cut the grass while the kids are in the backyard with me, without worrying about them getting too close or getting hit by flying debris. Since it’s quiet, I can keep an ear on the kids while they play.

5. It’s small and lightweight. You can hang it on a wall to save space.

But there are a few things you should know:

1. A reel mower is for cutting grass; it’s not meant for mulching leaves, sticks and tall weeds. Sticks will get caught in the blades, and tall weeds will bend so the mower goes right over them. You will need to rake leaves and pick up sticks before you mow, so a power mower might be best if you have lots of trees or uneven ground.

2. It’s better to mow frequently. It’s harder to push the reel mower through grass that has gotten too tall, and any missed blades of grass will become more noticeable.

3. It takes effort, so it’s probably better suited for small to medium yards.

What I have:

I bought a Scotts 20-Inch Classic push reel mower because I heard it was good for thick St Augustine grass. It’s a little heavier than some reel mowers, but the extra weight can help it go through thick, overgrown grass. It’s the only one I’ve tried, so I can’t compare it to other brands. Our lot is a fifth of an acre with a few trees including a huge, messy pecan tree.

I still don’t love to mow the lawn, but I don’t mind it too much. I can mow the grass and get some light exercise for twenty minutes, and when I come inside I’m not covered with grass and engine exhaust. The lawn continually looks better, too.

Do you use a reel mower? Any tips or suggestions?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. We have a reel mower, and I love it. My husband isn’t such a fan though. I think it is because we have a lot of weeds in our yard instead of grass…kind of a pain, but I don’t feel like taking the time and money to fix that since I am trying to convince my hubby to dig up most of our yard for garden space :-) We also have a very small yard – .25 acres – so it isn’t a stretch for us to mow it with a reel mower. My mom lives down the street on 3 acres, and has a riding lawn mower, if I had that much space to mow, I too would have a riding lawn mower…or at least a sheep :-)
    Heather´s last post…rice pudding

    • I could ditto everything Heather said — same size yard, my husband doesn’t like it, I want to replace most of our yard with gardens.

      We have a gas-powered mower too and we need to use that one if we wait too long to cut. But it’s broken half the time or out of gas. It is important to keep the blades of a reel mower sharp and it’s hard to find places that do it well — I go to a hardware store in the city because they’re more common there than out in the ‘burbs.

      My kids have “helped” mow by age 2 or 3. I love that mowing with a baby on my back and another kid or two running around doesn’t scare me like it does with the gas mower. It’s quiet, so I can hear them, and it’s much harder to slice off a finger. The neighbor kids like to come over and push it too.

  2. Morning Sunshine says:

    we have 12 acres, but only .10 is lawn. we have considered one of these. I think my big hesitation these days is that son is getting big enough to push the motor lawn mower with supervision. if we go manual, we will have to go back to doing it ourselves for a few more years :P

  3. I love push reel mowers! We bought a different one, more lightweight but with a lower cutting height, so my husband never wanted to use it because it cut too low for the grass in our area (it’s on loan to a friend now) but wow, that was a fun little mower to push. I loved that I could mow with baby in a carrier or baby playing nearby. And no stinky lawnmower smells!
    Bethesda Locavore´s last post…Really, Who Has the Time?

  4. I have to have a petrol mower. We have 5 acres and most of it is grass. We do have a geriatric ride-on that is hopeless, so it’s down to the petrol-push. Still good exercise though as our terrain is not flat. Had a good go with it today…am knackered !
    Tasmanian Minimalist´s last post…Sunday Link Love

  5. Hmmm. I wonder if it would be a good alternative for someone with carpal tunnel syndrome because I imagine it doesn’t vibrate as much as a regular mower. How hard do you have to push it?
    Steph´s last post…Stop Catastrophizing

    • We have a push mower, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for someone with carpal tunnel. You’re right–it doesn’t vibrate as much as a regular mower, but it does take a fair amount of force to push a reel mower.

      I don’t have carpal tunnel, but I destroyed my wrists playing tennis in college, and I can’t cut the grass with either kind of mower.
      Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy´s last post…You Can’t Always Get What You Want: My Fourth Baby Story

    • I do have carpal tunnel (not currently flaring up, though) and we just purchased a reel mower. I’ve only used it once and I was thinking how much it didn’t bother me. I will say a) we have a TINY yard — ridiculously tiny, I think. b)it does help to mow more frequently — it requires less force to “trim” than to do a major overhaul of the grass.

  6. A reel mower was the first thing we bought after we signed the papers on our first house! We have the 20″ Scott as well. It has a hard time with crab grass, but other than that it works very well on our small yard. My hubby let’s my daughter “help” him push and has been doing so ever since she was old enough to walk steadily. He’s looking forward to the day she can take over lawn mowing duties :) We had a part break not long after the purchase, but the Scott people were very helpful in getting it replaced. He goes over the blades at least once a week with oil on a cloth to help keep them sharp. I think you are supposed to have them professionally sharpened every year, but we haven’t done it yet (going on 5 years now) :-P

  7. We have one and love it. Our front yard is a small hill, and our backyard is medium sized. Although, mine is definitely not “quiet!” It may be quieter than power mowers for sure but I would not feel comfortable mowing in the early hours.

  8. I have had one for 10 years and I really (reelly) like it. It’s a Sears model and the only time it gets too tough to push is when I have neglected the yard too long. My daughter was helping mow when she was nine- that’s how easy it is.
    One thing I like about it is that it works on wet/damp grass. Here in the Pacific Northwest we don’t always have the luxury of waiting for the lawn to dry before we mow it. We have to catch it between rain showers and a power mower would just get all gummed up. The reel mower can handle a bit of damp.
    It’s also very low maintenance.

    • Oh, I’m glad you mentioned Sears! I’ve been researching reel mowers for about 6 weeks but I was having a hard time coming to a decision solely based off of amazon descriptions. I’ll go to Sears to take a look. Don’t they warranty their products for life?

      • FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist says:

        Mine’s from Lee Valley. Works great.

      • Ah- sorry, I don’t know about the warranty. I just bought the only one they happened to have in the store at the time and I didn’t do a lot of research or reading. Cost $120, still works like new and I’ve never had the blades sharpened… (I prolly should, huh?)
        Came with a grass catching bag, but I never use that. The clippings are good for the lawn.
        Oh- my yard is about 40′ by 40′.

  9. I love how my 9-year-old can safely cut the grass with our reel mower. He’s been using it since age 7. He loves to help with yard work, and loves that cutting the grass is a “real” job–and not just some busy work we’ve tossed his way to placate him.

    He can’t manage the whole yard, but he’s great at managing the flat, easier portions with our reel mower.
    Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy´s last post…You Can’t Always Get What You Want: My Fourth Baby Story

  10. Your yard is coming along nicely. Nice and green.

    Nope, we have the noisy one you can’t use until the neighbors have had their second cup of coffee.

    Our yard is small but hubby is usually outside puttering for about 2 hours. And just as you called it, he is fume smelly when he finally does come in. And dusty too. I just asked him if he would ever return to the push mover. All I got was a roll of the eyes. :D
    Donna´s last post…Paula Wins the Hearts Giveaway

  11. We live on 1/2 acre and love our electric mower. It’s much quieter than a gas-powered mower, is lightweight, and doesn’t smell at all. You do have to “dance” a little with the cord, but it’s not a big deal. We bought ours through Amazon (free shipping!) and haven’t looked back.

  12. How timely! We are renting a little townhouse with a teensy back yard (12′x15′). Y’all, it’s small. We let the grass die last year what with pregnancy, a newborn, and an overseas deployment. But now life’s back to normal, we want a place for the kiddo to play — and we have an obligation to the owners to keep the property nice. So, we planted grass. And now, it’s coming in like crazy! Since this is the first time in our marriage that we’ve had a yard, we don’t yet have a mower. I believe we’ll be picking up a reel mower! I can’t imagine trying to mow the tiny plot with a big hulking gas mower.

  13. We debated on those, but ended up with an electric one instead. It’s kinda quiet and I don’t have to fill up with gas and oil. I feel safer with my child outside with my husband when he’s mowing too. He can just let go of the handle and it’s off. I wouldn’t mind the push one if the yard was a bit smaller and the grass didn’t grow so fast :/ I’d be out there every couple days haha.

  14. I remember my Dad having a push mower, and being so glad when the electric ones came out, had to be careful with those cords! and then the gas ones. We used to have a gas one, but now live in an HOA community where the commmercial guys use the big gas ones on the front yard, and our back area is all patio garden. Some of our neighbors have flat grass-filled yards, and several of them “share” a push mower. I’m kind of in favor of making the effort to use less of nature’s resources, like gas, if possible, and more of human effort, for the physical exercise of it. And – also to recognize that consideration is needed for different circumstances. And important to keep the rodent-and-varmint population down for human safety, why city ordinances don’t like the weeds too high. Love these posts!

  15. My yard is about an acre in size and lush, so lush the sheep love grazing in it but even 28 sheep cannot keep the grass down to a manageable level. So, I mow with a riding mower and with the lawn, the driveway, barn lot and roadside it takes me between 3 and 4 hours.
    Sandra at Thistle Cove Farm´s last post…Sabbath Keeping

  16. My neighbour had a reel mower with a motor. The motor sat above the reel, between the handle shafts. He said the reel action is better for the grass but it’s the only one like it I’ve ever seen.

  17. Wow this brings back memories. I used to mow my next door neighbors lawn with a WOOD reel mower, yes wood framed! Weighed a ton! LOL. She was a retired school teacher, widowed, and we kids started mowing her lawn when we reached age 10. She supervised us, and gave us crackers and juice for a break. When we moved across town, we rode our bicycles back to her house on Saturdays, just to mow for her. Mrs. Nielsen, I miss you.

  18. We’ve been using a reel mower to mow our very large, hilly yard for the past few years. It’s great exercise!

  19. We just purchased a reel mower for our yard and then were given another one! Even after rolling the yard the dips and crevices make mowing a bit of a workout, but with two we can get it done in half the time!
    Cheryl´s last post…Marriage Thoughts

  20. My 82-year-old dad-in-law uses a vintage reel mower. I guess that’s part of why he’s still going strong!

  21. We just got an electric mower. Unfortunately, as you said, Reel mowers aren’t recommended for yards with lots of trees, and we have LOTS of trees! Thusly also bad because we need it for mulching leaves and such. So, electric mower it is. Plus, now we can catch the resulting “waste” and use it in our compost. Win!

  22. We have an acre and have been using a reel mower. I would second everything you said about weeds and trees. We have a lot of trees and dandelions and it just isn’t ideal. I love that I can push it with the baby in a carrier and I’m not deafening him, but I think we are going to get a riding mower to save time.

  23. We have a mower just like this! It definitely takes a lot longer to mow our small yard with this rather than a regular push mower, but we love the fact that there is practically no upkeep! My husband is in love with his mower. As long as we have a small yard, this will be the mower-of-choice!
    Rachel @ Common to Moms´s last post…Inspire Me! Monday: Cleaning House

  24. I really wanted to like our reel mower when we first moved into our house, but the pinecones were an absolute dealbreaker. Every single one snagged the mower, so we had to stop, pick out the pinecone, and start again. It took forevvvvvver.

  25. Something else to consider would be switching from “regular grass seed” to something like Sheep’s Fescue: low maintenance (rarely mow it), naturally drought tolerant and more weed resistant than the grasses ususally used.

  26. We have been using a reel mower since we moved to our house 5 years ago. Our neighbors think we’re nuts & some people even slow their cars to stare at us while we’re mowing. But, you know what? We’re damn proud of our mower. It cuts the grass beautifully, we mow early in the day and don’t bother anyone, we love that it’s safe around the kids,it’s great exercise (especially if you left it get a bit long!) and it’s eco-friendly. How can you go wrong with that combination of positive factors? Our only con is that it is practically impossible to find someone to sharpen the blades & blade sharpening is very expensive compared to the cost of the mower. Oh well, we still love it!

  27. We have one but I don’t use it anymore. when i was going thru morning sickness i couldn’t keep up with mowing it frequently enough- so we bought a gas mower this year- takes less time!

  28. We have a small city backyard that has lots of weeds mixed in the grass, plus 2 messy trees. We use an old reel mower. It is the kids’ job to go around and pick up all the sticks and walnuts before we mow. We aren’t really manicured-lawn kind of people so if the mower doesn’t cut the grass sharply, we don’t mind.
    However, the Amish in our area use reel mowers and they are very fussy about their lawns. I’m betting they get their mowers sharpened every year and mow more often than we do.
    Margo, Thrift at Home´s last post…The Week in Suppers: mid-April

  29. I LOVE my reel mower. I have an acre of land, only about 1/2 is lawn. Lots of trees around the edges, but I let that go wild with native plants (we’re in the country) and keep the lawn trimmed with the reel. It doesn’t get close to the fence and swing set posts, but it certainly does the job. I could do it while pregnant too, as it was super light and maneuverable.

    A tip for getting the blades sharpened – if you’re quite rural (like me) check any golf courses nearby – they will typically have a sharpener there, and if they are not too busy may well spin your mower at no charge! (Make friends with the maintenance/groundskeepers :)

    Mine is adjustable for cutting height, so I have it at the highest setting – good for the grass, and it means I don’t have to mow as often! Works well over our bumpy terrain too.

  30. We reel-mowed for six years then couldn’t’ find anyone to sharpen the blades and our time was being spent elsewhere. We couldn’t mow as frequently. Now we tool-share. We borrow the electric mower at the neighbor’s house. We share a lot of things with a lot of people, but this has been one of the best (for my husband).
    Stacy´s last post…Bike Camping Initiation

  31. Jacquelyn says:

    This is a bit of a digression, but I think it’s wonderful that you have a pecan tree! Do you harvest and store your nuts; if so, what is your method?

  32. My husband has always been the mower in the family, and before we moved into our new house in the city I said that I definitely wanted a reel mower instead of electric or our old gas mower; I even said I’d mow. I saw a reel mower at the ReUse Center in our town for $20. I thought it would be perfect to see if we could live with a reel mower.

    We had the blade sharpened on the other side of town for $20 (it took some time to find a place that still sharpened these blades – but my neighbor says he can sharpen them for us too) and I couldn’t be happier.

    Ours is adjustable too, and I keep it at the highest setting. It takes up almost no space there are no stinky smells and there’s no hazardous fuel to store. I enjoy mowing the lawn, and it helps me keep the yard nicer because I rake the (small) lawn before I mow and pick up any twigs as I go. It is VERY easy to push – my 12 year old son mows often too. By the time it would have taken my husband to get the old mower out, check the fuel, etc – the reel mower is done mowing our whole yard.

  33. i gave my reel mower away after a couple years b/c it did such a horrible job on weeds and crabgrass. i bought a Toro electric mower and i love it. as long as you are careful not to run over the power cord, it’s a piece of cake to use. feels like i’m vacuuming my yard.

  34. We just bought a reel mower. I LOVE it! I find it easier to push and maneuver than the gas mower we were using. I impressed the heck out of my Dad when I told him that I’d mowed the lawn using the reel mower with my chubby five-month-old in a sling. Apparently he used to mow lawns when he was a teenager. I think the reel mowers back then must have been much harder to push! Lol.

  35. I have had a Scott’s reel mower for about 5 years. I love it, I can be barefoot and talk on the phone or listen to music the entire time. It takes about 45 minutes to mow my yard. It’s hard work if you let the the grass get too high and it doesn’t do a good job with many weeds. (But, I have been cured of precision tuned lawn lust and it’s quite lovely enough for me.) I have taken mine to a local John Deere place and they take it all apart and I guess oil it and I know they sharpen it and it’s fabulous after that. Sure costs more than $20, more like $100!! The dang thing only cost about $100+ at Lowe’s brand new. I remember seeing these used when I was a kid and people did this back and forth motion with but them but I just push mine like a regular mower. You don’t need hearing protection or safety glasses or steel toed boots. I really enjoy using this after having a smelly scary regular lawn mower.

  36. We have a reel mower. It does a fairly good job although it has trouble cutting through really tall dandelions. Seems to leave them sticking up. My husband uses something called lapping paste on the blades, it’s supposed to sharpen them as you mow.
    Carrie´s last post…Restaurant Supply Warehouses

  37. We have a mower like this and it’s perfect for our townhouse. It was great last summer that I could mow while wearing my baby. And yes, I did get a lot of comments from my neighbors. The only issue I’ve had with it is the uneven ground in front of our house. It doesn’t cut it evenly, but it’s not bad, and doesn’t bother me. (My husband’s another story because he likes the look of a perfect looking yard)

  38. We use an electric Hover-mower. Our landlord provides an electric version of a reel mower but it doesn’t work great on our lumpy uneven lawns, and has exposed blades which i dont like around small children It also gets clogged up when it’s wet. The hover mower works ok on damp grass and collects up much better, and the blades are only accessible if you tip the whole thing over on its back which helps me feel safe mowing around a toddler. I can’t use a Petrol mower due to carpal tunnel, and don’t like dealing with the fuel issue anyway.