ABCs of lawn mowing: How to mow, when to mow, what to mow with

Lawn mowing is an important part of keeping your grass healthy and looking good.

Done wrong, and your green expanse could turn brown and unattractive. And no fun at all to play on.

“Without regular mowing, even a fine turf quickly becomes just another weed patch,” wrote Richard L. Duble, retired professor and renowned turfgrass specialist for the University of Texas A&M.

How you mow, when you mow and what you mow with will all make a difference in the keeping your lawn looking and feeling its best.

Why mow?

You are doing your lawn a favor when you mow it. Mowing your lawn stimulates its growth. A grass plant’s purpose in life is photosynthesis — that is, pulling in carbon in the air, energy from the sun and water from the earth to grow roots and blades of grass. When you cut off the tips of the grass plants, they are stimulated to grow more.

The result: a thicker lawn with better roots, which crowds out weeds and makes your turf oh so nice to roll around in and toss the ball on.

But as anyone with parched brown spots, patches of weeds or scalped grass can attest, a lot can go wrong in the process.

When to mow

Ideally, you mow when your lawn needs it. Whether you do it yourself or hire a lawn mowing service, the idea is to schedule your lawn mowing so that it occurs when the grass benefits most from it.

Often, that can mean regularly scheduled weekly mowing, but it can vary. If you’ve recently fertilized, your grass will undergo a growth spurt, and you can increase the frequency to prevent excess accumulation of clippings. On the other hand, during a prolonged dry spell, your lawn would be best served by setting the mowing height higher and reducing mowing frequency so the grass plants can retain more moisture.

There are differences in the growth patterns of warm-season and cool-season grass types.

  • Warm-season (Southern) grasses such as St. Augustinegrass and Bermudagrass ramp up their growth in the summer, so expect to mow them more frequently then.Warm-season grass growth pattern
  • Cool-season (Northern) grasses:  Kentucky bluegrass, turf-type tall fescues, and fine leaf fescues have twin peaks of growth in spring and fall, so that’s when your heaviest mowing workload will be. You can back off on mowing frequency in the summer.Cool-season grass growth pattern

You can cease mowing when grasses go dormant, either due to extended drought or cold. How soon that is will depend on your climate, but cool-season can take the cold and usually go dormant in the fall when the soil temperatures fall to 50 degrees F. Warm-season grasses such as generally go dormant around mid to late October.

“During your grass’s growing season, mowing once a week should be plenty,” said Brad Leahy, owner of Blades of Green, a lawn care company that has been cutting Maryland and Northern Virginia lawns for more than 25 years.

Proper height to cut grass

The proper height for your grass will depend on its species. See the chart below for details. But over the years, turfgrass specialists have created one important rule: The 1/3 rule, which states that you should never remove more than 1/3 of your grass on any cutting. If you’ve been out of town or just got a little backed up with other chores, no matter how tempting it is to whack it all down to size at once, don’t do it.  Adhere to the 1/3 rule, and cut your grass down in increments. This will reduce the amount of stress you put on the grass.

Recommended Mowing Height by Grass Type
Grass speciesRecommended mow height (inches)Mow when it reaches this height (inches)
Annual ryegrass1.5 - 22.25 - 3
Bermudagrass (seeded) 1 - 1.51.5 - 2.25
Buffalograss1 - 21.5 - 3
Centipede grass23
Colonial bentgrass0.5 - 10.75 - 1.5
Creeping bentgrass0.5 inch or less0.75 inch or less
Dichondra0.5 - 0.750.75 - 1.125
Hard fescue1.5 - 2.52.25 - 3.75
Hybrid Bermuda0.5 - 1 0.75 - 1.5
Kentucky bluegrass1.5 - 2.5 2.25 - 3.75
Kikuyugrass1 - 1.5 1.5 - 2.25
Perennial ryegrass1.5 - 2.5 2.25 - 3.75
Red fescue1.5 - 2.5 2.25 - 3.75
St. Augustinegrass1 - 2 1.5 - 3
Tall fescue1.5 - 32.5 - 4
Zoysiagrass0.5 - 10.75 - 1.5
Sources: University of California-Davis Integrated Pest Management program, University of Georgia-Augusta Richmond County Extension

“The 1/3 rule is critical,” said Campbell Vaughn, agriculture and natural resources agent for the University of Georgia-Augusta Richmond County Extension. Virtually all mowers have a height adjustment, so use yours. To adjust your mower, don’t just eyeball it. Get out a tape measure and park your mower on a hard, even surface. Measure from that surface up to the blade.  To adjust your mower to the right height, place it on a hard, even surface and measure from the blade to the hard surface. In many cases, you will find that the highest mower setting is the preferred cutting height.

Best time of day to mow your lawn

The pros say mid-morning is the best time to mow. If you start too early, there will still be dew on the grass that will make your lawn mower work harder and cause clumps of wet grass to accumulate on the mower and on your yard. Wait until that dew has dried and then have at it. Late afternoon, after 4 p.m., is also a good time. Avoid mowing at mid-day — it’s just too hot. Avoid the evening, too, because lawn mowing is a stressful event for your lawn, and you want to give it time to recover.

Be courteous to your neighbors when mowing 

It’s just common courtesy to avoid mowing too late or too early. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that fights noise pollution, has enacted a “Good Neighbor Policy.”

Regarding the use of lawn equipment, the policy suggests that people:

  • Use a reel mower and rake whenever possible.
  • Use power lawn and garden equipment between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Do not use a leaf blower for health and noise reasons.
  • Whenever possible, avoid the outdoor use of power tools on Sunday.
  • Avoid the use of power lawn equipment if your neighbors are in their yards.
  • Establish a schedule for motorized outdoor lawn and garden work with your neighbors (e.g., even number days only).

If courtesy isn’t enough of an incentive for you, be aware that more than 500 local governments have passed noise pollution legislation, violations of which could force you to pay a hefty fine. Electric mowers are a quieter choice than gas mowers.

Sharpen mowing blades regularly

If you can’t remember the last time you sharpened your lawn mower blade, it’s time to do so. “A dull blade is about the worse thing you can do to a lawn,” Vaughn said, because where sharp blades cut cleanly, dull blades tear. “When you tear the leaf, it opens it up for diseases to attack it. A clean cut helps it regenerate a lot faster and be a healthier plant in the long run.”

How often you need to get your blade sharpened will depend largely on how many hours of mowing it does. Mowing a large lawn frequently will cause more wear and tear than occasional use on a small patch of turf.

Your lawn will tell you if you have a dull blade. Take a look at the evenness of the cut and whether the individual blades of grass have been neatly sheared. An uneven, tatty appearance and torn leaves are your cues that it’s time to sharpen the blade.

You can take the mower into a shop to have the blade professionally sharpened, or you can do it yourself. Lawn mower blade sharpening kits cost as little as $10.

Inspect your blade. If there are chips or gaps, it may be time for a new one. Replacing a blade isn’t too tough and can be accomplished with tools most of us have around the house.

Lawn mowing tips

Pablo Solomon says he started mowing lawns for 50 cents a yard with a human-powered push mower when he was a 10-year-old growing up in Houston, where, he said, “the grass grows faster than the national debt.”

Now 71, he is a renowned “green designer” who chooses his grasses carefully. “Each type of grass has its own characteristics that determine when it grows, when it grows and when it may go dormant according to the climate,” he said.

Over the years, he has developed his own mowing technique, which he still practices on the large lawn surrounding his historic house north of Austin, Texas.

Check the yard. That’s the first task for Solomon

“Be certain to scout out your lawn before you mow,” Solomon said. “Remove any rocks, debris, toys, etc., that might damage your mower or that might be thrown by your mower and hurt someone or damage something. A lot of windows are broken by lawn mowers slinging stuff and a lot of people have gone to the hospital with shrapnel wounds.”

Dealing with slopes: Different rules for different mowers.

He and other experts advise that when riding a power mower, your ride up and down the slopes horizontally so that the mower is never tilted to one side. With a push mower, you do the opposite and mow parallel to the contour of the slope.

Not too close. Don’t get your mower too close to trees, the curb, flower beds, rocks, playground equipment, your shed or anything else, he said. That’s what the line trimmers are for. “By trying to get too close to stuff you rin the risk of damaging the stuff, the mower and/or yourself,” he said. If you are using a lawn care professional, make sure you convey your wishes to your service provider.

Pace yourself. If your lawn is large, break up the job into smaller pieces, Solomon advises. “I know that people that care about having their lawns perfect can be somewhat neurotic at times. But allow yourself to be a bit less compulsive when you run the risk of a heat stroke or heart attack.”

Leahy agrees. “We always recommend starting at the places that will take the most time: around rocks, shrubs, buildings or other features in your lawn,” he said. “By doing this at the start, you’re still fresh and willing to take the time to mow these areas carefully and correctly. If you wait till the end, you may rush these parts, potentially damaging your lawn mower.”

Be careful with a mower on newly sodded grass or new lawns grown from seed. The roots of the grass are not very deep, so be gentle by minimizing turns with your mower. Make the turns off the lawn, over pavement or bare soil, where possible.

Grass clippings: Mulch them

The standard wisdom has changed in the past few decades about grass clippings. A few decades ago, lawn clippings were thought to contribute to thatching, so the common practice when mowing your lawn was to bag lawn clippings and discard them. It has since been discovered that mulching — leaving clippings in the lawn — is the better choice. Letting your mower chop the grass blades returns nitrogen to the soil and does not contribute to thatching. It does contribute to weed control and is a more organic way to maintain a healthy lawn.

Regular lawn mowers do an adequate job of mulch, but mulching mowers have a special blade that chops the grass blades into fine pieces, hastening their decomposition. It’s fine to run your mulching blade over leaves to add them to the mulch mix. If the leaves are thick, though, rake them up for leaf removal into a compost pile.

Mowing pattern

“Once you finish mowing around any features and move on to mowing the open lawn, I suggest homeowners establish a mowing pattern, whether that’s straight rows or circles; again, whatever works best for you and your lawn,” says Leahy.

For the best lawn, it’s better to vary your mowing pattern, especially if your mower is heavy. That way you don’t wear grooves in your yard and you catch the blades of grass that may have bent out of the way the last time.

Picking the right lawn mower

There are several different types of mowers that you can use in your lawn maintenance. Purchasing the correct mower for your needs really comes down to the size of your yard, your budget, and your personal preference. Riding mowers are recommended for larger yards, while push mowers can handle small to medium jobs.

Purchasing the correct mower for your needs really comes down to the size of your yard, your budget, and your personal preference. Riding mowers are recommended for larger yards, while push mowers can handle small to medium jobs.

Lot Size — A homeowner of a large property with multiple acres requires a different type of lawn mower than a person with a small yard. For this person, a riding lawn mower would be the weapon of choice. Riding lawn mowers range in price from $600 to $14,000, depending on the power, size, and quality of the machine that a person’s needs. A large property will also restrict homeowners from using electric lawn mowers that require the machine to remain plugged into an outlet.

The standard rule for choosing a lawn mower based on yard size is that for yards no larger than 1/2 an acre, stick with a push mower. For lawns larger than 1/2 an acre, the homeowner should begin to consider a riding mower, which will save time and energy for the user. People with properties greater than three acres should then look at upgrading to a zero-turn or garden mower, which will provide better mobility and ease each time the grass needs mowing.

Topography — You must determine if your yard is flat or if there are variations in elevation, including varying hills and valleys. A riding lawn mower, for example, wouldn’t be a great fit for a yard with steep hills and tight spaces due to the lack of mobility that they provide compared to push mowers.

Physical Fitness — Lawn care is a physical activity that requires a certain level of strength and stamina. This can be offset to an extent with a riding lawn mower, but the individual would then incur a greater cost. Motorized lawn mowers are generally a perfect balance between the price (compared to that of riding lawn mowers) and the physical effort needed to propel a nonelectric reel lawn mower that uses only the physical exertion of its user to cut the grass.

study by Harvard Medical School measured the calories burned by people in different activities, including lawn mowing. A 155-pound person pushing a manual push (reel) mower would burn 205 calories in a half hour — the same caloric output as someone doing a half hour of low-impact aerobics or square dancing. Pushing a motorized mower was less strenuous, the study found, burning off 167 calories in a half hour — the same as a good half-hour game of badminton.

Cost — Lawn mowers can be a very expensive purchase for an individual, so cost is a very important factor to be weighed before purchasing a tool. Standard reel, or cylinder mowers, are generally the cheapest and can be found for roughly $70 to $90. Electric and gas push mowers can range from $100 to $400 and riding mowers can be as much as $14,000.

Personal Preference — Personal preferences depending on the individual can consist of choosing an electric versus a gas push mower or choosing to go completely low-tech with a standard reel mower. Mowers can also be personalized with features that include a mulching blade that chops up the grass into tiny bits and distributes it across the yard, or a grass bag that collects the grass clippings as you go to make for easier disposal.

Mow it yourself? Or hire a pro

Your other choice is to forgo the lawn mower purchase and instead hire a lawn service. Lawnstarter.com is in the business of helping consumers find qualified lawn professionals. So if you don’t want to learn the fine art of lawn care, see if we provide service to your area. Regardless of whether you use us or another service, make sure to check references and Better Business Bureau ratings.

“Get references and if people are qualified and reasonable I think it’s a fair tradeoff,” Vaughn said.

Main photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

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