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Which Mower is Right for You – Cylinder or Rotary?

Which Mower is Right for You – Cylinder or Rotary?
15th April 2014 Lawn UK

Everyone wants to have the nicest lawn around. Visits to famous gardens seem to always include an expectation that the lawns will be immaculately manicured.  Those alternating stripes of light and dark grass reduce some people almost to tears. If you are a golfer or lawn bowls player you are used to finely-cropped lawns with perfect mowing taken as a given.

There are two basic kinds of mowers you can use to cut the grass.

Cylinder or Reel Mowers:

These traditional mowers date back to the 1830’s and were originally based on a machine used at that time to trim the hairs on worsted wools in the weaving mills.  These mowers use a revolving cylinder made of several curved blades which meet a stationary blade called the cutting bar.  This action creates a scissor-like cut which leaves the end of the grass blade clean and level.

In addition most reel mowers used in home lawns have a roller behind them which levels minor imperfections every time you mow, gradually producing a flat lawn and also creating those coveted stripes.

Reel mowers need to be adjusted regularly to ensure that the blades are meeting the cutting bar cleanly and firmly.  The blade is easily damaged so you must make sure the lawn if clean and free of debris, especially small stones, before mowing.  In any case it will need regular sharpening to keep it cutting cleanly.

Rotary Mowers

This type of mower has a more recent origin – Australia in the 1950’s. Since then they have become used around the world and displace the reel mower from most gardens.

To cut the lawn it relies on a fast-moving horizontal disc with two or more loosely-attached blades mounted horizontally.  Because of the fast rotation speed these blades cut with a chopping action but the grass blade bends slightly during the cutting action giving it an uneven and slightly ragged edge.  As the grass dries the end turns brown and makes the lawn look a little unkempt.

Pros and Cons

The main reason to choose a reel mower lies in the close cut it can achieve and the cleanness of the cut.  The jagged edges from a rotary mower always make a cut which just doesn’t look as neat.  You should keep the blade of your rotary mower sharp – it doesn’t take long with a vice and a file – so that the edges are cut as clean as possible but you will never match a sharp reel mower.

Because a reel-mower cuts the grass very short the lawn surface must be absolutely level or the lawn will scalp meaning the blade cuts into the roots or even the soil.  These scalped areas will become bare and unsightly.  Since a rotary mower can be set to cut over 50 mm irregularity in the surface will be largely hidden by the longer grass. So if you have an existing lawn which is not completely flat you will need to re-build it before you can use a reel-mower.

There is a basic rule of lawn-care that says only remove one-third of the leaf-blade when mowing.  This is to ensure that enough length is left to feed the replacement leaves that will be produced.

So the shorter you cut your lawn the smaller amount one third will be.  A cylinder mower cuts to 5 mm to get that groomed-lawn look.  So after less than 2 mm of growth the lawn needs cutting.  During the summer this could be twice a week or even more.  Since a rotary mower will cut no lower than 12 mm, the lawn can grow 4 mm before it should be cut – perhaps once a week at the height of the season.  You could set your reel mower to a longer cut, they can usually be adjusted up to about 25 mm, but then much of the visual benefit will be lost.

So a reel mower means you need to cut the lawn more often. Most people are juggling their garden activities with work, family and hobbies so they only have so much time available and you must decide if you have the time or inclination for frequent mowing.

Finally there is cost.  If you are fit and have a small lawn a push-powered cylinder mower may only cost £50 or less, but a powered version starts at £500 and can be over £3,000.  A rotary mower needs an engine but a good basic machine may cost only £250 and a good-quality self-propelled machine around £400.  The excellent Hayter 616 Spirit 41 Petrol Mower is an excellent rotary machine with a quality engine which sells for £312.

In the end most people choose a rotary mower but if you love to garden then using a cylinder mower can be a reel joy.


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