Save Time, Money, Effort (or Maybe All Three) by Choosing the Right Mower for Your Yard

Every job has the right tool, and every lawn has the right lawnmower.

Much as a sledgehammer makes a poor fly swatter and a watercolors set is woefully inadequate for painting your living room, the wrong lawn mower can make your life and your lawn more of a hassle than they need to be.

When my wife and I moved into our home in 2013, we found a number of lawn tools in the barn in various states of repair. There was a semi-functional brush trimmer (it really shouldn’t make a clanking sound), a dead-on-arrival lawn trimmer, a 21-inch self-propelled Honda lawn mower (an older version of this) and a 42-inch Craftsman LT2000 lawn tractor (a far older version of this).

Coming from Belleville, N.J., where the lawns are sparse and your neighbor’s kitchen window is about a yardstick away, I didn’t have all that much experience with mowers. I mowed my grandparents’ lawn on their double lot a few blocks from my parents’ house, but it took minutes and only required a simple push mower. Thus, when the pasture grass began to stretch upward and cattails appeared on the fringes of the lawn, I thought the Honda mower would me more than adequate.

That wasn’t true. Our property is roughly two acres, with a goat pen and pasture taking up maybe a quarter of it. The rest is broken into quadrants surrounding a barn, six other outbuildings, hedges, and a long strip of drainage trench out front. My wife and father-in-law, who’d lived on a roughly 10-acre hillside property west of Seattle, watched me and shook their heads. It would take me two days to get to all of it, with the tall, wet grass choking the underpowered mower along the way.

With that, I overcame my initial fear of the lawn tractor and began using it more regularly. Unsurprisingly, it took about half the time to finish the yard (not including trim in places the tractor couldn’t reach), but the tractor had issues of its own.

It was a lawn tractor, which meant it wasn’t built for the divots, mole mounds and other terrain the farm was throwing at it. There would be times when I’d be puttering along, hear the blade motor go silent and see a belt trailing behind the mower like a dead snake. I’d also learned that the pasture grass that choked the push mower would not only do the same to the tractor, but would burn out the mower engine by clogging it.

A nearby lawn machine shop would pick it up for repairs, but the transport fee made up a big chunk of the cost during the season. Every year, the tractor would throw a belt or two and, every year, it would have to go in during peak mowing season.

I got rid of that tractor this year (but not without learning a few lessons along the way), after investing in a Ferris IS 600Z commercial-grade mower. It’s basically the budget version of the mower that departments of transportation use to mow the sides of highways, and its coiled suspension was built for the bumpier terrain of our pasture-like fields and lawns. Also, with a four-foot mowing deck and six blades instead of two, what had been a weekend-long mow now takes perhaps an hour and a half if I’m completely thorough.

It doesn’t mean I don’t need the Honda mower for tighter spaces or for the narrow trench portion in the front yard. It just means that I finally have the right machine for the bigger job. However, even Briggs & Stratton — the company that produced the engines on each of the lawn tractors I’ve owned — notes that not every job requires the most beastly mower your budget can afford.

For lots of 3/4 acre or less, Briggs suggests a 20-inch walk-behind mower. My editor Jon Gorey, writing for The Boston Globe, points out that push-behind mowers don’t even need a gas engine to be effective on small lots. In fact, among the push mowers that Home Depot sells, quieter electric and battery-powered mowers now outnumber gas models roughly 3-to-1.

The folks at NAPA, meanwhile, suggest that lawns under 15,000 square feet — or even small parts of lawns surrounded by obstacles — don’t require a powered mower at all. Reel-driven push mowers are more than capable of handling areas that small without wearing out the person doing the mowing. From that point up to 1/3 or 3/4 of an acre, a 20-inch powered push mower will do.

Both NAPA and Briggs & Stratton suggest a riding mower with a rear engine and 28 to 42 inches of deck width for properties of 3/4 of an acre to an acre, simply to speed things along. However, once you get above an acre, consensus states that a wider mowing deck is always better, with 45 to 50 inches of deck suitable for land up to two acres. For more than three acres, you’re going to want at least a 44- to 54-inch deck and an 18-horsepower engine.

There are some important caveats to all of the above, though. Hilly yards can be attacked with just about any mower, but self-propelled mowers or push mowers with large back wheels fare better on rough terrain.

Also, it all depends on what you can handle personally. If your push mower leaves you with more aches or feeling more winded than it used to, a self-propelled mower can help with small yards, while a small riding mower can cover half an acre or more.

It’s going to be up to you to choose features like baggers, mulching blades, or other accessories, but taking a long look at your mowing area and your own limitations can save you a lot of time, effort, and heartbreak during mowing season.

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.