Whether your lawn is a lush, velvety green carpet or, shall we say, less than perfect, the odds are high that you cut it with a lawn mower. For most of us, this means the type known as "a walk-behind rotary power mower."
With prices ranging from about $150 to $700, you might wonder about the value of some mower features and whether you need them all.
Do you want the mower to pull you along as it cuts, or do you want to push it forward? Most gardeners opt for the former, called "self-propelled," but you'll find lower prices among the latter.
Self-propelled mowers have the controls on a lever or bar within a few inches of the main handle. Current safety regulations require you to grip that lever in order to operate the engine. Once the lever is released, the engine automatically shuts off. It's an important safety feature but can be a nuisance.
A new feature, called a blade-brake clutch, on some of the high-end walk-behind mowers allows you to let go of the drive lever without the engine stopping. This means you can pause to pick up a branch or a toy in the way without having to restart the machine.
Another fancy new feature is hydrostatic drive. It allows for continuously variable speed control and a reverse gear. It also provides better handling on slopes and in wet conditions.
Variable-speed mowers have some of the advantages of hydrostatic mowers, but at lower cost. To enjoy the conveniences of a blade-brake clutch, look for a mower with either a hydrostatic or variable-speed drive.
How much do you dread trying to start the mower? If you battle with any kind of gasoline engine, consider the ease of electric ignition. A rechargeable battery starts the motor with the turn of a key rather than a yank on a starter rope.
Not withstanding the ease of electric start, all the newer, gas-powered engines are much easier to start. Most have a push button priming system that squirts gasoline into the carburator, and a simplified throttle system. Many mowers also have the pull cord up on the handle so you don't have to bend to pull it.
Another option for those who don't want to deal with gas engines at all is an electric mower. They start with a switch and run quietly.
Mulching mowers are pretty much required these days, simply because it's more sensible to leave clippings on the lawn than send them to a landfill. Mulching mowers have a doughnut-shaped deck (the piece that covers the blade and holds the engine) and a multipitch blade. The outer section of the blade pulls grass up and cuts it, then the air currents created within the deck cause the clippings to keep swirling around until they are finely chopped. Air pressure forces these tiny clippings down into the turf, where they decompose.
Don't worry about leaving clippings on the lawn; they enrich the soil, resulting in greener, more vigorous turf.
Some mowers can only mulch; others -- called "3-in-1" -- can mulch, bag, or discharge clippings to the side. If you go this route, be sure that you can easily (without tools) change back and forth among these options.
One advantage of the 3-in-1 type mower is that it allows you to save clippings for the compost pile. Baggers are also handy in autumn for collecting shredded leaves for mulching or composting.
Bagging mowers shoot clippings to either the side or rear of the mower. Side-baggers tend to be lighter and less expensive. Rear-baggers offer greater capacity and allow the mower to trim closely in whichever direction you're mowing. Because it's something you'll do innumerable times, check the ease of removing the bag.
Adjustable mowing height. Some mowers make this easy, changing all wheels with one lever. Look for a mower that offers plenty of mowing height options, from 1 to 3-1/2 inches at least.
Deck materials. Mower decks are traditionally constructed of steel, which is strong, but rust prone. Aluminum decks don't rust but are heavier. Modern plastic resins such as Xenoy are lightweight and nearly indestructible.
Wheel styles. Yes, they're still round, but large rear wheels provide better maneuverability over rough, rocky, or hilly ground. Front wheels on casters instead of fixed in place also improve maneuverability. The best mowers will have ball-bearing wheels. Check to see if the tires have rounded shoulders, which cause less damage to lawns.
Type of engine. Both self-propelled and mulching mowers require more engine power than the old mowers offered. Newer engines are often 6 horsepower. More advanced engines with overhead camshafts (OHC) or valves (OHV) are available on some mowers. These engines are more powerful for their size and they also generate much less air pollution.
Listings in each category are from least to most expensive. Prices are each manufacturer's suggested retail price. Unless otherwise noted, engines are four-cycle, and deck sizes range from 20 to 22 inches.
Murray 22415x92: $140; 4-hp, steel deck.
Craftsman 38822: $160; 4.5-hp, steel deck.
Cub Cadet PS620: $220; 6-hp, steel deck; ball-bearing wheels, optional bagger.
Snapper MR215014B: $300; 5-hp, steel deck; 10-in. rear wheels, optional twin blade and bagger. Similar models with larger engines available.
Toro Recycler 20010: $320; 6-hp, steel deck; optional bagger. Toro Super Recycler 20030, $370, is similar but with an aluminum deck.
John Deere JS60: $330; 6-hp, steel deck; optional side-discharge chute and rear bagger.
Husqvarna 510MD: $350; 6-hp OHV, aluminum deck; ball-bearing wheels, optional bagger.
Honda Harmony Mulching HRM215PDA: $500; 5-hp OHV, Xenoy deck, twin blade; optional bagger and leaf shredder.
Murray 22615X92: $200; 4-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck.
Craftsman 37740: $250; 6-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck.
Lawn-Boy Silver Series 10330: $280; 4.5-hp, steel staggered-wheel deck; optional rear or side bag.
Lawn-Boy SilverPro Series 10323: $350; 6.5-hp 2-cycle, steel staggered-wheel deck; optional rear or side bag.
Honda Harmony II HRS216SDA: $390; 5.5-hp OHC, internal timing belt, steel deck; optional twin blade. Similar push and self-propelled models available, including 3-speed and rear-baggers with single or twin mulching blades.
White LC210: $390; 6.5-hp OHV, 6 speeds with variable drive touch control, steel deck; single-lever height adjustment, ball-bearing wheels, rounded shoulder tires, optional rear bagger.
Toro Recycler 20022: $420; 6-hp variable speed, steel deck; optional rear bag. Toro Super Recycler 20042, $470, is similar but with an aluminum deck.
Troy-Bilt Mulching Mower: $480; 6-hp, 5 speeds, aluminum deck; push and electric-start models available, optional bagger.
Lawn-Boy GoldPro Series 10525: $490; 6.5-hp 2-cycle, 3 speeds with variable-speed touch control, aluminum staggered-wheel deck; electric-start model available, optional rear or side bag.
Snapper FRP216012: $520; 6-hp, 6 speeds, rear-wheel drive, steel deck; adjustable intake recycling, twin blade, 10-in. rear wheels, optional rear bagger and dethatcher. Models available with Super Six OHV engine or electric start.
Honda Harmony Mulching HRM215K3SDA: $600; 5-hp OHV, 3 speeds, Xenoy deck; twin-blade, optional rear bagger and leaf shredder. Similar models available with hydrostatic drive and blade-brake clutch.
Toro Recycler 20487: $630; 6.5-hp OHV, 3 speeds, aluminum deck; brake-blade clutch, optional dethatcher, side discharge, and rear bag.
Self-propelled, 3-in-1, standard wheels
Murray 20615x92: $270; 6-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck; electric-start model available.
Yard Machines 12A-455G: $300; 6-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck.
Craftsman 37754: $400; 6.5-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck. Similar models available with different engines.
Cub Cadet SC621: $390; 6.5-hp OHV rear-wheel drive, 6 speeds with variable drive touch control, steel deck; single-lever height adjustment, ball-bearing wheels, rounded-shoulder tires.
Lawn-Boy SilverPro Series 10324: $400; 6.5-hp 2-cycle, steel staggered-wheel deck.
Husqvarna 560HS: $420; 6-hp OHV, front-wheel drive, steel deck; ball-bearing wheels. Similar models also available with other engines or 3-speed rear-wheel drive.
Honda Harmony II HRT216SDA: $470; 5.5-hp OHC, internal timing belt, steel deck; single-lever height adjustment, twin-blade mulching, optional leaf shredder.
John Deere JS63: $500; 6-hp, 3 speeds, steel deck; optional side-discharge chute. Similar model available with 1 speed; other models with aluminum deck.
Husqvarna R53S: $640; 5.5-hp, rear-wheel drive, variable speed control, ABS deck; ball-bearing wheels, single-lever height adjustment, optional mulch kit.
Ariens DLM21S: $650; 6.5-hp, variable speed control, steel deck; optional lawn roller, dethatcher, and leaf shredder. Similar model available with 6-hp.
John Deere JX75: $660; 6-hp OHV, 5 speeds, aluminum deck; blade-brake clutch. Similar model with electric start also available.
Honda Harmony Mulching HRB215SXA: $700; 5-hp OHV, 3 speeds, Xenoy deck; blade-brake clutch, high-lift blade, optional twin blade and leaf shredder. Similar model available with hydrostatic drive.
Maxim H622BSP424: $725; 6-hp, aluminum deck; single-lever height adjustment, optional mulch kit.
14-inch rear wheels, self-propelled
Yard-Man 12A-559K: $300; 6.5-hp OHV, front-wheel drive, steel deck; ball-bearing wheels, rear bagger.
White HW656: $330; 6-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck; 3-in-1. High-wheel model with front caster wheels also available.
Craftsman 37759: $370; 6.75-hp, front-wheel drive, steel deck; 3-in-1. Similar models have electric start or smaller engines.
Front caster wheels
Yard-Man 12A-999L: $400; 6.5-hp OHV, 6 speeds, steel deck; 3-in-1, single-lever height adjustment, ball-bearing wheels. Electric-start model available.
White LC215: $430; 6.5-hp OHV, 6 speeds with variable-drive touch control, steel deck; rear bagger, single-lever height adjustment, ball-bearing wheels, rounded-shoulder tires.
Electric-start model available.
Cub Cadet SC621: $430; 6.5-hp OHV, 6 speeds with variable-drive touch control, steel deck; single-lever height adjustment, ball-bearing wheels, rounded-shoulder tires. Electric-start model available.
Ariens DLM21SW: $700; 6.5-hp, variable speed control, steel deck; 3-in-1, optional lawn roller, dethatcher, and leaf shredder. Similar model with electric start available.
For detailed model information, contact these manufacturers:
* American Honda Motor Co., (800) 426-7701, www.hondapower.com
* Ariens Co., (800) 678-5443, www.ariens.com
* Craftsman, (847) 286-5188, www.sears.com
* Cub Cadet Corp., (800) 528-1009, www.mtdproducts.com
* Husqvarna, (800) 487-5962, www.husqvarna.com
* John Deere, (800) 537-8233, www.deere.com
* Lawn-Boy, (800) 526-6937, www.lawnboy.com
* Maxim Manufacturing Corp., (800) 621-2789
* Murray, Inc., (800) 251-8007, www.murrayinc.com
* Snapper, Inc., (800) 935-2967, www.snapper.com
* Toro, (800) 595-6841, www.toro.com
* Troy-Bilt, (800) 828-5500, www.troybilt.com
* Weed Eater, (706) 860-2290
* White Outdoor Products Co., (800) 949-4483, www.mtdproducts.com
* Yard Machines, (800) 800-7310, www.mtdproducts.com
* Yard-Man, (800) 927-3626, www.mtdproducts.com
* Yard Pro, (706) 860-2290
Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Maggie Oster is the National Gardening Association's regional reporter for the Upper South.