Mowing a Florida Lawn, or Real Women use Reel Mowers
In Florida, mowing the lawn is a man's job
Cultural differences of societies are sometimes subtle, and you don’t catch on to them for a while. So it is with the lawn-care rites of North Port, Florida. Yes, indeed – little did I suspect how this seemingly insignificant work-a-day chore would mark me as an outsider, a foreigner and (gasp) an alien.
A lawn in this part of the world definitely falls under the male domain and is one gender-restricted area feminism has yet to breach in this corner of the conservative south. Men mow lawns. Women who have no fit male in her household pay other men to mow their lawns. That’s the way it is.
Because it is a man’s job, it requires certain equipment:
- A riding lawn tractor with a cutting radius of at least 40” and a large motor (at least 20 horsepower) that must be run, revved and tuned up every Sunday afternoon and has at least three chrome exhaust pipes, two of which act as echo chambers for that motor.
- An edging tool, not a sissified electric ten pounder spinning a nylon string, but one designed to clear virgin bush, stainless steal blades chewing through even the toughest of palmettos, while the gas/oil blend driven two stroke motor screams out an extremely amplified version of a whizzing dentist’s drill.
- A leaf blower the size of a six-year-old child, capable of blowing the paint off a house foundation, while at the same time sending out 100 decibels of roaring racket.
- And by necessity, a pick-up truck capable of towing a flatbed trailer to haul the equipment from one house to another. It is a given, considering the demographics of the population (one male to four females) that each man is responsible for at least three lawns.
I like to watch them at work, the men, as they drive those tractors round and round in tight circles, cutting the grass. Tight circles? Yes. The lawns on my street are far too small for a tractor to run in straight lines. In fact, they are barely twice the turning circumference of one of these big babies, and it requires great skill to overlap the circles until all the grass is cut.
Which explains why no one plants shrubs, trees or flowers in front of their homes – they’d get in the way of the tractors.
Up to this year, my neighbor, Ralph, kindly added my lawns to his list and once a week his impressive array of lawn care appliances roared, screamed, bellowed and howled as he groomed my 80’ by 125’ lot. He charged me $25 for each service, but on the last occasion (just before Christmas when the lawns froze and haven’t grown again until recently) he added, “You know Miss Lynda, your yard is getting to be a problem. With all these trees and bushes and flower beds, it’s a trick to get to it all. I’m going to have to charge you more if I have to do so much by hand.”
“By hand” meant he used the whizzing blades of the edging tool instead of his tractor.
“Not to worry, Ralph,” I told him. “I’m buying a lawn mower and I can take care of it myself.”
“Jim is finally moving down?” he asked.
“Not for a while.”
Ralph looked appropriately shocked, and backed away from me uneasily.
We never spoke of the lawn again.
Until yesterday, when I went out to cut my lawn – myself -- with my brand new reel mower.
My lawn mower makes its debut
My lawn was originally laid down in 1990 as St. Augustine sod, coarse and scraggly, closely resembling the quack grass I’d rip out of my northern lawn, but one of the few grasses that do well in Florida’s heat, humidity and sandy soil. Once thick and dense grass only, my lawn has deteriorated; over the years other plants moved in. It’s green, so it’s good enough. I’m not one for perfectionism.
Besides, some of those plants flower – tiny purple or bright yellow blossoms, quite pretty.
The lawn was last mowed before Christmas (spruced up for visitors) and since then, we’ve endured temperatures 20 degrees below the seasonal norm, so it hasn’t grown much. Four days below freezing turned it the same drab brown I’d expect to see in my Canadian home, a sorry sight. Lately though, the green is returning and growing, albeit unevenly.
When shopping for my reel mower, I specifically asked if this method was appropriate for St. Augustine, and was told, yes it was, but
Rule Number One: If you’re using a reel mower never, never let your lawn get long, or you’re likely to get more of a work out than you want.
So, I decided the time was right to get started.
It was a lovely late afternoon, sunny, balmy with a fresh breeze blowing from the west – perfect for the task at hand. I carried the mower to the front yard. It only weighs fourteen pounds, so that wasn’t much of a feat.
I set it down. I pushed it a little. Snick,snick,snick – grass clipping flew over the cylinder. It worked!
I examined the little patch of cut grass to ensure the mower was set to the right height because
Rule Number Two: unlike rotary mowers, which tear the grass (leaving those nasty yellow ends) a reel mower sweeps the grass up and then cuts each blades neatly against the cutting bar and you must be sure not to cut too short. It is only through the use of a reel mower one gets that “putting green” look, but cutting too short may destroy your lawn – depending on the type of grass. (And cutting St. Augustine too short will leave you with nothing but a carpet of gnarled roots and runners.)
The height looked okay to me (for all I know about St. Augustine) so I got to work for real.
Snick,snick,snick. I walked briskly across the lawn leaving an evenly sheared path behind me, except
Number three a reel mower will not cut tall (higher than six inches), established weeds, and is not suitable for taming a neglected yard. Certainly, it left the myriad of budding oak seedlings sown by the towering oak on the east corner untouched. But that was okay; I bent down and yanked them out as I walked by. After all, it’s not as if the thing had a motor. When I stopped, it stopped.
A true story
As I walk back and forth across my lot, my mind congratulates me on my green (and inexpensive) choice for yard maintenance. Here are some of the benefits:
- A reel mower is better for the health of the lawn as it cuts cleanly rather than tears the grass, leaving less opportunity for pathogens, and less damage to the plant.
- I don’t need to buy gas for it, keep it tuned up, and yank forever on a starter cord (possibly dislocating my shoulder in the process.) An occasional oiling of the gears, and a once a year sharpening of the blades is all that is required.
- A reel mower is considerably less expensive to buy than a motorized rotary mower (walking or riding.) The lightweight model I purchased through the internet cost me $65 and that included freight. So if, as my neighbor suggested, it does not last longer than one year, I’m still out of pocket less than I would pay for gas alone for one of those big behemoths so popular in this neighborhood. And references from other owners of this model say they’re on their fifth or sixth year.
- While it is not completely silent, the snickety-snick raised by the whirring blades would not rouse a baby from a nap. I am not adding to the noise pollution (a rather pet peeve of mine) in the neighborhood. I can go out and mow at the crack of dawn should I choose, without incurring the ire of anyone. I can hear the wind in the trees, my own thoughts, and the bird song. I can hear—
The two boys from next door (Jo-jo, age ten and Jamal, fourteen) stand on the edge of the lawn, watching me with quizzical expressions. Jo-jo steps forward. “What is that thing?”
“You’ve never seen one of these before?” I am surprised, to say the least. “It’s a lawn mower.”
“It works?” Jamal looks very dubious. He’s big for his age, and uncomfortable with his body, always slouching which gives him a brooding, sulky aspect. But now – he’s standing his full six feet plus, looking down on my suddenly tiny machine.
“See for yourself.” I point back at the neatly trimmed rows. “Works great – and it doesn’t make a lot of noise,” I add, for Jamal’s family have a fine collection of motorized everything, all of which need to be tuned up on a daily basis.
Jamal goes back to tinkering with whatever in the garage, leaving Jo-jo to watch me cut two more swathes. “Is it hard?” he asks.
“Here, try it for yourself.” I turn the mower and stand back to let him take over.
For the next ten minutes, Jo-jo is happy. Snick, snick, snick, snick – he does three rows, stopping at the end of each to admire his handiwork. His dad, an Army vet now confined to a wheelchair (motorized of course) comes over to watch. “You’ve got to be kidding. I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid back in Roanoke. Where did you find this?”
He wheels back to his garage, chuckling.
“Can I have a turn?” We’ve been joined by Ryan and Miranda from across the road. Jo-jo reluctantly relinquishes the machine to Ryan, who does one row and hands it to Miranda.
“What is that?” Now Maggie, Cain and Joshua from across the back yard stand in a cluster watching slight, tiny Miranda mow. “Can I try?” Joshua, eight and small even for eight, asks.
They all take a turn, and my lawn is three-quarters done – so much for the benefit of a cardio work-out while I cut my grass. Then, they start quarreling over who is next in line for a go, so I put a stop to it and take over myself. The children – all of them – go and sit on the edge of the planter and watch with such intensity you’d think I was swinging from a trapeze rather than merely mowing my lawn without the benefit of a loud motor.
By the time I am mowing close to the street, I attract another audience. The men have come home, and in true adherence to North Port lawn culture, are shamed by the sight of a woman mowing her own lawn, and without benefit of motorized assistance.
Paul, originally from Boston and with an accent I find close to incomprehensible, stops his SUV and shouts out the window, “What are you doing?” —as if, the answer isn’t right before his eyes. “Why didn’t you call if you need your lawn mowed? You know I’d gladly come over and do it for you. Stop – I’ll be over after supper.”
Before I can assure him, I’m perfectly happy, Ralph who does yard maintenance professionally, who is presently unloading one of his tractors from the trailer and parking it beside the house with the rest of his fleet, strides out to the street. “I do her lawn,” he shouts, obviously with wounded pride. “I’ll finish it tomorrow morning, Lynda. Go inside and cool off.”
Joe, father of Ryan and Miranda, who lives next door to Ralph, joins him. “I didn’t know they still made those.” His guffaws ring through the neighborhood.
Paul drives off to his own house, only to reappear minutes later walking up the street with a beer in his hand and two more in a bag for the others. They stand in an affronted manly group on Ralph’s driveway, watching me mow and muttering in low voices that even the subtle snick, snick, snick drowns out. Occasionally, I hear laughter.
By now, I am getting hot under the early evening Florida sun and would love to take a break and a large glass of water, but under the scrutiny of six children and three amused men, I don’t dare. All that is left is the long, slender patch on the east side of the driveway, but this is a challenge. It holds even more mole tunnels and fire-ant nests than the main lawn – and more weeds. Aware of the eyes upon me, I pull out the bigger weeds, throw aside the sticks and branches, and mow, the little machine doing a masterful job, even if bouncing more than it should.
Done, I pick up the lightweight implement, hoisting it higher than necessary – an act of defiant triumph. “Don’t worry, boys,” I call to them. “I’m fine.”
Ralph shakes his head. “I’ll come over and do the edges tomorrow.” He takes a swig of beer. “Or are you going to go at it with scissors.” All three men laugh and laugh, proud of Ralph’s wit and enjoying their superior masculine camaraderie.
Joe pipes up. “Wait till it’s ninety in the shade, and then we’ll see how you do.”
This brings on another bout of hearty laughter. I won’t be here for the summer months, but no need to remind them of that fact. Ralph will take care of my lawn in manly fashion, using the smallest of his tractors and cursing my plantings. But I won’t be around to listen.
“See ya, fellas.” I carry my mower to the garage as briskly as my tired legs allow, leaving the men to shake heads sadly over the foibles of this strange, non-resident alien in their midst. The children disperse, now that the show is over, returning to their forts in the woods, skateboards and basketballs. All except for Jo-jo, who stays sitting on the planter’s edge, staring at the grass.
Once inside, with a glass of water rehydrating my body, I look out the window and admire my neatly trimmed front lawn. I am about to take a much-needed shower when the doorbell rings.
Jo-jo stands there.
“Miss Lynda?” He is such a polite boy, always addressing me this way, and responding with a “Yes, ma-am” whenever spoken to. “I was thinking.”
“Were you? What about?”
“My dad pays Jamal ten bucks to mow the lawn, but they always fight over it, ‘cause he’s lazy and full of bad attitude and disrespectful.” I am a little uncomfortable with this unwanted glimpse into my neighbors’ family life -- not that I don’t’ hear the occasional spats.
“I’m not allowed to drive the lawn mower,” Jo-jo continues. “But if you’d let me borrow your lawn mower, then I could do it and Dad would pay me.”
Yea! – A convert. “Sure thing Jo-jo. That’s fine with me.”
He ran off, probably to enter into business negations with Dad.
A fact of life:
Men may need their multi-horsepower tools for reasons to do with the mysteries of testosterone, but real women use reel mowers.
Authors note: For the benefit of those of you currently involved in my writer's coach services and who've recently had correspondence over the mixing and use of tenses: this true story is written in the present tense, as an example of how to correctly use it.