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The Gardener's Companion - How to use a lawn mower - walk behind and riding mower types

Updated on February 11, 2016

As the weather begins to warm in my neighborhood there is a set of familiar sounds, smells and sights that delight the senses and herald the official start of spring and the growing season. It will sound funny I am sure for me to wax poetic here about such an unglamorous chore, but the beginning of the mowing season evokes so many sense responses I just cannot ignore. Smelling fresh cut grass, hearing the familiar roar of the engine and seeing a fresh cut and well manicured lawn are pleasures to me. The emergence of the lawn tools described here is another dependable part of spring to me.

Actually, there is a kind of odd pride that those who take on the care of the lawn share. No one likes to be told their lawn looks less than perfect or to have their accomplishment compred to others in this endeavor. The funny memory I have is my next door neighbor saying that "A good neighbor is one that does not keep theri grass cut shorter than yours!"

Kinds of mowers

Basically there are two kinds of mowers, one known as a walk behind or push mower and the other which is called a riding mower. Truly the name attached to each describes the basic theory very well. The push mower is a labor intensive device, best utilized in situations where a riding mower is impractical, due to either the size or slope of the lawn. This equipment is also utilized to do the close quarter trimming that a larger riding mower just cannot navigate.

Types of push mower

Push mowers come in various sizes, with engines ranging in size up to about eight horsepower. The mowers will have two possible sources of power: fully manual or self propelled. The self propelled have a feature that gives power to the rear wheels to aid in moving the machine around. This function is achieved usually by holding a bar against the handle as you mow to engage a clutch that triggers the propulsion system.

Obviously a self-propelled mower is much easier to use, especially if you have any kind of elevation to tackle. There is a concern however as the machine will pull you if you do not keep pace as you move along behind it. It is simply a matter of learning how fast the propulsion will make the machine move.

With a manual mower you are in complete control of the machine, determining the speed it will move across your carpet of grass. I can remember developing some sizable leg muscles as a teenager since we only had this type of mower.

Sizes of push mower

As previously mentioned, the push mowers will have varying sizes of engines. The real method of categorizing push mower size however is the width of cut. Most push mowers are between 18 and 30 inches in cutting width. This is less than most riding mowers, which means you will spend more time trying to cut your grass with this choice.

Cutting grass with a push mower

The method of cutting your grass really is left to a matter of personal choice. Lately there is a move to make lawn care look like an art form by mowing diagonally to leave a pattern on the yard. This is not easily accomplished with a push mower.

Basically you will start your push mower and begin cutting in one direction and either turn and walk back on a parallel path where the uncut grass is or you can make a circuit around the entire area and continue making smaller ones until all the grass is cut. Usually if you keep the outside wheel of the mower to the edge of the uncut part you will not have blades of grass escaping the cutting area. Be sure to blow the cut grass away from the uncut portion or you will find your mower bogged down by the bulk of the clippings.

Types of riding mower

There are many types of riding mowers: Front engine, rear engine, zero turn, lawn tractors and others. Most people will have either the front engine or rear engine type. These are the ones you will see in your local home improvement, hardware or other big box store.

These mowers are ideal in situations where you have lots of open space in your yard and where elevation is not a concern. The large engines usually devoted to these machines range from 10 to 30 horsepower or more. This fact means they can move much faster and cut denser concentrations of grass quicker and easier than the push mower.

The zero-turn radius mowers are usually the choice of your local mowing contractor. The name comes from their ability to be pivoted neatly in only the area equal to the size of the machine. You can compare that to the necessary space to trun a conventional mower, which can be 15-20 feet. These mowers, when in the control of an experienced operator, can greatly reduce the time necessary to mow a large yard, even over the time of a comparable regular type of riding mower.


Cutting grass with a riding mower


As with the push mower, you have the liberty to mow as you see fit. You may have some neighbors look down their nose at you if you mow differently than anyone else in your neighborhood, but that matter is between you and them.  Really, I feel as long as the yard is cut and trimmed, I have done what is needed.


The width of the riding mower will be twice that of the push mower, but you still just need to assure your outside wheel is riding on the edge of the already cut trail. If you maintine this line, you will cut all the grass without having to retrace your route.

Manufacturers of riding mowers

There are many well know names of mower manufacturers. During my time of noticing the names of the manufacturers on the engines I have had the experience with a select few. Simplicity, Sears Craftsman and the current riding mower we use, a John Deere 145.

We have 3.25 acres of land, but only mow about half that due to the size of my garden and other structures on our property. The 48 inch mowing deck on our machine, combined with the 5 mph top speed allows us to cut the entire yard within two hours.

So far I am satisfied with the performance of the John Deere as compared to the other two brands. It will take several years to know if this mower is as dependable as the Simplicity models I had, as they lasted into a second decade before needing to be replaced.

I have a neighbor who is a mowing contractor who swears by his John Deere riding mowers and John Deere lawn tractors. When i worked for him I enjoyed the amenities provided by the various models of John Deere riding mower.


Both types of mower have similar maintenance needs. While there are push mowers powered by electricity and intended for very small yards, riding mowers are usually only powered by a gas engine. It is important to make sure your gasoline tank on your mowers is empty at the end of the season to prevent the build up of engine gunk during the winter.

Oil is a necessary need of both types of mower as well. The engine oil will help lubricate the moving parts and protect against wear in the engine. You need to remove the oil dipstick regularly to make sure you have sufficient oil to operate your mower safely. The owner’s manual with your mowers will designate the proper interval in which you should replace the oil and oil filter on your machine. If you neglect this you can potentially ruin your engine and cost yourself some money.

Another key component of your device is the mowing blade or blades in the case of the riding mower. These blades rotate at a very fast speed and will slice into anything they come in contact with. As a result they take a lot of abuse, developing gashes in the cutting edge and sometimes becoming bent, which causes an uneven cut.

Usually once a mowing season, you should remove the blades and sharpen them to ensure a nice even cut on your grass. When you go to do this, unhook the wire to the spark plug to ensure the mower does not accidentally start and cause serious injury or death. This may sound overly dramatic, but think about the potential and you can see the validity of the preceding statement.

Both mowers will also have a spark plug, the little item that screws into the engine and provides the spark that ignites the gas pumped into the engine. Over time these guys will wear out due to the intense nature of the job. It is a great practice to replace these at the beginning of each mowing season.

There are a multitude of places to find replacement parts for both types of mowers. Hardware stores, farm stores, discount department stores and garden stores all have the basic parts necessary to keep your machine in fine condition. I know the majority of people barely look at the manual included with these machines, but there is a great wealth of knowledge printed in these, including a list of offical replacement part numbers to be used when perfroming maintenance on your machine. Some warranties are invalidated if unofficial parts are used, so be sure you understand your particular manufacturer's policy.

Safety Features


Push mowers have a safety device now that when released causes the blade to stop rotating immediately. To disengage this, you must pull a lever against the handle of the mower. If you see something that can be a potential threat to your safety you can release this immediately to avert the threat.


Riding mowers are equipped with a similar “kill switch” but it is connected to the seat. If your weight is removed, even by just a portion, the mower will die. This is intended for situations where the mower begins to lose contact with the ground and you are being thrown off, possibly into the area of the still rotating blades.


Many newer mowers will not allow the cutting blade to operate when you move in reverse. Depending on your mowing style, this may be quite often, and this new practice can be annoying. This feature was intended to prevent the accidental injury when someone or something enters your path from the rear without your knowledge. Some machines have an override that will allow you to disengage this safety device.


Knowledge is the best safety device you can employ in the use of mowing devices. Knowing you cannot mow when the grass is wet, due to the slippery conditions and potential for clogging of your mower is something you learn with experience. Also, you must learn to scout the area for potential projectiles before you use the mower. The cutting blades are capable of shooting items very far very fast.


Be sure to read all the safety tips in your mower manual and you should be in good shape to complete your job safely!

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