Mowing grass is the most labour intensive part of maintaining a lawn, and certainly has the biggest effect on attaining the desired quality. As a result, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, what is the best lawn mower for my lawn? There is a vast array of different types of grass cutting equipment available, from the real cheapies to expensive high quality professional mowers. I would always advise paying as much as you can afford as, is always the case, you only get what you pay for.

In this article I will explain how the different types of lawn mower affect the quality of the lawn, and why it is important to buy a mower that is suitable for each situation.

The first thing I will explain is the difference between a rotary mower, a cylinder mower, and a strimmer, the main types of domestic grass cutting machines.

The rotary mower is probably the most commonly used on lawns, and comes in many versions, some have wheels, some have front and rear rollers, and some work on a cushion of air. There is also a choice of either electric or petrol driven models, and whether the forward motion is by manual pushing or power to the wheels or rollers. The size and contours of the lawn, and the effort you are prepared to put into mowing, will have to be taken into account when deciding which is best for your lawn.

A rotary lawn mower with wheels

This is a typical domestic rotary mower with wheels.

Rotary Lawn Mowers

Rotary mowers cut the grass with a horizontal slashing action which allows them to be used on longer grass and more uneven ground than cylinder mowers, but the slashing action, even if keeping the blades very sharp, gives a rough edged cut which detracts from the appearance of the lawn after mowing.

Even with the best quality rotary mowers there is also more grass left lying on the surface, again detracting from the appearance, and resulting in a soft thatchy (dead and dying grass material) lawn which is more prone to disease attacks and wear damage.

You can find some examples of rotary lawn mowers here.

A cylinder lawn mower - looking at lawn mower maintenance

The cut grass is lited by the rotary blade and thrown through the chute into a collection box. The grass has to be dry for this to work efficiently.

Cylinder Lawn Mowers

Cylinder mowers have a front and rear roller with a bed knife set at the desired cutting height, and a horizontal reel fitted with blades which push the grass onto the bedknife and cut it with a scissor action.

The number of blades on the reel combined with the forward speed, dictate how fine the cutting quality will be. This is because of the number of cuts per metre increases with the number of blades, from the lowest of four blades giving fifty to sixty cuts per metre, up to the professional greens mowers with twelve blades giving  five hundred or more cuts per metre.

A typical cylinder lawn mower

This s a good example of a professional cylinder mower, in this case with ten blades and a solid front roller

Cylinder mowers are very much the only option for the better quality lawns and sports surfaces such as golf and bowling greens, as the cut is so much cleaner. This is not only because it looks so much better, but even more importantly the grass plant recovers more quickly as the rotary blade bruises and tears the leaf, giving a brownish appearance and healing up much more slowly.

The other main advantage with cylinder mowers is the light rolling action which keeps the lawn surface firmer and smoother.

A cylinder lawn mower with a brush fitted

Cylinder mowers can be fitted with a variety of brushing a raking aids, iether in front or behind the front roller, in this case a brush to lift the grass blades for cutting, and clear worm casts

Cylinder mowers also pick up and throw the grass into the collection box much more efficiently than rotaries, even in wet conditions. The ground has to be reasonably level, with no steep slopes, for any cylinder mower to work properly, and the lawn has to be cut regularly as they do not cope very well with long grass.

A cylinder mower with four or five blades will give a perfectly acceptable lawn for every day use, with any increase in the number of blades giving a correspondingly better quality of finish. This has to be in conjunction with mowing more regularly as the blades being closer together means they cannot cope with longer grass, which results in what we call ribbing as the blades try to chew their way through the sward. This also puts strain on the mowers moving parts resulting in expensive repair bills.

You can find an example of a cylinder lawn mower here.

Strimmers

A typical strimmer cutting head

Strimmers can be fitted with different cutting heads, this one is fitted with nylon cord, the most common way of using a strimmer.

Strimmers are the other option for cutting your lawn. Strimmers are simply hollow metal poles with an engine or electric drive at one end and a rotating head at the other end which is fitted with a spool filled with nylon or plastic cord which cuts the grass.

The spool can be exchanged for a blade to cut heavily overgrown grass and scrub, and some of the higher end models can even be fitted with hedge trimmers and chainsaws.

The cutting quality with strimmers is not great as the grass is being torn off by the cord, doing even more damage than a rotary, and it is difficult to get a level cut, but they are very useful on small awkward areas, for rough ground, close to obstacles such as trees,  making sure trees are not damaged in the process of course,  and trimming the edge of lawns.

I am specifically warning about trees as strimmer damage causes huge losses of trees and shrubs every year in the UK by damaging the bark. The tree will grow much better if a metre or so is kept clear of other growth by spraying with round-up, or even better by mulching.

You can find an example of a strimmer here.

Just a small selection of strimmers on the market

This is just a small selection of the vast range of strimmers on the market, in this case at the Hetland garden centre near Dumfries

Rotary mowers - a small selection

This is just a small selection of rotary mowers that are available, both wheeled and hover, again courtesy of Hetland garden centre.

Buying the Best Lawn Lower

As a guide to buying the best lawn mower for your requirements, the following advantages and disadvantages of the various types of mower will help you to make an informed choice.

Cylinder lawn mowers

Best for good quality, healthy lawns on a fairly level site with few obstacles, but need to be used more intensively and are more expensive to maintain than rotaries or strimmers.

You can find an example of a cylinder lawn mower here.

Rotary lawn mowers

best for the lawn owner that just needs to keep the grass cut to a reasonable standard, and can be used less frequently and on uneven ground. Rotaries will also cut down longer grass than cylinder mowers, and are easier and cheaper to maintain.

Rotaries are not good for producing a healthy lawn, and can be messy in damp conditions.

You can find some examples of rotary lawn mowers here.

Strimmers

Strimmers are best for steep slopes, awkward corners and around obstacles. It is very difficult to leave a level surface, and grass cuttings have to be swept up afterwards. Strimmers are also responsible for a lot of damage to other plants and trees as it is difficult to see exactly where the cutting cord is reaching to.

You can find an example of a strimmer here.

To choose a mower for your lawn you need to decide first of all on the quality that you wish to produce, then taking into account the ground conditions and the amount of work you are prepared to put in, pick the type of mower that would be most suitable, then buy the best in the category that you afford.

Look out for a future article with some instruction in how to use, and get the best out of, whatever type of mower you are using.

Duncan