Mowing Your Lawn the Right Way

Proper mowing is one of the most important practices in keeping your lawn healthy. Grasses are like most plants — if you clip off the growing points (for grass, it's in the crown, where the new leaves develop), the plants branch out and become denser, which in this case, turns thousands of individual grass plants into a tightly woven turf or a lawn. If you didn't mow at all, your yard would look more like a prairie than a lawn. But the mere act of mowing isn't what makes a lawn look good. Mowing height and mowing frequency determine how healthy and attractive your lawn looks. After all, cutting a lawn is stressful for the grass. The leaves make the food for the roots — and how would you like it if someone kept cutting off your food?

Height does count

Most grasses have a range of recommended mowing heights. Stay at the upper end of that range when the lawn is under stressful conditions, such as hot weather or drought, or if you have a shady lawn. In cooler weather, you can cut the grass a little lower.

Follow the one-third rule. For a thriving lawn, never cut away more than one-third of the grass blade in any one mowing. If the grass "gets ahead of you" because of wet weather or your busy schedule, move up the cutting height of your mower to the highest possible setting and mow. If clippings are too long and heavy, even at that cutting height, catch them with the bagging unit or clean up after mowing with a leaf rake. Then move the cutting height back to your normal range and cut the lawn again a few days after that first mowing.

Table 1 shows suggested mowing heights for different grass types.

Table 1: Ideal Mowing Heights

Grass type

Height

Bahia grass; fescue, tall; blue grama; buffalo grass

2 to 3 inches

Bent grass

1/4 to 1 inch

Bermuda grass, common

3/4 to 1-1/2 inches

Bermuda grass, hybrid

1/2 to 1 inch

Centipede grass; zoysia grass*

1 to 2 inches

Fescue, fine; St. Augustine grass

1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches

Kentucky bluegrass

1-3/4 to 2-1/2 inches

Ryegrass, annual and perennial

1-1/2 to 2 inches

*You can mow some newer, dwarf varieties lower.

 

Edging and trimming are the finishing touches of mowing, kind of like getting a shave after you've had a haircut. Edging and trimming are pretty close to being the same thing. Some tools are called edgers because they're designed to trim the lawn along a hard surface like a driveway or sidewalk. Edgers cut a nice clean edge, but leave some dirt and grass debris that you need to clean up. On the other hand, you can use trimmers anywhere — along a hard surface, in tight spaces, next to planting beds, and so on. Trimmers also leave some clippings on paths and driveways that you need to sweep up.

Never put grass clippings in a plastic bag and send them off to the dump. (In some areas, sending grass clippings to the dump is illegal.) Grass clippings are valuable organic matter, chock-full of nitrogen and other nutrients. As long as you mow often enough to remove no more than one third of the grass blade, the easiest thing to do is just to leave clippings on the lawn. The pieces break down quickly and reduce the amount of fertilizer you have to use by as much as 25 percent. And research has proven that the clippings don't cause thatch to build up.

Cut your grass, not yourself

Every year, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people get injured when using lawn mowers. Power lawn mowers can be dangerous even when used properly. Be proactive when it comes to safety and follow these tips to avoid injuries:

  • Know the equipment. Read the owner's manual. Become familiar with all the safety features and don't disconnect any of them. Keep all nuts and bolts properly tightened. Never pull a walking mower.
  • Check the lawn before mowing and wear proper clothing. Pick up any rocks or debris. Heavy shoes and long pants provide the best protection from flying debris. If you're using a reel mower, don't wear loose clothing.
  • Protect your hearing. Doing yard work can get pretty noisy. In addition to the lawn mower, high-decibel noise comes from trimmers, edgers, and blowers. Use earplugs or earmuff-type hearing protection.
  • Keep pets and children away from the lawn as you mow. Don't let children operate a lawn mower unless they're strong enough, responsible, and understand all the operating and safety features. Even then, supervise them. Never give a young child a ride on a ride-on mower. Sudden stops, flying objects, or an excited child can spell disaster.
  • Be careful when fueling. Stop the mower and let the engine cool for 10 minutes before fueling. Never fill the tank with the mower on the lawn. Avoid spills by using a gas can with an adequate pouring spout. Clean up spills immediately and put the used rags in a covered metal can. (Gasoline-soaked rags are a fire hazard.)
  • Turn off the mower. Never leave the mower running unattended, or work on a motor that is running. Turn off the power when you cross nongrass areas.
  • Be careful on hills. Steep slopes are always dangerous because a mower can flip over or go out of control. Plant a ground cover other than turf in these areas. On gentle slopes, mow across the slope, not up and down. Use a walk-behind mower.

Lawn mowers — a tree's worst enemy

Repeatedly banging a mower against a tree trunk or whipping it senseless with a weed whip each week can seriously damage the bark and the sensitive tissues underneath. The damage can restrict the growth of young trees to the point where the base of the trunk is so weak and girdled that the tree just snaps off in the slightest wind.

To protect the tree, leave a ring of grassless soil at least 3 feet wide around the trunk. Put in a nice brick or stone edging around the outside. Better yet, cover the open soil with a thick layer (3 to 6 inches deep) of organic mulch, such as compost or bark. (Keep the mulch a few inches away from the base of the tree.)

You can also go to a garden center to buy trunk protectors, plastic sleeves that encircle the trunk, if you have to have the grass right up against the tree.

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