Mulchers gain 'mow-mentum'

Gentlemen (and women), start your engines!

As the first blades of spring take on that unruly look of tousled hair, suburbanites reach for their trusty lawn mowers.

For those in the market for a new blade runner, the lawn mowers of choice today are environmentally cleaner and better at mulching than ever before.

Mulching?

Think: no bagging, no raking, no unsightly leftover clippings.

Mulching mowers chop the grass more finely than regular mowers. "They cut so fine and the [grass] blades biodegrade so rapidly, you never see any clippings on the lawn. That's the beauty of mulching," says Steve McCarthy, a spokesman for the Toro Company in Bloomington, Minn. He boasts that some mulchers cut each blade four to six times.

The mulched blades also help return nutrients to the soil, keep the ground moist, and slow weed growth. "Mulched lawns require about a third less fertilizer in addition to a lot less water," says Josh Marx of the King County Department of Natural Resources in Washington State.

Mulching also cuts back on the mountain of grass clippings that slowly and malodorously decompose in landfills - assuming your town still has a landfill.

David Tallman, who keeps tabs of lawn mowers for Consumer Reports, says most manufacturers began selling dedicated mulching mowers with increased horsepower in the early 1990s.

The added power, he says, prevents clippings from becoming clogged under the mower deck, a problem when lawns are high and blades too low.

"It's like a blender under there," says Zac Reicher, a Purdue University turf grass specialist in West Lafayette, Ind. "The more things you want to stuff in that blender the bigger the motor has to be."

With the rise of the mulching mower, five- and six-horsepower engines have become common. The emphasis today is on all-around performers capable of mulching, rear-bagging, or simply discharging grass clippings from the side of the mower.

In addition to more power, many mowers are now equipped with mulching blades, which have a longer sharp edge than a normal blade and may have a curved shape to encourage circulation of the grass under the mower, Tallman explains.

The effectiveness of a mulching mower can be compromised, though, if the cutting blade is too low, experts advise.

Rule of thirds

"You're not supposed to remove more than a third of the blade at any one mowing," says Mr. Reicher at Purdue.

The tip of the blade is very tender and watery. Lower down, it becomes stalkier and more apt to look straw-colored when cut. When too much is lopped off, the clippings are also more evident.

In the spring, Doug Neils, a spokesman for Ariens mowers, mows twice, even three times a week, cutting off maybe only half an inch. "My neighbors think I'm nuts," he acknowledges. "But if you want a quality lawn you have to put the time in and do it right."

That's a lot of mowing, and potentially a lot of fuel emissions.

Gas-powered lawn mowers, however, are burning cleaner than ever thanks to federal and state regulations. California is a leader in toughening emissions standards. And in 1996, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered gas-powered lawn and garden equipment engines to burn 30 percent cleaner, and regulations call for another 59 percent emissions reduction by 2001.

When shopping, consumers should check for EPA labels.

Go electric?

But if you're concerned about air pollution, you might want to go electric. "We found that a gas mower operated for one hour produces as much smog as a car driven 50 miles," says Mr. Marx in Washington State.

In Washington, there is a push for "grasscycling" through the discounted sale of electric, mulching mowers. Savvy shoppers can receive a 40 percent rebate on some models. (If mulching is a priority, the May 1999 issue of Consumer Reports recommends the electric Toro Carefree Recycler E24 or E120.) Under the program, 5,000 mowers were sold last year.

Nationwide, less than 10 percent of the mowers sold are electric, but sales are growing. Rebates by manufacturers, such as Black & Decker, as well by some electric utilities are helping to boost sales. Also, the cordless electric mower is catching on.

Black & Decker introduced a battery-powered mower in 1990, and most major manufacturers have followed suit.

Mike Bogdanoff, at the California Air Resources Board, says cordless electrics used to be underpowered and prone to stalling in heavy grass. Today's higher-powered models have addressed that concern and get about two hours of mowing per charge, sufficient to complete most lawns. But the electrics typically cost more than comparable gas models, are heavier, and don't handle wet grass as well.

On the plus side, cordless models require no gas or oil, are easy to start and maintain, and quiet. You might even get away with a 7 a.m. start. "My neighbors like it better because it's not as noisy," says Mr. Bogdanoff.

Best Buys

The most gas-powered mower for the money, says Consumer Reports magazine, May 1999.

White LC210 $390

Yard-Man 12A-979L $400

Cadet SC621 $430

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