Will I like a rotary lawn mower?
April 8, 2020 9:14 PM   Subscribe

It's getting warmer, and the tiny little lawn at my tiny little house is already getting longer. I had a local kid mow my lawn a few times after I moved in late last summer, but now it's time to buy a new mower. I'm thinking that because my yard is rather small I don't a big gasoline mower. Will I be happy with an old fashioned manual rotary push mower, or should I get an electric one?

Do they work well? Do they need a lot of sharpening? Any Brand name you recommend?
posted by ambulocetus to Home & Garden (57 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Personally? No. unless the grass blades are a type that's "tender," it's going to feel like cutting hair with dull scissors. Jerky and poor aesthetics. I tried this when I first bought our house and immediately donated it to Goodwill.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 9:23 PM on April 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

No. I tried using a rotary mower and it was horrible. They’re pretty much useless unless your lawn is perfectly flat with no obstacles. Your yard, like mine, probably has all kinds of tree roots and rocks and things that you never even notice until you’re stuck trying to use a rotary lawnmower.

I’ve never used an electric mower so I can’t speak to that. I bought the most basic gas lawnmower and it’s been fine. You’re not going to be using much gas for a small yard.
posted by Violet Hour at 9:31 PM on April 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

No. Don't do it. We bought one a few years ago and my husband hates it more than anything. We suffered through one summer with it before I bought an electric.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 9:32 PM on April 8, 2020

Our old neighbor left us his manual reel mower when he moved out and it's great. We don't really have much of a lawn, just a tiny patch between the sidewalk and the street. It's perfect for that - cuts well, quiet, low maintenance. It's enjoyable and effective enough that I kind of wish we had more grass to cut with it.
posted by exogenous at 9:33 PM on April 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

A well maintained rotary mower is a joy to use. You do have to mow at least once a week, or be prepared to suffer. Having a flat lawn does help.

I felt very proud of my hand groomed lawn.
posted by monotreme at 9:34 PM on April 8, 2020 [7 favorites]

I like my rotary lawnmower. It doesn’t take that much more time than doing it with gas would have done, it’s quiet, I feel like I’m getting a bit of a workout and helping the environment, so I get extra smug points, and it cost slightly less than $100. I also have an electric weed whacker to get the edges and I do not really care if my lawn is beautiful, so take that into account. I bought the lawnmower last spring and I haven’t gotten the blades sharpened yet. I had a succession of gas mowers that were constantly breaking down at my old house and this is way less of a pain.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:36 PM on April 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmmm... 3 yeas and 3 nays. Guess I'll hit the hay and see how the total shakes out in the morning.
posted by ambulocetus at 9:38 PM on April 8, 2020

Best answer: How tiny is your lawn? Ours is tiny enough that we can do a reasonable job with an electric weed-whacker.
posted by LadyOscar at 9:38 PM on April 8, 2020

Yep, I was going to suggest electric weed whacker also. As a bonus, you can get the bits of grass that grow in the sidewalk and clean up the edges against your house If you turn it sideways. Just be careful of flying debris.
posted by Night_owl at 9:50 PM on April 8, 2020

Best answer: Ours didn't work well for us where we live now because there are too many times here when there's a week or two with so much rain that the grass is too wet to mow and meanwhile the grass is growing like crazy and by the time you can mow again it's gotten too long for the mower to handle effectively. If you live somewhere with fairly dry summers and you can count on being able to mow once a week it may work for you.
posted by Redstart at 9:52 PM on April 8, 2020

Best answer: You really have to have just the right type of lawn, and to have the...receptor? for enjoying the experience and upkeep.

Putting in a word for electric lawnmowers for small lawns. Not any model with a battery; just get a fat 30ft heavy duty orange extension cord. Best chance of using clean energy, cleaner and quieter operation. Electric motors are less resource-intensive to manufacture, and are really reliable, at this scale. Unless you've got difficult growth or have understated the size, I'd pick a plug-in mower over a cheapo gas mower or choosing to become a reel-mower guy.

Or, there's the Solidarity Forever solution. You probably have a neighbor that owns a mower, but would rather not do it themselves. Have them loan you their mower , for the price of mowing theirs (assuming they have a similar small lawn).
posted by bartleby at 9:54 PM on April 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I suffered over five years using an ancient rotary motor, (even sharpened professionally) feeling like I was saving the environment, but it took me 10x as long as an electric or gas mower, and I used up all my personal energy on this task, to the neglect of other garden tasks like weeding. I agree with those who said it could work if your lawn is flat, perfectly square, and even. Mine sure wasn’t, and now I gladly pay others to use their gas machine to make quick work of it!
posted by oxisos at 9:57 PM on April 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Or yes, if there's just a driveway sized patch to keep presentable, you can do it with a string trimmer / weed whacker. Also electric.
posted by bartleby at 9:58 PM on April 8, 2020

Best answer: I use this one, and it's great.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:02 PM on April 8, 2020

My granny gave us her old one, painted it up nicely for us and also bought us a sharpening... thing, that I don't even know what exactly it is since we've never even opened the box (and full disclosure, probably lost it).

It's fun and easy to use! We also do not have a huge lawn, and the grass is rather sparse as it usually grows in the shade so never grows in super thick. Sometimes have to give it a couple passes back and forth (a la a vacuum cleaner) when it does get longer but it's no big deal.

Our lawn is probably about 50 x 20 feet, and it is flat.
posted by wats at 10:45 PM on April 8, 2020

My partner likes ours. Our yard is small and they tend to mow it once a week except for in the winter.
posted by notheotherone at 10:46 PM on April 8, 2020

Best answer: Another "no" vote here.
In addition to needing a perfectly flat yard, if you happen to let the grass grow too long between mows, a push mower tends to just push the blades of grass down without actually cutting them. Get yourself the cheapest gas, electric, or battery mower you can find. Seriously.
posted by jimmereeno at 10:46 PM on April 8, 2020

Yes + weed wacker. For me, the only downside is that the rotary mower doesn’t cut long grass. But for smallish yards you can tackle long grass with the weed wacker if things get out of control. The weed wacker is good for edges too.
posted by Hazy Star at 10:55 PM on April 8, 2020

Seconding jimmereeno… in my experience, if you let the grass grow too long, the reel mower is suddenly useless. And then what do you do? Electric FTW.
posted by mumkin at 11:14 PM on April 8, 2020

I used a rotary mower for a while (new) and I quite liked it. The only thing I hated was it didn’t cut the long crab grass stalks that would shoot up (weeds). I probably could have put down crab grass killer but I didn’t want to put money into the rental property.
posted by christiehawk at 12:15 AM on April 9, 2020

Please mention your lawn type and terrain.
If you have a reasonably flat yard and are willing to mow about every other weekend, then a reel mower is kinda nice. I enjoy it. You can smell the fresh cut grass as you go, it has a nice quiet whir sound. No gas fumes or waking the neighborhood. And it’s a nice light workout. A little wd-40 on the blades and axle keep it maintained and rust-free. No fuel or batteries to worry about.
But once the grass gets a little too high it becomes a challenge. You might want a battery edge trimmer if you like the precision look.
My mower is this 5 blade model with basket, trouble-free for 8 years.
posted by artdrectr at 12:34 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: Vote yes.
I had quite a large, flat, yard with many trees and garden beds. I used a rotary mower because
a) I'm sensitive to small engine noises (loud dirty things),
b) I couldn't be bothered with gas mower maintenance and having fuel on hand,
c) I loved the soft clickety-clickety of the rotary mower,
d) it got me moving more than a gas mower would.

Any long grass, after rain or around rockeries, I whacked with a cordless whacker with rechargeable batteries.
posted by Thella at 12:39 AM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I vote Yes on behalf of my OH, who generally cuts the grass around here. Our garden is quite small, takes her like 10mins and it's easy. She also cuts a stripe of short grass down the middle of the shared path along the back of our row of houses - that can get overgrown with weeds in the summer, and the mower has no trouble with it. It's been sharpened exactly once in maybe 10+ years, by an old guy who came door-to-door with his knife-sharpening tools - he showed us how to adjust it so that it pretty much sharpens itself as it cuts. Squirt of WD-40 every now and then, and it's all good.

These are aesthetic preferences in the end, which IMO is why you're getting 50% yes 50% no. If you enjoy working by hand & don't mind taking your time, it's a yes. If you just want to get a job done asap with minimum-to-zero effort, it's a no.
posted by rd45 at 1:10 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yes to rotary.
I have about maybe 1000 square feet of lawn, a mix of grass, clover, and some creeping groundcover that escapes from the neighbors. It's on a slope and is not perfectly smooth. I can't imagine having to power up a gas mower for this, nor where I would store a gas mower (the rotary is small and I put a cover on it and just lean it up against the fence behind a tree).

I alternate between using the rotary with no issues at all, and sometimes, if I already have the weed wacker out (must use this on the front yard, a very steep slope) I'll just weed wack the whole backyard too. Weed wacker is more fun, takes just slightly longer.

I like longer grass, and usually just cut it every couple of weeks, I've never sharpened it in the three years I'm here.
posted by newpotato at 2:45 AM on April 9, 2020

No. Suffered through with the rotary for two years having it jam in holes, jerk up hills, act up in the section of the lawn that has clover and is a bit longer. Ugh.

I bought a small electric mower with a folding handle and it is lovely.
posted by Cuke at 4:14 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: If you plan to use a rotary mower you need a string trimmer/weed wacker as well. If the grass gets long, the rotary mower won't cut it. Also, if the rotary mower isn't sharp it is useless, and most come from the store un-sharp. The knowledge and tools for how to sharpen a rotary mower has been lost to the mists of time. I suggest you get a cordless string trimmer instead.
posted by KayQuestions at 4:29 AM on April 9, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks folks. Who knew this would be such a tough decision. I think the push mowers are cheap enough that I can give it a try, and if I don't like it I'll just get an electric. My yard is pretty small, but then again I'm pretty lazy, so we'll see how it shakes out. A few other houses on my street have small yards, so maybe it will start a fad.
posted by ambulocetus at 4:34 AM on April 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I see you've already made your decision, but just adding that a couple of years ago, during yet another This Summer I Am Really Going To Lose Weight This Time For Sure, one of my regular forms of exercise was cutting our grass with a rotary mower. It was a giant pain in the ass (and also the arms and the legs), but I did in fact lose 25 pounds that summer.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:51 AM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Get an electric mower and don’t look back. It will make your lawn care simpler and more pleasant and will actually require less maintenance than a reel mower. Also, If your grass gets too long, too weedy, or too wet, the manual mower will be useless.
posted by gnutron at 4:52 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: I'll say yes, if have the right lawn. I used to cut grass for a living with a regular gas mower, if that lends any credibility.

Like many others have said, the lawn needs to be flat - but that is more of a local assessment. If your lawn is bumpy, no dice. But even if you have a small terrace, if it's relatively smooth, you can use a reel mower.

The other factor is the kind of grass. If it's really thick like zoysia, you will have problems. But if you have bluegrass or something else that's a little less dense, you should be good.

I would strongly recommend the Fiskars mower. It's a joy to use. My 69 year old mom borrows mine.

You'll want to keep it regularly cut, and probably cut it higher than you would with a gas mower.
posted by notsnot at 5:19 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Another vote "no" from someone who really wanted it to work out. It's like vacuuming with a vacuum with poor suckage and a full bag, the way you have to keep going back over the same spot and still don't get everything. Plus, it's like "walk walk, JAM... backup. reach down and unwind the weed. walk walk, JAM." Kind of overall painful and frustrating.

We'd purchased an electric weedwacker within about three weeks. The batteries on those have gotten really good, actually, if you don't want to deal with a long cord. Avoid the kind where you have to wind the string yourself. Also buy eye protection and those sound-blocking earmuffs. It's super fun to put on a podcast or some music and go wack the weeds.
posted by slidell at 5:30 AM on April 9, 2020

I would strongly recommend the Fiskars mower. It's a joy to use.

That's been my experience with every device I've ever had from them. If a thing has blades, it's always worth checking to see if Fiskars makes one.
posted by flabdablet at 5:46 AM on April 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

I bet none of the people saying no have used a modern Fiskars push reel mower. They are amazing and you should absolutely get one!

I have used mine for 6 years and has to sharpen it once, re-gap the blades twice. So maintenance every other year. It cuts tall grass with ease, and I now mow a double city lot with it no problem. It is safer for wildlife and less harmful to the grass, not to mention better for the environment and noise pollution than any other method. I also have a bumpy lawn btw which is not ideal but the mower still works.

Do what you want, but don’t listen to people who don’t have direct experience with a good modern product.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:53 AM on April 9, 2020 [4 favorites]

Not any model with a battery; just get a fat 30ft heavy duty orange extension cord.

...unless you have trees or other obstacles in your yard. Then corded mowers absolutely suck a dog's ass. Used one for years and hated it every time but at the time couldn't afford to switch back. Bleah.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:16 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: A rotary mower is just fine if:

* The yard is small
* You're sure you're going to STAY ON TOP OF MOWING

The second issue is actually bigger than the first. With a power mower, the rotational speed of the blade is such that you always sever the tops of the grass blades, but with a rotary the speed is much slower. If the grass is too high, there's a tendency for the mower to just bend the blades over and not cut anything, in which case you have to go at it with a trimmer first and then use the mower to even things out.

It was this need to be regular about it that actually drove me to hire a guy, not the additional labor involved. Actually USING a push mower is pretty pleasant -- it's quiet, and doesn't disturb the dust and pollen nearly as much as a power mower. But, as noted, it comes with some tradeoffs you should be aware of.
posted by uberchet at 6:43 AM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've got a battery mower, and the darned thing works a treat. I didn't go for an especially large battery or mower, though definitely not the smallest. I have enough battery to chomp through a decent sized suburban lot. No fuss. No gasoline.
posted by wotsac at 6:51 AM on April 9, 2020

I vote no as well. When we bought our house I tried it, but sometimes I would have needed to mow twice a week to keep the grass short enough for it to work. At one point, I had to have a family member bring over their gas beast to shorten it up again.

My plug-in electric mower is much quieter and lighter than a gas powered mower (though of course louder than the manual one). It just does everything I need efficiently, and it folds up nicely. I had to get an extra outlet put in the front of our house, but it was so, so worth it to not be staring out the window at four days of rain thinking ug, not this again.
posted by past unusual at 6:59 AM on April 9, 2020

Also, I should add that this experience was with a "modern Fiskars push reel mower". In the right place and the right lawn, they might be great. My lawn wants to grow and grow, so a big no and no.
posted by past unusual at 7:02 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: I tried to use an old rotary mower on the small lawn we used to have before we moved. I don’t know how recently it had been sharpened. It worked mostly OK on the flat bits if I mowed frequently. Any long grass just bent instead of being cut, though. Steeply sloped bits of yard just didn’t work at all, so I needed an electric weedwhacker to handle those bits.

I then bought a used electric mower for $100 off Craigslist, and I adored that thing. It worked as well as a gas mower, was much quieter, and was super easy to start — just turn a knob. No yanking fruitlessly at a stupid pull-cord starter that won’t catch, like with every gas mower ever. Only downside was charging and storing it with no garage and only enough space for a shed the size of a small coat closet. It sat on the patio to charge and got folded up to place in the shed. A corded model would remove the charging issue, of course.

So in my experience, an electric mower is much easier. See if you can find a used one.
posted by snowmentality at 7:14 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: I used a reel mower for awhile. A very short while. The main drawback (imho) is that your lawn needs to be scrupulously free of of debris. No little sticks, no pieces of nut shells, no chunks of bark, etc. In short, there should be nothing in your lawn more solid than grass. Otherwise, you will be stopping every few seconds to clear the stick that has jammed the blade and stopped the mower in its tracks.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:16 AM on April 9, 2020

Response by poster: That Fiskars mower sounds amazing, but after reading all the comments, I think I'm going to go electric. My lawn is certainly small enough and flat enough, but the "staying on top of it" part is the deal breaker. I'm trying to run a small business, and I can't guarantee I'll be able to get out there every week. Thanks for the answers everybody.
posted by ambulocetus at 8:51 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: Our manual rotary mower worked great when we had a small, flat lawn in front of our rowhome. But now that I'm in a detached house with a larger (though still small) yard, I love my EGO brand electric mower. Consumer Reports rates them very highly, which is why I got it in the first place.

So much quieter and better for the environment (edit: than a gas mower) and you can even use the battery for other things. Need to charge your cell phone in a blackout? They sell an adapter that allows you to plug into the battery. Have other lawn power tool needs? Get multiple tools, that all use the same battery. I've never had the battery run out either.
posted by postel's law at 8:55 AM on April 9, 2020

Best answer: The last case I'll make is that you do NOT have to mow every week. I certainly don't. It will be faster and easier to mow if you mow more often, but you can mow once a month too. The main thing a Fiskars mower can't do is mow grass over about 7-8" high. As long as you don't let your grass grow that long, you're fine.

This is kind of like how everyone lies about how long it takes to caramelize onions. Everyone seems to think push-reels are more work, but in my experience, they are definitely less.

My yard is full of debris and sticks. I mow over them, more easily than with a gas mower, I just set the blad a little higher and it doesn't suck them up. Again, I don't think the people complaining about debris have used a Fiskars, which can cut both quite low and quite high.

I do have Fiskars' top model btw.. Youtube has plenty of good videos showing how it can cut tall grass. Also I can easily completely break it down and repair/replace any part of it. Try that with a gas or electric!

Electric mowers are still powered by fossil fuels btw unless you are somehow buying renewable electricity, although they are quieter and cause move the emissions from the point of use to the point of production. They are not really and "better for the environment" than gas mowers, if, like most people in the USA, your electric is really primarily coal and gas.

So called "lawn care" is probably the single largest source of completely unnecessary carbon emissions and pollution in the USA, and as such it's a bit of an axe for me to grind, sorry-not-sorry :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:05 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you go electric, consider the Ego line. Mine has been excellent; the arms fold down and then the whole thing can stand on end, which substantially reduces storage hassle. In addition, they have a whole line of outdoor power equipment (hedge trimmer, string trimmer, blowers, etc) that use the same battery platform and they're all decent devices.
posted by aramaic at 10:01 AM on April 9, 2020

I have a small but awkward lawn (on a hill, trees in the way). I use a reel mower + rechargeable weed whacker and I love it. Much lighter and easier to maneuver than the electric mower I had been using.
posted by lovecrafty at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2020

To be clear, here in Maryland it is very easy to purchase 100% renewable energy, which my family does.
posted by postel's law at 11:45 AM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

you can mow once a month too. The main thing a Fiskars mower can't do is mow grass over about 7-8" high.

Where I live, with the type of grass we have, there is no way in the world we could let it grow for a month and expect it to still be less than 8 inches high. People thinking about reel mowers need to keep in mind how fast their grass grows. In some places, it really isn't realistic to think you can let it go for much more than a week.
posted by Redstart at 12:55 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Like a Scott reel push mower? Unless you have mobility issues or a complicated yard, it's a classic. You can get a simple blade sharpener or a Dremel kit for maintenance.
posted by rhizome at 2:20 PM on April 9, 2020

We have a double city lot, and it's not very hilly. And we have never owned a gas mower. We do have a Fiskars, because my husband will always research stuff to death and find the thing that works the best. He uses it to work out in the summer. Yes, you have to stay on top of it, or tolerate some grass that lies down like a meadow. We have no issue with that, and leave large segments of our lawn to grow wild flowers.

So, in short, if you want to be all eco: you rewild parts of your lawn you can get away with, and you tolerate a lawn that occasionally has a tall stalk of grass gone to seed. And you use the Fiskars regularly. You also sometimes have to mow "both ways" because if you let the grass go too long, you'll have to mow back over it the other way to get it cut. We aren't all nazi about what our lawn looks like so it works for us.
posted by RedEmma at 3:58 PM on April 9, 2020

I hate small gas engines; they're loud, smelly, pollute a lot, require maintenance. I use a corded electric mower. Quiet, adequate power, always starts. Battery-powered mowers will need a new battery, and the battery must be recycled.
posted by theora55 at 4:02 PM on April 9, 2020

And just to button up the possibilities, iRobot and others make unattended robot lawn mowers.
posted by rhizome at 4:15 PM on April 9, 2020

Get an electric mower, a 100 foot extension cord (plus a spool - very important) and you're in business. Been doing it this way for 8 years and it's great.
posted by porn in the woods at 6:07 PM on April 9, 2020

I also have an Ego mower. It's pretty great, though replacement batteries are expensive. Those same batteries do also run my leaf blower, edge trimmer, and snow thrower.

They are not really and "better for the environment" than gas mowers
Bollocks they aren't. Small internal combustion engines are the devil. Charging a battery mower directly from a pure coal grid is still cleaner, and any level of other sources in the mix improves things further.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 6:23 PM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I bought a rotary push mower for a tiny back yard. I hated it. I used it twice (or thrice) and stopped and switched to an electric weed eater. That was much more efficient.
posted by tacodave at 7:29 PM on April 9, 2020

I like a reel type push mower. But you have to keep it clean, oiled, and sharpen it once a year. A neglected one will punish you. Also you can't wait until you really really need to mow, but skipping a week isn't that terrible. The climate you live in matters, too. Wet grass is harder to do.

When considering my opinion, you should also know that I sometimes watch youtube videos of mowing manually with a scythe and resolve to try that sometime. So YMMV on enjoyment level.
posted by ctmf at 8:58 PM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I went ahead and got a Fiskars reel mower. It works well, but the tiniest stick you forgot to pick up will jam it up immediately, and since I have a big maple in my yard I have a lot of little sticks. But it's a good workout, and suddenly my yard seems bigger. I'll see how I feel when the weather gets warmer and the grass really takes off.
posted by ambulocetus at 4:38 PM on April 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

How high have you got it set? You might find that jacking up the cut height is enough to give your maple twigs room to sneak past underneath the blades. As a bonus, longer grass is generally healthier and won't be as desperate to re-grow after each cut.
posted by flabdablet at 11:57 PM on April 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

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