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Reel Lawn Mowers: 15 Questions Answered!

We all want one of those lovely striped lawns you see in property magazines, and a reel mower is perhaps the best way to achieve this – plus you can keep fit and combat climate change while you’re mowing. Result!

Reel mowers cut like a pair of scissors which is better for your grass than the tearing motion of a rotary mower. This not only gives a better cut, but no engine also means no fossil fuels and a regular workout for you. That’s why for many reasons the reel mower is the traditionalist’s choice.

Read on below as we answer 15 of the most common questions about reel mowers – and if you don’t want to buy one by the end of the article then I’ll be very surprised. 🙂

Are Reel Mowers Better For Your Lawn?

The reel blades turning against the cutter bar acts like a pair of scissors, cutting through the grass. The typical rotary mower cuts grass using spinning blades, and this is more of a tearing motion. A simple cutting action is gentler on your lawn than the spinning motion of the rotary mower.

Torn grass is more vulnerable to disease, where cut grass heals much faster after being mown, and a cut blade is better at retaining moisture. These clean cuts also make your lawn look better, which is why groundsmen still often favor this traditional mower design over more powerful options.

Are Reel Mowers The Quietest Lawn Mowers?

Yes they are, because they have no motor. If you want to mow your lawn in the cool of the early morning or the evening, you can do this without disturbing your neighbors. This is a big advantage of using a reel mower, because you’re not forced to mow during civilized hours – in other words, when the sun’s high.

Sure, reel mowers do make a sound, but it’s a soothing chopping noise, which many of us reel mower fans find really relaxing. 

Can You Cut Tall Grass With a Reel Mower?

Reel mowers much prefer well-manicured lawns; so if you’re choosing to use your reel mower over a rotary mower, you’re committing yourself to a more regular cutting program. 

Mowing tall grass (over three of four inches high) with a reel mower is so much harder than mowing a short lawn, that you won’t mind cutting the lawn more often. If you do end up cutting four inch blades of grass, make two passes over the lawn with the mower instead of just one.

They’re also not so good with tougher grasses like Bermuda or Zoysia. If you have a tough type of grass, go for a heavier reel mower – you don’t necessarily have to give up on the manual mower idea and choose a motorized one.

Can You Cut Wet Grass With a Reel Mower?

The weather can’t be helped, but you can avoid mowing wet grass. A reel mower gives you an uneven cut if the grass is wet. It’s hard work, and the results are rarely attractive. 

If you can, hold off mowing until the grass dries. But what if it’s grown a lot in the meantime? The easiest solution is to cut it in two goes (don’t go straight for the shortest cut, but mow it to the desired height in two stages).

Can Reel Mowers Cut Dandelions?

Tall weeds like dandelions are simply pushed over by the reel mower, and won’t get properly cut. If you want to use a reel mower, the best way to tackle weeds is to have a separate weed management program running in tandem to your regular lawn cutting.

Organic weed killers and good old-fashioned hand weeding will help you keep your lawn in better shape, ready for mowing. If you have to mow over weeds, set the blade to its highest position.

Will a Reel Mower Cut Weeds?

As with dandelions, reel mowers don’t care for cutting weeds. Their scissor-like action is designed for neatly clipping low stems of grass, not tall and tough stems and leaves

However, if you set your blade to its highest level, it will have a good go at mowing your weeds. But as we mentioned with the dandelions, it’s easier to tackle the weeds separately.

Do Reel Mowers Work On Uneven Ground?

Reel mowers aren’t big fans of uneven terrain. If your lawn has a lot of bumps, the wheels won’t get good enough traction to keep the blade moving smoothly. If you have an uneven lawn, this might not be the best option.

If you have a lot of uneven ground, you’re better off looking at heavier duty mowers. However, we understand the vintage appeal of the reel mower: perhaps treat yourself to one just for a small patch of more manicured lawn, such as the front garden? They’re inexpensive to buy and easy to look after…

Can You Mulch With a Reel Mower?

A reel mower mulches as you go. Push reel mowers don’t come with a grass collection option. Some folks find this a bind, as having to collect up the clippings is an extra chore. However, we see this is a big plus, as these grass clippings are a fantastic natural fertilizer. 

The action of the reel mower disperses the clippings across the lawn – they don’t clump like they do with a rotary blade. Leave them on the lawn, which will benefit from nutrients like nitrogen and potassium.

Are Reel Mowers Hard To Use?

There’s always a trade off between weight and speed when it comes to choosing a reel mower. A larger machine will naturally be heavier to push, but it will cut a larger swath of grass. They do require more physical effort on your part than a machine with a motor, but think of the work-out you’re getting…

They are also easy to use in that they’re so simple. No cords, no switches, no gas. All you have to do is walk and push. Like most simple machines, maintenance is also easy, and we’ll come onto care in a moment.

How Low Can a Reel Mower Cut?

The blades of reel lawn mowers can be adjusted to different heights, and the lowest setting tends to be about a third of an inch. Any lower and you’re risking harming the roots of the grass. Healthy roots are essential if you want a thick, green lawn.

Low isn’t always the best option. For example, in the spring when the grass is growing quickly, set the blade a touch higher, and mow the lawn more often. For an all-round, general cut, we’ve heard that somewhere between 1 ¾ and 2 ½ inches is a good height.

How Do You Set Up a Reel Mower?

The latest generation of reel mowers come pretty much ready-assembled. You may have to attach the handle, but you won’t have to install anything complex like gears.

The cutting height depends on how close the blades and the cutter bar are to each other. If they’re close, you get a shorter cut. Further apart is better for longer grass, but too far, and it won’t cut grass at all. You’ll need to set this up by adjusting the cutter bar.

Before you go ahead and adjust your mower, check the set-up instructions to see what the manufacturer recommends.

How Do You Take Care of a Reel Mower?

The main thing to do is to brush off grass clippings after each use, and make sure the blades are dry before you put the mower away until next weekend. Squirt the moving parts with something like WD-40 every so often, and make sure you keep the blades sharpened (we’ll look at this in a moment).

The beauty of these machines is their simplicity. There are very few components to look after, making them a great low-maintenance choice. 

Reel Lawn Mowers

How Do You Sharpen a Reel Mower?

The easiest way to keep your reel mower blade nice and sharp is to purchase a sharpening kit. You can get these online, and they’ll make the job nice and simple for you.

To sharpen a blade, first put on your heavy work gloves, then make sure the blade is clean and dry. Apply cutting oil (a special lubricant for metalwork) to a sharpening stone. Stroke the edges of the blade with the stone, keeping the touch as light and even as possible. Top tip: put a tough stick through the reel cage, so it can’t turn while you’re working on the blades.

It’s not a frequent job (each mower manufacturer will have guidelines on this), and it may be that when you think you need to sharpen it, it’s simply a case of making adjustments to get a better cutting height for your lawn.

How Do You Adjust The Height on a Reel Mower?

At some point, you’ll need to adjust the height to suit the changing conditions of your lawn. Generally speaking, there are screws on either side of the cutter bar that let you alter the height, and you can adjust it so it’s tighter or looser against the reel. You’re looking for the mid point where the mower both cuts well and is easy to push.

Although most mowers are built along similar lines, it’s worth checking either your instructions or the manufacturer’s website to make sure you’re adjusting the height correctly.

Are Reel Mowers Better For The Environment?

With no gas or electricity needed, push reel mowers are definitely a winner when it comes to green energy

They’re also better for the immediate environment, being quiet and non-polluting. They simply won’t work if they come across a stone or stick on the grass, and there isn’t a dangerous motor turning over if you stop mowing.

Final Thoughts

In a way, reel mowers are the traditionalist’s choice when it comes to mowing the lawn. If you keep your machine well maintained and mow when the grass is dry – then using a reel mower will help you achieve one of those beautiful striped lawns you see in magazines. As these mowers don’t have engines they’re great for the environment too.

The only downside is that you’ll have to be pretty fit to push one of these up and down your lawn. However, that isn’t really a negative point either – as this in itself will be great for your health.

So in the final analysis, if you want a great looking lawn combined with an easy way to fight the flab and save the planet – go buy yourself a reel mower. You’ll soon discover they’re the ‘reel deal’ (sorry I just had to!). 🙂

Mark H.

Homeowner and property investor Mark H. aspires to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >