Understanding Basic Lawn Care Tools

Person using a garden rake

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Unless you are hiring a lawn service to take care of your weekly lawn care chores, every homeowner will rely on a handful of important tools to take care of a turf-grass lawn. Some of these tools will be used so frequently that you should own them, while others can be rented from time to time as the need arises.

At one time, most power tools for lawn care used two-stroke gasoline engines, a technology that required users to mix oil with gasoline to power the engines. While two-stroke engines are still used, homeowners increasingly are leaning toward either hand-operated or electric tools powered by cord or battery. Battery technology has become increasingly efficient, and many homeowners no longer find any need for gasoline-powered lawn tools of any kind. Many manufacturers offer systems that allow batteries to be swapped out from tool to tool. For example, the same batteries may power a leaf blower, an edger, a string trimmer, as well as garden-care tools such as hedge trimmers and small pruning saws.

Lawn Mower

Pretty much every homeowner who tends their own lawn will want to own a lawnmower. Lawnmowers generally fall into one of two types: reel mowers that operate with a set of laterally mounted blades that scissor against a bedknife as the wheels turn, or rotary mowers that cut by means of a high-speed spinning blade hidden beneath a metal deck.

Once standard in the days before power mowers, reel mowers have seen a resurgence as people seek non-polluting alternatives. Although there are some gasoline-powered reel mowers used in commercial applications, reel mowers for homeowners typically are powered simply by the force of the user pushing them. Reel mowers do not pollute at all, and they provide more exercise for users.

Rotary mowers include most of the push power mowers used in homes across the country. They come in many, many different forms, from small push mowers to large rider mowers that resemble small tractors. The features of these push mowers vary widely, with some including self-propelled wheels with backup features.

Increasingly common among these push mowers are those operated via a plug-in cord and those that operate on rechargeable batteries. The various electric models have many advantages, principal among them the absence of polluting fumes caused by burning oil and gasoline. And electric mowers are typically much quieter than gasoline-powered mowers, which makes a summer afternoon a more pleasant experience in the neighborhood.

Some mowers have self-bagging features that collect grass clippings, while others use a mulching feature that allows the mower to chop up the grass clippings and return them to the lawn. Others can be adapted for either function. This mulching feature is a good idea, since chopping up grass clippings and returning them to a lawn helps feed the lawn and eliminates the need for excessive use of fertilizers.

Person using a lawn mower

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String Trimmers

A string trimmer is a gasoline-powered or electric tool the operates by a nylon string that whips at high speed to cut off grass in areas where a lawn-mower cannot reach. Next to a mower, it is the lawn tool most commonly owned. Most homeowners now find corded electric or battery-operated string trimmers to be preferable to gas-powered trimmers, which are loud, polluting tools. This small maneuverable tool offers an easy way to neatly trim off grass along fences, walls, and garden beds. A trimming session often concludes every lawn-mowing.

Trimming work can also be done with a hand tool that looks like large scissors. This is a perfectly viable option for people who dislike power tools, but it does take considerably more time.

String trimmers

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Available in both hand models and gas- and electric-powered designs, an edger uses a metal blade and cutting edge to trim off the edges of the lawn along sidewalks, pathways, and garden edging. Manual versions have a sharp half-circle blade or cutting wheel that trims by downward pressure applying to the top of the blade, similar to how a standard hand shovel operates. Power edgers have a circular cutting blade that rotates to cut away encroaching grass along the edge of the sidewalk. Some combination string trimmers also serve edging duty if you rotate the head so the string trims in a vertical fashion.

An edger is by no means a must-have tool. For most people, edging is done only occasionally, and many people find that a simple square-bladed garden spade does the job just fine once or twice a year.

Edging tool being used on a lawn

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A power blower, operating either by a gas-motor, electric cord, or battery, does essentially the same job as a rake—to blow leaves or other debris out of garden beds, off of patios and decks, or across lawns. It is also a somewhat controversial tool, since blowers are loud and often hated by neighbors who hate to have their peace disturbed. Growing numbers of communities are restricting the use of blowers, especially the noisier gas-powered types. Some types of blowers offer only blowing capability, while others can be reversed to serve as vacuums that suck up leaves and deposit them in a collection bag for easy disposal.

The reality is that a blower/vacuum does nothing you cannot do with a manual rake and broom, although if speed is of the essence, then a blower may be worth owning. Just be aware of the noise issues before buying or using one.

Person using a leaf blower

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Lawn Spreader

A spreader is a manual push tool used to distribute fertilizers, lawn seed, and pesticides across the lawn. They come in two general types: broadcast spreaders, which have a spinning arm that scatters materials in a circular manner as you push the tool across the lawn; and drop spreaders, which drop the material in a more controlled manner through a line of openings in the bottom of the spreader. These are not particularly expensive tools, and people who are serious about lawn care may want to own. But they can also be rented for just a few dollars a day; you will need one, at most, a couple of times a year.

There are also hand-held, crank-operated spreaders that will work in a pinch. By simply walking across the lawn and turning the hand crank, you can broadcast seed or other lawn-care materials across the lawn.

Lawn spreader

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Used for spraying weeds or pesticides, sprayers come in many styles, from small half-gallon hand sprayers to back-pack style sprayers that hold 2 gallons or more and have battery-powered spray heads. For most people, a simple 1-gallon sprayer pressurized with a pump handle is entirely sufficient for spot-treating lawn weeds. Choose a sprayer with a wand-style spray head that lets you target individual weeds without spraying excess chemicals.

Many homeowners now choose to care for a lawn without using chemicals. And most herbicides and pesticides are available in convenient pump-spray containers, so a pressure-sprayer is not a must-have tool.

Person using a sprayer

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De-thatching is essentially a method of hard power raking designed to loosen and remove the thick layer of built-up lawn clippings and debris from the ground beneath the individual grass plants. Once regarded as an essential task, de-thatching is now considered an activity that should be done selectively, since it can injure grass plants and is often not necessary. A small amount of thatch rarely causes a problem; it is only when the thatch becomes so thick that it prevents water and nutrients from reaching the soil that it needs to be removed.

If you have a riding lawnmower, there are inexpensive attachments you can use to de-thatch a lawn. There are also special blades you can mount on a rotary mower, though these blades can be damaging to the lawn. Usually, de-thatching is done by a lawn service when required, although you can lease a power de-thatcher at tool rental centers. It is a large, heavy tool, however, and most people choose to have this done by a lawn service.

De thatcher being used on a lawn

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Lawn Aerator

Another power lawn tool that is usually rented rather than owned is a power aerator, sometimes called a core aerator. Unlike de-thatching, aerating is an activity that should be done every couple of years, or even annually (usually in the fall). An aerator works by means of a large, heavy roller that removes plugs (cores) of turf and soil, making it possible for water, air, and nutrients to more easily reach the roots of the grass plants. Aeration can be very helpful to relieve compaction to the soil, which is often a problem on a heavily used lawn.

Lawn care services provide aeration for a fairly reasonable rate, and aerators are also available at tool rental centers.

Person using a lawn aerator

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Helpful Hand Tools

  • Rakes. A homeowner should have at least two rakes—a fan-style leaf rake for gathering up fallen leaves and lawn debris, and a garden rake with sharp prongs for harder raking of the soil. A garden rake is helpful for roughing up the soil when reseeding or top-dressing a lawn; regular hard raking can help prevent a buildup of thatch.
  • A spade. Most homeowners will want to own a shovel or two, and for general lawn care, a square-bladed spade is a more useful tool. A spade can be used for edging sidewalks and garden beds, or for removing sections of sod when creating planting areas.
  • A rain gauge. Generally speaking, a turf-grass lawn requires about 1 inch of rain or irrigation per week, and an accurate rain gauge will let you keep track of how much water the lawn has received. Make sure to position the gauge in an open area, not beneath a tree or other shelter, in order to get an accurate reading.
  • Hand weeding tools. Removing lawn weeds by hand is considerably better for the environment than spraying them with chemicals to kill them. A variety of hand weeding tools is available, including long-handled forks and "weed-poppers" that allow you pry up or dig out weeds from a standing position. Weeding by hand has other benefits, as well: Over time, removing weeds by hand keeps your lawn well aerated. Wherever possible, make sure to dig up weeds entirely, roots and all.
  • Hose and sprinkler heads. Where rainfall is insufficient to keep a lawn irrigated, you will need hoses long enough to reach all parts of your lawn, as well as one or more sprinkler heads. The best sprinkler heads will be adjustable units that can be adapted to water in different patterns.