Lawn Mowing and Care Tips for Beginners

grassy lawn
David Beaulieu

Along with snow shoveling, mowing lawns is one of the more tedious aspects of yard maintenance. Still, it has to be done, but there are some perks to mowing your own lawn. For one, you can keep your grass exactly how you like it and take pride in maintaining your property. You’re also not at the mercy of a lawn service’s schedule. Most notably, you stand to save more than $1,000 per year on average if you mow the lawn yourself rather than hire someone. 

If you're new to lawn mowing or just want to brush up on the basics, follow these tips for lawn maintenance.

When to Mow the Lawn

Don't mow the lawn when the grass is wet. This can introduce disease to the lawn, plus you run the risk of slipping and injuring yourself. So the period just after a rainstorm or the early morning when the grass is still covered with dew wouldn't be good times to mow.

In addition to holding out for dry conditions, you also might need to wait for some shade. Mowing when the sun is pounding down on your grass, especially during a hot summer afternoon, can put stress on the lawn. It's not an easy physical task for your body either. So waiting until the late afternoon or early evening after the heat of the day has passed would be a better choice. Just don't cut the grass too late in the day after darkness falls, as reduced visibility increases the chance for a mowing mishap.

Choosing a Lawn Mower

There are three main types of mowers to choose from.

Reel Mowers

If you consider yourself an environmentalist, a reel mower could be the right choice for you. Reel mowers, or push mowers, don’t have a power source other than the muscle of the operator. This makes them quiet and eco-friendly. And the modern versions contain lighter materials that make them easier to push than reel mowers from decades past. 

However, there are limitations to these mowers. They’re not good for mowing tall grass. And rather than chopping up twigs like other mowers do, the twigs can get lodged in the blades; you must rake your yard prior to mowing if there are any twigs or sticks in it. Still, if you have a small urban lot, a reel mower could be the ideal option. One important note is the blades must be sharpened regularly for this mower to be effective.

Pros
  • No pollution

  • Quiet

Cons
  • Not good for tall grass

  • Must sharpen blades regularly

Cordless Electric Mowers

Another popular type of lawnmower is a cordless electric mower. Along with its lack of exhaust fumes, an obvious benefit to this mower being cordless is the freedom of movement it provides. Dragging around the cords of corded electric mowers can be a nuisance. There's also the risk of accidentally running over the cord with the mower. Fortunately, "electric" is no longer synonymous with cumbersome cords. The modern cordless models are safer and more flexible.

Cordless electric mowers run on rechargeable batteries. They're not as quiet as reel mowers, but they're still less noisy than gas-powered mowers. They work best for lawns that are around a third of an acre or less. A larger lawn or mowing lots of tall grass can strain the battery. Also, pushing them up hills can be difficult, so make sure you purchase a self-propelled model.

Pros
  • No exhaust fumes

  • Freedom of movement

Cons
  • Can't mow large lawns

  • Tall grass can strain the battery

Gas-Powered Mowers

Gas-powered lawn mowers can be divided into two categories: walk-behind rotary mowers and riding mowers/lawn tractors. The walk-behind rotary mowers can further be classified according to whether they’re push-type mowers or self-propelled.

Purchase price varies greatly among gas-powered mowers, with riding mowers and lawn tractors being the most expensive, followed by self-propelled mowers. The push-type gas-powered mowers are the least expensive because they require you to provide the muscle to make them move. Overall gas-powered mowers do well for large areas, and they can tackle long grass. But with their gas-powered engine comes noise and exhaust fumes. Plus, there's the hassle of making sure you have gasoline on hand to fill your mower.

Pros
  • Can do large areas

  • Good for tall grass

Cons
  • Exhaust fumes

  • Noisy

How to Sharpen a Mower Blade

Sharpen your mower blade every month or two. Dull blades have a tendency to rip grass instead of making clean cuts, which leaves the grass susceptible to diseases.

Here are the general steps to take to sharpen a lawn mower blade:

  1. Remove the spark plug wire to ensure the machine doesn't start up accidentally.
  2. With a wrench, remove the nut that holds the lawn mower blade against the deck, and then remove the blade.
  3. If you own a vise, stabilize the blade by securing it in your vise.
  4. Use a file to do the sharpening. Follow the angle of the cutting edge that's already there. Pass the file the same number of times on each side to keep the blade in balance.

If your blade is bent or nicked, sharpening won't be adequate. You will need to replace it with a new one. Consult your owner's manual to ensure that you purchase a suitable replacement.

How to Change or Clean a Mower Air Filter

Before changing or cleaning the air filter, first, determine whether your lawn mower has a paper or foam filter. Paper air filters are replaced while foam ones are cleaned.

To change a paper air filter:

  1. Unscrew the cover, and remove the paper air filter.
  2. Insert a new paper air filter with the pleat facing out.
  3. Screw the cover back on.

To clean a foam air filter:

  1. Unscrew the cover, and remove the air filter.
  2. Wash the foam in hot water and dish soap to remove as much grease as possible. Rinse thoroughly, and squeeze out the excess water.
  3. Soak the foam in clean engine oil. Squeeze out the excess oil using a clean rag.
  4. Replace the foam in the air filter unit.
  5. Screw the cover back on.

Tip

Every spring before you start mowing for the season, check all the nuts and bolts on your mower and tighten them when necessary. Periodically recheck them for tightness thereafter. The lawnmower's vibration loosens nuts and bolts more than you might think.

When to Fertilize Warm- and Cool-Season Grasses

Among the common warm-season grasses are Bermuda grass, buffalo grass, zoysia grass, Bahia grass, centipede grass, and St. Augustine grass. The best time to fertilize these warm-season grasses coincides with the time when they grow most vigorously: late spring. Fertilizing again in the summer and early autumn will keep them vigorous. However, avoid fertilizing warm-season grasses late in autumn. That’s when they are winding down their growing season, and fostering new growth would only make them susceptible to winter injury.

Cool-season grasses include Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass, and ryegrass. Fescue also is frequently part of grass-seed mixes for lawns. The best time to fertilize these grasses is also when they grow most actively: in spring and autumn. But avoid fertilizing too heavily late in the spring, as this can lead to problems with disease.

Using Shade-Tolerant Grasses

Shady areas are generally inhospitable to grass. For instance, if you have large shade trees on your lawn, you might have trouble getting grass to grow underneath them. Instead, you might find moss growing.

But there are shade-tolerant grasses suitable for such areas. In warmer climates, St. Augustine grass is often used. And in cooler climates, tall fescues are often the best solution for shady areas.

Alternatives to Cutting Grass

You don't always have to fill your property with grass that needs continual mowing. Ground covers, wide walkways, and flower beds are attractive landscaping alternatives to the traditional lawn. Even vegetable garden beds can be aesthetically pleasing.

Two "anti-lawn" movements that promote low-maintenance and eco-friendly ideals include:

  • Native plants: Growing only plants native to the area, which generally thrive without much care
  • Xeriscaping: Using garden plants and materials that don’t require much water

Grass is often one of the worst offenders when it comes to water conservation. So in addition to saving yourself some mowing time by choosing lawn alternatives, you’ll also likely save some water and money.