By Carolyn Bahm

Daily Journal

Lawn buffs can have a high time on their own turf this summer with neatly trimmed yards. Good practices and the right equipment can make short work of tedious mowing chores.

Just don’t trade safety for speed.

Unsafe shortcuts can be crippling, said Mitch Hill, owner and president of Pollard’s & Son’s Lawn & Garden Inc. in New Albany. Last year, a customer bypassed his own riding mower’s safety cut-off switches when Hill’s office refused to disable the safety features. Three weeks later, the man was mowing on a too-steep slope when his mower overturned. He threw up his hand to shield his face and lost four fingers to the spinning blade.

“He said he wished he’d listened to us,” Hill said.

Speedy mowing snippets

For the fastest safe mowing, follow these tips:

– Use a weed prevention program. Pre-emergence and post-emergence chemical applications will kill those lingering winter weeds, wild onions and early spring weeds, said Harry Collins, a co-owner of Total Lawn Care Services in Tupelo. You may not need to mow until mid-April when the real grass starts to green up.

– Use the right fertilizer. A slow-release version won’t require you to mow immediately, Collins said. It won’t produce the immediate flush of growth that the common 13-13-13 and 8-8-8 fertilizers do.

– Mulch. Mulching (using a special mower or attachment that finely chops grass clippings and spreads them back on the lawn) is a top-notch recycling practice, and it’s also a time-saver. Mulching a lawn throughout one season will have the same impact as one application of fertilizer.

Hill said, “There are no bags to empty, and it will make lawns greener in dry seasons. Grass is 90 percent water and about 10 percent fertilizer.”

He listed two secrets for mulching: Get a high-horsepower mower for the job, because mulchers require extra power. Also, cut your grass often because mulchers are more likely to produce clumps.

“With mulching, you can’t let your grass get away from you,” Hill said.

Collins advises customers to cut with mulching mowers every four to five days, or to cut with side-discharge or bagging mowers every seven days. In late July or August when the grass matures, mulchers can be used every seven days.

Spring grass grows rapidly in Mississippi and has a high moisture content. Collins said that factor translates to sticky grass clippings and more clumping, making early spring mulching difficult. He recommends using a side-discharge or bagging mower until the end of June, then adding a mulching attachment.

– Use the right mower. For fastest mowing, Hill advises getting a riding mower with at least 14 horsepower and a cutting width of 38 inches or larger. Most of his customers opt for riding mowers.

Collins said many homeowners prefer walk-behind mowers because they are cheaper and allow the owner to get some exercise. This type of mower also has fewer moving components to wear out, so it lasts longer with proper care. (Before he entered the lawn care business, Collins used the same carefully tended walk-behind mower for 10 years.)

One caution: When you’re choosing a mower with a big cutting width, be sure it can go where needed, Collins said. If you have a 36-inch fence gate and a 60-inch mower, there will be trouble.

– Compare mower features. Look for large-diameter wheels and rear-wheel drive systems on walk-behinds to make the job easier and safer. When choosing a riding mower or lawn tractor, pick one with a soft seat, a cut-off switch activated when the driver leaves the seat, vibration dampening systems, wide footrests, easy-to-reach controls and attachments that are easy to put on and take off.

– Buy quality. A high-quality mower lasts longer and requires fewer replacement parts, Hill said. “One good mower is worth a pasture full of worn-out cheapies.”

Indicators of a good mower include a major name brand, the number of grease fittings, the type engine, frame construction and even the paint job.

– Mow in long, straight stretches. Fewer turns mean faster mowing.

– Landscape sensibly. Gentle curves mean the mower won’t have to slow down for those right-angle turns. Landscape in corners to create curved edges for the mowing area.

Cutting-edge safety tips

– Never mow on too-steep slopes (over 15 degrees).

– Make sure your riding mower has safety interlock switches in three places, Hill said: Under the seat (cutting power off if the rider gets up), on the transmission (not permitting starts if it’s in gear) and on the deck engagement level (not allowing the blades to spin unless the safety switch is in the neutral position).

– Never disable a safety feature.

– If debris clogs your mower’s discharge chute, turn off your mower immediately. With a riding mower or lawn tractor, turn the ignition key to “off.” With a walk-behind mower, disconnect the spark plug wire. These steps keep the engine from restarting if you accidentally turn the blade while examining the mowing chamber.

– Remove rocks, toys, tools, twigs and and other yard obstacles from the mower’s path. The blade can sling small objects for long distances and with great force. A power mower is a serious cutting tool: The tip of the blade clocks in around 200 miles per hour.

It’s important to remove these obstacles before mowing. Collins recalled that one of his workers once noticed a metal line hidden in the grass beneath the mower. Without turning the mower off, the worker tried grabbing the line. He lifted it just enough for the blade to catch the metal line, which then flayed his hand.

– Handling slopes: For greater stability with riding mowers, mow up and down slopes. With a walk-behind mower, do just the opposite mow across slopes. If you slip and fall, the mower will be less likely to tumble on top of you.

– Hills too steep to mow safely shouldn’t be mowed at all. Some clients prefer to use string trimmers, but a 6-inch string trimmer unit may cut only 1,000 feet per hour, compared to a 21-inch mower’s 10,000 feet per hour, Collins said. That’s why his service tries to use mowers and eliminate string trimmers whenever possible.

Even better: Add a decorative ground cover or plant the area in native wildflowers. That removes the need for mowing on steep slopes.

Articles from a John Deere lawn and garden expert, Dr. Ellen Henke, also contributed to this story.

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