How to Mow a Lawn the Right Way
LESLIE: Well, it might not be your favorite household chore but mowing your lawn is an important part of making sure it looks good and stays healthy.
TOM: That’s right. And believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to cut your grass. Here to help us sort it out is Roger Cook, the landscaping expert on TV’s This Old House.
ROGER: Thanks for having me.
TOM: Hey, it’s our pleasure. And let’s face it, it’s not the most popular home maintenance project but that said, I’ve actually heard that it’s not good to cut your lawn too frequently or too low. Is that correct?
ROGER: Too low is the big thing I see.
TOM: Now why is that?
ROGER: Well, when you cut the piece of blade of grass, you actually cut the green off and all that’s left is the exposed stem that has no chlorophyll in it.
ROGER: So that can either die or take a real long time putting out green again and getting grown.
TOM: Well, that’s a good point. So the upper part of the blade of grass actually shades the stem below it and that’s really critical.
ROGER: Exactly. And if you – right. And if you below the growing point, then you have a really hard time.
LESLIE: So what’s the perfect formula? Do you – for frequency, for height? Or is it based on the type of lawn you have?
TOM: Yeah, because I think that a lot of people tend to want to cut it low thinking they’re going to get out of having to cut it for the next couple of weeks, yeah.
LESLIE: Stretch out their chore.
ROGER: Right. But that’s exactly the wrong reason to cut it low. Every type of grass has a height at which it likes to be cut. And then what they found is in the summer, especially, the longer you leave it, the more it shades itself and the more it keeps the roots from drying out.
LESLIE: So how do you know what type of lawn you have? Take your blade of grass to your garden center and be like, “What is this?”
ROGER: Yeah, probably, unless you know. If you know it’s a bluegrass mix, then you can just consult either on the internet or your garden center.
TOM: Now, Roger, if there’s one thing that gives us lawn-mowing envy is staring at that beautiful criss-cross pattern on the Major League baseball field. How do you get that in your own backyard?
ROGER: Well, when you watch the World Champion Red Sox, you see how beautiful it is on the field? That’s all done with a roller. That gives it all that pattern. Not how they cut it, how they roll it.
TOM: OK. So it only happens for world-champion lawn.
ROGER: Right. World Champion Red Sox, right.
LESLIE: I was going to say, it’s amazing because when I watch the World Champion Yankees, their lawn is equally fantastic.
ROGER: I don’t think it’s quite as fantastic.
You know, we see a lot of patterns and things like that in these big fields. But what I like to see is you mow your lawn in different directions. Now, it’s not going to give you something like the pattern you see on a baseball field but you’ll still get a pattern in the lawn. But what I want you to do is mow it different directions every week.
ROGER: So, you start in a straight line. The next week, go at a 90 to that and then the next week, do a 45. And that’s going to keep you from getting actual ruts you can get from the lawn mower. I have one lawn that, the fourth week, we actually cut in a circle.
TOM: It’s a lot to keep track off.
ROGER: But it’s better for the lawn.
TOM: Now, Roger, are there any new innovations out there in lawn-mower equipment, either walk-behind or ride-on mowers that make this job, say, a bit easier?
ROGER: Oh, there’s a bunch of things out there: mulching mowers, battery-powered motors. But the biggest thing I think is the introduction of commercial zero radius-turn mowers into the residential market. So that you have a big lawn with a lot of curves or trees with circle beds around them, it makes it real easy to do the lawn quickly, properly and cut all those radiuses.
TOM: OK. And that’s a good point, because I remember driving the ride-on tractor that my dad had. We’d always have a pretty big swath around the tree.
LESLIE: That you couldn’t get to.
TOM: And you almost ended up kind of spinning out the back tires and digging ruts trying to get tighter than it would really want you to be. So the zero-turn makes a big difference.
ROGER: They’re designed to make that tight turn without ripping up the turf.
LESLIE: Now, a neighbor of ours, they’re sort of super-environmentally friendly and they’ve got a push mower, like a hand one, I guess: no power, no electricity. Is that better for the lawn or just better for Mother Nature?
TOM: Or better for you?
ROGER: It’s better for the person doing the work, that’s for sure. It’s for all of the above. It’s a great thing if you can get out there with one of those real mowers and do it. And that’s the way we all started years and years ago, before they introduced power. But think about how great it is for the environment and yourself to be out there doing that.
LESLIE: Any special maintenance to the blade there? Because I imagine they work a little harder, since you are doing all the work on it.
ROGER: Well, they – sometimes they need a little more touch-up than your average blade, because they are a different type of blade than that thick blade you have on the bottom of your lawn mower. But if you touch it up, you keep it sharp. And that’s a big thing we didn’t talk about yet: how important it is to have a sharp blade on your mower.
TOM: Now, how often do you have to sharpen your mower blade?
ROGER: I tell people I sharpen it – on the lawns that we’re doing – every week and they look at me and laugh. And the guys think it’s a joke. They once gave me a blade that had been grounded down to about 6 inches big.
It depends on what you hit.
ROGER: Think of it this way. If you slice that lawn with a sharp blade, it actually heals faster. If you cut it with a dull blade, it gets all these little fragments on the end. In the hot time – the hot season – you can actually see the lawn turn brown afterwards and it’ll take it longer to grow out.
TOM: So cut it, don’t club it.
ROGER: Exactly, yeah.
LESLIE: And what about edging and sort of trimming the lawn? I know that really creates a beautiful, crisp lawn that just looks so professional, whether you have a pro do it or you do it yourself. Do you do it first or do you do it after?
ROGER: I like to do it afterwards because if there’s a little place that was missed with the mower, I can just use my trimmer to clean that up.
TOM: Now, Roger, one of the worst moments in the lawn-mowing process is when you go to start it and it doesn’t happen; you pull the cord over and over again or you hit the key and nothing clicks. What’s the best way to maintain your mower between clippings so it’s always in good shape?
ROGER: The most important thing, beyond doing your spring startup – the spark plug, make sure the air filter is clean and it’s ready to go and it runs properly – is the gas. Too often, people leave the gas sitting around and it gets stale and it won’t fire. No matter how many times you pull on that cord or pull the choke or what you do, it won’t fire.
ROGER: So either get new gas and make sure it’s fresh or put stabilizer in that gas to make sure it will fire in your mower.
TOM: Great advice. Roger Cook from This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
ROGER: It’s been my pleasure.
TOM: And for more tips just like that, including a great video on the best way to mow a lawn, you can visit ThisOldHouse.com.
LESLIE: And you can watch Roger and the entire This Old House team on This Old House and Ask This Old House on your local PBS station.
TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by The Home Depot. The Home Depot, more saving, more doing.