Americans have a strange fascination with lawns. Even in the rolling hills of California, where grass is normally brown, people maintain luscious green lawns. The squarish plots of green in the middle of all the brown are some of the first suggestions of signs of intelligence (or lack thereof) when seen from space. An American lawn is often bought in a carpet like state. Rather than fencing in the area and seeding and watering it, the lawn is rolled out and cut to shape.

Despite lawns being fairly useless unless you have a ruminant or two (note to self:get a goattear up the lawn) much energy has been invested in the art of maintaining them.

It used to be that lawn mowing was a relatively simple task. There would be a handle to push and a set of wheels that turned a blade and cut the grass much like a scissor. However, this has evolved into a self-propelled engine driven mayhem of spinning rotors of doom and size XL cup holders. In fact some people now use small tractors to cut their small lawns which are no bigger than the size of their bath rooms. This takes about 45 seconds. Like Dave Barry, I am not making this up. Of course this does not take into account the 20 minutes needed to go and get gas for the lawn mower, the weeks or months one has to work to save up to buy one, and the hassle of fixing it when it breaks.

What I suggest is to get a push lawn mower. You may have tried one in the past and have been turned off by the fact that it is hard to push because the blade doesn’t turn. This is mostly because the blade is not adjusted. It is easy to get a cheap used push mower, because many people, who at some point desired the “simpler life” they read about in a glossy magazine, got a push mover and now don’t know why it stopped working. Of course, if you’re nice, you can adjust it for them (you need a big screw driver), or you can just take buy it for $25 like we did (usually they sell for $100+ new). If you are patient, you might even get a free one just for taking it off of someone’s hands because they need more space in their garage.

To adjust it, note that there are two big screws on each side (so four screw total) of the inside of the wheels which adjusts the blade angle and separation. You can’t miss them. Instructions and a picture can be found here. I would like to add that you generally don’t need to turn the screws much! Start out with 1/4 turns or less. Remember to be symmetric, so if you turn the left front screw 1/4 of a turn, turn the right front screw 1/4 as well. If you turn the front screws clockwise and turn the rear screws counterclockwise or vice-a-versa, you change the angle. If you turn all four screws in the same direction, you change the separation. Play around and get a feel for it. You want the blade to spin freely and be one iota from contacting so that when you push it fast and stop the blade should keep spinning for a second or two while still being able to cut. I had mine adjusted in less than 5 minutes.

An additional advantage is that a push mower actually cuts the lawn, so as far as I understand there is not need to remove the fine cuttings. I have been cutting it for a couple of months now and the cut grass simple sinks down and “disappears”. Rather than cutting, a motorized lawn mower with a spinning rotor slays the grass and leaves chunks of it lying around. This should be raked off or collected. So using a push mower saves time as well.

One problem is that the push mower does not do edges very well but neither do motorized mowers. I say, just get used to your edges being a bit ragged. If you are OCD about your lawn, get out on your knees with a pair of scissors and a ruler already, you know you have to, right 🙂 . However, if you lawn doesn’t connect directly to the porch or stones, you can also used a shovel to cut the edge.

Of course, the frugal alternative is to get rid of your lawn altogether and either match your backyard to the local climate / types of vegetation or plant some edible vegetables. Lawns are mostly useless, but at least if you have to, mowing them can be inexpensive and fun.

Originally posted 2007-12-31 11:11:10.