Mowing: The long and the short of it
Grounds maintenance encompasses many chores, but, during warm months, when grass is flourishing, few jobs are as demanding as mowing. Public grounds run the gamut from office landscapes, pavilions and parks to athletic fields and roadsides; and local governments often are pushed to meet all the mowing needs.
Rushing to stay on schedule, grounds personnel can easily overlook the basic guidelines that keep their equipment – and the grass itself – in good health. Using equipment that is appropriate to the site; being knowledgeable about the grass and mowing patterns; and maintaining the mowers are essential to a successful mowing regimen.
A mower for every occasion There are four major types of mowing equipment – walk-behind mowers, front mowers, zero-turning-radius mowers and compact utility tractors with mower attachments – that are appropriate for grounds maintenance professionals. The choice of which mower to use is determined primarily by the application. * Walk-behind mowers provide the most mileage for small mowing jobs. They are the least expensive mowers, and they are easy to transport. * Front mowers are most useful for wide-open or hilly terrain, like park lawns or roadsides. They offer good maneuverability and visibility. Because their mowing decks are up front (meaning tires cannot compress the grass before the cutting blade sweeps), they provide a professional, clean-cut finish. * Wide-area mowers are designed for just that: mowing in open areas that are free of narrow turf alleys. Their broad cutting width allows operators to groom large areas in half the time it takes traditional 72-inch mowers. Automatic wing decks that turn off when raised and turn on when lowered also enhance productivity and side trimming. * Zero-turning-radius mowers are particularly useful in areas that feature obstacles. They are highly maneuverable, making them ideal for mowing around buildings, in cemeteries, and in other areas with trees, gates or tight corners. They have great trimming ability, and they have a low center of gravity that increases traction and stability on hillsides. * Compact utility tractors are most productive in landscaping applications. In addition to a wide variety of grounds-related tools, the tractors often offer mowing attachments with side-discharge or mulching mower decks.
It’s in the way that you use it Most grass, regardless of type, is cut too infrequently, too short or with a mower blade that is too dull. Over time, those practices can lead to turf loss; but, by being aware of the risks and working to eliminate them, grounds personnel can avoid long-term turf damage.
Mowing frequency: Less is not more Maintenance personnel may think they are saving time by mowing infrequently, but, in the long run, they are risking a turf overhaul. When mowing is delayed and grass grows higher than normal, personnel tend to overcompensate by scalping or gouging the turf. Grounds personnel should learn how to recognize the two or three grasses used most commonly in their areas and to adhere to the recommended mowing frequency and height for each type. They should keep in mind that some grass varieties may need mowing even more often than average during peak growing seasons.
Mowing height: Don’t cut it short Mowing below the optimal height restricts root growth and increases the grass’s susceptibility to damage from insects, disease, drought and traffic. Also, as the grass’s density is diminished, the probability of weed growth increases.
Maintenance personnel can help preserve healthy turf by cutting no more than one-third of the grass blade at a time. Mowing more than one-third of the blade can damage the grass’s root system and create a thatch problem.
As a general rule, grass will stay healthiest if it is maintained at the high side of the range for recommended height (see recommended heights on page 48). To keep grass that has grown too tall from going into shock, maintenance personnel should raise the mowing height and gradually lower it back to the original height over a few weeks’ time.
Mowing speed: Racing against time There is no steadfast rule that dictates the ideal mowing speed. However, mowing too fast can scalp or gouge the grass, compromising the turf’s performance and long-term health. Therefore, it is important that maintenance personnel try to strike a balance between the need for a nice, even cut and the need to get to the next project on schedule.
Walk-behind mowers can enhance mowing time by allowing the user to get an even cut at a brisk pace. Operated at a reasonable speed, riding mowers also are effective, although the user needs to pay attention to signs of engine strain.
The higher and thicker the grass, the longer it takes to mulch. And the damper the grass, the more likely it is to clump. Therefore, as grass height, density and moisture content increase, mowing speed should decrease proportionately.
Mowing direction: Don’t get stuck in a rut Mowing in the same direction time after time creates a sort of grain to the turf as grass plants tend to lean in one direction and slip under the cutting blade. In order to prevent leaning, grounds personnel should alter their mowing direction each time they mow.
For instance, they may mow in a 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock pattern the first mowing of the season, then in a 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock direction the next time, and alternate in a similar manner for the remainder of the season. The starting point of the first strip also should be adjusted each time. By moving it a few inches to the right or left, the employee places the wheels on a different track, preventing ruts and grooves from developing in the turf.
Mowing blades: Let’s not be blunt Cutting grass with a dull mower blade does more damage to the grass than not cutting it at all. Dull blades tear and shred grass, creating entryways for disease organisms. Furthermore, shredded grass tips dry out and turn brown.
In general, blades should be sharpened after every 50 hours of use. Timers that are installed on the mower and track usage automatically are available. (Maintenance personnel should keep in mind that, in the spring, grass is lush, soft and easy to cut; but, in the summer, grass turns tough and wiry, which dulls the blade faster. Therefore, personnel should check the blade regularly to ensure that it remains sharp.)
Maintaining the tools of the trade Although it can be tempting to delay routine maintenance as long as possible, when it comes to mowers, the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” does not apply. Some items need to be checked daily, while others need to be checked weekly or according to hours of use.
The following tips can assist grounds professionals in maintaining their mowers.
Daily maintenance Lubrication is one of the most cost-efficient means of keeping mowers out of the repair shop. For the components that stay buried in the dirt and debris, it is best to lubricate daily; grease is pushed in one side, and dirt is pushed out the other, minimizing abrasions that could wear parts.
Engine oil and gas levels, as well as tire pressure, should be checked on a day-to-day basis. The cutting height should be double-checked before mowing, and, after each use, personnel should check for any loose, missing or damaged parts. Finally, they should clean under the deck, clean debris from the engine (especially near the air intake screen) and remove the belt shields to clean the belt area.
Weekly maintenance Once a week, it is a good idea to lubricate the mower’s rear wheel spindles and steering cylinder rod.
Hour-based maintenance The number of hours spent using a mower has a direct impact on maintenance timing. Fortunately, there a few rules of thumb: * 50 hours – change the engine oil; sharpen the cutting blade. * 100 hours – replace engine oil filter; clean and gap the spark plugs. * 200 hours – change the transmission oil filter. * 500 hours – replace the transmission oil.
Additionally, the fuel filter, air-cleaning element, battery electrolyte level and brake adjustments should be checked on a regular basis. And, for each mower model, the operator’s manual will recommend maintenance practices for optimum performance.
Although mowing is regarded by some as simply an aesthetic necessity, it can – when done properly – protect the grass from insects and disease, and promote the grass’s long-term health and performance. By selecting the appropriate equipment, adhering to recommended cutting strategies and maintaining their mowers, local governments can preserve the beauty of their turf and the balance of their maintenance schedules and budgets.
Bob Tracinski is the consumer information manager for the Worldwide Commercial & Consumer Equipment Division of John Deere, Horicon, Wis.