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Mulching Mowers Buying Guide

Everyone wants to do something good for the environment, and the new breed of yard equipment that allows you to recycle debris right in your own backyard makes it easy.

Mulching Lawnmower    Photo: Toro

         Cordless Electric Mulching Lawnmower          Photo: Toro

If your local garbage service doesn’t accept lawn clippings or leaves, these new tools can help you avoid paying extra fees for disposal. Of course, the idea behind recycling is that your lawn clippings and leaves are not debris at all but a valuable organic resource that should be put back into the soil to help build a healthy lawn and garden.

The most popular piece of lawn-care equipment is the walk-behind mower. More than 85 percent are now labeled as “mulching mowers” to respond to the public’s environmental concerns.

A mulching mower, like a food processor for your lawn, uses a special blade and enclosed deck to slice up grass clippings and dried leaves numerous times before depositing them back deep into the turf, where they decompose in a few days. The result, if conditions are right and the mower is designed well, is a clean, vacuumed appearance without any unsightly clumps or hedgerows of grass. If you worry this will create thatch, don’t—thatch is not made up of dead grass blades left on the lawn but rather on excess surface roots caused by overwatering and overfertilizing.

Using a mulching mower saves in several ways. It saves time, since you don’t have to repeatedly stop the mower to empty and reattach the bag. It saves money, since the nitrogen in the clippings fertilizes the lawn, reducing the amount of supplemental fertilizer you have to apply. And it leaves more room in your local landfill for real garbage.

How do you choose the right mower for your yard? Here are the signs of quality to look for:

Convertibility. Can you easily convert the mulching mower to a bagging mower or a side- discharge mower? The latter is important since it’s sometimes difficult for the mower to cope with thick, lush, rapidly growing grass. Temporarily switching to a side-discharge mode will prevent clogs and stalling out the mower. A mower that bags is useful in the fall, when you may want to collect your leaves for use as mulch for your vegetable garden or flowerbeds.

Engine type & horsepower. A mulching mower should have at least 5 horsepower, preferably 6. Low-cost mowers with 3.5-horsepower engines may not have sufficient power to chop up clippings thoroughly. Automotive-design overhead-valve engines on premium mowers are powerful, efficient, and tend to have larger and quieter mufflers.

For mowing over hilly terrain, you may want to consider a mower with a two-cycle engine since they are constantly injected with lubricating oil and don’t have the problem of oil starvation that standard, splash-lubricated four-cycle engines do.

Electric/cordless models. In recent years, major manufacturers like Toro and Lawn-Boy have introduced innovative electric corded and cordless mowers, some with mulching capability. Toro’s CareFree offers on-board charging and enough reserve power to cut an average-sized lawn.

Mulching technology. If you take a look at some competitive mowers, you’ll see some distinct differences in how they solve the problem of chopping up grass fine enough so that it disappears. Most manufacturers design the mower’s deck and blade so that the clippings will be stirred up and cut several times before being blown back into the grass.

Some manufacturers add baffles or fans to the inside of the deck to enhance the process. Toro equips its Recycler mower decks with specially designed deflectors to make it easier to cut through dense, damp grass and leaves.

Build integrity. Better-quality units have power-paint finishes that don’t flake off, sturdier wheel adjuster assemblies, easily replaced drive belts, multiple-speed gear-drive transmissions, and a minimum of plastic parts.

As with anything, you get what you pay for when you buy a mulching mower. To take advantage of some of the advanced features discussed above, such as overhead-valve engines and high-efficiency decks, you’ll pay around $400 or more. There are some good, solid values out there for less than $300, but make sure the products are supported by a dealer network that will be able to fix them if they break down. Many dealers refuse to touch bargain-basement machines.

Courtesy Toro Wheel Horse Tractors & Riding Mowers

How to Tune Up Your Lawn Mower

It is estimated that over two-thirds of all lawn mowers do not receive the tune-up they need each spring to keep them running in tip-top shape.

Keeping a well-oiled machine is the key to lawnmower efficiency and safety.  Photo: Dreamstime

Keeping a well-oiled machine is the key to lawnmower efficiency and safety. Photo: Dreamstime

Regular tune-ups reduce fuel consumption and emission levels and help to increase mower life and reliability. Now is the time to get your mower ready for the season with a few simple tasks.

Hopefully last fall you remembered to run the fuel out of the gas tank. If not, drain the old fuel and replace the gas filter. Keep in mind, fuel older than 90 days can gel and clog the carburetor, making the mower hard to start. Once the fuel tank is empty and the spark plug wire is disconnected, you’re ready to get started.

A clean mower is a healthy mower. Caked-on grass and debris can clog a mower and significantly decrease performance. Wash and thoroughly dry the machine (a power blower can be effective in blowing standing water off the mower deck and from hard-to-access areas). Use a screw driver or putty knife to clear the under carriage of grass and debris.Sharpen or replace the blade.

If you have an air-cooled engine, use a wooden dowel or stick to remove any gunk from the cooling fins. If your machine is water-cooled, check the condition of the coolant and top off the reservoir if necessary. Use a strong jet of water to clean the radiator’s cooling fins.

Sharpen the lawnmower blades once a year. A dull blade can harm the grass and make it more susceptible to disease. Have the blade professionally sharpened or replaced if there are large knicks or dings in it. Refer to your owner’s manual for additional information on maintaining the cutting blade.

Changing oil keeps the engine properly lubricated and ensures that clean oil is continuously distributed to engine components, reducing friction. Manufacturers may recommend specific oil removal techniques so refer to your owner’s manual before starting this process. Clean the oil fill area, remove the dipstick, and place a catch can under the mower. Depending on manufacturer recommendations, either tip the mower on its side to allow the old oil to drain from the oil fill tube or remove the oil drain plug located under the deck. Allow the oil to drain completely, and, if necessary, replace the drain plug. Change the oil filter and refill the engine with oil.

Replacing the spark plug every spring ensures a consistent spark, reliable starting, and improved fuel economy. Remove the old spark plug, blowing away any debris with compressed air first. Before installing the new plug, be sure to check its torque, or gap (refer to your owner’s manual for specifications). Once you have checked the plug for proper gap, screw it in tight with your fingers. Then give it a one-quarter turn more with a socket wrench. A few dabs of anti-seize compound will ensure easy removal next time.

The air filter should be cleaned or replaced every spring and checked periodically throughout the mowing season. A clogged air filter reduces the air/fuel ratio, resulting in higher fuel consumption and a rough-running engine. Check your owner’s manual to see which type of filter your mower requires. There are generally two types: paper or foam. If your mower requires a foam filter, be sure to saturate it with fresh engine oil, wrap it in a clean rag, and then squeeze out the excess oil before installing.

Clean and lubricate the choke and throttle linkages, and apply grease to all the fittings, including the mower deck. Spray all linkages, cables, and wheel areas with WD-40. Do not use oil to do this because oil will retain dirt and eventually clog the area.

Inspect drive belts and tighten loose belts. If your inspection shows any deep cracks or ply separations, replace the belt.

Charge the battery and check the security of the terminals. Clean and apply grease to the posts to retard corrosion.

Visit your local outdoor equipment dealer or hardware store for the necessary parts. When the tune-up is completed, replace the spark plug wire and fill the gas tank with fresh fuel. Your mower is now ready for the mowing season.


Lawn Mowing Tips

Most cool-season grasses should be cut when they reach heights of 3 to 3 1/2 inches, typically once a week.

Mowing properly encourages a healthy lawn. Photo: Sears

Mowing properly encourages a healthy lawn. Photo: Sears

Cut warm-season grasses when they reach 2 to 2 1/2 inches. Cut no more than one-third of the grass height at each mowing to avoid damaging the plants. If the lawn grows too high for you to cut off one-third the height and have an acceptable length, cut off one-third now and one-third again in two or three days.

Cutting more than one-third the height results in clumps of clippings that tend to lie on top of the lawn, decompose more slowly, and give the grass a less attractive, open, bristly appearance. In addition, short cutting will stunt or slow root grow and weaken the plants. But these aren’t the only reasons not to cut your grass too short:

First, grass grows from the crown, not the blade tips. This trait makes grass ideal for lawns because it keeps on growing despite the regular mowing off of its upper stem, leaf sheath, and blades. This is also why it’s important not to damage grass crowns by accidental scalping with the mower.

Second, keeping grass on the longer side allows it greater surface area to carry out photosynthesis. This in turn results in healthier plants.

Third, taller grass grows slower than shorter grass. You can use this simple fact to eliminate up to 20 percent of the mowing you do annually. That’s a saving of about eight hours a year for the average lawn owner, not to mention the savings on gasoline and wear on the mower.

Lastly, by keeping your grass at the upper end of its recommended mowing height, you can prevent most weeds from germinating and thereby eliminate the need for herbicides. Following are some additional general lawn-mowing tips:

1. Mow only when the grass is dry.

2. Change mowing patterns frequently to prevent compaction.

3. Leave clippings on the lawn unless they are very long or wet.

4. Mow with a sharp blade. Resharpen after every 10 hours of use. Bring the blade to a professional sharpening service once a year. Replace the blade as necessary.

5. Rinse the grass clippings off your mower after it has cooled to reduce the chance of spreading lawn disease.

6. When it is hot, cut grass at the high end of the recommended height range; cut at the low end of the recommended height range during cool weather or in shade.

7. Make your last cut of the season at the low end of the recommended height range.


How to Fertilize A Lawn

Simple fertilizer spreader distributes an even swath of fertilizer as you turn the handle.

[/media-credit] Simple fertilizer spreader distributes an even swath of fertilizer as you turn the handle.

Expert advice about fertilizing a lawn, including how to fertilize a lawn in spring, summer, fall, and winter. How much fertilizer to apply and when to apply it.

In addition to proper watering (see Lawn Watering Tips), fertilizing a lawn is very important. When restoring a lawn, apply the fertilizer recommended by the results of your soil test. Use a slow-release fertilizer, and avoid putting down more fertilizer than you need.

When fertilizing a lawn, adding too much nitrogen can cause rapid growth and a thinning of plant cell walls, which makes grass more susceptible to disease. The excess fertilizer may also leach and eventually find its way into waterways, polluting them.

If you did not have your soil tested, apply a slow-release fertilizer with a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 3-1-2. Apply about 1/2 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn.

The right dose of fertilizer won’t help much if your soil does not contain an adequate population of microbes—soil needs billions of these microscopic organisms per handful. Microbes not only digest grass clippings, dead grass roots, and stems, but they also make their nutrients available to living grass plants.[GARD align=”left”]

To have a thriving microbe population, your soil must contain 2 to 5 percent organic material. A top dressing of compost mixed with topsoil followed by aeration will incorporate some organic matter into the soil without disrupting the lawn. When top dressing your lawn, apply about 1 cubic yard, which is 100 pounds of a 40/60 mix of topsoil and compost per 1,000 square feet. Topsoil is available from most nurseries and landscape centers. Be sure it has a dark brown color and rich feel and that it has not been diluted with lighter colored subsoils.

Compost can be obtained from several sources. Many towns make compost available to residents at little or no cost. They make compost from the leaves, grass, and brush that residents haul to the dump. The compost should be screened to 1/4- or 3/8-inch particles, and it should be free of inorganic materials such as shreds of plastic leaf bags. Its moisture content should be 30 to 50 percent. Any drier, and the compost will release a lot of dust as it’s being worked; any wetter, and the material will tend to clump and not mix well with soil. Compost is also available from nurseries and landscape centers. Even better yet, make your own.

Spring & Summer Fertilization

Obtain a soil test to determine the grade and amount of fertilizer to use.

Apply no more than 1 pound fast-release nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in a single application.fertilizing a lawn

Fertilize warm-season lawns from early spring until late summer.

Most lawns need an average of 1 inch of water weekly for healthy growth.

Fertilizing a Lawn in Fall

Cool-season lawns should receive most of their yearly fertilizer in the early fall. This will establish deep roots and help crowd out weeds in the spring.

Use slow-release nitrogen whenever possible, especially on sandy soils.

Fertilizing a Lawn in Winter

Wait until warm-season grass becomes dormant before fertilizing areas overseeded for winter color.

General Notes About Lawn Fertilization

Use only the amount called for, based on your lawn’s square footage.[GARD align=”right”]

For quicker application and to avoid a striped fertilizer pattern in the grass, use a rotary spreader, which applies fertilizer more evenly.

Spread the fertilizer in two directions for each application.

Apply fertilizer to dry grass, and water well immediately afterward.

Sweep up any fertilizer spilled on paved areas and save for later use.

Don’t use leftover lawn fertilizer on trees, shrubs, annuals, or perennials. Too much nitrogen on these plants stimulates stem and leaf growth and decreases flower and fruit production.



6 Ways to Get Your Yard Ready for Summer

Spring! For many, this is absolutely the best time of year. Harsh winter weather gives way to spring showers, sunshine, moderate temperatures, and new growth. And outdoor living begins to swing into step.

This is a great time to get your yard in shape for summer fun. Here are a few important projects that you can take care of now to make your yard and garden beautiful all summer.

1) Control Pests


Ladybugs can eliminate aphids naturally.

Aphids and garden pests love spring growth. If you see curled or poorly formed leaves on certain plants and trees, such as roses, citrus, or fruit trees, this is a likely sign of aphids.

To get rid of them, wash plants frequently with a strong jet of water, blasting the aphids from foliage. Spraying with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil can help, too. A more natural measure that works is to release ladybugs at dusk this time of year. Pull snails and slugs out of your garden by hand or, if necessary, bait them. For more information, see Pest Control for the Garden.

2) Prepare Flowerbeds

Amend the soil of planting beds with organic matter. To do this, spread about 3 inches of compost across the surface; if the soil is sandy, work it in a little. Compost will help in several ways—it will keep weeds down, enrich the soil, help keep the soil at a constant temperature, and retain moisture around the plants. Hold the mulch back several inches from tree trunks.

3) Plant & Maintain Flowers & Vegetables

The flowers, vegetables, and other plants that may be successfully planted in the spring will depend heavily upon your climate and local conditions. It’s best to consult a local garden center for specifics.[GARD align=”left”]


Prune evergreens early, when they begin new growth.

Generally, where warming weather allows, spring is a good time to plant summer veggies such as corn, beans, tomatoes, and melons, and to set-out summer annuals and summer-flowering bulbs. In colder climates, you can still plant cool-season vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and leafy greens. Even in cold Northeastern climates, you can plant bare-root roses; fertilize roses after each bloom cycle. For more about this, see Flower Care & Maintenance.

4) Prune

It’s best to prune evergreens and hedges early, when they begin new growth. Though pruning of most fruit trees is best in the winter when they are dormant, you can do some pruning to shape and strengthen mature trees in the spring and summer.

For more, see Tree Pruning / Trimming Advice and Pruning & Trimming Hedges.

5) Take Care of the Lawn

In most parts of the country, early spring is not too soon to begin major lawn improvements. After watering the lawn, dig out deeply rooted dandelions and similar weeds.[GARD align=”left”]

If lawn growth has slowed, apply fertilizer with nitrogen according to label directions—figure you will need 1 pound of nitrogen for every 1000 square feet of lawn. As the weather warms, gradually raise the blade on the lawn mower to cut the grass 1 1/2 to 2 inches tall so that the lawn will be more resistant to summer heat.

6) Water & Irrigate

Water seedlings and small plants as necessary, but plan now for how you will manage your garden when heat and possible drought conditions of summer set in. For example, you may want to avoid planting an over-abundance of summer annuals, which require a lot of water. Spring is a good time to take care of sprinkler system maintenance. For more about this, see Sprinklers.

Planting & Caring for Ground Covers

Though not all ground covers have exactly the same needs, the basics for getting them started are the same. Preparing the planting area is the key to success. caring for ground covers

Start by ridding the area to be planted of any weeds, including their roots. If your site is relatively level, dig or till the area to about a foot deep. Add in any organic compost and a complete fertilizer, and rake the site to eliminate high spots and fill in low spots.

For hillsides, it’s best to leave the site as undisturbed as possible. If you wish, lay down landscape fabric before planting to prevent weed growth.

Planting Ground Covers

It’s best to plant in fall about one month before the first frost or in early spring before the growing season begins. Space plants to accommodate their mature size. If you’re covering a large area, stagger the rows so the plants are offset.

When planting from flats or cell packs, dig a hole just the depth of the rootball of each plant and slightly wider. Place each plant in the hole and fill in with garden soil. Water gently but thoroughly.

For larger plants, dig a hole slightly deeper than the rootball and twice as wide, with the sides tapered out slightly at the bottom of the hole. Create a small mound in the center of the hole, place the plant on the mound, and spread out the roots. The crown of the plant should be slightly above the soil level. Fill in with the soil you removed from the hole, and then mound additional soil around the edges of the planting hole to form a watering basin. Water thoroughly after planting and then add mulch around the plants.

If you’re planting on a hillside, set the plants out in a staggered pattern. For each plant, cut back into the hillside to create a flat spot, leaving enough room for the plant and a small watering basin behind it. Put the crowns slightly above the soil line so they won’t be overwatered by runoff. Water thoroughly and then add mulch around the plants.

Caring for Ground Covers

For the most part, ground covers require minimal maintenance. Probably the most important requirement is sufficient water. Even the most drought-tolerant ground covers will need additional water while they’re becoming established, and many perennial ground covers will need regular watering (although not as much water as most lawns).

For a small area, hand watering or portable sprinklers may be effective enough. For larger areas, though, consider using either drip irrigation or in-ground sprinklers.

Drip irrigation systems use less overall water. Because they deliver water directly to the plant roots, they encourage deep root growth, discourage weeds, and prevent water runoff and evaporation. Drip systems are especially good for hillside plantings.

For higher, shrubbier plants or ground covers that consist of masses of individual plants, an in-ground system is the best choice. Use a timer to ensure that you don’t overwater, and set the sprinklers so they don’t overspray onto hardscaping.

Ground covers generally don’t need much feeding. Shrublike ground covers and drought- tolerant plants are often fine with little fertilizer or with only fertilizing when you plant them. Perennial ground covers may need to be fertilized yearly, usually right before the growing season. And, of course, if your plants start to look pale or sparse, use a complete fertilizer to give them a boost.

Other periodic chores include weeding and keeping pests under control. Check the planting area on a regular basis and for weeds and garden pests before they become a big problem.

Even easy-care ground covers may need some help to keep them under control. Some ground covers can be invasive, spreading into neighboring garden beds. If they spread by seeds, pull them out, roots and all, from areas where they aren’t wanted. For those that spread by runners, cut them back with clippers or hedge shears. If they take over a large area, use a spade to cut through the roots.

You should always choose plants whose mature size is what you want, but occasionally you’ll find some branches that are growing too tall or too wide. Prune these errant branches back as you would a shrub or tree.

Some ground covers, such as Aaron’s beard and bishop’s weed, also benefit from an occasional mowing (with the blades set on high) to keep them in check and help rejuvenate them. Others, such as Australian saltbush, epimedium, moss pink, and phlox, should have spent blooms removed. If your overall ground cover starts to look woody and sparse, it may be time to replace it with new plants.


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