It’s Time to Give the Push-Powered Lawn Mower a Shot

If it works for you, this old-timey contraption can be pleasant, healthy, and downright restorative.

April 15, 2023
Photo by Walmart

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The time to mow is upon us. Old shoes have been unearthed, AirPods are charged, Saturday mornings cleared, and people everywhere are frantically googling information about sparkplugs and the best mower fuel.

This year, try something new. I come to you singing the praises of the reel mower. Also known as a hand mower, a manual mower, or that thing on a stick dads from the 1950s walked behind while merrily chatting with neighbors. The reel mower eschews a motor entirely, cutting each blade of grass based on the strength of the person pushing it. Despite how it sounds (exhausting), I swear that it is not difficult. In these warming days of spring, I eye my little Scotts reel mower that's leaning pleasantly in the corner of the garage like a kindly ghost from a bygone era, and yearn to once again hear its pleasant snip snip snip.

I was not always like this. When I first bought my house, my brother-in-law, who owns a landscaping business, so naturally has a lot of lawn mower machine prowess, bequeathed me an extra lawn mower he had lying around: an orange, tank-like thing, ready for real work. I spent one magnificent summer walking behind it, but its maintenance was more than my postage-stamp-size yard really required. Blade sharpening, spark plug changing, and winterizing (not to mention the scream of the engine and the way it occupied garage space) all made a traditional mower seem a bit like cutting a peanut butter sandwich with a chainsaw.

I mentioned at one point to my other brother—who serves, unpaid, as my home-ownership therapist—that I had been considering switching to a reel mower. "Like this?," he texted back, sending a picture of one sitting in his garage. He offered me a temporary trade: my huge orange tank, which he wanted to tune up for fun, for his reel mower. We have quietly never traded back.

The rewards are many. The grass is healthier, each blade snipped neatly at its end rather than whacked by a merciless, spinning death machine, so it heals better. It's better for the environment than a gas-powered lawn mower—the reel mower emits zilch in terms of carbon whereas using a gas-powered lawn mower for just one hour is the environmental equivalent of driving almost 100 miles. And it's better for me. It has turned mowing my lawn into something meditative and aerobic that I can fit in neatly whenever I want, especially since it’s so quiet. The mower requires almost no maintenance, beyond a little WD-40 when the wheels start to squeak.

It's a great option for anyone with a perfectionist's eye, too. All those precision scissor cuts can create something perfectly uniform, with snips at right angles across every blade, creating a more aesthetically defined front yard. They’re frequently used to create the diamond pattern on baseball fields and to create pristine, inch-length grass on putting greens.

Despite its long list of pros, there are, of course, a few cons. Truthfully, it can be a little finicky. The mower stops dead in its tracks when a twig gets in the way. Grass will sometimes push over rather than cut, particularly if you've gone a day or two longer than you should've between trims, too. In these instances, it's best to back up and try the patch from another angle. Lastly, it’s worth being very clear that it’s unfeasible to use one for a massive yard—mine is under 2,000 square feet, making this whole thing very doable.

Think of it as the standing desk of lawn care: You're going to look a little bit pretentious, or at least precious, wheeling out your little old-timey mowing contraption. But I am here to say that all of this is worth it. It’s nice, after all, to be a little precious about your yard, to care a little more about the wellbeing of each blade of grass up there, each of its divots and thick patches. The cost investment is minimal—a brand new reel mower is roughly a third of the cost of a new gas-powered motor, and there are always a few used ones for sale online—and the upside is enormous. Every time I hear an engine roar just so someone can go beast mode on their front lawn I become more certain that I’m never going back.

To help make things a little easier, we've rounded up four reel mowers to help you tackle this mowing season.

Photo by Home Depot

1. Scott's 16 in. Manual Walk Behind Push Reel Lawn Mower, $199 $139

Photo by Amazon

2. Fiskars StaySharp Max Reel Push Lawn Mower, $294 $209

Photo by Amazon

3. 15-Inch Reel Push Mower, $55

Photo by Lowes

4. American Lawn Mower 14-in 4 Reel Lawn Mower, $90 $82

What kind of lawn mower do you prefer? Let us know below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Clayton Purdom

Written by: Clayton Purdom


Pads April 17, 2023
I actually own the Fiskar mower and I love it. This is the second year that I will be using it and I don’t plan to go back to a mower with an engine anytime soon. It is quiet, no fumes, great exercise, and much better for the lawn to cut the grass instead of tearing it. It does take a little longer to mow but still worth it. Plus think of the money saved on fuel and maintenance and the pollution you aren’t putting into the environment.
Smaug April 17, 2023
"Tis true- here in drought prone California lawns are either disappearing or shrinking- seems silly to pull out a power mower for a 100 square foot patch of lawn, especially as they are such awful polluters. I don't mind the sound too much (as compared to, say, the preposterous racket produced by gas leaf blowers,) but there's no good reason why the neighborhood should be subjected to it.
Pads April 17, 2023
Leaf blowers are the worst!! I find it hard to believe that in 2023 they still have to be such loud devices.
Smaug April 17, 2023
They don't, there are cordless electrics that sound more like a vacuum cleaner than a motorcycle race. They don't have the sort of hurricanee- force power of the gas models, but more than enough for any reasonable use and, with the current 80 volt models, plenty of run time. Of course boys love big loud toys, and the leaf blower people are no different. There was a company doing a major tree removal up the street that used cordless chain saws for all but the main trunk; I talked to the owner and he was pretty high on them.
Pads April 17, 2023
I did hear that the electric chainsaws were pretty good for most cutting with the exception of the large things like the trunk.

I guess some of them do like the really blowers. I have heard that many places are starting to out rules in place about them due to the excessive noise pollution.
Smaug April 18, 2023
Some places have banned them for some time; it's not just the noise, those little two stroke gas engines are horrible polluters. Not to mention the huge clouds of dust that they often raise. They also spread diseases, pests and pathogens around with ghastly efficiency, but I don't think regional governments have caught on to that.
Pads April 18, 2023
I wish that they would ban them here. It would make the spring and summer mouth quieter.