last updated August 2014
There are so many mowers on sale that it’s hard to decide which one is best. Dip into our guide below before splashing the cash.
Choose by lawn type:
Mower choice for a fine lawn
Mower choice for an everyday lawn
Mower choice for infrequently cut grass
Mower choice for non-grass lawns
Versatile mowers for more than one type of lawn
Mower types explained:
Motor scythe (or sickle bar)
Ride-on and tractor mowers
Ride-on and tractor grass collection
Other factors to consider:
Ride-on and tractor features and accessories
Mower choice – electric or petrol?
Mower servicing costs
Mower choice – from shed to lawn
Mowing time available
Handle height and controls
Suitable for slopes and your garden layout
The mower for a fine lawn
Fine lawns are the pride and joy of the traditional British gardener, who spends time, money and effort on creating the perfect bowling-green effect at home.
The fine-leaved and short-growing grasses (similar to those found on golf and bowling greens) need a lot more than a good mower to keep them in tip-top condition, but frequent mowing with the cutting blades set close to the ground is an essential ingredient.
The only machine for such a fine finish is a specialist cylinder mower with a larger number of blades than ordinary machines (perhaps 10 or 12 or more instead of the four or five) on a small diameter cylinder. This gives a high number of cuts as the mower moves forward. In addition to this precise cutting, the mower must be able to cut down to at least 6mm (1/4 inch), so your lawn has to be as flat as your hat. Mowers such as British-made Allett machines (using the original Atco designs) or the new Italian-made petrol-engined versions of Atco are one option, or lower spec mowers that have 10-bladed cutting blade cylinders available as an extra.
The mower for an everyday lawn
Everyday lawns consist of broader leaved and taller growing grasses which can be kept neat and tidy without the special care and attention lavished on fine lawns. Everyday lawns look good with a weekly cut that leaves the grass 12-25mm (1/2-1 inch) high.
Mowings may be collected throughout the growing season, or just at the beginning of the mowing year, when the grass is growing rapidly. If the mower cannot collect the mowings, the large volume created by the first few cuts in spring should be swept or raked off so that light can reach the grass beneath. Either a cylinder or rotary mower, with optional grass collection, is suitable for an everyday lawn.
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The mower for infrequently cut grass
Wildflower mini-meadows, grassy orchards and other areas of infrequently cut grass are best tackled with a rotary mower that can cut higher than usual (ie at least 76mm (3in)). Because the cut grass on a wildflower meadow isn’t collected immediately (it’s left for a week or so before being raked off, so that seeds and insects are left behind) choose a rotary mower that can be used without a grassbox.
For very large areas of infrequently mown grass, a powered scythe or sickle mower with an exposed cutter bar of scissor-like blades (reciprocating blades) is the better choice, because the long grass won’t stall it and the greater cutting width will speed the task.
There are also heavy-duty line trimmer style mowers for this type of work – often called rough grass cutters or field mowers. See Mow Direct.
The mower for non-grass lawns
Non-grass lawns (e.g. chamomile, thyme and clover) can all be cut with a mower if the area is too large to trim with shears or a nylon-line trimmer. And it’s the cutting height range of the mower that is more important than whether it is a rotary or cylinder machine.
Clover will stand close mowing and probably flower between mowing sessions. However, thymes should be left taller and only mown after flowering, otherwise you’ll lose the display (the actual cutting height depends on the type of thyme). Chamomile lawns should not be mown closer than 50-75mm (2-3in). So for these lawns, you’ll need a mower that can be set with a higher than usual cutting height, so a wheeled rotary mower (not a hover) is your best bet.
Versatile mowers for more than one type of lawn
To save on costs if you have different types of lawn, choose a versatile mower that can cope with the various grassy areas in the garden.
A rotary mower with optional grass collection and mulching, plus an appropriate range of cutting heights is suitable, such as Toro’s recycler mowers.
But if you have the extremes of a fine lawn and a wildflower meadow, there is no choice but to use different machines. The best option is to buy a mower that’s suitable for your frequently cut lawns, and hire the necessary machine for the once or twice a year jobs.
Types of mower explained – cylinder mowers
Cylinder mowers snip like scissors – there’s a cylinder of blades that revolves at high speed, trapping and snipping grass with the fixed bottom blade.
And there are more cylinder mowers around than you might have realised – including these brands: AL-KO, Allet,Atco, Bosch, Brill, Handy, Qualcast, Suffolk, Webb. Just be aware that those stalwarts from the past with a deserved name for quality and longevity are no longer what they seem. The Atco and Qualcast names were sold off and are now used to badge imported equipment. The consequence is that some stocks of spares pre-date this change, and do not fit the imported machines (so check dimensions carefully before buying). The Webb name was also sold off. So when looking at mowers, try to ignore the brand and focus on its current construction and features. However the designs for Atco and Suffolk Punch petrol and electric pedestrian cylinder mowers were bought by a British company, Allett, to complement their professional range of machines. Allett was later bought by Turfmech, who continue the British production of this traditional range. So if you yearn for the quality of an Atco or Suffolk Punch of old, look for their new names ie Allett Expert range and Allett Classic range, respectively.
On gardener-powered mowers, the side wheels or a rear roller drive the cylinder around when you push the mower forwards. The most commonly available hand mowers are side-wheel driven, but there are also some easy-push rear roller hand mowers such as Handy and Webb.
With small electric machines, the motor drives the blades around but you still have to push the thing along. On larger electric and petrol-engined machines, the wheels or rear roller are driven along too.
For a traditional striped lawn, the mower should have a heavy rear roller, since lighter plastic ones can’t make an impression. And although all cylinder mowers are able to collect the grass, most grass boxes for hand machines are sold as optional extras, so check the price. Be aware too that the traditional designs of hand mower have rear collection boxes, which is great for not flattening flowerbeds, but does mean that if you choose not to use the box, you’ll need wellies to avoid grass-stained shoes and trousers.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that cylinder mowers are only for cutting fine grass twice a week.
Modern cylinder mowers are much more versatile than their predecessors. We’ve used our push-along side-wheel machine on long and short grass, on slopes and on the level, with and without its rear grassbox, although the lack of a large rear roller does make mowing up to the lawn’s edge tricky. We’ve developed the technique of pushing the mower along the lawn edge with one wheel just off the ground, pressing down more heavily on the other side to make the blades turn. Of course, a rear-roller mower avoids this problem since the roller supports the full width of the mower.
Most small lightweight electric mowers have side wheels instead of a front roller, which is an advantage because patches of faster growing grass are not flattened and are trimmed as neatly as the rest of the lawn. The bigger machines in Atco’s and Allett’s range also have optional side wheels to fit when necessary and cutting cylinders that can be replaced with a scarifier. Additionally, the top professional ranges (eg from Allett) are fitted with combs to raise roller-flattened grass to meet the blades.
Making you feel tired? Then sit down when you mow. The Allett Buckingham semi-pro range (using the Atco Royale design) have an optional trailing seat, cleverly designed to follow the path of the mower so there’s no danger of cutting corners and wrecking flowerbeds or being towed into trees.
Mower types – rotary
These cut the grass with a scything action as one or more blades spin at high speed, parallel to the ground. There are many types of rotary mower – some hover, some are wheeled and some also have a rear roller to leave a stripe and make it easier to mow right up to the lawn’s edge.
Most rotary mowers with wheels (or wheels plus roller) collect the grass, but not all hovers do (look at Flymo’s range for grass-collecting hovers). For safety, plastic blades are an alternative to metal ones on some Allen, Black & Decker, Flymo and Qualcast machines.
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Mower types – mulching rotaries
Mulching mowers cut and re-cut the grass finely before dropping it, with the result that the lawn looks as if the mowings have been collected.
Unfortunately they work best in dry conditions and if the grass is wet from dew or rain, the mowings stick to the underside of the deck and have to be scraped off at intervals. Otherwise they build up to the point where the blade can no longer spin and the engine stalls.
So try these out first if you can (borrow or hire one) or choose a machine with optional collection and mulching, such as those made by John Deere, Hayter, McCulloch, Mountfield and Toro.
Mower types – motor scythe (or sickle bar)
These machines, often called field or rough grass cutters, are designed for cutting hay meadows and other vegetation, with the business end looking like a hedgetrimmer. These reciprocating blades (one fixed and one moving blade) scissor through tall growth so are not easily stalled by long grass.
The whole machine is pushed or self-propelled with the blade remaining close to the ground, but the design means that the blades cannot be guarded, so it’s very important to use these machines carefully. Although you’re safe enough behind the machine, other people and pets are definitely in the danger zone.
There aren’t many makes to choose from, and often a 2-wheel ‘tractor’ unit is available separately, with various optional fittings such as a sickle bar. There are also complete units available. Some brands to look for include AL-KO, Apache, Bertolini and Lawnflite but as the use for such mowers is limited, hiring might be a better option.
For those of you who remember Allen scythes with affection (which is not our sentiment!), you can reminisce or even find ones for sale through Brookfield Vintage Tractors.
Mower types – modifiable
Some mowers do more than one job for you such as Qualcast’s CPM petrol-engined cylinder mowers. There’s an optional scarifying cassette that you can swap for the cutting cylinder, plus a 10-bladed cylinder for finer lawns.
Mower types – ride-ons and tractors
These mowers are for large lawns and large wallets.
Most machines are fitted with a rotary mower deck; cylinder models are available, but are far more expensive and consequently the preserve of green-keepers and ground maintenance staff. However, you could tow a triple gang of cylinders behind a tractor mower. The extra cutting width makes quick work of wide open spaces, but sweeping curves are essential, because trailed accessories cannot be reversed easily into tight corners.
Ride-ons and tractors are interchangeable terms with no hard and fast definition, but where both types are referred to by the same company, expect the ride-on to be the smaller machine, with a small engine, which is usually beneath or behind the driving seat. This arrangement gives you a good view to the front. Garden tractors resemble farm machines, with the engine at the front.
Mower types – ride-ons and tractors – grass collection
Grass collection is usually an optional extra, although you may find it included as a special offer.
On imported machines, a vacuum collection system is commonly offered, using a tube connected to the deck to take mowings to a rear-mounted bag, box or a trailer. But British manufacturers already know what British gardeners know to their cost – that we cut damp lush grass, which inevitably blocks a vacuum system. So they offer trailed collectors which are more effective. These have revolving brushes which sweep up the cut grass (and leaves) into a container. Sweepers powered by the engine are also available from several companies, including Countax andWestwood. A further advantage of sweeping is that the brushes produce a striped finish.
Mower types – ride-ons and tractors – features and accessories
Apart from grass collection possibilities, other points to look for are the convenient siting of all controls, and good manoeuvrability so that any obstacles can be mowed around in one sweep. Rear wheel steering gives the greatest manoeuvrability of all.
Make the most of your ride-on or tractor with the range of accessories available. Most machines have a tow hitch for a small trailer and other equipment such as lawn aerators, slitters and rakes. Countax, Lawnflite (from Barrus) and Westwood have a comprehensive range of accessories.
Mower choice – electric or petrol?
Although the lawn type narrows down the choice of suitable mower, you must also consider convenience. Power source (you or an electric motor or a petrol engine), size, weight and ease of control are just a few of the things to consider.
Look for a long flex (to avoid the need for an extension lead) and a gadget to keep the flex out of harm’s way. For example, Wolf’s flick-flack device automatically moves the lead to the correct side of the mower when you change direction. Cordless mowers (which use rechargeable batteries) don’t have the inconvenience or potential danger of a trailing flex.
Fuel and oil should be easy to add to the engine, but some fillers are placed in very awkward positions. A see-through fuel tank is very useful to see how much fuel is left and to avoid overfilling too.
Some petrol-engined machines still have to be turned off at the engine, which is inconvenient. Look for an on/off control on the handles.
Starting a petrol engine (2- or 4-stroke) is not difficult these days – but if this bothers you, look for key-start, but be prepared to pay more for this feature. Key-start is standard on ride-ons and tractors; most also have a recoil start as a stand-by if the battery is flat, but be warned, it’s not easy.
Mower choice – servicing costs
Electric machines are cheaper to run than petrol-engined ones because servicing costs are less. Oil, air filter and other parts have to be bought, even if you service the engine yourself.
Before buying a mower, check that all parts are readily available.
If you check the lawn for stones before mowing and are careful to mow only grass, the blades should remain in good condition. You can also buy abrasive strips to attach to cylinder mowers to keep the blades sharp. Rotary blades are easy to remove and file smooth (there is no need for a razor-sharp edge).
Routine cleaning removes corrosive grass sap, so keeps metal parts in good condition. Note the mower’s design – will it be easy to clean?
Mower choice – storage
How much storage space do you have and where is it?
Hand and electric machines can be stored in the house if there is nowhere else dry, but petrol-engined machines (and the petrol can) must be stored in an outbuilding. Alternatively, store the mower outside beneath a special cover (eg made by Bosmere), but only if there is no risk of theft.
Most, but not all, mowers have folding handles to save on space. Grass collectors take up space too and the rigid types can take up as much room as the mower, although they can often be balanced on top of the machine, out of the way.
Mower choice – from shed to lawn
Some machines are much easier to move around than others and the garden layout may help or hinder. Are there obstacles between the shed and the lawn? Does the lawn have easy access and is the path onto it wide enough for the mower? Could you widen this path if necessary, or is it restricted by an archway or fencing?
Hand mowers with side-wheels are light enough to pick up and carry to the lawn but rear roller cylinder mowers are heavier. These are best moved by tilting them back onto their roller (to avoid damaging the blades) and pushing them to the lawn. The smaller electric mowers are also lightweight and easy to pick up, whereas the larger machines have to be wheeled.
Hover mowers have to be carried to the lawn so make sure that you can lift one. Remember that the underside is mucky after use, but the bulk of the motor or engine makes it awkward to carry the machine with the deck away from you. Allen’s and Flymo’s larger petrol-engined hovers have optional wheels which are not only for transport, but for retaining when mowing very long grass, to prevent the blade stalling.
Wheeled rotary mowers are easy to push along, but make sure your paths and gateways are wide enough for them.
Mower choice – time available
Mowing is a weather-dependent job anyway, but some mowers restrict you further. Side-wheel hand mowers are difficult to push and leave grooves in the lawn if the ground is very soft, mains electric mowers should only be used in the dry and rotary mowers decks become clogged up underneath if the grass is very wet.
Choice of mower also depends on how long you have each week to mow. The wider cutting machines make quicker work of open spaces, but if the lawn is irregularly shaped with numerous obstacles, a smaller machine is easier to use and saves time overall.
Save time by walking up and down in straight lines or curves. Many gardeners forget to do this with small mowers and waste time and fuel by standing in one spot and moving the mower back and forth as if vacuuming a carpet. Whatever type of mower you use, it is more efficient to mow methodically.
Mower choice – cutting-height range
It’s important that the mower has sufficient cutting heights to suit the lawn when regularly mown and to cope with the extra growth in spring or after a holiday, so that no more than a third of growth is removed in one mowing session.
If the height of cut is difficult for you do alter, you won’t do it, which makes mowing more difficult and is bad for the lawn.
Cylinder mowers are straightforward to adjust nowadays – often no tools are necessary. Hover mower adjustment varies according to the make – you may have to get out a spanner and swap spacers placed between the blade and deck.
Other rotary mowers may have a single lever, or one on each axle, or one on each wheel. Those which are adjusted by one lever or knob are the quickest to use and available from the major companies.
Mower choice – grass collection
Grassbox attachment, detachment, ease of carrying and emptying are all important points which are often overlooked when choosing a mower. After all it’s difficult to imagine dealing with a full grassbox when looking at the machine in the showroom.
- Fuss-free attachment points.
- Secure attachment, so that the box or bag is unlikely to be shaken off when crossing bumpy ground.
- Easy removal without straining your back when the box or bag is full and heavy.
- On rotary mowers, a grassbox which is lifted up through the handles is easier to remove when full than other designs.
- Well positioned carrying handle on the collector, so it can be carried in balance and comfortably.
- Small capacity means frequent stops for emptying.
- Large capacity means less frequent stops, ir you can easily carry it when completely full.
- The aperture should be large enough to shake out the contents easily.
- Front-mounted boxes on cylinder mowers make mowing up to obstacles impossible and mowing beneath overhanging branches difficult. You can remove the front box, but then mowings are thrown ahead on top of uncut grass.
- Collecting the mowings and emptying the collector are time-consuming. But collection isn’t essential to the well-being of the lawn and mowings can be allowed to drop if you mow little and often. Then the grass is unobtrusive and quickly rots away, recycling nutrients as a bonus. But not all mowers can be used without their grass collector, so you may not have this option.
Mower choice – handle height and controls
If you are of average height, there’s not much to worry about, but if you are taller or shorter than average, make sure that the handle height is correct or can be adjusted to avoid backache. Mowing is also much easier if the handles are in the right place.
Check that you can easily reach and use the various controls because some are difficult to use with small hands. If your lawn is overhung by shrubs or close to a high wall or fence, look for controls fitted centrally so that they won’t catch on the obstacle, or trap your hand.
Self-propelled mowers may have separate controls for the blades and the forward drive. This enables you to push the machine when mowing in awkward areas, where the forward drive is too fast. It also enables you to use the power drive to take the mower across gravel with the blades safely stationary.
Forward speed on self-propelled mowers can be excruciatingly slow for some people and too fast for others. A faster machine is fine for wide open spaces, but a slower machine gives more control in confined areas. Some mowers have a choice of forward speeds, but these are amongst the more expensive ranges.
Mower choice – for slopes and different layouts
Most mowers are suitable for use on gentle slopes, but heavy machines are awkward to control on steeper gradients.
Hand or electric machines are suitable, as are some petrol-engined machines. The petrol engine adds to the weight, of course.
Look for 2-stroke petrol-engined mowers. (NB Legislation regarding emissions has meant the end of 2-stroke engined lawnmowers). If the mower has a 4-stroke engine, the engine oil may not be able to reach the parts it should when used on a slope, although some of Honda’s 4-stroke engines (fitted to Allen and Flymo hovers) are designed for slopes.
Where lawns contain obstructions such as flower beds, trees, bird tables or sundials, a small mower is easier to use. Mains electric ones are a nuisance because the flex either becomes caught up or damages plants, so consider another type of machine.
Mower use – safety features
Use a residual current device (unless this is already incorporated into your house wiring system) with electrically powered machines to avoid the risk of accidental electrocution.
To reduce the risk of cutting through the flex, choose brightly coloured and therefore highly visible extension leads, fit plastic blades instead of metal ones (but only those designed for a particular machine), or use a cordless mower.
Powered machines should be difficult to start accidentally. Most electric mowers are now sold with a two-handed switch, so they cannot be started unintentionally when being carried around.
The fuel must be stored in a proper fuel container. Also, neither the fuel nore the mower should be stored in the house, where they would pose a fire risk. Petrol and its vapour is highly inflammable, and the vapour remains in the air for sometime after pouring, so save the cigarette for much later.
Never mow up and down steep slopes, but move across them. Always remain on the uphill side of mowers so that if you or it slips, there is little risk of you being mown as well as the grass.
Always wear stout footwear (preferably with metal toecaps) when mowing. Never pull a powered rotary mower backwards – it could slide over your feet. Be particularly careful to keep feet well away from hover mowers, which can unexpectedly lose their lift.
Always use the grassbox on a rotary mower unless instructions state it is optional. There is usually a deflector flap fitted to direct debris downwards; without this, grit could fly into your face. Some mowers have to be fitted with a discharge chute (sold separately) if used without the grassbox.
Always disconnect the power or the spark plug before cleaning or working around the cutting blades.
Mower choice – green issues
We’re all encouraged to be green these days, addressing issues of pollution, global warming, recycling and efficient use of resources. You may think that this doesn’t affect gardening, but it does.
All powered equipment relies on burning non-renewable fuels – in addition this produces carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming). Electrically powered machines (on mains or rechargeable batteries) are no better than petrol-engined (leaded or unleaded) machines in this respect. Supplying the power may result in further pollution too, such as oil tanker spills. So the only truly green mower is the hand machine.
Putting mowings in the dustbin or taking them to the tip adds to the volume of waste to be dealt with by councils. Landfill sites are precious and so are mowings – far too valuable to throw away. You can compost them, use as a mulch or give them to someone else who can make use of them.
Or try leaving them on the lawn’s surface. If you mow little and often, or use a mulching mower, the small pieces of grass quickly shrivel and disappear from sight. Once you stop removing these nitrogen-containing leaves, you won’t have to feed the lawn as often (if at all) to keep it looking green, so saving more resources. Don’t worry about creating thatch. This is a mat formed from the basal leaves of the grass plant that have withered. Thatch builds up if the lawn is not raked regularly and is not created by dropped mowings.