A modest but useful machine

Like the plain stepsister at the ball, the small walk-behind rotary mower has been shoved to the sidelines, as more glamorous and exciting models have grabbed the spotlight.

Intermediate and large-area mowers, with their greater cutting widths, easily surpass the productivity of the small walk-behinds. Zero-turn capability now allows largermowers to maneuver in areas that previously could be reached only by small walk-behinds. String trimmers can reach the out-of-the-way tight spots that even the small walk-behinds can't reach.

Is it time to administer last rites to the past-its-prime small walk-behind rotary?

Not so fast, say manufacturers and landscapers. Over the years, landscapers have grown accustomed to using the small mowers, which typically have cutting widths of 21 inches, and can bank on their dependability and maneuverability.

While they may not be as vital as they once were, the small walk-behind rotary still has enough value to maintain its place as standard equipment on an equipment trailer.

"There has been a lot of doom and gloom in recent years that the 21-inch rotaries would go away," says Randy Harris, marketing manager for the Toro Co. "We just don't see it. The sales are growing slightly. It's good, steady solid growth."

Filling a niche Other mowers have features that outdo small walk-behinds, but the key feature that keeps bringing landscapers back to 21-inch rotaries is their maneuverability.

"It's essential that landscaping crews have one." Says Dave Kohel, general manager of Kohel Implement Co. in Eau Claire, Wis. "You need them to get into the areas the bigger machines can't get to."

Fenced areas, parking lot islands and the areas along sidewalks and flower beds are typical sites where landscapers turn to the small walk-behind.

The small mowers are also likely to be easier to operate than their larger, more complicated counterparts. In some sections of the nation, says Harris, the 21-inch rotary is the primary mower used.

"In parts of California and Texas, and places where gates or architectural structures are narrow, the 21-inch rotary is all they mow with," says Harris.

One change that Kohel has detected in recent years: In the past, commercial turf cutters were more likely to buy a more expensive machine and concentrate on maintaining it so it would last for several years. Now, says Kohel, landscapers are more likely to buy a less expensive small walk-behind, use it until it breaks down and discard it.

String trimmers can get to places that the small walk-behinds can't, but it's difficult to get an aesthetically pleasing cut with the hand-held implements.

"A walk-behind rotary is able to give you one nice, even finish," says Peter Whurr, vice president of product management for Textron Turf Care and Specialty Products.

You can mow most of an area with a larger mower and use a 21-inch mower to clean up the spots the larger machine can't get to and provide a height of cut that matches the one delivered by the larger machine.

Appealing to pride Fred Freytag, president of FM Lawn Care in Lincoln, Neb., says customer demand-both commercial and residential-has re-invigorated the market for small walk-behind rotaries.

"We have a lot of higher-maintenance clientele that prefer that we use smaller mowers," says Freytag. "They are proud of the way their property looks, and they like the way it looks after we cut it with a 21-inch machine."

While Freytag's company uses its share of zero-turn mowers and intermediate walk-behinds, some clients feel that larger machines are less precise and more likely to scalp the turf.

A mowing job takes longer using just the small walk-behinds, but Freytag says clients who know what they want are willing to pay for it.

"It looks nicer," he says. "The turf appears more manicured, especially older property where the ground is not level. This is what the client wants, even though it takes longer. We are compensated for it."

If it ain't broke. Even though landscapers could make do without small walk-behind mowers and use other equipment if they had to, most seem content to keep the machines on hand.

"People are creatures of habit," says Harris. "They have used 21-inch rotaries for a long time, they are familiar with them, and they do a good job. So they see no reason to stop using them."

And just because someone acquires the newest and fanciest lawn mowers and trimmers doesn't mean the small walk-behind rotary can't co-exist with them.

"You need all three," says Whurr. "The large-area rotary will do the bulk of the cutting. The string trimmer will get the areas up against buildings and walls. And the 21-inch rotary will do the areas that need some trimming and cleanup."

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© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

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