Mowing: More than cutting grass

Perhaps more than any other activity, mowing typifies grounds care. This is not surprising when you consider that there are something like 20 to 25 million acres of turf in the United States, depending on whose estimate you use. As most everyone is aware, mowing is a big industry.

That's why it's interesting to ponder the future of mowing when some potential development — genetically engineered “slow-grow” turfgrass, for example — is reported. Could the future of mowing be threatened? After all, mowing is for keeping grass short, right? If grass does that on its own, what's the point of mowing?

Actually, mowing accomplishes a lot more than cutting turf. The freshly mowed look is a significant part of turf's appeal. Thus, even technological advances such as “slow-grow” grass that could, in theory, create turf requiring mowing just once or twice a year, aren't likely to spell the end of mowing. Think about what turf looks like when you don't mow it. Even if the turf itself doesn't need cutting, weeds pop up, trash and leaves start to accumulate. An often-unacknowledged but very real function of mowing is cleaning up debris.

Another “function” of mowing is leaving tire tracks and striping. Sounds odd, but you know it's true. Customers like patterns in their turf.

More important, from a cultural point of view, is that turf must grow to recover from injury. Diseased and heavily trafficked areas will stay that way until growth allows the turf to recuperate.

Despite the occasional predictions of mowing's demise, an examination of what mowing accomplishes suggests that as long as we have turf, we'll mow it.

While some technology aims to reduce mowing, other advances target efficiency. Amazingly, something as seemingly straightforward as a lawn mower has undergone enormous evolution in the past 20 years. And the fast pace of development continues.

Most design improvements are incremental…what you'd call refinements. Better ergonomics, blade and deck designs that process clippings more efficiently, quieter operation and so on.

Less frequently, entirely new concepts take hold and create whole new kinds of products. Zero-turn mowers, for example. True contour mowers are also relatively new. These are classes of products that didn't even exist in the not-too-distant past.

Are there entirely new kinds of mowers on the horizon? No doubt. Prototypes of robotic mowers guided by GPS already exist. So do mowers that cut with lasers. Whether these products will enter mainstream use is an unanswered question. Inevitably, new technologies are expensive. If they succeed on a large scale, they'll have to offer significant advantages over current mower types, which have become amazingly efficient.

In the consumer market, small, electric, robotic mowers are now available. They're quite expensive, but a certain class of consumer intrigued by gadgets will buy them. The same won't hold true in the commercial market. It had better be cost effective or do something significantly better than current mowers, or it won't fly.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of mower innovations that you can take advantage of now. This month's cover feature, “Mower innovations” (page 12), takes a look at many of the new features developed by manufacturers.

My entry into grounds care was working for a contractor who maintained large municipal parks. I operated a 72-inch out-front riding rotary with hydrostatic drive. Today, such mowers are quite standard, but at the time this was pretty much a cutting-edge (sorry, I couldn't help myself) unit. My boss loved to remind us that we'd better take care of it because he'd bought the mower instead of a new T-bird. (And he wasn't kidding — the cost was similar.)

Today, it's still true that many mowers cost as much as cars — or more. That's a lot of money. But cost, strictly speaking, isn't the issue. It's return on investment that counts. How do you decide which mower will give you the best return on investment? This month's “How to: Buy a mower,” on page 30, discusses this process.

As much as mowers cost, a great deal of emphasis is placed on making them last. More important, obviously, is the safety of the operator. And yet, safety is a topic often overlooked. See “Mower safety begins with the operator,” by John Deere's Gilbert Peña, on page 20, for a review of procedures that will help keep you and your employees safe on mowers.

The fact that we — as a society — are willing to spend so much time and money on turf reflects the high value we assign to it. The powerful aesthetic appeal of a lush, green, freshly mowed sward ensures that this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. So keep your blades sharp, cutters — mowing isn't going away anytime soon.

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