Saturday, May 3, 2008

On Power Cords and Lawn Mowers

I know. If I want to be really kind to the environment I should be using a manual push mower. But I've never progressed that far in my carbon footprint scheme. I'm still using an electric mower. I consider it vastly gentler on the planet than the two-stroke gasoline monsters that power most mowers and leaf blowers. Shouldn't they just be outlawed? Besides being some of the most polluting machines ever invented, they create such a din we can barely hear the sound of the polar ice caps melting.

I nearly trashed my electric mower recently and for all the wrong reasons. We've had bad luck with electric mowers. Maybe we are too tough on them, although we really don't have much lawn to mow. What I want the mower for mostly is to collect grass clippings for compost. One mower just quit. Another--a Craftsman, I think--overheated and started to melt. Our latest is something we picked up for a bargain price at Costco. It's actually made in Hungary, and when you start it it makes a noise like a giant fan that's winding itself up to blast into outer space.

Towards the end of last season, this mower started acting up, too. It would just stop in the middle of the yard. I'd let it rest awhile, then start it up again. It would run for a few minutes, then stop again. The intervals that it worked got shorter and shorter. I figured it was my bad electric mower karma coming back to haunt me, so I stashed the mower in the garage and started using my electric line trimmer ("weed whacker") to cut the grass.

Mowing with the line trimmer left the yard looking like it had a bad hair day. But we have plans to landscape and eliminate the lawn entirely, so I wasn't about to buy a new mower (although I was looking at the latest battery models--pretty cool). Then the line trimmer started acting up, doing the same thing the mower had been doing. By now I figured they just weren't building electric lawn equipment to last. I ran to the Home Depot to buy a new one, and was soon in for a surprise.

Something told me to test the new machine when I removed it from the box. I plugged it in. No response. I jiggled all the connections on the power cord. Still no response. Suddenly it dawned on me that I'd been misdirecting blame for the problem all along. It wasn't the mower or the trimmer. It was the cord.

Our 100-foot outdoor cord had been stolen. Since then, I'd tied two 50-foot cords together as my main power source to the mower. But one of the cords was heavier than the other. When I removed the lighter cord and tried the mower with the heavy cord, it worked just fine. So did the line trimmer.

My wife thought I was the perfect fool for not testing the cord earlier. I was just happy to have my mower back. The 50-foot cord just barely reaches the farthest corner of our yard, and since we have a corner lot, I must look pretty comical running here and there, plugging the cord into different outlets and out of one window first, then another, then the front door as I mow my way around the house. (It's an old house--there are no electrical outlets outside, but thanks for wondering.)

The lesson: extension cords come in different gauges. On the packaging it should indicate how much amperage your cord is designed to handle. Compare this with the amperage of the machine you are operating. For instance, my electric mower draws 12 amps. The smaller cord I was using was designed for 10. Apparently, I had overheated and damaged the cord. That's why it stopped working with the line trimmer as well. The trimmer draws 7.5 amps.

You may have gathered by now that I am not a lawn person. (You may also be thinking I'm pretty dumb when it comes to electricity.) I have great memories of lazing around our freshly mowed lawn when I was a kid, watching clouds and smelling the good smells of the earth. The grass was warm and buzzing with small insects. But I never caught the perfect lawn bug that seems to afflict so many Americans. I would rather grow vegetables. If, however, you are intent on having a lawn, I certainly hope you follow these earth-friendly steps:

* Ditch the two-stroke, gasoline-powered machines and convert to an electric or manual mower. Some jurisdictions even offer rebates for purchasing electric mowers, and the battery-operated ones look pretty neat. Also, hang up your gas-powered leaf blower and try using a rake and a broom. Old fashioned, I know. But I have a feeling that old fashioned may be coming increasingly back into style.

* Set your mower to cut as high as possible. The green blades conduct photosynthesis, feeding the plant. When you cut the grass short, you stress the plant. Longer grass is healthier, less vulnerable to diseases and more drought tolerant.

* Let the grass clippings fall in place. They will eventually decompose, becoming food for the soil, feeding the lawn.

* Kick the artificial fertilizer and pesticide habit. More fertilizer is used on American lawns than in all of agriculture. Some of those feed mixes are 40 percent nitrogen. It runs off into the watershed and becomes pollution. Fertilizers are killing the Chesapeake Bay and create a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico outside the mouth of the Mississippi River. In addition, artificial fertilizers are made from natural gas, a rapidly depleting resource we need to heat our homes (at least until we convert to solar.)

* Pesticides are toxic to the environment, your pets and your children. There is no need for them. If you have problems with weeds, spread an organic product such as corn gluten before weeds emerge in the spring. Corn gluten creates a film on the soil that prevents weeds from sprouting. You might also learn to love your dandelions a little. Try eating them, or turning them into dandelion wine.

* Feed your lawn with compost. Spread a half-inch layer over the lawn in spring and toss some more grass seeds. Your soil will love it, and it will share its love with your grass. Don't listen to people who say you can't maintain a lawn organically. You can. It may be more expensive. It may require a little more work. But you will feel so much better having a healthy, great looking lawn that isn't working at cross purposes with nature.

* For more information about maintaining lawns organically, check out They've even published a book on the subject. If you're the least bit curious about the dangers of those pesticides and herbicides you've been using, Beyond Pesticides has detailed information on all of it. (Click on "Info Services" in the banner, then click on "Pesticides Gateway.")

* Finally, cut back on watering your lawn. Water is a precious resource. If your lawn is made of cool weather grasses, it is genetically designed to go dormant in the summer heat. You are just fighting nature if you douse it with water and fertilizer to keep it green. Likewise, if you have a hot weather lawn, its natural tendency is to turn brown in the winter. Learn to live with what your lawn is hardwired to do.

Now, back to growing those vegetables...


Pattie said...

ANd, Ed, ina ddition to the push reel mower, I go tthe manual edger. It is a breeze to use. I do all my edges in less than 5 minutes. If you can lift a bag of topsoil, you can use a manual mower and edger with no problem. And, frankly, they are sort of fun (at least in May--check back with me in July!).

Ed Bruske said...

Pattie, I remember those manual edgers. This really brings back memories. Or maybe it's a view into the future....

mss @ Zanthan Gardens said...

I have alkaline soil and St. Augustine grass. I find the best fertilizer for the lawn is coffee grounds. I get mine free from the nearest Starbucks. I usually mix them half and half with sifted compost.

Ed Bruske said...

Coffee grounds are a good source of nitrogen. Spreading compost on the lawn is the best thing you can do.