Reel mowers, with their clean scissor-like cutting action, can produce an impeccable manicured lawn. This has many homeowners wondering—can I use a reel mower on my grass type? Or are reel mowers only practical for certain lawn varieties and conditions?
This article will dive deep into reel mower suitability across different grass species. Read on to learn which lawn types pair best with reel mowing, and where traditional rotary mowers may still reign supreme.
Reel mowers excel with fine, short grasses such as Bermuda and Zoysia due to their smooth cutting action. They may struggle with taller, coarser grasses like St. Augustine and Fescue, especially if the grass is allowed to grow too tall or becomes too thick, limiting universal suitability.
An Introduction to Reel Mower Technology
Before analyzing the suitability of reel mowers for various grasses, let’s examine in detail how these mowers differ from rotary mowers.
Rotary Mower Machinery
The typical gasoline or electric powered rotary mower uses a horizontal spinning steel blade to cut grass. The engine spins the blade at high velocities ranging from 2000-3000 RPM. This imparts tremendous momentum to the blade as it slices through grass blades in its path.
The rotary cutting action is relatively quick yet imprecise. The grass blade is violently shredded and torn rather than cut cleanly. This leaves grass tips looking frayed with small brown tears and splits.
However, the high-speed momentum of a rotary blade powers through tall, thick, and varied grass types easily. Rotary mowers can tackle a wide span of lawn lengths, species, and conditions. With sharp blades and proper engine power, they rarely stall or clog even in dense growth.
Rotary mowers come in all sizes and price points to suit small urban lawns to large estate grounds. Compared to reel mowers, rotaries afford much greater flexibility in terms of grass types, terrain, lawn care schedules, and weather.
Reel Mower Machinery
In contrast to rotary shredding, reel mowers utilize precision cutting mechanics. The core cutting components involve a helical spinning cylinder blade reel operating against a fixed bedknife blade.
When grass enters the narrow gap between the spinning reel and bedknife, it is sliced cleanly like scissors in a shearing action. The reel does not violently throw or shred the grass. Instead, it cuts individual blades with a precise snipping motion.
This results in an immaculate cut with zero fraying or tearing of grass tips. The cut has a clean, polished appearance reminiscent of professional sports fields and golf greens. Clippings can be minute enough to avoid catching and mess.
A reel cut also lessens water loss, shade damage, and provides overall plant health benefits versus rotary mowing. The gentle cutting action avoids pruning plant crowns and damaging living grass tissues.
However, reel mowing requires optimal conditions to flourish. It generally involves frequent mowing at lower grass heights. Reel mowers often cannot handle tall growth nor wet and muddy terrain.
The mechanical complexity also makes reel mowers much more expensive than traditional rotaries. Reel mowers with motors can cost thousands, but manual reel options provide a more affordable entry point.
With an understanding of the cutting action difference, let’s see how reel mowing suits various grass species and conditions.
Warm Season Grasses in Southern Lawns
Do the lush warm season grasses that thrive across southern climates pair well with reel mowing technology? Let’s find out!
Among warm season grasses, Bermuda shows exceptional suitability for reel mowing systems. In fact, many high-end sports fields and golf courses choose Bermuda grass specifically to showcase flawless reel cuts.
Growth Habits Conducive for Reel Mowing
- Aggressive lateral aboveground stolon growth fills in completely to create lush, uniform turf.
- Rapid vertical growth rate but stays low when mowed frequently. Tolerates very low mowing down to 1/2 inch.
- Fine-bladed texture and dense growth habit masks minor mowing mistakes and lines.
- Hardy, resilient growth bounces back quickly from accidental scalping or tearing.
Potential Challenges for Reel Mowing
- Requires diligent, frequent mowing to maintain very low reel heights needed for best appearance.
- Rapid growth rate during peak season means potentially mowing every 2-4 days.
- Short mowing height makes Bermuda more fungus prone if overwatered. Good drainage is key.
- Dormancy in winter causes grass to thin and sparser appearance.
Bottom Line: Bermuda grass has excellent characteristics that not only allow for reel mowing, but thrive under a tight reel mowing regime. Just commit to very frequent mowing cycles when growth is rapid.
At first glance, Zoysia’s fine texture and lush “carpetgrass” look seems a perfect candidate for reel mowing. But there are a few important considerations:
Growth Habits and Conditions for Reel Mowing
- Dense growth habit helps mask mowing imperfections, tracks, and minor errors.
- Soft blade texture avoids tearing and shredding versus tougher grasses.
Potential Drawbacks and Challenges
- Does not tolerate low mowing heights below 1 inch well. Scalping causes dieback.
- Lateral growth rate is relatively slow. Recovery from damage is a gradual process.
- Very prone to fungal issues if overwatered after close mowing. Good drainage is key.
- Enters dormancy period in winter causing thinning and color decline.
Bottom Line: The potential for scalping damage coupled with slow regrowth makes reel mowing risky on Zoysia. Mow at 1-2 inch heights with a sharp blade to mitigate appearance decline during dormancy.
St. Augustine Grass
At first glance, St. Augustine’s broad lush blades seem perfect for striping and other reel mowing patterns. But limitations exist:
Positive Factors for Reel Mowing
- Tolerates lower mowing heights down to 1 inch better than most coarse warm season grasses.
Drawbacks and Considerations
- Coarse blade texture still increases shredding and tears at very low mowing heights.
- Lateral growth habit is relatively sparse. Recovery from damage is a slow process.
- Very prone to fungal issues if overwatered after close reel mowing.
- Frost susceptibility causes dieback during winter. Grass thins noticeably.
Bottom Line: The combination of slow regrowth, disease vulnerability when mowed low, and winter decline make reel mowing a poor choice for St. Augustine lawns.
At first glance, Centipede’s low maintenance nature seems to pair well with infrequent reel mowing. But other factors pose challenges:
Positive Factors for Reel Mowing
- Slow vertical growth means less frequent mowing even at low heights.
Negative Attributes and Issues
- Very sparse lateral growth habit even when healthy. This leads to obvious wheel tracks.
- Poor tolerance of low mowing heights below 1 inch. Scalping causes decline.
- Severe susceptibility to sulfur and iron deficiencies. Dies back and thins when nutrient deficient.
- Extremely slow growing. Recovery from any damage or scalping is an arduous process.
Bottom Line: Centipede’s sparse growth habit at any height plus poor recovery capacity make reel mowing inadvisable. Significant dieback and decline will result from attempts to reel mow centipede.
Cool Season Grasses for Northern Lawns
Looking northward, do the fine-bladed cool season grasses of northern lawns warrant reel mowing?
Of the various cool season grasses, Kentucky bluegrass shows high potential for reel mowing success:
Attributes Conducive to Reel Mowing
- Aggressive rhizome growth fills in completely to form a dense, uniform turf.
- Tolerates close mowing down to 1/2″ when weather is cool and growth active.
- Fineblade texture and dense mat hides mower tracks, lines, and minor scalping.
- Best cut at 1-2 inches when hot weather causes growth to stall.
- Moderate lateral spread means recovery from damage is not instantaneous.
- Requires ample nitrogen to maintain ideal density and color for reel cut appearance.
Bottom Line: Given adequate fertility and proper height adjustment during summer, bluegrass can produce excellent reel cut quality for northern lawns.
The fine texture of tall fescue seems potentially amenable to reel mowing. But certain characteristics pose challenges:
Attributes Conducive to Reel Mowing
- Tolerates close mowing during spring and fall when growth is most active.
- Deep root system provides good drought resistance if mowed reel-low.
Negative Factors and Limitations
- Susceptible to serious decline if mowed below 1-2 inches during summer.
- Coarse blades prone to shredding and tearing at close mowing heights.
- Bunch-type growth habit reveals wheel tracks and lines.
- No vigorous lateral growth. Recovery from damage is a slow process.
Bottom Line: Allow tall fescue to grow taller with a rotary mower during the summer. Reel mowing is only practical during cooler periods when mowed above 1 inch.
As an overseeded companion in lawns, perennial rye needs careful reel mowing:
- Provides green color and active growth during winter and cool periods.
- Tolerant of low mowing when mature if weather is not excessively hot.
- High vulnerability to serious decline if reel mowed too low when young and establishing.
- Poor recovery rate and inability to re-establish from seed if damaged while immature.
Bottom Line: Use caution and mow young establishing ryegrass stands taller with a rotary mower. Reel mowing is only advisable once the rye has fully matured.
Fine Fescue Grass Blends
The clumping growth habit of fine fescues makes reel mowing inadvisable:
Negative Factors for Reel Mowing
- Bunch-type growth habit leads to obvious lines, tracks, and uneven cuts.
- No vigorous regrowth from damage due to clump growth.
- Poor tolerance for mowing below 2 inch height. Severe decline results.
Bottom Line: The bunch-type growth cannot accommodate reel mowing. Significant scalping and dieback will result from attempting to reel mow fine fescues.
Key Grass Characteristics Impacting Reel Mower Suitability
Analyzing suitability holistically, certain grass traits affect reel mowing success:
Bunch-type grasses reveal unevenness between clumps. Grasses spreading by above- or below-ground stems mask mowing imperfections.
Slow growers magnify damage from errors. Rapid growers fill in problem spots quicker.
Tough, coarse blades shred and tear. More tender blades allow for sharp, clean cuts.
Density and Uniformity
Good sod density masks mower lines and minor thin spots. Patchiness causes uneven cuts.
Low Height Tolerance
Grasses that decline when mowed below 1-2 inches suffer from reel mowing scalping effects.
Environmental Factors Impacting Reel Mowing Outcomes
Even on suitable grass types, real-world lawn conditions present challenges for reel mowing:
Bumpy, Undulating Terrain
Reel mowers require a smooth, level surface to avoid scalping high spots while skipping low areas. Slightly uneven lawns become exacerbated by reel mowing.
Tight Spaces and Obstacles
Rotary mowers offer greater maneuverability around landscaping features and obstacles. Reel mowers lack nimbleness in confined spots.
Mixed Grass Varieties
When overseeding or transitioning between grass species, blending different textures and heights makes unified reel cuts difficult.
Excess Growth During Peak Season
Rapid spring and summer growth surpasses reel mower maximum cutting height and frequency capacities. Staying ahead of growth is essential.
Large Mowing Area
Expansive lawns become laborious and time-consuming for reel mowing. Expect full days of work mowing larger acreages.
The Bottom Line: Even suitable grass types may not achieve ideal reel mowing results if environmental factors are not properly considered and accommodated.
Key Considerations When Evaluating Reel Mowers
When assessing the investment in a reel mower, keep the following individual lawn factors in mind:
- What grass species comprise the existing or planned lawn? Match reel mower model to grass height limits.
- How smooth and obstruction-free is the terrain? Reel mowers require flawless surfaces.
- How dense and uniform is the sod? Patchiness leads to inconsistent cuts.
- How rapid is growth during peak season? Reel mowing demands commitment to frequent cutting.
- What is the total lawn size? Large lawns involve major time commitments to reel mow.
Carefully analyzing these elements helps determine if reel mowing is truly feasible. Grass type, growth rate, uniformity, seasonality, and lawn terrain must all align with reel mower capabilities.
Preparing Your Lawn for Reel Mowing Excellence
Achieving pristine reel cut quality requires an immaculate lawn surface and plant health:
- Maintain adequate fertility for optimal color, density, and growth rate of your grass type.
- Correct any visible bumps, dips, or unevenness through topdressing and levelling.
- Overseed thin areas in spring and fall to fill in bare spots for complete coverage.
- Timely core aeration relieves compaction that worsens bumpiness and scalping.
- Eradicate weeds, stones, twigs and other obstructions that impede smooth cuts.
- Mow frequently enough that no more than 1/3 of grass blade length is ever removed to avoid scalping.
- Keep mower blades professionally sharpened before each use during active growth.
With proper lawn care and mower maintenance, reel mowers can transform an ordinary lawn into a show-stopping work of meticulous beauty.
Reel mowers certainly do not suit every situation, but offer potential for certain grasses and environments. As seen, Bermuda and bluegrass tend to fare best with reel mowing technology. However, care is required to prevent scalping on unsuitable varieties.
Analyze lawn terrain, growth patterns, seasonal variations, and maintenance reality before purchasing a reel mower. When expectations align with lawn traits and reel mower capabilities, stunning results awaughs. With wise selection and preparation, reel mowers can take your lawn to the next level.