Room For Change: The Lawn

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If you must mow, consider going electric with mowers and blowers that do the job with less pollutants.

It is summer, people. Time to get outside. So I will keep it short and talk about some lawn tools you might want to consider as you head out into the sunshine.

First and foremost, let me say that I am a grass girl. I love it. And as a founding member of The Field Fund, dedicated to preserving and improving grass playing fields on Martha’s Vineyard, I know the great value of a well-maintained natural grass field or lawn and it means carbon sequestration (not nitrogen loading!!), more water retention (read: less need for irrigation), and it is also a naturally cooling surface, which is why it feels good to collapse on your lawn on a hot summer day. 

The less I mow, the healthier and greener the grass looks and the longer it continues to grow before dormancy.

– Geraldine Brooks

Must you mow?

Second, it is, as Geraldine Brooks, fellow grass fan and Pulitzer Prize-winning West Tisbury resident (and author of the recent, highly acclaimed novel Horse) told me, wonderful and rewarding to not mow. She wrote to me, “I am a fan of not mowing. I have returned about half of my place to meadow, which I mow just once every year or two to keep the invasives (Russian olive, mainly) away. I don’t mow at all in May (#nomowmay). I stopped doing this three years ago, and every year there are more wonderful wildflowers — purple speedwell, violets, blue-eyed grass, Star of Bethlehem, crocus, paperwhites, wild sorrel — as well as interesting native grasses and sedges. The less I mow, the healthier and greener the grass looks and the longer it continues to grow before dormancy.”

In other words, less mowing means more biodiversity and more habitat for the planet’s critters and us. Less mowing is also good for the grass itself. Grass tolerates getting its leaves clipped, but less leaf length (that is, grass that has been cut) means less photosynthesis and less energy for the plant’s roots. This is why there has been a great push for #nomowmay, as Geraldine mentioned, which is a movement that encourages those with lawns to wait a month before getting on or behind your machines. My family has begun to embrace this approach and I will say that it does make a difference in the overall health of the grass. So our first lawn rule might be to see what areas you can not mow and what areas you can mow less.

If you must mow

Nonetheless, for most, having even a little lawn around the house is a reality and at some point does need to be cut. Last June, our mowing crew got Covid. Within a week the grass around our house and my sister’s was higher than our ankles. I knew that by the time the guys would be feeling better, the grass would be up to our knees so I borrowed my dad’s STIHL electric mower and began mowing. 

Mowing is not new to me. As a teenager, I walked hundreds of miles behind a mower, working for a landscaper and mowing our family’s lawn. I dreaded it. Mostly because the mowers were so incredibly loud and I always spilled gas on my hands and shoes. 

Mowing with an electric mower was an entirely different experience. No gas spills or fumes. By the way, according to the EPA,  “Over 17 million gallons of gas are spilled each year refueling lawn and garden equipment — more oil than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez!” No noise. A nearly meditative experience. And using clean energy felt so much more in tune with the healthy grass I was trying to cultivate. Again, the EPA says that “one gas mower spews 88 lbs. of the greenhouse gas CO2, and 34 lbs. of other pollutants into the air every year. This, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, means one gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55 mph for the same amount of time!!

I mowed and mused, “Why are we still using something like gas — a fossil fuel — to help nature when it also works at the expense of it?” Then a friend drove by and stopped to say hi. She too has embraced electric mowing technology. She echoed my thoughts, “Given our climate change crisis, why would we be using anything but electric mowers, weed wackers, and leaf blowers?” As she drove away I wondered, “Maybe folks are still using gas mowers because they are better?” 

I did some research. It turns out today’s electric machines are more effective and more powerful than any gas version. And they are cheaper in the long run — especially with today’s gas and diesel prices. 

It is important to note that non-commercial grade electric mowers typically run for about an hour until the battery runs out. My father was smart and purchased an extra battery with his STIHL mower. This made it easy to mow both my house and my sister’s in one afternoon. I charged one battery as I mowed with the other and then swapped. No matter what equipment you buy, I would strongly recommend this approach.

I look to The New York Times’ Wirecutter’s picks for 2022 mowers as I think it is a reliable resource for product recommendations. It pointed to two electric mowers:

  • The EGO POWER+ Select Cut 56-volt Brushless 21-in Cordless Electric Lawn Mower 7.5 Ah (Battery & Charger Included). Two blades, high powered, and intuitive. These are about $700, but no gas needed ever
  • The EGO POWER+ 56-volt 21-in Cordless Electric Lawn Mower 7.5 Ah (Battery & Charger Included). These only have one blade, cannot handle big rough grass, but are more than enough for a lawn. About $500.

Another option is a robotic mower. These are electric mowers that operate much like robotic vacuum cleaners and can run for about 8 hours on a single charge. These are terrific for several reasons. First, they are super quiet. Second, they do not use gas. Nor do they need to be carted to and from your home on a weekly basis by a gas burning truck. They cut so consistently and regularly that the small clippings are left on the lawn, re-innoculating your yard with nutrients and serving as a natural fertilizer. And they are safe around pets and little people. While these cost significantly more — anywhere from $1400 to $4000 — they make great sense for some, but do take some technological know how to set up — a wire that delineates the lawn’s perimeter must be installed, and to maintain, blades need to be sharpened — they can occasionally get hung up on a piece of lawn furniture if it is in the way. 

If you are not an inclined DIYer, but robotic mowing sounds appealing, you can use a robotic mowing service. Here on the Island GoGreener.us works with landscapers and homeowners to set up and maintain robotic mowers. When I talked to Go Greener Founder Adam Sloan and his associate Mike Senyszyn, Adam shared that their pricing is “comparable to a traditional mowing service.” And said that the annual cost of charging a mower is “about $8 dollars a season.” So you are getting less noise, more consistent cutting, and significantly lowering your mowing carbon footprint. Mike and Adam also have turf management teams to come out and inspect the lawn once a week, looking for areas that might be overwatered, too dry or have weed or fungal problems and then communicate this to your landscaper. They also have a troubleshooting team that can deal with a mower that has shut down or is stuck. Pretty cool. 

“Given our climate change crisis, why would we be using anything but electric mowers, weed wackers, and leaf blowers?”

If you’re a pro

For the Vineyard’s professional lawn care maintenance companies, I say, commercial grade electric mowers are also well worth investing in. I asked a number of my Field Fund contacts, including the Natural Grass Advisory Group, which advises professional teams around the world on their natural grass maintenance, and they told me Mean Green Electric Mowers (meangreenproducts.com) are standouts. Certain models can run for up to eight hours. These commercial mowers are not cheap — $23,000 to $40,000 — but the company insists the annual and five-year savings are significant — in one case, saving between $62,000 and $78,000 over five years. I also like the Gravely Pro Turn EV, which costs about $28,000 and has a striping kit. 

Wack away emissions with an electric weed wacker

Popular Mechanics rates the Makita XRU15 String Trimmer with 4 Batteries as its number one weed wacker. These are not cheap: $399. So if you are looking for a cheaper, less flashy but super effective string trimmer, Popular Mechanics rates the WORX WG163.9 Cordless String Trimmer as its runner-up. This runs about $112. Both are widely available.

Then there are leaf blowers

Finally, the ultimate noise polluter and neighborhood polarizer: the leaf blower. Wirecutter likes the corded Toro PowerJet F700, describing it as an “air bazooka.” These cost about $70. Its top pick for a cordless leaf blower is the EGO POWER+ 56-volt 650-CFM 180-MPH Brushless Handheld Cordless Electric Leaf Blower 5 Ah (Battery & Charger Included). These cost about $279. Electric models don’t eliminate pollutants but they dramatically reduce them by putting responsibility for filtering them onto power plants. Of course, there are also rakes. 

Natural Neighbors

As with everything in Room For Change, less is more. After meeting with Biodiversity Works’ Angela Luckey, who is spearheading their Natural Neighbors program, we have decided to rewild some areas of our property and cut some grassy areas just once a year rather than twice. I have to say that I can already see more bees and birds flitting about, which is pretty cool. 

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Mollie Doyle
Mollie Doyle
Mollie Doyle is Bluedot Living’s contributing editor and Room for Change columnist. “My favorite form of travel is walking with friends. A few years ago, some friends and I walked across England. This year, hopefully, we'll be able to do the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.”

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