To Mulch, or not to Mulch?

When I first started as a gardener, seven years ago, I went to a machinery shop for advice on what equipment to buy. A lawnmower is not a lawnmower. There are all sorts of variations, in size, weight and function (and even power source). A rear roller is best, as it can help to level out the lawn. It can also help prevent the mower slipping over the edge and scalping the grass. But it’s not so good if you’re likely to be cutting grass in less than ideal conditions – when it’s wet, or when the grass is long, for instance. Even more so with cylinder mowers, which can make a great job of a lawn that’s level, dry and not too long, but which need to be kept sharp, and are useless in the wet.

Say hello to Mr Sneezy

So I went for the most versatile, utilitarian option – a four-wheeled rotary mower. Self-propelled mowers make the work easier, but are heavier and less manoeuvrable, and as I was going to be cutting some small, and difficult to access lawns, I went for one that you push. It’s given me good service over the years, but hasn’t always been totally reliable. There again, when you’re using it every day, machinery can need regular attention. Spark plugs and air filters need to be cleaned now and then. And I’ve too often been asked to cut lawns that have been allowed to grow far too long (which I usually do whilst singing improvised, and often unrepeatable lyrics to ‘One man went to mow’ (or should that be ‘One non-gender specific operative went to mow’?).

When it came to the question of mulching, the man in the machinery shop was emphatically against. Some mowers are designed to chop up the clippings more finely and drop them back onto the lawn. He said that they clog up the lawn, leading to a build up of dead material that stifles the grass. I accepted his advice at the time, but now I’m not so sure. Grass uses the nutrients in the soil, together with light and water, to produce it’s leaves. We come along and cut off those leaves, and take them away, so that the grass has to start again. It doesn’t take long for the nutrients in the soil to be used up, at which point the grass starts to struggle, and the weeds, which can cope better with a low-nutrient soil, start to take over. The traditional way to overcome this is of course to apply artificial fertiliser (usually mixed with a herbicide to kill the broad-leaved weeds). The grass responds by producing lots of lush new growth, which we mow off, and the process starts all over again.

The logic behind mulching mowers is that you’re putting the organic material you remove from the grass straight back into the lawn, where it quickly rots down to give the grass back the nutrients it needs to continue growing. I like this idea. It’s much more sustainable. It saves dousing the soil with chemicals. There are disadvantages. Mulching mowers tend to be more expensive. And they don’t work so well if the grass isn’t mown regularly, because you’re depositing too much material back on the lawn. Nowadays you can get mowers that can be switched between mulching and collecting modes, and I think this is ideal – when conditions allow, you can mulch, but if the grass is too long, you can collect it.

If and when I have to replace my mower, I think I’ll get one that can mulch. I’ll also try to get one that isn’t so temperamental. I have a love and hate relationship with my mower. I don’t like to complain, because it has generally been quite good to me, but I do have a few niggles. It’s a bit noisy. It clatters somewhat. The engine is American, by Briggs and Stratton. They are, apparently, highly regarded, but I find it noisy – it pulses and splutters. I refer to my mower as Mr Sneezy (yes, I know – anthropomorphising your lawn mower is rather sad!) It makes me think of Harley Davidson motorcycles, which may be very desirable to people who like motorcycles, but which to the rest of us are just unnecessary noise pollution (they can be heard from miles away, and I don’t know how they get through the noise regulations).

There’s another problem with my mower. It tends to cut out in the wet. It tends to cut out if you push it’s nose into plant growth overhanging the lawn, even when it’s not wet. It took me until the middle of last season to realise why. It’s because the spark plug is exposed. I’ve noticed that most mowers have a cowling over the spark plug. Mine doesn’t. Someone more into mechanics might be able to fashion a home-made cowling out of bits of metal, but that’s not really my bag. That part of the machine gets very hot, and I can imagine anything I did make causing a fire, so I think I’ll leave it alone! If I can get the engine warmed up in the dry it usually holds out, unless the rain is particularly heavy. In any case, cutting wet grass isn’t ideal, so perhaps I should stick to being a fair weather gardener.

The spark plug. Don’t ask me to explain the physics, but when water gets on the plug and the cable, it tends to make the engine cut out. 

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