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David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

April Showers bring May Lawnmowers

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

May 22, 2023

minute read

reel mower

(Credit: Pixabay)

The moisture and cool temperatures typically associated with April provide excellent growing conditions for cool season turfgrass species. When grass grows in suburbia, lawnmowers are soon to follow. As a result, lawn mowing activities tend to increase during the month of May. It is estimated that 54 million Americans mow their lawns each weekend and the average homeowner spends 70 hours caring for their lawn each year.

The word lawn comes from the Middle English word launde which meant a "glade or opening in the woods." Lawns were first established as grassy fields that surrounded castles in England and France. Their purpose was to allow guardians of the castles to get a clear view of approaching hostile individuals.

castle with lawn in front

The first lawns were open, grassy areas that surrounded castles. (Credit: Pixabay)

The earliest lawn mowers were livestock, particularly sheep, grazing around the house. However, in an effort to have cleaner lawns, scythes used for harvesting grain crops were also used to keep the grassy area surrounding the home manicured. Scythes were supplemented with the use of sickles for smaller areas and for trimming.

As society moved into the industrial age, people sought easier ways to tend their lawns. No one knows who invented the first lawnmower, but the first patent for one was issued to Edwin Budding of Stroud, England in 1830. He patented a heavy, gear-driven machine which combined a roller with a blade. Budding's invention was patterned after a device used in textile factories for shearing nap from cloth. He manufactured his first lawnmower in 1832 and sold well over a thousand in the next 30 years.

black and white image of man standing behind an early lawnmower

Early lawnmowers were large and cumbersome. Pictured is a gas-powered, water-cooled lawnmower used at the Missouri Botanical Gardens circa 1918. (Credit: Missouri Botanical Gardens)

It was another half century before the rotary lawnmower entered the market and rapidly became very popular among homeowners. Rotary mowers cut by the impact of a fast-moving blade instead of the scissors-like cutting action of real-against-blade mowers. Today, most homeowners use a rotary mower unless they have a special type of turfgrass in their lawns.

Rotary mowers are better suited to maintaining turfgrass at a taller height, oppose to close clipping. Taller mowing is considered at least one inch in height or more. The result is a neat-looking lawn that promotes healthier grass.

red lawnmower

Most power lawnmowers today are rotary in action and cut grass by whipping it off. (Credit: Pixabay)

Many homeowners think that grass benefits from mowing. Such is not the case. The only reason for mowing turfgrass is to improve its appearance in the landscape. Reducing leaf area through mowing reduces the ability of turfgrass to photosynthesize and manufacture food. The depth and strength of the root system of turfgrass is almost directly proportional to the amount of its top growth. The common practice of mowing a lawn short under the assumption it will require less frequent cutting is responsible for much lawn deterioration. Continued excessively close mowing of lawns leads to thin grass stands, weeds, and lack of resistance to drought in area where lawns cannot be watered.

Additionally, a lawn mower's blade must be sharp so that the grass will be cut neatly. Dull mower blades bruise the tips of the grass. After a do or two, the damaged tips turn brown, giving the lawn a poor appearance.

house with yellowing lawn

It is important to keep lawnmower blades sharpened. Dull blade tends to tear and fray the grass resulting in a lawn that develops a light brown hue in several days. (Credit: Pixabay)

Newly established lawns should be mowed before the blades of grass topple over from their own weight. Normally, this is before the grass gets more than about two to two and one-half inches in length. When mowing a new lawn for the first time, make certain the soil is dry enough to support both the lawnmower and its operator without leaving any depressions in the soil.

The ideal mowing height for cool season turfgrasses in Missouri varies with season and species (Table 1). Suffice to say, a taller height is recommended for summer months because of the heat stress cool season grasses experience in Missouri. As a general rule, it is best never to remove more than one-third of the green leaf area with a single mowing. If a mowing is missed, cut only half the way back to the intended height, and then a couple of days later cut to the regular height.

lawnmower wheel on grass

As a general rule, it is best not to remove more than one-third of the height of turfgrass in one mowing. (Credit: Pixabay)

Table 1 Recommended seasonal mowing heights for cool-season grasses in Missouri.

Turfgrass Spring Summer Fall
Turf type (tall) fescue 2 to 3.5 in. 3 to 4 in. 2.5 to 3.5 in.
Kentucky bluegrass 1.5 to 2.5 2 to 3.5 1.5 to 2.5
Perennial ryegrass 1.5 to 2.5 2.5 to 3.5 1.5 to 2
Creeping red & chewings fescue 1 to 2 2 to 3 1 to 2

Clippings need not always be removed when mowing. When they are short enough to filter down to the soil surface, they decay and recycle nutrients back to the soil. Clippings should be removed if they remain on the surface of the lawn to the point they shade or smother grass underneath them, or when excessive thatch is already causing a problem. Not only do long clippings look bad, in shady areas they easily become moldy and promote disease development in turfgrass.

For years it has been recognized that mowing one's lawn can be highly therapeutic. Most have associated this with being out in nature and the satisfaction gained from successfully completing a task. Recently, however, Australian scientists discovered that freshly mown grass releases a chemical that makes humans feel less stressed and might prevent the mental decline associated with aging. In response to this finding, a perfume/air freshener was developed that smells like freshly mown grass. Sold under the brand name of Serenascent®, promotional materials describe it as "a mixture of plant derived aromas that promote a calming, relaxing and serene atmosphere."

Lawn Mower Fun Facts

  • In the early years of equine-drawn lawnmowers, horses were outfitted with soft leather boots to protect delicate grasses from damage.
  • In 1893, Elias Sumner of Lancashire, England received a patent for the first steam powered lawnmower.
  • The first ride-on lawnmower was marketed in 1902. It was eight feet long and weighed 1.25 tons.
  • Approximately five million gas powered lawnmowers are sold in the U.S every year.
  • It is estimated that Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline each year trimming and maintaining their lawns.
  • Rechargeable, battery powered electric lawn mowers now account for 15 percent of all push mower sales.
  • Lawnmower racing is a motorsport in which participants race "souped-up" lawnmowers in a variety of ways.
  • The Guiness world record for fastest speed on a lawnmower is 143.2 m.p.h. It was set on August 22, 2021 at Elvington Airfield in York, U.K.

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REVISED: May 22, 2023