Pushing lawn mowers to a greener future

When lawns became a thing centuries ago, sheep and scythes kept the grass trimmed and tidy. Then the battle of the blades began in 1830 as British inventor Edwin Budding patented his cylinder mower, which used multiple blades to slice the grass scissor-like against a stationary sharp edge.

Today, high-tech robots can cut grass down to size under the watchful eye of smartphone users. Most people, though, still tame their jungles themselves, with a growing number turning to greener, gas-free methods.

“We’ve seen customer interest in cordless lawn mowers grow year over year,” says Home Depot Canada’s Milgo Noor, noting that new products and technology are constantly added to meet demands.

Inventor Budding’s cylinder push mower, built of wrought iron, was initially used on sports fields, cemeteries and expansive gardens. Make that expensive, because in the early days, lawns were a sign of wealth and status.

On this side of the pond, mechanical grass-cutting evolved more slowly, with the first US patent granted in 1868. One Victorian neighborhood in Toronto used its front yards to grow cabbages after Irish families fled famine-ravaged Ireland in the 1840s — hence the name “Cabbagetown.”

In the mid-19th century, horses wearing soft leather boots to protect the delicate greenery were used to pull mowers, according to Briggs & Stratton, creators of a lightweight aluminum engine in the 1950s.

Horsepower was followed by steam, then human-powered machines that were advertised as being easy enough for young women to use. Ads for one model in the 1870s and ’80s feature a young woman pushing “the most beautiful and perfect lawn mower in the world.”

By the late 1800s, power mowers had arrived but were melted down for their metal during the Second World War a half-century later.

British inventor Edwin Budding patented his cylinder mower in 1830. It used multiple blades to slice the grass scissor-like against a stationary sharp edge.

Post-war, the spawn of the suburban lawn spurred the development of all types of mowers, which now include gas-powered, corded (electric plug-in), cordless (battery), manual and riding models. Some are self-propelled while others require more muscle power. While cylinder mowers employ multiple blades, rotary mowers use one blade that rotates at high speed on a vertical axis, relying on impact to cut the grass.

Imagine the terror that caused the quarter-inch-tall Szalinski children in the 1989 movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” as a monster mower bore down on them in their own backyard. They were the unwitting victims of their dad’s (Rick Moranis) invention gone wrong.

Noisy, gas-powered machines don’t cut it for lawn owners concerned about the health of people and planet. A Swedish study found that using a gas mower for one hour leaves the same carbon footprint as a 160-km car trip.

“Electric lawn mowers run quietly, save fuel and maintenance costs, and with the latest innovation, now offer many of the same features as gas models,” says Noor, merchandising assistant for outdoor power at Home Depot Canada.

Robert Oliveri as Nick Szalinski who built 'Snapper' the robot mower that terrorized the miniaturized youngsters in the 1989 movie

Corded models with six- to 12-amp motors are good for smaller areas but a cordless battery model will provide more mobility on larger lawns, she says.

Many makes of electric mowers are now on the market, including RYOBI, Greenworks, EGO, Toro and Black+Decker. RYOBI alone makes multiple versions, from a lightweight 18V, 13-inch, walk-behind model to 48V riding mowers that run for up to two hours.

With a price tag of $898, RYOBI’s 40V HP cordless mower from its Whisper series is “really popular” with Home Depot customers, according to Noor. “These mowers are up to 85 per cent quieter than gas and give you all the power without the noise.”

Choosing a lawn mower — whether electric, gas or a manual reel push type — starts with personal preference. But generally, a manual reel or electric mower is suitable for less than a quarter-acre while gas or high-powered electric machines are required for larger lawns and uneven terrain, says Noor.

Unless, of course, sheep are your option.


Carola Vyhnak is a Cobourg-based writer covering personal finance, home and real-estate stories. She is a contributor for the Star. Reach out via email: [email protected]


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