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Gardening: Lawn mowers for the non-mechanical: Essentials of lawn mower maintenance and use

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lawn

There are four steps that homeowners need to follow to keep law mowers in good working order. File/Staff

Within a month, homeowners in South Carolina will be mowing their lawns again. The push lawn mower is probably the most common mechanical piece of equipment most homeowners operate.

Basic lawnmower care, however, can be summarized in four short steps:

  1. Empty the gas tank yearly.
  2. Change the oil yearly.
  3. Change the blade at least every three years
  4. Check the air filter twice a year.

Of course, specific instructions for a particular make or model of lawn mower take precedence over the general steps in this article. (This article does not cover riding mowers or electric mowers.)

mower

A lawn mower needs to have some basic maintenance to keep it in top running form after a winter spent in storage. File/Ace Hardware via AP

Gasoline

After the lawn is mowed for the last time in the fall, the gas tank should be empty. If gas is left after the mowing is finished, keep the lawn mower running on a level driveway until the gas is used up. Stale gas left in the tank over winter can damage lawn mower engines if the old gas is used the following spring.

Oil changes

Changing the oil in a lawn mower is the most important maintenance task to keep the lawn mower running smoothly for many years. Any task with oil can be messy, so it’s handy to have a sheet of plastic to cover the driveway and a few rags.

A small bucket or other container with a wide opening is useful to catch the used oil draining out of the spout when the lawn mower is tipped on its side. The used oil can be poured into empty oil bottles and taken to Charleston County Recycling Convenience Centers and Dropsites (bit.ly/2wa1WQ8).

The maintenance manual for the lawn mower engine should give the amount of oil that the oil reservoir holds. To prevent overflows, measure the new oil before adding it.

Change blade

Changing the blade on a lawn mower is not difficult if one has the proper tool: a brace that holds the blade still while the nut that holds the blade in place is loosened. These braces are commonly called “lawn mower blade removal tools.”

One end of the brace attaches with a long screw to the edge of the deck, the wide metal part of the lawn mower body that covers the blade. The other end of the brace grabs the lawn mower blade.

Clean air filter

If the air filter needs cleaning, the engine will sound rough, like it’s choking or not getting enough air. Depending on the lawn mower model, a dirty air filter will need to be replaced, vacuumed clean or washed.

Early spring mowings can be very dusty with lots of dead grass fragments and pollen, so it’s a good idea to check the air filter afterwards.

Mowing direction

A good rule of thumb is to never mow the lawn in the same direction, that is, push the mower in the same pattern week after week. I rotate among four patterns: horizonal, vertical and two opposite diagonals. (I admit that in the middle of the summer, I use the horizontal pattern about every other mowing, since that pattern has the fewest turns in my rectangular front yard.)

The problem with a mindlessly repeated pattern is the mower tires compact the soil as they follow the same track over and over, especially if the grass is mowed when the soil is wet. Compacted soil leads to poor root growth, a major threat to healthy, vigorous turf.

Mulching mowers

Mulching mowers cut grass clippings into fine pieces that quickly decay when they are deposited back onto the lawn. These mowers have slightly curved blades that recirculate the grass clippings instead of immediately discharging them onto the lawn or into a bag.

Although yard waste in Charleston County is composted, the trucks that collect bags of grass clippings require energy. A mulching mower is the easiest and most environmentally friendly way to manage grass clippings, other than adding them to a home compost pile.

A small investment of time spent maintaining a lawn mower will extend the life of the mower.

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at tknth@clemson.edu.

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