Manufacturers have given reel mowers a facelift.
Today they represent an eco-friendly way to keep your lawn trimmed short and neat.
Yet what happens if your lawn is accidentally allowed to grow too long? Can a reel mower handle cutting tall grass?
The short answer is, yes a reel mower can handle long grass. We just need to take a closer look at how a reel mower looks, to better understand the changes you need to make in your mowing technique.
Table of Contents
How Does A Reel Mower Work?
With gas and electric lawnmowers, you have a rotary blade with a relatively sharp edge. It spins at an astonishingly fast rate of speed.
When the blade edge contacts the grass it essentially severs it leaving a medium to a long piece of thatch behind.
With a reel mower the blades spin a vertical plane, they contact a cutting plate where they meet the grass.
This essentially “Snips” the grass off just like scissors. Most reel mowers have adjustable wheels, which allows you to control the cutting height.
Is a Reel Lawnmower Better For My Lawn?
With a reel lawnmower, the blades are spinning from above. This tends to cut the grass at a more natural angle, as it essentially pulls the blades in and cuts them like scissors.
A convention gas-powered or electric rotary lawnmower has blades that attack the grass from the side.
Even when a rotary mower’s blades are more perfectly sharp, they still tend to more damage to individual blades of grass.
When a rotary mower’s blades start to dull the damage to the grass can be pronounced.
Not only can this leave your lawn looking shaggy and unkempt it can also lead to future problems. Damaged grass blades tend to be more prone to common lawn diseases as well as pests.
Inconsistently cut grass is also increasingly prone to problems with excess thatch suffocating the turf, making it harder for water, air, and key nutrients to feed the roots.
How Often Do You Need To Mow The Lawn With A Reel Mower?
A reel mower isn’t really designed to tackle an overgrown lawn. Long blades of grass can be matted down or even potentially tangle in the cylindrical blades.
Even the best reel mower will struggle to handle grass that is longer than say 4-inches.
For most lawns, this means cutting the grass with a reel mower at least once a week. During the peak of the growing season, you might have to mow more frequently, like once every five days.
Then as the sun starts to wane in early fall, you might be able to get away with dialing it back to once every ten days. If you keep an eye on your lawn, it will tell you when it needs to be cut.
How Can I Cut Tall Grass With a Reel Mower?
Six inches is about the maximum height a reel mower can handle. If your grass has grown taller than 6 inches, a string trimmer or a riding lawnmower might be needed to trim it down to a more manageable height.
Timing is also important. Like gas-powered and electric lawnmowers, a reel mower works best in dry conditions.
Waiting until the late afternoon to cut will give the blades their best chance of making a clean and efficient cut.
Step One: Make Sure The Blades Are Sharp
If you’ve been a little lax with your reel mower maintenance, this is a good time to address it.
Making sure the blades are sharp, and properly adjusted will ensure they are cutting with maximum efficiency. Here I write about a step by step guide about how you can Sharpen Reel Mower Blades
This is also a good time to spray a little penetrating lubricant on all moving parts.
Step Two: Raise The Blade Height
Setting the mower to the highest blade height will help hedge your bets. Most mowers will go up to three inches, and some manufacturers even have units that will go as high as four inches.
Step Three: Double Check The Lawn For Debris
Reel mowers and stray sticks do not like each other. Twigs, fallen leaves, and other lawn debris also have a knack for hiding in tall grass.
Make sure to go a little walkthrough to clear away any debris before you start mowing. This will spare you unexpected headaches along the way.
Step Four: Increase Your Overlap
If the blades of grass are over four inches tall, you will need to increase the size of your overlap. This means walking a full pass down your lawn.
When you get to the end, turn around and make sure that your second pass is overlapping the first by at least four to six inches.
You may have to have even more overlap if you notice blades of grass from the first pass that have essentially been knocked down instead of cut.
In the case of a severely overgrown lawn, you might have to repeat the same path twice. This will ensure that you have made contact with each blade of grass and cut it to the desired height.
Can I Cut My Grass In A Checkerboard Pattern?
Checkerboard patterns and lawns that are cut at intersecting 45-degree angles can be very visually attractive.
This is also another type of mowing pattern strategy that you can use to tackle long or otherwise overgrown grass.
With a reel mower, you tend to get the best results by completing one pass in each direction.
Then when you are done, you walk along at a perpendicular angle. Not only will this catch any long blades that may have been left behind by the first pass, but it will also leave you with that visually appealing crosshatch pattern in your lawn.
What Happens To The Grass Clippings Produced By A Reel Mower?
Grass clippings, which are also known as “Thatch” can be a little bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to a reel mower.
If conditions are normal, or perhaps even a little wet, grass clippings can quickly decompose within a few days to a week after cutting. This is more likely to occur with short clippings.
When this happens it can actually feed nitrogen and other basic nutrients back into the turf. The net result is a lawn that says verdantly green, while also helping to prevent weeds from establishing a presence in your lawn.
Yet long grass clippings tend to take much longer to break down. If the summer has been particularly dry, grass clippings of any size can stop decomposing.
When this happens, the thatch layer starts to buildup in the upper layers of the turf. Left unchecked, it can choke off otherwise healthy blades of grass causing dead spots and making it increasingly hard for your irrigation system to thoroughly soak the roots.
Some reel mower manufacturers produce units that have a removable collection bin positioned right behind the cutting cylinder. I would personally recommend these over units that don’t have an optional bin.
Yes, you will need to empty it from time to time in a single mower session, but it will spare you having to deal with thatch complications and excess costs of seasonal aeration.
If the grass is excessively long, or the recent weather is very dry, you can attach it to collect most of the clippings.
If you have been keeping the grass short, with frequent mowing sessions, and the local weather has been normal to wet, you can leave the collection bin off, to let the clippings refeed the turf.
It’s true that a reel mower and its blades do need a little bit of extra care and maintenance.
Yet if you compare these efforts and costs to things like fuel costs, oil changes, and all the other things that go into maintaining a gas-powered lawnmower, I think you’ll find that a reel mower will pay for itself in spades.
Spending a little extra money on a proper mill file and giving the moving parts an occasional spray with some penetrating lubricant will further help extend the value of a reel mower.
It will also help keep the blades moving easily to reduce your overall efforts in each mowing session. This is the best way to make sure you see the full return on your investment.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that reel mowers and rainwater do not get along.
If you have a roof leak in your garage or garden shed, or your property is at risk for flooding, make sure the reel mower is up and out of the way in a dry place.
From his childhood obsession with gardening to the decade he spent operating a hobby farm, Eric has developed over four decades of experience in self-sufficiency. Not only does this include the organic elements of growing and tending plants, but it also includes a wealth of experience in lawn care, landscaping, and gardening equipment.