Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on April 22, 2004. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Cautious mowing makes the chore less dangerous
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Many people view mowing the grass as an unpleasant chore for the kids, but experts caution there are significant safety and maintenance issues involved.
Herb Willcutt, agricultural engineer and safety specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the biggest danger in any type of mowing situation is thrown objects. These can harm people, structures and automobiles.
"Check the yard before you start mowing to clear all the debris, then keep the discharge pointed away from people, structures and automobiles," Willcutt said. "Keep children and pets indoors or safely away from where the mower is being used."
Large rotary cutters such as are used on farms and along roadsides can throw an object the length of a football field hard enough to kill a person.
"No one needs to be anywhere close to the operator while a rotary cutter is being used," Willcutt said.
Coming in second after the danger of thrown objects is the operator wearing inappropriate clothing. Willcutt said time spent mowing the yard is not time to work on a tan.
"Most people know not to mow barefooted, but make sure the shoes you are wearing won't slip on wet grass. Wear long pants to provide some protection against thrown objects, and use proper sun protection, including long sleeves, hats and sunglasses," Willcutt said.
While eye protection provides extra safety when mowing, it is essential when operating a string trimmer.
Maintain equipment for safe operation, and be sure blades are kept sharp. Sharp blades offer sharp cuts, which is better for the turf and requires less power. Check the safety and maintenance of the mower before each use.
"Two things that cause a lot of fingers to be missing is when operators reach down and try to adjust the wheel height with the blade running or try to get a clump of grass out of the mower discharge," Willcutt said.
Hills are an obvious danger when mowing. Willcutt said push mowers should be operated horizontally with the slope. When it's too steep for this, use a string trimmer. Do not operate riding mowers and rotary cutters on a hill sloped more than 20 or 30 degrees.
"When mowing on a slope, put the tractor in a much slower gear and ease along," Willcutt said. "If you ever feel the upper side spin or feel light, or you feel uncomfortable, turn the tractor down and get off the slope. In steep situations, it is best to ride the mower down the slope and up in a less steep area."
While knowing how to mow safely is important for the operator, knowing when to mow is equally important for the turf. Wayne Wells, Extension turf grass specialist, said the height at which turf should be cut depends on its species. Recommended mowing height can vary from as little as one-half an inch to as much as 4 inches.
"Along with the optimal mowing height, follow the one-third rule," Wells said. "Never take off more than one-third of the grass length at any one time."
A sharp blade gives a cleaner cut and does less damage to the ends of the grass. Avoid mowing wet grass as moisture can aid the spread of disease. Especially with a riding mower, do not consistently mow in the same direction over the same paths.
"Moving a heavy riding lawn mower over the same tracks repeatedly can lead to excessive turf wear and compaction problems with the soil," Wells said. "Ideal soil is 50 percent solids, 25 percent moisture and 25 percent air."
Two other common lawn problems are fertilizer application timing and improper watering.
"Applying large amounts of water-soluble nitrogen fertilizers just as warm-season turf species begin their spring green-up causes an excessive flush of foliar growth at the expense of carbohydrate reserves and root growth, and promotes the spread of turf pathogens," Wells said. "It is best to wait a few weeks until the turf has greened, you have mowed a couple of times, the danger of a late freeze has passed and the turf can utilize the fertilizer much more efficiently."
Avoid watering in the evening, as this leaves the turf wet for up to 16 hours or more, leading to disease problems. Frequent, shallow waterings can encourage shallow roots, which do not fare well under stress. A less frequent but thorough watering regime that wets the soil to a depth of 3 or more inches will promote a much deeper rooted, healthier lawn.