Somewhere there is a lawnmower just for you

Hover, rotary, electric or self-propelled? Tom Barber advises
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The Independent Online
The British are inordinately fond of grass. It is one thing that really appreciates the mild, wet climate and I suspect the sober uniformity of lawns appeals to our national obsession for orderliness.

Left to its own devices a lawn will be woodland within half a generation. You cannot escape the fact that if you want to keep one you're going to have to cut it. Beyond this generality a lawn can be anything from a tiny, weed infested scrap to acres of immaculate green velvet. This variance is rich pasture for amateur psychologists, as a lawn's appearance is often a reliable indicator the owner's philosophy: obsessive perfectionism or frank apathy.

We cannot discuss grass cutting any longer without the mention of lawmnowers. There are alternatives, of course. You could, masochism permitting, sally forth with a scythe, a pair of shears or even the kitchen scissors. Perhaps you have a flock of sheep or geese to hand. I've even seen a domestic garden swathed in Astro turf - extraordinarily hideous but the owner was proud to bursting and always nipping out with the Hoover to give it the once over. But for most of us it's going to be a mower. The range of models available is colossal. I could not summon enough energy to count them all but 600 would be a conservative estimate. From the simplest of push mowers to elaborate ride-ons. How on earth does one choose?

Your goal should be to end up with a mower that will do the job adequately, reasonably quickly, and with a minimum of fuss and cost. I'm sorry - a big shiny expensive machine may look impressive but if it's too large to fit through the gate or you can't even get it started, then it's going to be of fairly minimal benefit to your lawn.

What a killjoy. Still, let's think what needs to be considered. First, size. Pedestrian mowers come in cutting widths between 250mm-550mm. Anything wider than that and you will be looking at ride-ons. Obviously, a wider mower will cut the same area of grass quicker than a narrower one. But increasing size brings its own problems: reduced manoeuvrability, problematic storage, greater weight and, of course, higher cost. And if your garden is a maze of wiggly, foot-wide grass paths, then you're going to look pretty silly wielding a 19-incher. As a rough guide, mowers should be 10-12 inches wide for lawns up to l00 metres square, 12-16 inches for 100-300 metres square, and 16-22 inches for anything over 300 metres square.

Second, decide what sort of lawn you want. Cylinder mowers cut with a precise scissor action, and can shave grass very closely and neatly. This makes them perfect for fine ornamental turf which needs frequent close cutting down to 12mm or less. You will not see the square at Lord's being cut with a rotary. All cylinder mowers have rear rollers which produce the striped finish so treasured by lawn aficionados.

For more utilitarian grass which might find itself doubling up as a football pitch, such a scalping is simply not required and a rotary or hover mower is usually a better bet.

Rotary mowers have improved greatly since my childhood, when I pushed a snorting horror around our small horse-less paddock. The best models can now achieve nearly as good a finish as cylinders and are considerably more versatile. They cope much more effectively with long grass and so are especially useful where there is both short lawn and rough grass to attend to. Four-wheeled rotaries give the widest range of cutting heights, while a rear roller in place of the back wheels produces the same smartly striped finish as a cylinder.

Hover mowers floating on their cushion of air, can be pulled and pushed in all directions. This makes them a wise choice if the lawn is awkwardly shaped or full of obstacles that have to be negotiated, like trees and overhanging branches. Though light to carry, the lack of wheels can make them awkward to lug about when not on. Contrary to popular belief, hovers are not good on long grass, tending just to flatten it down, nor on banks, where a four- wheeled rotary is much safer.

Third, power supply. The simplest, "greenest" choice is the push mower which depends entirely on your own sweaty exertions. Humble, no doubt, but something to consider seriously for small areas of shortish grass.

Electric mowers are far and away the most popular choice for small- to medium-sized gardens. Cheaper, smaller, quieter, lighter and easier to look after than equivalent petrol models. Their great disadvantage is absolute dependency on an accessible power supply. With anything much more than 30 metres of cable you begin to run into problems of power loss, not to mention the considerable irritation of dragging an electric cord along in your wake. Danger lurks, too, if you should inadvertently mow through the cable. Always, but always, ensure the electricity supply to the mower is protected by an RCD (Residual Current Device).

Some of these drawbacks are solved by battery mowers. But some advantages are also lost - they are heavier, far more expensive and none will run much over an hour without recharging.

Petrol power comes into its own on larger lawns and wherever the national grid has failed to penetrate. Their engines pack much more of a punch and are better able to sort out really long, thick grass. Servicing is important to keep everything in good running order.

Self-propelled models are available for some electric and many petrol mowers. This hikes up the cost considerably but can make life a lot easier when using mowers with a cutting width of 16in or more.

Safety is worth bearing in mind - it's your limbs after all. I would be cautious about buying second-hand machines as they are likely to have fewer safety features than more modern models. For example, it is only in the last year that all petrol mowers have had to be fitted with an "operational presence device" to prevent the blades turning when your hands are no longer on the controls.

Apart from these fundamentals there are many secondary features that may influence your final choice. Is the mower comfortable to push and simple to operate? How noisy? Is the cutting height quickly altered? Can the handles be adjusted or folded for storage? Is it easy to start? How roomy is the grass box? And so on. You may even be influenced by colours and contours, and why not?

Anna Pavord is on holiday

Tom Barber begins a monthly column on garden toools in March