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Riding Mowers and Tractors

When I was a kid, lawn mowing was never my favorite activity. Pushing a loud, heavy, fume-spewing machine around the yard in the blazing sun could hardly be anyone's definition of a good time. . . .

When I was a kid, lawn mowing was never my favorite activity. Pushing a loud, heavy, fume-spewing machine around the yard in the blazing sun could hardly be anyone's definition of a good time. My lack of mowing interest is, in fact, the reason that my husband and I bought a small flock of sheep 15 years ago. Our sheep loved mowing the lawn—they grazed with precision, attention to detail, and a taste for Kentucky bluegrass. But soon the flower borders beckoned, and their preference for hostas and apple trees became apparent. They were like ill-mannered guests at a buffet table, greedily munching, chomping, and stomping. Their unruly behavior made them instant exiles to the farmyard.

So we mowed. Our yard is formidable (three acres). And like most Americans with a large lot, we looked to the gas-powered mower for our yard-care needs. We treated ourselves to a self-propelled model. Mowing with this machine was like walking a big, eager dog (except that I never zigzagged my Lab across the lawn for hours on end. Nor did he ever shave a square swath through our privet hedge before I could let go, but that's another story). All in all, I've had a nice relationship with my selfpropelled mower and it's served me well. It's endured for many summers and we still use it for trimming.

But when we bought our riding lawn mower, I experienced true love. Here was a sporty little vehicle you could ride around the yard and groom the grass. A riding lawn mower was a toy disguised as a tool. This fact became really obvious when my two teenage sons started fighting over who would get to mow the lawn. I momentarily considered buying a second riding mower just to see them both engaged in an outdoor activity.

I see their point. Riding the mower on a clear summer day is just plain fun. Mowers go fairly fast (most clip along at speeds up to 14 mph) and mow in a variety of widths—the wider the deck, the less time you need to spend mowing (decks range in size from 32 inches to 62 inches). All in all, our riding mower has made weekly lawn care into an enjoyable event. Plus, mowing is one of those few instant-gratification yard projects. A neatly clipped lawn greatly improves the look of any yard. And the satisfaction is philosophical as well—mowing allows you to impose a little order over chaos, even if it's only within the confines of your property lines. Order is order in my book.

Mars and Venus mow the lawn…

At first, the whole concept of a riding lawn mower was intimidating. Here you are, seated atop a giant grass-eating Cuisinart. The whirring blades revolve 200 miles per hour beneath you—one reason why safety is key when operating riding lawn mowers. Some brands offer systems that disengage the blade whenever the rider places the mower in reverse. (Mower manufacturers also stress that there are no circumstances in which children should be allowed to ride on mowers, operate mowers, or be in the general area while an adult is mowing.)

In terms of ease, my riding mower is as easy to drive as my car. It has everything my car has except turn signals, air conditioning, and a good CD player. But for the perks-in-clined, there are some lavish add-ons: models that feature sun canopies, headlights, and for the endurance lawn jockey, models equipped with cup holders.

I came to discover that a riding lawn mower is more than just a way to keep the grass short. For dedicated gardeners, there's a lot of back-saving work that a mower can perform. They come with many attachments, such as a pull-behind cart that allows you to haul firewood, move bags of soil from car to potting shed, and deliver yard waste from the garden to the compost area. Most garden tractors come with attachable tillers, so you can cultivate your garden in both the spring and fall. For those who lust after the perfect lawn, there's even more gear: grass baggers, aerators, dethatchers, rollers, spreaders, sprayers, mulching attachments, and various-size mowing decks. It's a grounds crew on wheels.

The great thing about lawn and garden tractors is that they are incredibly user friendly—even for a non-gearhead like me. Look for easy mower-deck height adjusters (it's a good idea to cut your grass at a higher height during hot or dry weather). I like models with tilt steering; comfy seats are a nice plus, too.

I will never be one to flip open the hood and look admiringly at the engine of a mower. Although I'm more interested in the end result of a finely trimmed yard than I am in the inner workings of an engine, I do at least understand that I need to maintain my mower like I do my car. Oil changes, blade sharpening, leveling—that sort of thing. I'll leave all the care and feeding details to our local mower dealer, who does admire the engine and performs whatever upkeep my mower needs to keep it humming and mowing from early spring till the snow flies.

Come to think of it, I don't have to retire my mower for winter. A snow-throwing attachment or front-end blade converts it from mechanical sheep to snow-clearing polar bear. I'd better call dibs on shoveling chores before my sons figure out how much fun snow removal can be.