Heavy Equipment School: Riding Mowers 101

10-Mowing Tips for would-be groundskeepers is our topic this morning.

No, we didn’t really need 30-acres.  We could have gotten by with two acres per person, just fine.

But I had this wild dream years back when I was running a vocational school:  I wanted to open a “heavy equipment school” so that the masses of do-nothing rich intellectual output masses could go someplace and learn to do real productive work.

You know there was a tank school and a fighter combat school, right?  Honestly a D6 Cat, or bigger, is a rush, too… rock claw on a 9D?  On a steep slope?

I also wanted to open an explosives school, but 9/11 demonstrated that others had beaten me to market on that idea.  Did have a nice course on training clients in advance.  “Don’t say ‘Pull it!'”

# 1: Dirty Equipment Works Fine

Riding lawn mowers – like my 10-year old 48″ Husqvarna – don’t really qualify as “heavy equipment” out here.  Though, the neighbor’s 60-HP air-conditioned tractor with a massive stump-grinder on the back, sure does.

I have learned a lot about maintenance  from watching people around here:  Their tractors (riding and up) are usually just “hosed off” when work is done.  This contrasts with all those YouTube channels where people go off to minutia about the best wax to use on which equipment.

Clean doesn’t get work done any better, or any faster, than shiny-new, waxed and pampered outdoor power equipment.

Sure, you “have to maintenance” gear.  Oil gets changed, blades and belts.  But in terms of a good detailing?  That’s time wasted, as I see it. Our riding mower gets a hose-off about every third mowing.  If I remember. A quick “lick and a promise” of buffing at the start of mowing season” and that’s it.

This isn’t a Fire Department.  Where, after every run, my son’s going through the rig’s inventory, washing and drying hose.  Rechecking tools and kits…

Maintenance at this level of detail matters on a fire engine (or oil rig, or in light aircraft).,  Attacking a lawn?  To get with looks, get the job done.  Who has “buffer time” to piss away?

Happens to everyone:  If you haven’t had a piece of equipment fail in the most difficult spot possible, you simply haven’t been working very long.  Happens to everyone one.  Waxing your rider won’t change when it happens, or where.

# 2:  Basic Lawn Strategy

So I check the tires and oil here in a few minutes.  There are two basic strategies to the mowing that follows.

The first is “Counterclockwise Toward the Middle.”

Most of the MTD (and branded for everyone, seems) mowers have right-side discharges.

Very first “Law” of mowing handed down by Pappy before I was turned loose with a19″ walk-behind at age 12 (an old Toro) was “Never throw where you have to mow.”

His “Firehouse logic” held that if you threw freshly cut grass (to the right) and your next row of cutting would be to the right, then your mower would not only have to cut that row but also everything you’d blown over on your last pass.

The alternative – general strategy – is to mow counterclockwise (viewed from above) – but start this pattern on the inside.  As you work outward from the middle of your mowing field, the grass will only be cut once.

# 3:  Keep the Blade Cutting

Another one that should be obvious:  When you release the blade clutch and things spin up, mow for as long as you can without backing up or going over previously cut lawn.

Although we have a complicated lawn (beds around bases of trees, power poles, guy wire stand-off, un-bedded trees, and an complex foundation outline), I’ve come to judge my weekly efforts against a simple metric:  Cutting time to tractor time.

Usually, I begin with a “perimeter cut” around the foundation and complicated trees, then I decide  which direction.  Usually it’s counter-clockwise – outside to middle.

If everything goes perfectly, 2-1/2 acres of lawn can be flattened in about 90-minutes.  That compared with 100-120 minutes if I get “artsy.”

# 4:  Use the Fastest Tool

Sure, I could back-up and get the mower much closer to flower4 beds and the foundation than I do.  But what’s the point?

If I’ll still have to come back with the string trimmer later, get as close as you can, but without sacrificing the “keep the tool cutting” mindset.

# 5: Limb-Up Trees

Here’s another one of those “It’s so obvious” things.  

Fore the longest time, I cursed mowing around our magnolia tree.  Damn limbs were hanging down and even flattened out to the steering wheel, I was getting bugs on me.

“Why at I letting this slow me down?”

The lower limbs, up to about 5-1/2 feet went shortly thereafter, and I’ve never looked back.  If something is “screwing up the pattern” change it.  In this case, 5-minutes with a small electric chainsaw 5-years ago resulted in much-reduced hassles from that point on.

# 6:  Run Over or Clean Up?

It’s an eyeball judgement.   My usual rules are “Pine cones and 1/2″ twigs” are fair to run over.    One-inch if rotten-looking deadfall.

This decision is a personal one, though.  Some people will stop for even quarter-inch twigs.  After a season, we change blades in the spring – because this “run-over” policy is hard on blades.  On the other hand, convenience for the operator has to figure in.

Pedal to the metal, right?

# 7:  Wet or Dry Mowing?

I like to mow very early in the morning.  Reason?  There’s no dust kicked-up to speak of.  This means I can save the mask that would have been used mowing, for more important chores, like going into the liquor store.

Pappy was of a mind that wet grass, just like shaving cream, lubricated the cutting and gave a smooth job as a result.

The other school has one good argument:  If you mow dry, you won’t get the caked-on cuttings on the underside of the mower.

Another personal choice, but I can tell you that not once after trying things like scraping all the cuttings from under the mower, did I find it worked any better or faster.  I personally put under-deck cleaning in the “No return on time invested” pile.

Which is a damn useful way to judge things – just most people don’t.

Take every task you set upon, every day, and ask “What’s the fastest way to achieve my goals here?” You want a workmanlike job, sure.  But after that?  Zero ROI!

If the answer is that 15-minutes of tractor lifting and scraping has some pay-off you can find, good luck with that.  I have never seen a professional lawn crew go to any particular lengths to clean under the deck.

Still, there are people who wax their tractors monthly, too, I suppose.

# 8:  Use the Clock

I will be posting this just after 6 AM.  That leaves me half a cup of coffee while I top off the tires on the mower and “pre-flight it.”

At very close to 6:30 AM, things will fire up and 120-minutes later, not only will the yard have had its “haircut” – but so will I.  Again, if you’re into the habit of “personal time and motion” study, it’s useful to group tasks.

The haircut and the lawn are natural “mates.”  At the end of either, my first inclination is a hot shower and a sandwich with as beer.

Yeah, but at 11 AM?  Problematic, isn’t it?

I don’t think so.  And I’m the one scoring my life.  (My playbook says if you get up, work like hell for 4-5 hours (write column, mow, edge, haircut, clean-up) one beer with a “breakfast sandwich” is a good reward.

# 9:  Carry Basic Tools

Wear light gloves – no blisters from the steering wheel.  Keeps hands a bit cleaner.

Clippers for errant bushes that don’t understand what a crazy man on a rider looks like.

And the drink holder?  Don’t drink and mow.  Instead, that’s a great holder for a can of fire ant poison.

It may seem just a bit maniacal to approach the lawn this way.  But, if you can save 20-minutes a session and you mow 20-times a year- that’s 400-minutes or 6.66-hours a year of time saved.

If someone hands you a block of hours that big, they’re your friend.

# 10:  Mowing Time Productivity

Use the time on your mow to come up with more time-saving ideas.

Suggested uses?

  • New pattern of mowing that provide for more “tool on task” with less backing-up or running in reverse.
  • Work out the schedule of the rest of the day.
  • Dream about the sandwich and cold beer.  Mmm…hot shower…yeah!
  • Design a tool holder for the tools you wish you had at hand.

This last one is my “thinking time while mowing” project today.  I want to build a holder so the string trimmer can “ride along.”  Then, when I finish the mowing along the front fence, I can simply dismount and trim on the spot.

May seem like a worthless idea except:  1) It’s gong to be into the 80’s already when I get done with the mowing part.  Do you really like walking around on a hot summer morning lugging a trimmer and batteries?  There’s 3-5 minutes (or more) walking to and froe from the shop.  Again, 20-times 5 minutes a year is over an hour and a half.

But, remember the time to design and build the carrier has to be amortized, as well….

On your mark, get set…MOW!

8:04 AM Update:  Basic Mowing Complete.

8:36 AM Update:  4 battery changes later, the yard is edged. 200+ feet of fence, and so.  Now I’ll look over eBay and see what’s going on with ham gear. While I’m doing this, sweat will stop pouring off my head and I can administer one of my self-done haircuts.

Noticing how profuse Mr. Sweat was, Elaine put two beers in the freezer…

Write when you get the yard done,


40 thoughts on “Heavy Equipment School: Riding Mowers 101”

  1. George

    “Again, if you’re into the habit of “personal time and motion”

    I didn’t start out with what happened as a plan it just evolved that way.

    As I have stated before I hate cutting grass so to avoid it and a possible heat stroke I usually pay for that service. This year my neighbor Jaquien decided to test his new riding mower on about four of the neighborhood lawns including mine. He’s a retired guy with plenty of time on his hands. He actually enjoys playing with his new mower including the Ahooga horn he installed on it and does my lawn when it needs it. As a thank you I make sure that he gets a case of his favorite brewsky on a regular basis. Cutting grass is thirsty work and I don’t want him to think that I don’t appreciate what he does.

    Like I said it just evolved that way. Really!

  2. You sound like a candidate for a new old tractor, G_____. The real secret to using the old beasts is knowing someone who can restore them at a reasonable cost. Owners should be able to maintain and do basic repairs, but at some point, a professipnal mechanic is worth the money. Typically the dealers aren’t set up to work on the old dogs.

    • I can see George now, up atop an old Jacobsen and dragging one of those 168 inch reel mowers the country clubs use on their greens…

  3. I haven’t heard the saying “a lick and a promise” since I was a kid, and I’m only a couple of years younger than you. Is that a Northwest thing?

  4. A quick hosing off between jobs is a good maintenance point. Nothing more irritating than to find out the start of the next mowing session if something is amiss. At the end of the season, everything gets a good powerwash and lube points hit while looking for issues. The only good thing about digging out that caked on grass and crap on the underside of the mower deck is it eliminates a place for moisture to sit.

    Nothing beats a cold beer and good chow at the end of the job. Well, almost nothing.

      • The last big wiring job I undertook at the ranch house I left a door open in the room I was working so I could get some flow-thru ventilation going. I’d been puttering around for only a few minutes when I started to go through the other doorway to the rest of the house and something caught my eye. There was a snake somewhat larger than my arm in girth that had already made its way into the house and under the sofa that was next to the door. I decided to let it get all the way in to see if it had any “accessories” on its tail so I’d know whether or not to be concerned about it. Luckily it didn’t. Turned out to be about the biggest rat snake I’d seen on the ranch. At first glance rat snakes look as if they have a ratter’s pattern so I’ve learned not to be too trigger happy. I moved the sofa over and got a long splinter of wood and started to try and push it back to the door. Nothing really worked until I started bumping it on its nose whenever it tried to keep making its way farther in the house. It finally decided that wasn’t the place it needed to be so he/she made its way out the door again. Needless to say I won’t be leaving the door open any more. Windows only.

    • Happy Sunday George, a couple of thoughts on small engine garden equipment. Had a friend, nuclear machinist, absolute whiz on all small engines, pumps, etc…He rebuilt the carb on my mantis roto-tiller, totally gunked up due to the ethonal in the gas. Provided me a gallon can of 100 octane (non-ethanol) racing gas and oil mix. Runs like a champ, starts first pull. I believe that ethanol gas has a habit of eating rubber hoses on small engine equipment and gumming the carbs. I have gone to canned, premixed, high octane gase for Mantis and stihl weed trimmer. No more problems…Your results may vary.

      • Go to WalMart – then to the gas station out front.
        The blue handle pumps are {pure gas} and the Murphy chain is a national treasure for keeping the stuff around for small engines. No eat’nol in it

      • ” I believe that ethanol gas has a habit of eating rubber hoses on small engine equipment and gumming the carbs.”

        It does. It also eats the hoses on motor vehicles made before about 1990, and it doesn’t just gum the carb. If the float is not brass, it will eat that, too.

        Old car nuts know the one thing you can’t replace on an old car to make a 100-point restoration, is the hoses. If’fn you do, your show car becomes a trailer queen, because you’ll ruin the resto with OEM hoses (you also have to replace the valves, or at least the exhaust valves, run a top cylinder lube, or carry your own barrels of {leaded, alcohol-free} petrol, to get it across the judging stand…)

  5. George,

    Understand the clean does not necessarily make for better mowing. I have a 16 year old Toro commercial zero turn 62″ cut that works as good as the day I bought it. Take a leaf blower and blow off the clippings after use, and it gets a “bath” and sun dry once a year. Lubrication and sharp blades are the secret. Same mower now costs 2 and 1/2 as much as I paid in 2004. Quality of current mower in its’ class is not as good either. I am going to have to replace the drive tires, because I have noticed that over time they have lost grip, even though they show little to no wear. I attribute that to the rubber getting less pliable over the last 16 years. Minor fix.

    On the heavy equipment side, for good or bad; I am the proud owner of a bulldozer and excavator. Both are older, but usable for my on farm use. Do not do work for the public. One thing that I learned early on, the bigger “toys” carry with them bigger repairs costs. However, having them around is very handy. We had a storm in early spring that took down a 60 foot tall pine tree across the access drive to my farm. Checked with power company and verified that the disconnect on the line to my farm was open and line dead. Really was more of a courtesy call, because the tree wiped out the line completely. Fired up the excavator (50,000 pound class) walked to the tree, picked up the entire tree using the excavator thumb, and politely carried the whole thing 1/4 mile to a brush pile. Tree was at least 2 1/2 feet diameter at stump. Informed the power company that the tree was gone, and because of such got power restored much quicker than if they had had to send a crew to remove the tree. It also helps having worked in power distribution so I know what to look for concerning open disconnects to the grid. Never hurts to also have a wife that is an electrical engineer.

    All that said, big “toys” are nice, but the parts are expensive. Also, because these “toys” are not used daily; gremlins attack while they set idle. Good practice to crank a use for some reason at least once a month. Keeps an old man busy doing repairs.

    • “gremlins attack while they set idle.”

      The gremlins I’d be afraid of are the 4-legged kind, with buck teeth. I’ve never seen them lay into rubber or cloth-covered wire, but anything plastic, even before the builders went to soy-based insulation — yeah, I’ve seen some of that.

      I bought a mess of rolls (ends & pieces = cheap) of MIL-spec PTFE some years back. Trailers and toys get a new Teflon harness with as few connectors as possible (I learned “automotive wiring” on British sportscars, equipped with Lucas Electric’s “Lucar” connectors), when “gremlin cleanup” becomes necessary.

      My Jubilee will get one in the next week or two (it’s like, six wires, total) simply because the DPO twisted bare wires together when he wanted the lights to come on…

      • I refurbished wiring runs to the towers of my first radio station in Wisconsin. Above ground runs from the 1930’s had lead-jacket romex wiring supposedly impervious to pests. The rats chewed off the lead jacket to get to the fabric insulation on the wires in many places! Teeth scrape marks on many edges of the lead covering. It all got replaced with polyethylene insulated aluminum feedlines… heavy gauge outdoor drop wire.

    • I try to keep my equipment size down to something I can drag somewhat legally with a heavy trailer and a pickup. I don’t have a CDL, but could probably get by with the farm exemption. It’s just too expensive to move once you go over 10 tons in a machine. I’d love a big excavator, but can get by with smaller stuff. I would like something that could chip better through some of the local rock though.

      When something breaks on a heavy track machine, it’s hard work to replace it. Even on a relatively light machine(ASV), losing a main hose to a hydrostatic drive in the snow is just not fun. I’m not looking forward to changing the tracks either, though that’s definitely in the cards.

  6. under deck cleaning prevents rust. grass clippings keep moisture next to the metal. Unless you coat the underside with bedliner or similar. even that must be re-applied every 2-3 years.

  7. “The first is “Counterclockwise Toward the Middle.” ”
    “Never throw where you have to mow.”

    I tell people I’m of the George S. Patton school of lawn mowing. One of Patton’s quotes (although I’m paraphrasing) was:

    “I hate to pay twice for the same piece of real estate…”

    “Usually, I begin with a “perimeter cut” around the foundation and complicated trees…”

    I make a single clockwise pass down the fence rows, cut around the trees and fire pit (and a trailer or tool if one is present), then swap directions and go to town.

    “Run Over or Clean Up?”

    The Deeres laugh at stuff that’s smaller than a 2×2, even if it’s hardwood.

    “Wet or Dry Mowing?”

    Always dry (weather permitting, of course) unless you’ve got one o’ them fancy reel mowers. Rotary blades don’t cut wet grass, they bludgeon it. You can mow a spot, then look at the blades of grass, and you’ll see the tops are frayed. Dry grass cuts cleanly. A reel mower “scissors” it, and so is not moisture-relevant.

    “not once after trying things like scraping all the cuttings from under the mower, did I find it worked any better”

    It only does when you’re cutting deep, wet grass. I keep telling myself I’m going to build a power-washer jet specifically to clean deck undersides, so I can just park a mower on top of it and push the button, but ain’t gonna happen, because of that ROI thing. Absent a clog, the only reason to clean a deck during “mowing season” is to get rid of moist grass before it begins to rust out your deck from the bottom, up…

    • “The Deeres laugh at stuff that’s smaller than a 2×2, even if it’s hardwood.”

      Lol lol lol… not my deer.. I was thinking on putting an eye hitch on the back of it to use as an anchor.. biggest piece of shizt I ever wasted money on.. except for an old ford.. that to was another one..

      • The cheapest of my Deeres cost $5800 in 1986…

        With very few exceptions, ya gets what ya pays for.

  8. I feel so outclassed here. The only mower we could afford (And had to have it right now! –There is 4+ acres of nothing but grass and it was getting tall.) was the cub cadet. Worthless pos ever, but thankfully my husband knows how to tinker. If we could throw down a decent chunk and take on payments for something better, we would. It isn’t a good time to be taking on such debts, imo. So here I am, mowing the yard with the equivalent of a chevette or a pinto compared to you folks.

    • “The Deeres laugh at stuff that’s smaller than a 2×2, even if it’s hardwood.”

      Lol lol lol… not my deer.. I was thinking on putting an eye hitch on the back of it to use as an anchor.. biggest piece of shizt I ever wasted money on.. except for an old ford.. that to was another one..

    • Cub used to make some fine L&G tractors (as did Snapper and Simplicity.) They’re all MTDs now. I have a Deere 318 and a Deere 322 – gas and diesel versions of the same tractor. I bought the 318 new in 1986 (before we had kids — One of “Ray’s adages” is: “you can have money, or you can have children, but you can’t have both, at the same time.”) The diesel does the grass, the gasser runs a tiller and snowblower, but I have a spare deck I can cinch up if need-be. When you can spare a few bucks, you might consider buying an 80s vintage tractor, just as a spare. They can be had from garage sales, usually of the “good-running but looks like hell” variety, for less than $200. Your hubby will love it, fix it up, and it’ll have a much lower “poo quotient” than a new one…

  9. It’s cooler in the early am, but the sun is still intense here! I just finished four hours of screwing a metal roof, and it’s too toasty to continue. I can think of better things to screw, but that’s a different subject. Sometimes I actually wish of a layer of clouds, though I’d never imagined that I would before I moved here!

    Mowing with a loud, air cooled engine early on a Sunday? I can just imagine the irate neighbors! The only thing worse would be weed whacking or leaf blowing with a two cycle gas powered tool. You must have really tolerant neighbors. Sound travels far when there are no competing sounds.

      • I really like my 60″ Zturn John Deere mower that I have had for the past 13 years. Runs like a top….Takes 5 hours to mow our grass, because of the zillion trees that we have to mow around. We have about 800 hours on the mower. We try to clean it by blowing it off every time, and a really good powerwash every year. I’m getting our oldest grandson involved in the mowing, so it’s easier on me…

  10. Dont know if any of you are readers of What does it mean.com Dont know if its totally factual but sure makes for some interesting reading. Today had a picture of what hit the pentagon on 9-ll, and tied in some folks that could be responsible. Interesting

  11. I believe this will be the issue which topples the existing order in this country:


    By the October-November time frame, the evictions and foreclosures should be in full swing.

    I am starting to hear the stories of acquaintances who went from being fully employed mortgagees to partially employed and in danger of losing their home.

    If you can get to a cash operating basis, then now is the time to make your move. I expect that lending institutions with heavy mortgage exposure are going to be in deep trouble shortly. The courts in a place like Texas will not be in a position to show much sympathy for SOL debtors. I am wondering if I should start working on a tiny guest cottage. The Covid was just a warm-up for what is to come, as the debt-slave balloon explodes under the wannabe American middle class and their underwater McMansions. Debts are debts, not assets, and hand-outs are hand-outs, not entitlements. We relearn that hard truth every few generations.

  12. George Did you notice.. almost every business news outlet is predicting a collapse now..

  13. Dust off with a blower or compressed air. Damp clippings can exacerbate paint loss & rusting on top.
    Will only be a few years until it meets rust from below. Doubly so on heavily fertilized turf.
    Pro lawn guys never clean mowers period. Weed seeds get carried from lawn to lawn.
    Sucks for the guy who pays for a “groomed fairway” for a lawn…
    Sharpen blades when the edge gets rounded. Less stress on the expensive bits and faster cutting to use decent blades.
    Dry or wet cutting is a judgement call due to local conditions and grasses.

    • From Pappy’s “The Book of Ure” What kind of damn fool fertilizes a lawn so they can work more at something that doesn’t produce food?”

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