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Reel Mowers Return To American Landscape

Harder to push, but quieter, safer, and less polluting, aficionados say

THE sound is as sweet as the scent of fresh cut grass, as warm and homespun as the clink-clink of bottles of fresh milk joggled to the doorstep.

The push mower - also known as the reel mower - with its twirling, gently clattering blades, is staging a comeback on lawns across America. And it's making inroads into the share of grass that falls before the roaring, foul-breathed gas-powered mower.

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After decades of steady decline, sales of push mowers have more than doubled in the past five years, according to the three biggest manufacturers of push mowers in the United States.

''The push mower has come back to life substantially and reestablished a place for itself on the retail floor,'' says Milton Harshman, vice president of sales at Agri-Fab Inc., a maker of push mowers in Sullivan, Ill. ''It's a very, very refined way of cutting the grass, and we find people returning to it to do the better parts of their lawn,'' Mr. Harshman says.

Still, push mowers claim no more than about 8 percent of the 6.3 million market for ''walk-behind mowers,'' he adds.

Compared with combustion machines, the simple grass cutters yield several benefits for flora as well as humankind.

For one, the blades, which turn on a cylinder, cut the grass cleanly, while the gas-powered mower's spinning blade ''whacks and bruises'' the grass, Harshman says. The rough cut often causes the shoots to brown, he says, detailing the proper way to cut grass like a painter describing a brush stroke.

Push mowers also are cheaper, quieter, safer, and more durable than their spark-plugged rivals.

''It's quieter and nicer and much more pleasant to wake up on a Saturday morning and not hear engines roaring all over the neighborhood,'' says Marry Ross, pollution-issues coordinator for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, a champion of reel mowers.

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Moreover, the push mower reaps a good measure of memories from the placid summer days before power mowers wailed onto the national landscape, advocates say. ''They remind you of when you were a kid,'' Ms. Ross says. Two kinds of people tend to buy reel mowers: ''traditionalists, who like the good old-fashioned way of doing things, and avid environmentalists,'' she adds.

Greensward owners who want to mow the ''green'' way won a recent endorsement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency last month affirmed its distaste for outdoor power equipment by setting emission standards for the machines, including gas-powered lawn mowers. Such small, ''nonroad,'' gas-using machines emit 5 percent of the nation's air pollution, according to EPA estimates.

On a per-horsepower basis, gas-powered lawn mowers are some of the dirtiest machines on the planet. In one hour of grass cutting, a lawn mower emits as much pollution as a car that travels 50 miles, according to the EPA.

''A lot of these machines are hand held so the person using the equipment is being directly exposed'' to carbon monoxide and other poisons, says EPA spokeswoman Martha Casey.

In addition, Americans spill 17 million gallons of gasoline a year while filling the tanks of mowers and other outdoor yard machines. Most of the liquid evaporates and worsens the buildup of ozone, according to the EPA.

When it comes to overall utility, however, push mowers cut both ways.

They often have trouble felling tall grass and generally require more sweat and time than a gas-powered mower. ''With these mowers you have to push, and to some people that's a four-letter word,'' Harshman says.

But to John Kennedy, an attorney who lives in Evanston, Ill., the weaknesses of reel mowers wilt next to the strengths. He bought such a mower last fall after ditching an aging gas-powered machine that refused to run at anything other than full throttle. He says he's happy with the switch even though it takes 50 percent longer to cut his grass.

''It works great with little kids, you don't have to worry about a stone being thrown out,'' says Mr. Kennedy, father of two daughters.

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