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Lawn mowers: is it time to ride?

Ahhh, spring is in the air. Blooming flowers, singing birds, the smell of newly mown lawns — wait a minute! Lawn mowing? Sure enough, it's another sign of the season, and for some not the favorite. If your New Year's resolutions did not include lawn mowing for exercise, maybe it's time to look at riding lawn mowers.

"Consider about a half-acre and above as the breaking point for switching from a walking mower to a riding mower," says Bob Seus, manager of Hubbards Ace Hardware in Medford. Besides being easier, it will reduce your lawn mowing time and leave you more free time to enjoy the lounge chair on that lawn.

A good basic, no-frills riding lawn mower can cost about $1,000, according to Seus. It will have a standard 42-inch cut (the width of the mower deck) and a 15 to 17 horsepower engine. Upgrades can make the machines more powerful, easier to get in and out of or add controls that are easier to operate.

A rear-engine riding lawn mower "recommended for smooth lawn surfaces," retails for about $1,200, adds Gary Zoll, owner of Zoll's Lawn and Garden Equipment. Smooth lawn surfaces means no rock and stick mowing. Field mowing requires a stronger machine.

For "extreme mowing," the epitome of lawn mowers could be Snapper's liquid-cooled, 3-cylinder, diesel, 4-wheel-drive garden model with a 54-inch cut. For a mere $12,450, it will handle just about any mowing condition, advises Zoll.

To bag or not to bag? Riding lawn mowers can either catch grass in a bag you remove and empty or eject it out a side door of the mower deck. To mulch your mown grass, a plate covers the side door leaving grass inside the deck to be cut multiple times, so a finer size drops back into the lawn. Grass must be very dry for mowers to mulch properly, says Seus, so it can't be done in our wet and rainy spring.

Riding lawn mowers with a zero turning radius are recommended for a lot of maneuvering around trees and shrubs, corners or tight spots. Seus says a lot of commercial lawn maintenance companies use them because they mow so many different sized lawns.

Slope mowing can be tricky and dangerous. Standard ratings recommend against use of riding lawn mowers on slopes exceeding 10 degrees, although the wider the wheelbase, the better it will handle a slope, according to Zoll. Specific information will be in the owner's manual.

Most riding lawn mowers will fit in a standard two-car garage along with two vehicles, says Seus, although storage in any rainproof garden or tool shed is fine.

Most mowers come with a two-year warranty, although sometimes dealers offer extended warranty promotions, says Seus. Extended warranties can also be purchased at some stores. A top-of-the-line riding lawn mower won't last any longer than the least expensive one if you neglect it, says Zoll. Regular service includes changing oil, sharpening blade(s), cleaning air filters, lubrication, checking belts and installing new spark plugs. It is especially important that mulching blades be very sharp. Service should be done at least once a year and costs about $45, according to Seus.

So you're already finished mowing that lawn? Then get in that lounge chair, grab a good book and enjoy!

Lawn mowers: is it time to ride?