Smart Mower Tasks for the Season’s End

Arnold Siphon Pump Kit / Credit: Home DepotManufacturers get the blame when lawn gear doesn’t start easily, if at all, or lasts fewer years than you expect. But in an economy that seems to encourage throwing away unruly products rather than fixing them—or taking care of them in the first place—it feels better to complain. But property upkeep still needs doing. Wouldn’t you rather get the most out of your investment? The following tips cover the most critical ways to ensure that your mower, tractor or rider will make it intact through the winter.

Fuel for Love
If you love the sound of your mower firing up readily when you want it, do your springtime self this favor: Drain the gas once you’re done for the season. Sure, it’s possible to get away with starting next season with last year’s fuel. You’re just hurting your odds—and helping the owner of your local repair shop put his kids through college.

Any gasoline will “varnish,” or gum up, if left sitting in the tank. The ethanol mixed with fuel, however, complicates matters further. Siphon out whatever fuel you can (the Arnold Siphon Pump Kit is shown above), and then start the engine and run dry the rest. For extra insurance, pour in just enough ethanol-free fuel (sold by the can in home centers, Sears and dealerships) to start the engine again. Then run it dry again so that all gas with ethanol is gone from the carburetor and fuel lines.

With lawn tractors and riders, their larger engines and the way they feed fuel helps them avoid trouble. Still, they’re not impervious to fuel issues. With these machines, do the opposite: Top off the tank off  to leave little room for moisture. Just be sure to add an appropriate amount of fuel stabilizer to the gas in the can before fueling up, as you should with any gas-powered outdoor gear.

There’s the Rub
Run a walk mower for a half hour, and the mower’s engine will spin more than 100,000 times. It’s oil that keeps the engine parts that rub together from overheating and seizing up, but changing it once a year is nevertheless a commonly neglected task. Some newer walk-mower engines from Briggs & Stratton and Kohler don’t require oil changes—just adding oil when needed. For the vast majority, do it now unless you change it at the start of every season.

This isn’t easy with the usual lawn mower: You have to slowly flip over the machine to let the oil drain into a container you’ve set in place, as shown below. (This is better done when the fuel tank is empty.) For tractors and riders, you can drain the oil without giving yourself a backache.

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Swab the Deck
Grass clippings that build up in your mower deck can speed corrosion, which will eventually ruin a mower even if you’re careful otherwise. Most walk mowers have washout ports to which you connect a garden hose; they work best when you lower the deck all the way. Once you’re done, be sure it dries before you put the mower away. (A leaf blower comes in handy.) For extra protection, remove the spark plug’s boot, tip the mower over and inspect the deck. Chances are that you’ll find more crud to scrape off. Spraying the dry deck with silicone spray as a last step helps keep clippings from sticking.

For tractors and riders, landscape pros seem unanimous in hating washout ports. Besides warnings about wetting the deck spindles and soaking rather than removing the clumps stuck beneath, the major concern is that since you have to work at getting beneath the deck, unlike walk mowers, you can’t easily find out how much all that water is helping to extend the life of your machine—if it is at all. Many pros, consequently, avoid the practice as a rule. One Texas contractor, instead, scrapes off buildup twice a year when he removes his tractor’s blades for sharpening.

Sound the Charge
A battery gone bad from neglect can prove even more of an expense than skipping maintenance on a gas mower. That’s because battery-powered mowers tend to cost more. Unfortunately, neglect with earlier cordless models wasn’t always avoidable. Batteries don’t like near-freezing temperatures, so unless you had somewhere indoors to keep the mower, its battery might not have lasted as long as you expected—such as a few years beyond the warranty. Today’s cordless mowers have removable batteries, so be sure you bring yours in and keep it charged if that’s what your owner’s manual instructs.

Even gas-powered gear might need a charge. The battery-powered starter system of a mower, tractor or rider needs to be periodically charged throughout the winter. If you don’t, the battery’s ability to recharge could diminish before it no longer will at all. Here’s another time to check your manual: Some batteries only recharge in warm air, which requires a garage if not a heated space.

Certain tasks, such as replacing your spark plug and filters, need to be done periodically but not necessarily at the end of the season. We cover those here.

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Lawn Care over Summer’s Dog Days

Credit: Scotts Lawn CareAugust might be a sleepy month, but the attention you give your lawn in this last full month of the season could help it stay healthy through the winter. Your local Cooperative Extension offers tips more tailored to your particular region, but here’s some advice that should work for most of us.

Unfinished Business
If you rushed through early-spring mower-prep chores, your mower might still be showing some hesitation. For either flaky operation or, worse, stalling while running, look back at what you didn’t do. Pull out the spark plug, check the gap, inspect it and at least give it a good wire-brushing (then rub some engine oil into the threads) before putting it back in. Replace the air filter if you hadn’t. But before you put on a new filter, spray a little carburetor cleaner into the intake port. That, plus the use of stabilized fuel—or even some ethanol-free gas—should restore some of your mower’s lust for life.

Sharpen That Blade
Optimally, you began the season with a sharp blade, but it’s also good to finish the season with one. Grass cut cleanly can be healthier going into the fall and winter. For an easy-to-remember guide, you get about ten hours of good cutting before you need to sharpen the blade. Having a spare keeps you from losing time while getting a blade sharpened.

Cutting Remarks
Grass this time of year needs plenty of water unless you’ve let it go dormant—easy to do if your region has had drought conditions. Besides watering in early morning and late evening, cut the grass a bit shorter than the usual three inches. But don’t scalp it; there’s still enough sun to burn the lawn. When you cut, as with the rest of the year, slice off no more than a third of the grass’s height.

Mulch vs. Bag
Behind on pulling the weeds? Think twice about mulching this time of year. While leaving clippings on the lawn generally provides a good (and free) fertilizer, you don’t want to do the work of the weeds—and spread their accursed seed even more broadly. Consider bagging instead, and spread a broadleaf weed killer next month if you’re not averse to a little chemical warfare. The alternative? Learn to love weeds, which suits us fine once they’re plunked into a yard-waste bag.

A Little Lawn Quilting
This magic period of less-direct sunlight, before the leaves start falling, is a good time to plant grass seed in bare areas—a patch here, a patch there. Clear away any thatch or other growth, and loosen up the soil. But you can’t have it both ways. Weed killer tends to keep new grass from sprouting. Check the label of whatever you’re thinking of putting down to see how long you should wait after reseeding before you use the product.

Better still, skip the chemicals. Fight the weeds where they are and yank them up, one by one. Leave one behind, on a skewer you’ve stuck into the ground, as an example to others. It might not make a difference, but you’ll feel in control for a change.

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