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Scythes and Lawns

A few updates are in order, but until I get around to adding more material, have a look at this video. :)

 

A Special Note on Cutting Lawns
or
A Letter to City Farmers

 

Some of the folks who have purportedly “read” this website subsequently write to us and ask, “Can one cut a lawn with a scythe?” I admit to rolling my eyes in exasperation at that point.

Perhaps they didn’t notice that the child on one of the three photos here is cutting what amounts to an overgrown lawn (about 20-25 cm). Maybe they don’t find the same photo (with a lengthy commentary) in a portion of the Technical Section Mowing with Ease, or don’t view the video in which that same young girl and her sister are also cutting a relatively low stand of grass; or they happen to miss the various other references throughout the site suggesting that all relatively small grassed areas – lawns included – ought to be cut with the scythe. I thought that Four Arguments for the Elimination of Lawnmowers would be a section unlikely for anyone to miss. Evidently I was wrong.

One such letter recently arrived from the executive director of City Farmers (Canada’s Institute of Urban Agriculture, now in its 28th year) and finally prompted this little lawn-related rant.

My brain’s first question upon the receipt of these inquiries is: “Doesn’t everyone know that the lawn concept is far older than the invention of lawnmowers and, even more so, motorized mowers?” With what tool do these folks think lawns were cut prior to the time of those inventions? With scissors? Sickles? Machetes? While all of these have been employed for that task, the scythe in skilled hands was, until the relatively recent appearance of riding lawnmowers on the scene, the fastest way to cut homeowner-sized lawns.

As I wrote in the introduction to The Scythe Must Dance, in my native Slovakia until at least 1992 nearly all lawns were cut with scythes. It was elderly men who were on the payroll of each town or city who, for the most part, did the mowing. (In the communist system private lawns were rare.) I do not recall how often they did this (perhaps three or four times a year) but I also don’t remember that as kids we were ever hindered in our games because the lawns were not what we called “Canadian lawn” – a term then used more often with reference to a brush cut hairstyle!

Fortunately, not everyone thinks that park-like greenery has to be maintained at a height between five and ten centimetres regardless of time and/or ecological costs involved. One of many examples is the intent of Naturpark Grebenzen to have their extensive meadows cut with the scythe – which is why they will hold a Scythe Symposium and mowing courses on their grounds July 2006.

In any case, here is the answer to all those lawn-lovers:

*OF COURSE* A LAWN CAN BE CUT WITH A SCYTHE.

However, before I offer a few elemental pointers in this regard, let me repeat here what we have expressed (more than once but in fewer words) elsewhere on this site:

We do not wish to promote “Lawn Culture“, or to be more specific, the Culture of Manicured Lawns (referred to in different countries as “English”, “Canadian” or “American” lawn) i.e. the cutting of grassed surfaces of this Earth once (or sometimes twice!) a week so as to maintain that status-quo lawn image – even if all the cutting can be done with a scythe.

What the plethora of lawn service businesses refer to as a “natural” or even “ecological” lawn is in principle still a luxury concept if the conserving of energy is at all considered. Some don’t promote the most vile of pesticides or herbicides or use only the organic brands, suggest that the cutting height of mowers is set to leave 7 cm of standing grass, and that water sprinklers should not run “more than necessary”.

If by “lawn” is meant that ever-short deep green carpet on which golden dots of dandelions are thought of as a coffee spill on a Persian rug, then “ecological lawn” is an oxymoron, regardless if it receives only organic amendments or is cut with a solar or reel mower! It does amaze me how many “organic” gardeners (even editors of publications with the “natural” slant) have exclaimed in print that they “hate dandelions” and offer their favoured recipe for their extermination… That said, here are a few pointers for those who can’t give up the “proper” lawn but may wish to, for whatever reason, cut it with a scythe.

  • A short dense lawn may well be one of the most challenging of hand mowing tasks.
  • The scythe’s blade must be sharper than is required for general farm work or overgrown areas with tall vegetation. An inadequately thin edge will reduce its potential as a lawn-cutting tool to a significant degree. Lee Valley Tools’ recipe – implied by their offering only a coarse whetstone for scythe “sharpening” – will soon prompt many scythe customers to pull out their lawnmowers again. The bevel of the edge, which after numerous whettings becomes more “rounded” than is readily apparent, must be periodically thinned. Although other methods can be used (file, bench stone, grindstone), we recommend that this be done by peening.
  • The correct adjustment of the blade (with regard to its lay and hafting angle) is also more important than for the job of “whacking” down a few tall “weeds”.
  • It is far easier to cut a lawn between dawn and sunrise than later in the day. The next best period is an hour or so before dark.
  • A long blade (75-90 cm/30-35 in.) is better for the job than a short one, not only because it is faster but the surface will likely show fewer “steps”, i.e. ridges of taller stubble between blade passes.
  • When cutting vegetation that short, it is advisable – or “necessary” – to apply slight downward pressureduring the cutting stroke (i.e. while the blade is moving from right to left).
  • All in all, a lawn is a great place to hone your mowing skills. At the same time, it’s a good one to encourage frequent practice of the skill of blade honing (every five minutes or less). Because there are usually very few obstacles to mow around and the surface is smooth, often level and free of rocks, large lawns provide perhaps the best training ground for a beginner’s practice of the “wide movement“.

 


Mar. 2006
Updated Sept. 2013