Monday, November 24, 2014

Off with their heads: mowing and trimming with the European scythe

County property maintenance codes require us to keep grassy areas on our property mowed to 6 inches (15 cm) or less in height. Even though I have worked to reduce the amount of our acre (about 0.4 hectare) lot that falls in this category, much of it still requires at least occasional mowing during the growing season. The front yard and the portion of the property surrounding the vegetable gardens require mowing most often: the front yard because code officials can see it from the street, the part surrounding the vegetable gardens because it receives nearly full sun.

For several years I have wanted to try using a European scythe to mow the lawn. I’d bought and read The Scythe Book by David Tresemer, a paean in homage to the scythe, but also more than a little intimidating. On the one hand I could score serious saving-the-earth points by using nothing but a stick and a blade to mow the lawn. On the other, the book offered more romance than practical information, at least the sort of information that a not-mechanically-inclined person like myself could understand.

This past spring, I realized it was time to overcome my fear and learn how to mow with a scythe. I found Scythe Supply’s website and decided on the best scythe blade for mowing our property. Mike measured me as directed to determine the proper dimensions for a scythe to fit me. I chose a scythe outfit with a bent snath (the stick) and a 26 inch TOPS blade.

When the outfit arrived I read all the literature that came with it. I wish I could say that the literature helped me understand how to adjust the position of the blade relative to the snath (pages 15 to 18 in The Scythe Book) and how to mow, but it didn’t. All I could do was set up the scythe the best I could and start mowing.

It did not take long for me to realize that not only did I not understand how to set the blade at the proper angle, but I also did not understand how to swing the scythe. The pictures and words in the book did not translate into bodily knowledge. Eventually I remembered that Scythe Supply offered a DVD on mowing techniques. With a sigh, I realized this was something I’d need to learn by seeing if I were to learn it at all and ordered the DVD.

It was seeing how to mow and how to peen and sharpen the blade that turned me into a mower. After setting the blade as directed in the video I started mowing again. Now I understood what David Tresemer and Peter Vido (Vido wrote the addendum in the second edition of the book) meant, why they and others scythe. I scythed for a couple of hours, immersed in the joy of the process. When it was time to peen the blade, I stopped and looked at how much I had mowed during that time ...

And I understood why reel lawnmowers and gasoline-powered lawnmowers exist and why I’d never seen anyone use a scythe to mow a lawn. Scything is a wonderful activity, the most pleasant way to mow a lawn that I have tried. It is also, however, a slow activity. A scythe cuts very close to the ground, and at least at this point in my scything career, it cuts less evenly than even a reel lawnmower, points against it for people who like carpet-like lawns. But the scythe did cut tall grass as easily as short grass, and it cut the plantain flower stems and other stringy weeds that a reel mower cannot cut.

With some regret I laid aside the scythe as lawnmower. Instead I considered if there were other ways to use a scythe to accomplish tasks that I had previously done with gasoline or electric tools. For instance, could it mow the tight space between the ends of the vegetable beds and the fence around them? I tried that but found that the blade was too long for the width of the space. Back to Scythe Supply’s website to see if I could buy a shorter blade. The shortest blade it offered that I could use on my bent snath was an 18 inch ditch blade. I thought perhaps I could use the ditch blade to mow both between the veggie beds and fences, so I bought one. It is shown in the photo of my scythe at the top of this post.

The ditch blade proved to have many good uses. For one thing, it could mow a mature cover crop like crimson clover or the three foot (about 1 meter) high stand of grass and weeds I pretended was a cover crop on vegetable beds I had not had time to plant. In the past I’d hoed off the weeds on vegetable beds before digging them, a step that could require several hours for beds I don’t prepare for planting till early summer. Using a scythe allowed me to complete that step in an hour or less no matter how tall the weeds grew. If I hadn’t found any other good uses for a scythe, that use alone made it more than worth the money I’d spent on it.  But that wasn’t all! The ditch blade mowed off errant cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) stems in the peony bed and parts of the front yard. It mowed off hazelnut and indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) shoots that I would have needed to cut with long-handled pruners if I had waited till next spring to remove them. It mowed off poison ivy and honeysuckle vines working their way across the narrow strip of yard on the west side of the house. Finally I could get rid of the electric string trimmer!

By September, with fall planting done and no large harvests to deal with, I started looking more closely at how and where the grass was growing in the back yard. The trees I planted the first couple of years after we moved here are now much taller than I am and their canopies are beginning to touch. While grass still grew between the back edge of the vegetable garden and the tree line and from the tree line to the neighbors’ fences, it had slowed down and was thinning out. Where the tree canopies met, very little grass remained, with violets now the primary herbaceous cover. Perhaps mowing with the scythe might be an option after all. Inspired, I switched to the grass blade and mowed. Mowing was still slow, although it became somewhat faster with more practice. But I now realized that because the back yard is not visible to the code enforcers, I could compensate for the slowness of mowing with the scythe by mowing less often. I would only need to use the gasoline-powered mower in the sunniest part of the yard, the grassy area surrounding the vegetable beds, and then only from May through September when the warm season grasses that predominate in that area grow. When those grasses don’t grow, the reel mower mows nearly as fast as the gasoline-powered mower. Best of all, as the trees continue to grow, they will further reduce the coverage and strength of the grass! I should be able to use the scythe and reel mower more often, and the gasoline-powered mower less often, each year. Using the right tool in the right place at the right time, observing how the grass grows and adjusting to it instead of just mowing everything out of habit, and owning up to and changing my expectation that grass should look like a green carpet all the time, has allowed me to reduce use of a fossil-fuel-powered mower (and eliminate use of a fossil-fuel-powered string trimmer) in favor of the human-powered scythe and reel mower.

Would a scythe make sense for you? Well, it depends (you knew I would say that, of course). Based on my experience I’ll make suggestions, but please don’t take what I say as the final word. You need to consider your particular situation and do some research to determine if a scythe makes sense for you.

I think most people who use a string trimmer for trimming rather than for lawn mowing could replace their string trimmer with a scythe. In fact, I don’t know why anyone would prefer to use a string trimmer over a scythe. The scythe trims about as well, doesn’t require fossil fuels or plastic string, weighs much less, doesn’t stink or vibrate during use, and you can maintain it yourself. For this purpose the TOPS blades or ditch blades are likely the best choice. If you’ll be trimming woody seedlings or shoots I suggest a ditch blade. I think shorter blades are more practical for trimming but you can read the information on blade choice on Scythe Supply’s website to determine the right size for your situation.

For lawn mowing a scythe is most practical when the lawn area is wide enough for a full swing of the scythe, free of  excessive numbers of obstacles like shrubs or outdoor furnishings, and either small enough that you can mow it in the time available or large and invisible enough that you need to mow only occasionally or can get by with mowing only part of it each week. Scythe blades swung properly cut a wide expanse. My swing cuts over a 6 foot (2 meter) wide row. Ideally you walk a row the length of your lawn swinging the scythe in the same direction and with the same width, then move over and scythe the next row from front to back in the same direction. Any place where there is an obstacle, you need to mow in a circle around the obstacle. This slows you down. You also need to take care that you don’t swing your scythe blade into obstacles, to avoid damaging the blade. As an example, I spent an hour scything an area of about 625 square feet (about 59 square meters) with several obstacles in it. Had there been no obstacles I might have been able to scythe about twice that area in an hour, and it might have taken even less time than that if I had scythed early in the morning as Tresemer and Vido suggest rather than in the afternoon. If you don’t like the look of the swaths of mown grass you will need to rake them up after you mow. I left them in place and didn’t think it hurt anything.

For gardeners, a scythe can be used for mowing cover crops as I have done. This winter I plan to try mowing the prairie in the back yard with the ditch blade to keep tree seedlings and vines under control. I think it will mow dead perennial stems as well.

If you are interested in scythes but have not seen anyone using them, I recommend viewing the videos on Scythe Supply’s website or checking on YouTube for videos of mowing with the European scythe. For those of you who decide to purchase a scythe, study the information on Scythe Supply’s website carefully to determine the best choice of snath and blade(s) for your situation and to size the snath correctly. I chose to buy an outfit and added the sharpening service and a blade cover to that order, a choice I recommend to anyone new to the scythe. If you want more blades you can order them at the same time or later on. If I had known how helpful the DVDs on mowing techniques and peening and sharpening would be I would have added the DVD combo to my first order. Those of you who find and can view some good YouTube videos may learn everything you need to know about mowing and sharpening from them, in which case you won’t need the DVDs.

You’ll need the peening jig and whetstone (included in an outfit) in order to keep your scythe blade sharp. Mike attached the peening jig to a wooden workbench in our basement and I stand up while peening the blade; it works fine this way. Those of you who do not have a suitable workbench could attach the jig to a piece of wood, or you could buy the peening log offered by Scythe Supply.

Now that the growing season is over, it’s time to evaluate the results from the 2014 garden science experiment. After that I’ll return to the human-powered tools series, specifically to the tools I find most useful for gardening. See you later!