Want to make the cut? Follow along as pros share their mowing tips

March 21, 2023 -  By
Pros say younger hires with experience in technology make a somewhat seamless transition to operating a mower on a crew. (Photo: Matthew Allen)

Pros say younger hires with experience in technology make a somewhat seamless transition to operating a mower on a crew. (Photo: Matthew Allen)

The sound of the engine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the instant satisfaction of seeing a completed pass … mowing grass is the simple task that got many lawn care and landscape professionals started on their lifetime treks in the green industry.

While many got their start on a mower, they eventually left this piece of machinery behind and delegated the task of grass-cutting to others. The new focus became bigger challenges, like growing their business.

To those passionate about the profession, a mower is more of a paintbrush than a cutting unit. Some steps are basic; others are more of an art form. Landscape Management took time to talk with experts about mowing to better understand how to train the best operators, and how to get them to be as good as they were back in the day when they were the ones mowing. 

The full 90

Justin White, CEO of family-owned K&D Landscaping in Santa Cruz, Calif., has grown up in the lawn care industry. His mom and dad started the business in 1986. Today, he and his two siblings run the company, offering residential and commercial landscape maintenance, water-efficient landscapes and fire safety and weed abatement to its clientele. 

Experts advise that the best mowers have an eye for it. Those who don’t are easily confused and can get lost. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

Experts advise that the best mowers have an eye for it. Those who don’t are easily confused and can get lost. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

White relies on Greenius to track his crew on their training progress. Before an employee can operate a mower, he or she must earn a mowing badge in the app.

“(New hires) go through nine months of (on-the-job-training); here’s what you do with the string trimmer, here’s the proper technique with the mower,” White says. “Mostly our foremen, but also our supervisors, oversee them and give them tips. Then we do quarterly ‘safety rodeos.’ We focus on safety, but we also try to train everyone up on all our equipment.”

White relies on his supervisors, most of whom have 20-plus years of experience, to keep an eye on the mowing crew and make sure they’re productive yet safe. He asks that mowers aren’t hitting their blades on concrete or running over dangerous objects, like hoses. 

White says being patient with employees is important not only for safety reasons, but also because some employees just don’t last.

“They don’t get to run mowers … they also don’t get to run string trimmers or hedge trimmers, for 90 days,” White says. “They’re mostly just following around the foreman and watching what he does and help clean up behind him. That’s because we lose a lot of people in the first 30 days.”

But once an operator makes it the full 90, it’s game-on.

“There are a lot of people who think they want to be a landscaper, and then they get the job and they’re like, ‘Oh, wait … this is hard work,’” White says. “After (completing) 90 days, this person proves they’re dedicated. They see how things are done. Now, let’s put them through the nine-month training process.”

White believes young people today are more adept at jumping on a mower than the people K&D trained
10 years ago.

“The younger people getting into the industry who have been using iPhones, actually have a pretty good turnover into operating mowers,” White says. “They’ve already operated technology. Their technique seems to fall into place.” 

Hot lava!

Another family-run operation is SchoggenScapes, based in Clinton, Miss. Owned by brothers Will and Phil Schoggen, the company offers lawn maintenance, landscaping, hardscaping, outdoor lighting and irrigation work to a primarily residential clientele. 

SchoggenScapes mostly operates Exmark mowers, with some Kubota diesel machines in the mix. Phil Schoggen, vice president, says he is an owner who doesn’t mind spending money on machinery if it’s going to make the crew more efficient. Any tool that improves efficiency pays for itself, he says. (Editor’s note: to read LM’s 5 Questions Q&A with Phil Schoggen, click here.)

Pros say it’s best to start new team members with smaller maintenance jobs before mowing. (Photo: LM Staff)

Pros say it’s best to start new team members with smaller maintenance jobs before mowing. (Photo: LM Staff)

While he’ll pay for premium equipment, Schoggen stresses to the crew that just because the equipment makes them faster doesn’t mean it’s a race to the finish line.

It’s important to be fast and efficient, but it’s more important to make sure the finished product looks good.

“I tell the guys, ‘I don’t want to see any turn-and-burn,’” Schoggen says, referring to damage caused by the crew making a turn on a mower too quickly. “I want to see a three-point turn in those sensitive spots. There’s no point in doing the work hastily just to get to the next yard if it ends up costing us more time to go back to the previous property and do repairs.” 

Justin Vaughan, operations foreman for Brothers Lawn Service & Landscaping in Lafayette, La., echoes those thoughts. He uses a different incendiary visualization to stress the importance of being gentle with the ground: Stay out of the hot lava.

“Some people are smoother than others, and for those who don’t have an understanding that turning in the same spot is going to make a bald spot, I tell them, ‘Stay out of the hot lava,’” Vaughan says. “You have to be conscious of where your wheels are. It does take skill. You have to be aware of how much traffic you’re putting on the turf. I call those hot spots ‘hot lava’ and it helps them understand.”

Vaughan adds that it’s important to know the operator and how much experience they have. He observes the operator on hand tools, then a stick edger and blower before handing that employee the keys to a mower.

“Being hands-on and observing the person is the most important thing,” Vaughan says. “If you throw them to the wolves, they tend to get confused and lost on where they need to be.”

Brothers Services made a transition to Hustler stand-on mowers with 36-inch and 60-inch deck models, because they seem to be better for efficiency and the operator, Vaughan says.

“They tend to be easier on the backs, maybe a little heavier on the knees,” he says. “Stand-on makes it easier to get on and off, if you need to pick up some trash. Sit-down mowers just take a lot more time and effort to get up from.”

Time and experience

Pros say crews prefer stand-on mowers for the versatility and efficiency these easy-access machines provide. (Photo: LM Staff)

Pros say crews prefer stand-on mowers for the versatility and efficiency these easy-access machines provide. (Photo: LM Staff)

Casey Child is the Southeast business development manager for Gravely. Based in the Atlanta area, he covers from Virginia south to Florida, west to Texas and the Louisiana border. Prior to working for Gravely, Child worked at Brickman for 20 years. Those years working in the field as a landscaper for Brickman help him do his job as a business development manager for Gravely, he says. 

Child says he recommends Gravely’s stand-on mowers to companies looking to increase efficiency. Stand-ons are more versatile than zero-turns because they offer the operator more flexibility in how they get the job done. For example, Child says he’s seen crews put on a backpack blower and blow a long straight line from a stand-on. 

What is most important for these employees, he says, is that the employer invests time in the person and works with them from the ground up, before trusting them on a mower.

“The general growth process of a landscaper is starting with hand tools and then working their way up,” he says. “The final piece is mowing. You don’t just throw someone from the streets on a mower.”

Aside from the risk of damaging equipment and property, an inexperienced mower operator will slow down the operation, no matter the equipment.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not going to be efficient — it doesn’t matter if you’re on a stand-on, walk-behind or a zero-turn,” he says. 

Child says Gravely supports its customers with operational training videos to help landscape companies with the onboarding process. These are offered in both English and Spanish via the company’s website.

Tommy Thornton, owner of Southern Eco-Scapes in Gray, Ga., operates both Gravely and Scag mowers. Thornton started the business in 2008 and employs 25 people. The company offers maintenance, design, drainage and sod installation to its clientele.

Thornton agrees with Child’s take on mower efficiency and has converted much of his mowing fleet to stand-on. Before his employees are trusted to mow a customer’s property, they have to prove they can mow in the Southern Eco-Scapes yard.

“There’s a process to it; it takes an eye for (mowing),” Thornton says. “To start off we’ve got certain properties that are safer than others. They don’t have hills, dips and holes. They have to take care of those places before we’ll let them service properties that require more experience.”

Thornton stresses that he’s patient with his employees because being an expert mower is not something that
happens overnight.

“Try to have a plan, try to cut in straight lines and try to throw your clippings away from the beds, then do your perimeter lap,” he says. “But time and experience are the best teachers.”

Seth Jones

About the Author:

Seth Jones, a graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. Seth has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories. He is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.

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