The lawn gear you need for fall cleanup

    Top-rated mowers, blowers, and chain saws that get the job done

    Published: September 20, 2013 11:30 AM

    With the arrival of fall comes the perennial chore of clearing out the annuals, removing fallen leaves and dead branches, and giving the lawn one last mow. Putting in a little extra work now will ensure that your lawn and plants are healthy in the spring. And clever use of your mower, blower and other gear will speed up the process. Consumer Reports found the right tools for these tasks in our tests of outdoor power equipment.

    Continue mowing
    Mow your lawn every week or so until the grass has stopped growing. For lawns under or near deciduous trees, using your mower's mulching mode—in which discharge chutes are closed off so the grass and leaves can be chopped more finely—also allows leaves to decompose on your lawn without smothering what lies beneath. Leaving clippings behind returns useful nutrients to the soil.

    Recommended mowers. Most newer rotary mowers and lawn tractors have a mulching mode. All of the self-propelled mowers on our list of top mower picks were very good to excellent at mulching although the best push mowers only rose to very good. Top-rated self-propelled mowers from Honda and Toro had mulching in the bag, including the Honda HRX217VKA, $600; the Honda HRR2169VLA, $500, and the Toro 20381, $520. Our top-rated lawn tractor, the Cub Cadet GT 2042, $3,600, also excelled at mulching. If your current mower has seen better days, check the sales at your local home improvement store.

    Don't let the leaves pile up
    Raking only once or twice each fall just isn't enough. It's important to clear leaves off the grass frequently. Leaves block sunlight. Wet leaves are heavy and promote disease. If your mower doesn't have a mulching mode, use a power blower or rake to clear the leaves for bagging or composting. Dry leaves are much easier to clear so try to remove as many as you can when a storm is forecast. On a crisp fall day, you can easily move mountains of leaves with a reliable blower.

    Recommended blowers. Quick leaf clearing and ear-splitting noise don't have to go hand in hand. In our latest leaf blower tests, we found several gasoline models that were tops at sweeping and loosening leaves, yet should meet most local noise regulations. The best corded-electric handheld blowers are also better this year but still not as good as gas models. Our top gasoline handheld, the Echo PB-250, $170, was excellent at sweeping, loosening, and handling, and is a CR Best Buy, as is the Husqvarna 125B, $150, which earned the same score. Another CR Best Buy, our top corded-electric handheld blower, the Toro Ultra Blower Vac 51599, $70, was very good at sweeping and loosening. If you have a large property, the Little Wonder LB160H, $800, cleared like a champ but you'll definitely need hearing protection.

    Make one last deck check
    While you're putting away your outdoor furniture and your grill, take a careful look at your deck. Make sure the railings and banisters aren't loose. Push on them; they shouldn't wiggle. Check that all of the steps are securely anchored to the risers by resting your weight all along their width. Inspect all nails, screws, and bolts. Hammer down nails and tighten screws and bolts as needed with a cordless drill. And to protect the wood from moisture, make sure you clear all the leaves away from the structure.

    Recommended drills. The Hitachi DS18DSAL, is our top-rated general use drill and, at $170, a CR Best Buy. The Makita LXFD01CW, $200, performed similarly in our cordless drill tests and is also recommended. For tougher jobs, consider the Makita BHP454 drill/driver, $280, which earned excellent scores across the board.

    Remove dead branches
    Dead tree limbs can be a menace during a strong storm and pose the risk of damage to your home, car, and property. To be safe, remove the branches well ahead of nasty weather. If your trees are small and the branches are no more than four-inches in diameter, consider using an electric lopper, which some homeowners find less scary than a chain saw. In our chain saw tests, the Black & Decker LP 1000, $75, was faster than the $120 Worx WG307 and, at just seven pounds, weighs about two pounds less. With both models it's safe to cut above shoulder level—a risky move with chain saws.

    Recommended chain saws. To get top cutting speed, consider a gasoline-powered chain saw. The Stihl MS 180 C-BE, $230, a CR Best Buy, had excellent cutting speed and was easy to start and handle. We also recommend the Husqvarna 435 and the Echo CS-352-16, both $270. Our top light-duty gas model and top corded-electric model both scored a 68 out of 100 and are both CR Best Buys. The gas-powered Craftsman 34190, $150, and the electric Worx WG303.1, $100, were both capable cutters. But the two battery-powered saws in our chain saw tests were fair to poor at cutting speed.

    Five essential garden tools
    Of course, you don't need a power tool for all your yardwork. Equipping your garden shed with the following tools will help you with pruning and other cleanup jobs.

    Gloves. Look for durable yet pliable materials, such as nylon or leather, that protect hands while still letting you maneuver. Silicon dots or fingertips enhance grip. Water-resistance is a plus.
    Loppers. Look for sharp blades and longer handles, which provide more leverage when cutting branches that are too thick for a pruner.
    Pruner. Look for sharp bypass blades with a scissor-like action for clean cuts when removing small or thin branches from shrubs and trees.
    Shovel. Look for a round head with a pointed tip, which is good for scooping earth and cutting through thick roots.
    Trowel. Look for a sharp blade for digging, weeding, and dividing plants, and a fully welded, not spot-welded, joint between the handle and blade. Stainless steel resists rust.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

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