On Grass, Robots and the Pursuit of Happiness

That time of year is upon us again. Grass loves nothing more than the sunny wet days of spring and this Easter has had no shortage of those. The past few weeks has seen our lawn shoot up and there was no point putting off the mowing any longer.

We’ve got a cheap and cheerful small mower (a Screwfix special) which we’ve had since moving to our house in the rural North Essex wilds. For the first year it shared mowing duties with a hand-me-down, but since the birth of our daughter Skye, mowing our lawn has been a solo job. We’ve got a relatively large garden with about 1/3rd of an acre of lawn which on my own it takes around 2 hours to mow; if I mow weekly it takes less time; if I make the mistake of leaving it 3 weeks, it takes more, sometimes a lot more.

I’m now 2 weeks (and 2 mows) into the 2016 season – the ground is still soggy (the mossy areas are almost swamp-like) and whilst I sometimes quite enjoy the hours of quiet contemplation lawn mowing offers, I now find myself wishing I could spend these hours maintaining other neglected parts of the garden or spending time enjoying it with Skye.

So – with my love of technology and automating things, I’ve decided to consider a robotic lawnmower.

Husqvarna Automower 430X

The Contenders

Robotic lawnmowers have been around for years. I’d considered a big yellow robomow back when I lived in East Lothian, but couldn’t justify it with such a tiny lawn. Since then they’ve dropped down in price and shot up in capability.

Robomow RS615

Robomow RS615

Scouting around the interwebs there are 2 main contenders in the consumer market. The Israeli company Robomow and the Swedish company Husqvarna. Both have been making well-regarded robotic lawnmowers for quite a time, both offer similar features and both offer a range of models at similar prices.

Since our garden is around 1/3rd an acre, we’re looking for mowers that can handle lawns around 1200-1500m2. Robomow have the RC312 (£1749 RRP) or the RS615 (£1999) in this range, Husqvarna have the 315 (£1600) or the more advanced 430X (£2500), which can handle double the required lawn area but has some features that may be useful.

The Lawn

llawnOur lawn is… interesting… It’s comprised of 3 main sections.

The first section (red in the image), closest to the house is completely flat, is roughly triangular (with the point chopped off). It is bordered by a brick path, decking, a raised bed and a stone wall. In the middle of the lawn is a rotary dryer. The grass here tends to be a mix of decent lawn and in the shaded area moss. It’s currently pretty squishy in the mossy areas but during the summer the ground dries out and becomes solid and houses a healthy colony of Yellow Meadow Ants.  There is a 3m section of lawn between the decking and the wall that leads to the second area.

The second area (yellow) is on a gradient, it’s bordered by flower beds to both sides and the previously mentioned wall at the bottom. This section tends to have the best quality grass (very little moss). The flower beds to each side contain mature plum trees, so during plum season the lawn is scattered with dropped plums (with stones) for an extra mowing challenge.

At the top of the second area, a wide stretch of lawn leads to the third area (blue). This is a large, mainly rectangular, section of lawn. It was recently agricultural land which the garden was extended into, as such it’s a different type of grass. It’s pretty flat, generally pretty dry and when left to grow becomes a meadow (lots of meadow flowers and butterflies). The grass here remains pretty short, it’s just the meadow flowers that come troublesome if the lawn is left for a few weeks. It is bordered on one side by a flower bed and on the other 3 sides by hawthorn hedges (owch!)

The Considerations

So, we’re looking for a mower that can:

  • Handle a zone that has a narrow passage between 2 areas. A mower that can’t get to all 3 sections will not cut the mustard. The charging station is likely to be in the second area, near the edge of the first area (as this is where we’ve got power).
  • Handle lawns bordered by pretty much anything (raised beds, walls, decking, paths, hedges). Being able to cut right up to the edges is a bonus.
  • Handle slopes.

Initial Thoughts

  • Robomow’s blades extend beyond the wheel-base meaning they can cut up-to and over the edge of the lawn. This would be a huge win, however much of our lawn goes right up to raised edges (e.g. walls/hedges), so I’m not sure how much of a benefit this would be to us in practice. The decider would be how well it can cut up to the hawthorn hedge – the grass goes up to and beneath the hedge, so this never gets cut even with our manual mower – but at least I can get close to it.
  • Reviews of the Husqvarna automowers suggest it handles slopes better, especially where the boundary wire runs along the slope. I’m not sure if the slope in our garden is a steep enough gradient to be a concern.
  • Husqvarna uses retractable razor-like blades. I’m not sure if this will be a blessing or a curse when it comes to plum stones?
  • Floating decks – do I need one? We’ve got a pretty bumpy lawn in places – I’m thinking a floating deck may help out here.
  • It’s not clear just how well any mower will handle our 3-section lawn. Advertising blurb suggests all the mowers should handle it, but Husqvarna 430X sounds like it may have the best chance in practice, as the GPS feature can ensure it knows what parts of the lawn it’s already covered and where it has missed.

Conclusion

So this is a tough one, even the cheapest robotic mower is still a big investment. If it works without manual intervention, then it will be a big time-saver (2 hours a week of precious family time!), but it’s unclear just how reliable they are in practice when it comes to a complex lawn environment. It’s a shame these companies don’t offer 1 month trials/rental so unsure users like myself can try before we buy.

Another thing that has surprised me is the lack of real-life user experiences/reviews of these mowers posted online. They’re still a bit of an expensive luxury, so may not yet be in the hands of enough people willing to document about their experiences of using the mowers, but I’d have expected a little more to be out there (e.g. photos of how they handle different edges, different types of grass, etc.) If I ever make up my mind, I’ll have to rectify that!

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