When it comes to lawn care, having the right tools and setup makes all the difference, and the most important tool in your arsenal is invariably your mower.
There are dozens of major brands out there, and types, but only two core variations when it comes time to actually do some cutting: mulching and side discharge.
You’ll find diehard proponents of each, and if you are wanting to step up your lawn care game aside from the usual mow-and-trim you give your yard, it can be difficult to figure out which one to choose…
I’m aiming to help with that decision-making process by bringing you a comprehensive comparison of mulching and side-discharge mowers.
After you read through this guide, your purchasing decision should be a whole lot simpler. Grab your gloves and let’s get to it!
What is a Mulching Mower?
A mulching mower is exactly what you’d think: a lawnmower that turns grass clippings into fine grass mulch. It mulches the clippings!
With traditional mowers, grass is cut and removed from the deck. Mulching mowers, on the other hand, chop grass clippings into tiny particles and redistribute them into the lawn, which helps to enrich it.
Mulching mowers work by using a unique cutting blade and accompanying deck that contains and chops up grass clippings into finer pieces before allowing them to settle back to the yard.
Done right, this process leads to a more natural-looking lawn without clumps of dead grass or debris left behind.
There are various types of mulching mowers, including electric and gas-powered models, and they come in push and ride-on varieties.
What is a Side Discharge Mower?
Side discharge mowers are the typical power mower you’ve probably encountered. As they cut, they eject the longer clippings in a big spray out to the right or left of the machine.
These mowers work by slicing the grass blades cleanly (more or less) and pushing the clippings out of the side chute.
The result is quick and efficient mowing, leaving a plush looking lawn but only if you clean up all the clumps.
Side discharge mowers’ biggest weakness is that they can easily spray clippings all over sidewalks, driveways and landscaping if handled poorly.
This is a major issue for anyone wanting a printing property but it does require extra clean up after mowing.
Like mulching mowers, side discharge mowers come in all different types, sizes and models, from push mowers to riding mowers.
They can also be gas-powered or electric, depending on your preferences and lawn size.
What are the Advantages of Each?
There are a few major advantages inherent to each mower type…
Let’s start with mulching mowers. Mulching mowers are a great choice for the environmentally conscious because they provide a natural way of fertilizing the lawn without the use of harsh chemicals.
Those tiny clippings break down fast and nourish the soil.
There are also potential time savings when it is cleanup time: By redistributing grass clippings into the soil instead of raking and disposing of them, mulching mowers save you time and energy.
Looking at side-discharge mowers, we also see some distinct advantages. Compared to mulching mowers, they are faster and less likely to bog down or pack up with grass clippings.
This can make mowing a larger are a much simpler, straightforward affair.
Side discharge mowers also create a more traditional, clean-cut appearance, but you might have to deal with visible clumps of grass or other debris left behind.
Ultimately, both are suitable for most lawns, and the decision to choose between mulching mowers or side discharge mowers depends on individual preferences and lawn care needs.
We’ll further unpack various factors in the next section.
When Should You Choose to Mulch?
You should choose a mulching mower if you have a smaller lawn, rarely need to mow when it is wet, don’t let your grass get tall, or either want to reduce cleanup or actively improve the nutrients in the soil.
Mulching mowers provide return vital nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which promote lawn health and growth. This also saves money on additional fertilizer applications.
Mulching mowers are slower to mow correctly and thoroughly, but might be more convenient for homeowners with smaller lawns as they do not need to bag, rake, and dispose of grass clippings afterward.
What Issues Are Associated with Mulching Mowers?
Mulching mowers can incur more maintenance since they have a tendency to clog up compared to side-discharge mowers.
As mentioned, they are slower which can negate any efficiency gains when cutting larger lawns, and they also struggle to cleanly cut wet or tall grass, so they are not ideal for anyone who is routinely dealing with less-than-ideal conditions when cutting.
When Should You Choose Side Discharge?
Side discharge mowers are ideal for anyone wanting a traditional looking lawn surface, for anyone who wants to mow quickly, or for anyone who regularly cuts longer or wet grass.
Because side discharge mowers actually create some upward suction as they cut, they tend to slice off grass clippings more neatly and leave behind a lawn that looks pretty plush.
And they don’t clog up as often or as quickly since they clippings aren’t going around and around being cut up into fine bits. They get sliced, and are kicked out of the deck.
Also, side discharge mowers are far better at cutting wet and/or long grass. Where a mulching mower would quickly bog down, they can power through.
What are the Issues Associated with Side Discharge Mowers?
The main issue people have with side discharge mowers is that they can be messy.
The grass clippings blow around and if they are wet or stuck together you see those big mounds of grass all over, and there is always the chance that a literal wrong turn might lead to clipping all over your drive, sidewalk or flowerbeds.
That might necessitate cleanup. This makes them less desirable for people who want a super tidy-looking lawn.
Also, even though they still deposit grass back into the yard, because the clippings are much larger compared to when they exit a mulching mower, they don’t break down as quickly are not as beneficial to the soil.
Are Blades for Each Style Interchangeable?
Yes, to a degree, but your results can vary if you use a mulching mower blade in a side discharge mower and vice versa.
However, there are some specialty mulching blades designed to operate normally in a side discharge mower, and in some cases provide very acceptable cut quality.
The biggest issue with blade swaps is that mulching blades tend to push grass down when cutting, the opposite of what a side discharge mower does.
However, there are “combination” or “3-in-1” blades that provide good performance when used in any kind of mower, and they can add the performance aspects of mulching blades when used in a side discharge mower.
Can You Convert a Side Discharge Mower to a Mulching Mower?
Yes. Conversion kits are available for many side discharge mower decks. This typically consists of a blade and a cover to close the discharge port.
Depending on your mower brand and type, an entirely new deck might be required to convert.
Can You Convert a Mulching Mower to Side Discharge?
Generally no. Unlike converting a side-discharge mower to mulching, converting a mulching mower to side discharge is not as simple.
The deck on a mulching mower has no port to allow clippings to exit, so at the very least an entirely new deck assembly will be required unless you want to bust out the angle grinder and start making modifications yourself.
Is There a Situation When It’s Better To Bag Grass Clippings?
Yes. Generally, you should bag clippings when you want your lawn to look as manicured as possible, particularly if you take care of fertilization through other means.
Bagging is also a good idea at the end of the growing season.
As weather cools down, bugs and other organisms that break down the clippings and return their nutrients to the soil slow down, hibernate and die, meaning your cut clippings will just lay around and turn into an unsightly brown mess.
What Can You Do with Bagged Clippings?
Bagged grass clippings have several uses. You can add them to your compost pile, which can provide useful nutrients to your garden.
Alternatively, you can use them as mulch around trees and shrubs or spread them in thin layers over lawns that need a bit of extra nutrition.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.