Get reel!

I have been having serious problems with scalping at one of my hybrid bermuda mowing accents. I recently tried using a Walker rotary mower at a 2-inch height instead of my usual 25-inch reel mower at a lower height. The results actually came out much nicer than with the reel mower. Is it very common to use a rotary mower on hybrid bermuda? — California

You can't generalize about what type of mower to use on a specific kind of turfgrass. Rather, it's the height of cut and the smoothness of the terrain that determines what kind of mower you should use. It's not surprising that your mower gave you a good-quality cut at 2 inches. Tim Cromley, of Walker mowers, told me that their units are designed to perform best with 1- to 4- inch cutting heights, so 2 inches is well within the machine's design parameters. The same is true of most other rotary mowers. And that's high enough to avoid most scalping problems.

If you were mowing at, say, less than ½ inch — which you would do if you wanted a “golf green” look — you would want to stick with the reel mower. Most rotary mowers aren't designed to cut so low, and would probably do no better avoiding scalping; perhaps even worse. You could try raising the cutting height on the reel mower — if it adjusts high enough — to see how that works.

Other factors can come into play in quality of cut. For example, Cromley notes that clipping collection systems (in Walker units, at least) create a vacuum to aid clipping movement. This can help turf stand up during cutting, providing a more finished look. And, of course, there are no clippings laying around. Clipping collectors, incidentally, tend not to work effectively when the decks are too low to the ground; the narrow clearance between the deck skirt and the ground doesn't allow enough air flow to move the clippings, according to Cromley.

Hot, Hot, Hot!

I heard that ornamental peppers are related to nightshade. Does that mean they are also toxic? — via the internet

Although members of the nightshade family, peppers are relatively tame when it comes to toxicity. The vegetative portions of the plant do not contain the high levels of the deadly alkaloids for which nightshade is known.

However, the fruit contains capsaicin and related compounds that produce the well-known spiciness of peppers. Capsaicin is not merely irritating; it can cause significant internal problems if ingested by pets or children.

Fortunately, breeders have developed varieties encompassing a wide range of heat, from types completely devoid of spiciness to those that are virtually inedible.

Ornamental varieties, like edible sorts, vary in their spiciness. Hot peppers, though not what you would consider deadly, might nevertheless not be the best choice if children or pets are likely to encounter them.

One of the recent All-America Selections winners is a variety of pepper called ‘Chilly Chili’. Not only is it highly ornamental, the fruit contain practically no capsaicin, so they are less risky for pets and kids.

A tank of gas

Are flat vehicle allowances for crews legal? — via the internet

Whether this breaks any laws depends on how it's done. Businesses commonly — and legally — provide a flat vehicle allowance for employees (salespeople, for example) who must do some traveling while conducting business. There's usually no problem as long as applicable tax and liability issues are addressed.

However, such agreements are routinely informal and “off the books.” They are, therefore, most likely in violation of the law. James Huston, green industry consultant and president of Smith Huston, Inc. (, states that in his experience, a common arrangement is for the operator to provide gas for an employee's pickup truck in exchange for making use of it.

But this may not be such a good deal for the employee. Huston roughly estimates the market value of a truck at about $6 an hour, which accounts for not only fuel, but maintenance, insurance, purchase price and so forth.

How you arrange a vehicle allowance or reimbursement is something you should discuss with an accountant; there are many possible tax implications. You also should speak to your insurance carrier about liability issues. For example, are you sure the employee's auto insurance would cover an accident that occurred while doing work for you? Will yours? Are you sure your employee even has insurance? Does that put your business at risk?

Eric Liskey has a bachelor's degree in ornamental horticulture and a master's degree in botany. He has been licensed for pesticide advising and applications in California and Missouri, and has more than 10 years combined professional experience in landscape installation and maintenance, nursery retailing, pest management and botany.

If you have a question about landscape or turf management, write to “Researching Maintenance,” Grounds Maintenance, P.O. Box 12901, Overland Park, KS 66282-2901, or send you question by e-mail to

Questions are selected on the basis of current general interest. Unfortunately, we are unable to guarantee a response to individual letters.

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