Lawn Tractor, Garden Tractor, Zero-Turn & More – The Types of Riding Mowers and their Differences

Are you in the market for a riding mower?

If you are finally tired of having to walk while mowing, or if you just started taking care of a larger property - then you are probably a first-time shopper for a lawnmower that you can ride on, and confused by the vast variety of types available. We´re here to clear up this confusion.


This article explains the categories of riding mowers as they are generally used, confined to mowers for residential use. It describes what they are made for, what they are not made for, and for which type of user each type of mower is best suited.

By the way, residential use means working on lawns that are mowed at leat every 2 weeks. We are talking about lawns here, not fields, pastures, hill-sides with lots of rocks and the like. Regularly handling grass taller than 12 inches will damage the bearings , tires and moving components of these mowers.

Riding mowers

These are the cheapest types of mowers that you can sit on while mowing. They have single blade decks with 26" to 32" sizes positioned in the middle (between the wheels), rear engines with around 10 HP and cost from $ 700 to $ 1.200. They can mulch and bag and even pull carts (with grass clippings or similar very light cargo).

These ultra-low-end riding mowers without any extra features like headlights are designed to replace walk behind mowers and mow areas of the same size as these walk behinds do - only faster and more comfortable.

Their seats are not made to sit in for extended periods, and their narrow wheelbase and non-pressurized engine lubrication makes them suitable only for totally flat and even terrain. Using them on rough or non-leveled terrain will feel like taming a small bronco, and will wear down the bearings quickly. Using them on slopes sideways can tip them over.

If you have a garden of up to 0.5 acres and want to just mow the lawn while sitting, in the most cost-efficient way, then a simple riding mower is the way to go.

Lawn tractors

Lawn tractors are the next step up. They have larger wheels and wheelbases, sturdier frames, and the engine resides in the front under a hood. The deck sizes range from 42" dual blades to 54" triple blades, the engines range from 1 cylinder engines with an output of about 15 HP to 2 cylinder ones delivering up to 24 HP. All of them have their decks in mid-position and are rear-wheel driven.

The cheapest and smallest lawn tractors cost about $ 1.100, going up to $ 2.000. Economy models with deck sizes of 42" or 46" can mow 1 - 2 acres in a reasonable time with outputs of up to 18 HP. All of them can mulch or bag, and they can pull equipment like yard carts, dethatchers, spike aerators or lawn striping rollers.

If you go up the ladder you will not only get stronger engines and transmissions and larger decks, but also better tires, a smaller turning radius and pressure-lubricated engines that can go up slopes without dying from lack of lubrication. These models cost from $ 2.000 up to $ 2.800.

Some brands call these more expensive models yard tractors, but there really is no hard distinction between lawn and yard tractors. There is generally no size difference between lawn, yard and garden tractors. Upscale lawn tractors and yard tractors are the best all-around riding mowers and will last for a decade if you service them well.

48" and 54" decks are good for lots of 2 acres and more, and can handle slopes of up to 15°. But make sure they fit through narrow places and gates.

Light garden tractors

Light Garden Tractor

They look like garden tractors due to their large (22" or more) rear wheels and tires, but they lack the sturdy frame and other qualities of real garden tractors. Don`t use them for heavy duty work! The larger rear wheels are good for getting large 54" decks higher up from the ground and mow higher than would be possible with a lawn tractor.

Garden tractors

Garden Tractor

Garden tractors look like upscale lawn tractors, except for the larger rear wheels. They have engines with 24 to 26 HP. But the real differences are the stronger frames and transmissions.

They need these because they are designed for ground-engaging work like tilling, grading or plowing. Garden tractors can pull heavier carts and attachments like self-powered roto-tillers, driveway levelers or cultivators. Snow blowers or snow plows are no problem for them either.

They handle rougher terrain than lawn or yard tractors and the deck sizes range from 48" to 54", but most of them come with 54" triple blade decks. Prices range from $ 2.800 to $ 4.500.

Zero-turn mowers

Zero-Turn Mower

Residential zero-turn mowers also have mid-positioned decks. They have rear engines and large rear wheels that are independently driven. This is made possible by dual hydrostatic transmissions. The power is transmitted not through shafts, but through pumps that drive hydraulic motors.

This makes switching from full speed forward to full speed reverse real quick, and there are not gears - switching happens without steps or interruptions.

The two wheels are typically controlled with two lap bars that you can push forward or backward independently. This is quite a difference to steering vehicles with steering wheels, the way we are used to, and makes for a steep learning curve in the beginning. But there are also models with regular steering wheels available now.

Cub Cadet RZT S 50_turn

All this gives zero-turn mowers the ability to turn around in their own footprint, so you don`t have to mow in elaborate patterns, the way you have to with tractors. You can just mow one row next to the other after you have turned the mower around on the spot - and thus mow quicker.

But where there is light, there is also darkness. Zero-turns have a lot of disadvantages that make up for this one advantage of being able to turn so quickly.

With the cheaper models or without much practice it is real easy to accidentally turn while the inner rear wheel is moving on the spot. Then it scrapes the lawn and makes ugly dents in it.

Zero-turns are tricky to handle on slopes because they are prone to sliding or even tipping over. They are way more expensive than all the other riding mowers, starting at $ 2.400 and going all the way up to $ 6.000. Also you wreck the transmissions real quick if you pull anything heavier than the lightest carts.

Attaching bagging kits can ruin the balance of zero-turns and make them too rear-heavy and even more prone to making wheelies while going uphill. The small front wheels with their casters can easily get stuck if you drive front first into muddy, sandy or soft terrain.

They are really only good for one thing: Mowing large lawns or lawns with lots of obstacles in very short time. But at this they are very good.

And don`t fall for the promise that they make trimming unnecessary because they don`t - because mid-decked residential zero-turns can`t get any closer to obstacles than lawn tractors.

But they do look real professional - and you look real cool operating one if you know how to.

So be sure to know that you really want to buy a residential zero-turn if you are out to get one.

So now you know what`s what​

We hope this helped a bit in clarifying the definitions that the lawnmower producers use​. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the commenst section.

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