If you have a large lawn area, live by a hillside, or intend mowing and doing yard work in such areas, then you are probably familiar with the struggle of using a push lawnmower. A push mower requires real physical effort, even if it’s a self-propelled model. A good solution to the type of physical strain caused by mowing a large lawn with a push mower is to use a riding mower. However, not all riding mowers are created equal. In this article I will show you the difference between using a garden tractor vs a zero turn mower so you can can quickly and easily see which one is the better choice for you.
- Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Overview
- Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Key design differences?
- Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Pros & cons of each
- Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Which one is best for you?
- Example of a popular zero turn mower
- Husqvarna Z254 Zero Turn Mower
- Example of a popular garden tractor
- Craftsman T225 garden tractor
- Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: What now?
Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Overview
When it comes to purchasing and using a riding mower you will probably want something that you can rely on and that will last the test of time even with sustained use. But there are other things to consider. So, to help you make the right decision, we’re going to compare two popular riding mower options: the Zero Turn mower and the Garden Tractor.
We will compare the two in terms of features as well as the pros and cons of using them in order to help you come to a final decision about which one is a better choice for you and your unique circumstances.
So, without further ado, let’s get started!
Zero turn vs garden tractor. What are they?
Some riding mowers are much more powerful than others and, as they say; with great power comes great responsibility. This is never more important than it is if you are planning to use such a machine on large yards.
From a broad perspective, zero turn lawnmowers and garden tractors perform similar functions and are very often used in similar ways. This is because both machines will usually have similar builds and sizes and both allow you to perform basic same garden and lawn function. However, as we will see later garden tractors, although inferior to zero turn mowers in many ways, are much more versatile in the yard.
Both zero turn mowers and garden tractors (also known as lawn tractors), will cut grass on large lawns and can be used to haul garden equipment and supplies via a pull behind wagon (which is almost always sold separately). Both zero turn mowers and garden tractors can also be fitted with a myriad of different rear-mounted accessories from pull behind tillers to grass-catching baggers.
However, although these two riding mower types are very similar in functionality, they have some very fundamental design differences. So let’s take a closer look at each machine to see how they compare and how they differ.
What is a zero turn mower?
Zero-turn mowers, also called zero turn tractors, z-turn mowers and z-turn tractors, are lawnmowers that have a zero-turn radius.
A zero turn mower can literally turn on a dime being able to redirect its movement by turning within its own footprint. Think of it like a tank’s turret that can turn from side to side or completely reverse its direction without the actual tank moving. A zero turn mower is the same only with a zero turn mower the entire machine can turn like a tank turret.
Zero-turn tractors are more popular among people who have to cut large lawn areas with, uniform layouts and/or tight turns and/or lots of shrubs or trees. The ability to turn the machine without actually moving it along the ground allows the user to access and cut areas that many traditional riding mowers (that have an average 18″ turning radius) would find difficult to navigate. For this reason almost all commercial landscapers will have a least one zero turn mower in their fleet.
Another difference between these two machines lies in the position of the cutting deck.
Most riding lawnmowers have the mowing deck placed directly under the tractor but this is not so with zero turn machines. Zero turn mowers have the mowing deck more to the front of the machine usually directly under the feet of the operator. This placement of the mowing deck helps to make them fast and easier to maneuver. This is another major reason why they’re so popular among pro landscapers.
Zero turn mowers perform well thanks to hydraulic controls that allow the machine to be maneuvered with ease. Although there are small zero turn mowers, and even a zero turn push mower, most modern zero turn mowers are large commercially-sized machines designed to cover all types of large lawn areas quickly, efficiently and professionally.
The operator on a zero turn mower has a lower center of gravity on the machine having a much lower seated position.
What is a garden tractor?
A garden tractor looks how you would imagine a riding lawn mower to look.
Though fairly big in size, with a much higher seating position than a zero turn, garden tractors are a perfect fit for small and medium-sized lawns. They tend to perform best on lawns that are straight and that do not have a lot of obstacles. This is largely due to their fairly wide turning radius that makes it more difficult to cut around obstacles and in tight turn areas.
Garden tractors are very easy to maneuver however and are operated like a typical automatic road vehicle.
Despite being considered an expensive lawn mower option, being much more expensive than a walk-behind mower, they are still cheaper than zero turn mowers.
Being much more powerful than a push mower and usually having a wider cutting width (with the exception of wide area push mowers) they are superior to push mowers but mostly inferior to zero turn mowers (due to their larger turning radius). Though they do have advantages over zero turn mowers as you will see later.
Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Key design differences?
Now that you have a good understanding of what each riding mower type is and what it is used for, let’s get into more detail about the main differences between the two.
The mowing deck size of a riding mower matters a lot. This is because of the simple fact that the larger the mowing deck, the quicker and easier it will be to cut large areas of a lawn without having to go back and forth repeatedly. The wider the cutting deck, the more grass area can be cut with every sweep.
Garden tractors usually have decks that range in size from anywhere between 36 – 54 inches. This size makes garden tractors a perfect fit for medium-sized to large lawns.
When it comes to deck size though zero-turn mowers have the edge. A zero turn mower will have a cutting deck that will measure from 42 inches all the way up to 60 inches.
For a large lawn with no obstacles, a standard garden tractor, like the John Deere D140 or Cub Cadet XT1 and XT2, will perform admirably and be able to handle most typical lawn types and will excel on lawns with hills.
However, with very large lawns, which require a mower with a wider cutting deck, and those lawns that are littered with obstacles (such as trees) and that have tight turns, it is zero-turn mowers, that are a much better choice.
Zero turns mowers like the Poulan Pro (our pick for best zero turn mower), the Troy Bilt Mustang, or just about any Ariens zero turn, are a better choice for large lawns and lawns with less symmetry because they can cover larger areas quicker than garden tractors and their zero turn capability further reduces cutting time while making the whole experience much more frustration-free.
As mentioned earlier, zero turn mowers win when it comes to reducing cut time. Not only do they cut faster than garden tractors due to their wider cutting decks but they are also faster machines in general.
With a standard operating speed of 5-mph and a top speed of 10-mph, zero turn mowers are quite fast.
Comparatively, garden tractors are slower with a standard operating speed of 4-mph and a top speed of 7-mph.
However, it is necessary to keep in mind that motor speed does not always equal efficiency nor does it mean faster grass cutting. The faster a lawn tractor moves while the cutting deck is engaged, the bigger is the possibility that areas of lawn grass can remain untrimmed and the greater the danger that scalping of your lawn can occur.
Zero turn mowers tend to perform much better at higher speeds than garden tractors in this respect but really neither should be used at top speed while cutting unless you are content to have a messed up lawn.
So, even with the high 10-mph speed of zero-turn mowers, it is unlikely you will want to run the risk of lawn scalping and so will cut at lower speeds. Most riding mowers are usually used at a similar speeds regardless of model or type. The top speed of a riding mower is typically used only to get from one side of a large lawn to another or when hauling supplies and equipment.
Another feature that sets both garden tractors and zero turn tractors apart from one another is the vast difference in their control functions.
Garden tractors have a similar control mechanism to road vehicles. Anyone who knows how to drive an automatic road vehicle will have no trouble handling these machines. They work on the traditional control of a steering wheel, break pedal, and an accelerator pedal.
In contrast, a zero turn mower consists of a lever mechanism control (though there are some that come with traditional controls – Cub Cadet offer their zero turn mower range with either lever control or steering wheel control).
Level control on a zero turn mower is easy to use and the learning curve is quick. Simple, intuitive, lever controls contain all the functions of the mower including acceleration, steering, and even the breaking system.
Another major difference between both tractors is their ability to perform as more than just a simple lawnmower. However, garden tractors are much better when it comes to yard functionality than zero turn mowers.
With the right accessories, garden tractors can perform a multitude of activities such as plowing snow, plowing soil, tilling gardens, seeding the ground and, of course, towing equipment around. This makes them incredibly flexible in terms of functionality.
What makes them superior to zero turn mowers is the fact that they can accommodate rear-mounted, front-mounted and side-mounted accessories while zero turn mowers can only accommodate specific rear-mounted accessories.
Zero turn tractors are built more for cutting grass than general yard work, though they can pull wagons and tillers. As opposed to garden tractors, you cannot really add accessories to change the functionality of zero turn mowers that much.
In truth a zero turn mower is less of a lawn tractor and more of a lawn mower than than a garden tractor is.
When it comes to engines, both tractors will come equipped with a motor that has 15 – 25 HP. However, what sets the two yard machines apart is that while a garden tractor has a single-cylinder engine, a zero turn mower comes with a twin-cylinder.
The biggest advantage of a twin-cylinder is that it allows for a much simpler drive and offers much more power. It also drives smoother and does not vibrate a lot.
Another factor that plays an important role in the functionality of a riding mower is its fuel tank capacity. Bear in mind that fuel tank capacities are subject to change based on the manufacturer’s preference. However, garden tractors typically have a fuel tank capacity that ranges anywhere from 1 – 6 gallons.
On the other hand, zero turn mowers will have a higher fuel tank capacity of up to 12 gallons. This is just one more reason for choosing a zero turn for larger lawns as they require less refueling and why you will often see commercial landscapers using a zero turn mower on very large lawns even when they are straight and even and easily suitable for a garden tractor.
The turning radius of garden tractor differs greatly from a zero turn mower.
Turning radius is by far the biggest difference between a garden tractor and a zero turn mower.
Typically, a garden tractor will have a turning radius that can fall anywhere from 4 inches to 28 inches with the average being 18 inches.
Garden tractors are pretty much driven and turned in a similar manner to a normal road vehicle. If you need to make a very tight turn, you will either have to reverse before moving forward again (sometimes multiple times) making minor adjustments each time in order to properly align your vehicle and ensure each part of the lawn is trimmed properly. Or it may be possible to simply move over previously mowed areas.
You may encounter a similar problem navigating garden obstacles.
On the other hand, zero turn mowers have a zero-degree turning radius. They can literally turn on a dime, changing direction up to 360 degrees, within their own footprint. This means that they can easily rotate and change cutting direction without the machine having to actually move on the ground.
With the ability to turn 360-degrees without moving from their spot, zero turn mowers save you from the repetitive process of having to continually maneuver your riding mower in order to cut grass in difficult-to-access areas. In gardens with challenging lawns this zero turn capability can save cutting time by almost 50%.
Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Pros & cons of each
Now that we have discussed the difference in the features of the two riding mowers, let’s discuss the pros and cons of each in brief.
Zero turn tractor: Pros and cons
Let’s start with the zero turn mower.
- Easy Maneuverability:
Perhaps the biggest pro of owning a zero turn mower is how easy they are to handle and move around, even in very tight spots.
Thanks to this advantage, zero turn mowers can make turns around tight corners and even switch from going forward to backward (without needing reverse) with a simple push and pull of a lever.
They can easily navigate and cut around any type of obstacle.
- Faster speed
If you are in a hurry and want to cut down the mowing time by half, then a zero turn mower is the best choice.
They do not just offer faster speeds though. They can cover large areas of lawn, thus cutting more grass with each sweep, thanks to their larger deck size.
- Less traction
If you’re thinking about getting yourself a riding lawnmower, but have steep areas in your yard then being concerned about it tipping over while driving up a hill is a valid concern.
Zero turn mowers have less traction than garden tractors. This is what ultimately makes them unsuitable to operate on steep hills or slopes.
Although you may see zero turn mowers being used on hills they are far from the ideal choice for such a task and can tip in these circumstances.
- Hefty price tag
Zero turn mowers are extremely expensive lawnmowers.
This is why most people only purchase them when their yards are large or unsuitable for garden tractors.
Likewise, commercial landscapers will often have more than one garden tractor in their fleet but will usually limit their zero turn ownership to just one machine.
Garden Tractors: Pros and cons
Now for the pros and cons of the garden tractor.
- Perfect for Hilly Yards
If you have a particularly bumpy or hilly yard with steep inclines then a garden tractor is a much better choice than a zero turn simply because it provides superior traction in those environments.
You will have no trouble going up or down the hilly areas of your lawn.
Garden tractors can be used for more than just mowing and towing. There are multiple accessories that you can attach to a garden tractor to turn it into everything from a tiller and sower to a snow plow (though it will never replace a snow blower for that type of functionality) or digger.
The ability to attach a multitude of different accessories, for a myriad of yard jobs, is what makes garden tractors much more multi-functional than zero turn mowers (which can only use limited pull behind accessories).
- Often requires multiple sweeps
Due to their large turning radius, garden tractors cannot be turned around easily in certain tight spaces.
They will struggle on very challenging turning-terrain and in areas that are full of obstacles and awkward turns.
This is the reason why they often require multiple trips up and down unsymmetrical yard to get all of the grass covered evenly. Not only does this mean slower mowing times but it can make the riding mower a little cumbersome to use in certain environments.
Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: Which one is best for you?
Since we have highlighted the differences between a garden tractor and a zero turn mower, let’s move on to the next important question: which one is the best choice for you and your individual and specific uses?
This question can be tough to answer since it depends on your specific requirements but I will give it a go.
Here is a list of factors to consider which will help you make a better, more informed, decision.
The first and foremost factor to take into consideration is the size of your yard.
It is not unusual for some people to have a yard that is too large for a push lawnmower but too small to accommodate very large riding mowers.
Having a good idea of the exact measurements of your yard can help make the decision between a big zero turn mower or a smaller garden tractor.
To help you, here is a simple table:
|Acre Measurement||Recommended Tractor||Recommended horsepower and deck size|
|1 – 2 acres||Garden tractor||14 to 16 hp/35 to 40-inch cutting deck|
|3+ acres and above||Zero turn mower||18 to 24 hp/46 to 54-inch cutting deck|
The type of yard also comes into play as a factor to consider when choosing between a garden tractor and zero turn mower. Choosing a riding mower according to the dynamics of your yard will definitely help you to be more efficient in the garden in the long term.
A zero turn mower can be a good choice if you have a curved yard with with very tight turns and/or a lot of obstacles as they work on a dual hydraulic transmission mechanism and can turn within their own footprint.
A large zero turn mower will also reduce your cutting time on very large yards.
However, some large yards have naturally unequal terrains with angled and very steep hills. If such is the case, then it is best to go with a garden tractor as it will offer better traction and more safety on hilly areas even if this means having to use a machine with a smaller cutting deck. Most garden tractors have a front-wheel drive that gives them better leverage over zero turn mowers which come with rear-wheel drive.
If time is of the essence when it comes to mowing your yard then you need a faster mower with a wider cutting deck.
If you are switching over from a push lawnmower to a riding lawnmower, then you probably want a machine that gets the job done in a quicker and less physically-demanding manner.
Below is a table for a clear comparison to help you understand how long it takes to mow a lawn using a standard garden tractor and a typical zero turn mower.
|Type of Tractor||Size of Cutting Deck||Time taken to Mow Lawn per acre|
|Garden Tractor||36-inches||1 hour|
|Garden Tractor||48-inches||45 minutes|
|Zero Turn Tractor||50+ inches||30 minutes|
Obviously if you are working on a yard that has challenging turns and multiple obstacles then you can expect the time it takes to finish your task to exponentially rise if you are using a garden tractor. The added time will be minimal if using a zero turn mower however as these machines can easily navigate such challenging areas.
Example of a popular zero turn mower
If you have decided to invest in a zero turn mower, then we have a top pick for you.
Husqvarna Z254 Zero Turn Mower
This Husqvarna zero turn mower comes with a powerful 21.5-hp Kawasaki engine that is not only powerful but also very reliable.
The mowing deck is positioned right under your feet at the center of the tractor.
The perfectly thought-out position of the mowing deck plays a great role in the fluidity and smoothness of the turns and twists that this zt mower can perform and it can run for hours. The one problem most people complain about when they operate a garden tractor is how quickly it can overheat during longer mowing jobs. But, you will have no such problems with this zero turn beauty as it comes with an over-sized cooling fan to allow the engine to run for extended periods – just one of the reasons that makes it so popular among many commercial users.
It is suitable for very large yards with some soft hills as the wheels have excellent traction for a zero turn machine.
Best of all, for extra protection and caution, this zero turn also comes with a front crash bar that saves your machine from any sudden impacts it may encounter on bumpy ground. ANother plus for commercial users.
- Comfortable seat for great back support over extended use.
- Large mowing deck size for more area coverage.
- Ergonomic handles and controls.
- Great professional lawn-cut quality.
- The engine might not be suitable for 5+ acre yards.
- It isn’t cheap.
Invest in this zero turn mower if what you want is a powerful riding lawn mower that pairs comfort and power with commercial machine protection and professional lawn care results.
Example of a popular garden tractor
If you feel like a garden tractor will suit you best, then we have a great machine to consider.
Craftsman T225 garden tractor
Combining a powerful 19 HP American-made Briggs and Stratton engine with a 46-inch mowing deck, it is clear to see why the Craftsman T225 garden tractor is one of the most popular options on the market.
This garden tractor features an impressive hydraulic transmission that allows for a smoother drive no matter what type of terrain you are cutting on.
The best feature of this garden tractor though is its ability to mow in reverse mode without scalping or causing an uneven cut (results that many other riding mowers who have reverse cut capability cannot attain). Thanks to this feature, you might not need to make constant trips back and forth across your yard and it also somewhat diminishes the need to constantly move back and forth over challenging areas just so you can cut small areas of grass.
If traction is what you need while performing other yard work then you’re in luck because this tractor comes with turf saver wheels, which are durable and strong as well as having the ability to hold the terrain well. This makes hill work easy.
Coming to comfort, the garden tractor also features a high-placed seat that offers more support to your back during longer mowing jobs.
- Excellent traction.
- Multiple add-on accessories for many different yard jobs.
- Professional cut quality.
- Reasonably priced.
- Features a two-year warranty.
- Some parts feel fragile and light to touch.
- Not appropriate for heavy/sustained commercial use.
This gas-powered garden tractor is perfect for not just mowing, but performing other additional yard activities as well.
Zero Turn Vs Garden Tractor: What now?
There is no one lawn tractor or lawnmower that can fit the needs of everyone. Each of us is as individual and different as our yards.
Therefore, before you make a decision, between a zero turn mower and a garden tractor, it is necessary to take everything I mentioned in this article into consideration to make sure that you choose the riding mower that can cater to all of your yard requirements. And … keep in mind that bigger isn’t always better – it’s about which machine type is a better for you and your yard.