There is nothing that defines the suburban American property more than a wide, expansive lawn that is well cared for.
You can tell at a glance – even looking from the window of a passing car – which homeowners take very good care of their lawns and which ones only give them the barest care necessary.
A lot of work goes into keeping a lawn looking great: there’s seeding and sodding it, and making sure it gets well established before the heat of summer comes. Then there is making sure it gets enough water and fertilizer through the hot summer months, and keeping those ever present weeds and dandelions at bay.
You have to overseed it occasionally to make sure it does not die back, especially if you live in a warmer region with mild winters. You have to balance the pH and nutrients of the soil. And of course, you have to mow it.
Lawn mowers are big business in the United States, and there is every reason they should be. Keeping a healthy, well trimmed lawn is part of being a homeowner. The lawn is where most of the summer activity happens in this country. Unless you live on a coastline or near the Great Lakes, you and your family do not go to the beach nearly as often as you relax on your lawn. The lawn is where we play sports, where we throw the ball with the kids, and where we entertain our friends with beers and cookouts.
So of course you are going to want the best lawn mower for the job. There are lawn mowers available for residential use today that are the envy of commercial operations. There are lawn mowers out there that are designed for every conceivable type of lawn, from the smallest postage stamp sized ones to vast, rolling backyards that are an acre or more. Lawn mowers come in all shapes and sizes, and can cut swaths as narrow as ten inches or as wide as forty. There are manual push lawn mowers, electric and gas powered mowers, riding mowers and lawn tractors, and massive zero turn mowers that can knock out a full acre in less than an hour. So which one is right for you?
Well, that depends on the kind of lawn you have. But even if you have managed to narrow down your selection to a particular style of lawn mower, there is still a staggering variety of brands, designs, and makes in each category. It can be a tough decision to try and choose the right one. But it does not have to be. There are certain characteristics that are applicable to nearly every kind of lawn mower that are going to go a long way to determining how well it will cut your grass. They are all pretty straightforward and will allow you to make snap judgments correctly. Apply these criteria, and you will soon find a lawn mower that will have your yard being the envy of the entire neighborhood.
1. Best Lawn Mower Characteristics
On any lawn mower, no matter whether it is a hulking, huge gas powered zero turn mower or a simple, small mechanical reel mower, the cutting deck is going to be one of its most important characteristics. Why? Well, the cutting deck is where all of the work gets done. The cutting deck is the part of the lawn mower that actually does the work of trimming the lawn, and there are characteristics of each one that will decide how efficiently, how evenly, and how easily the lawn mower is going to be able to cut various types of lawns.
In each class of lawn mowers there is going to be a different range of cutting widths for the deck. They start small – at about ten inches in reel mowers – and progressively get bigger through each successive class of lawn mowers, from electric and gas push mowers, to riding mowers and lawn tractors, and finally to zero turn mowers. The ranges also get more expansive the higher you go. As a general rule, you are going to want to find the lawn mower in any class that has one of the higher cutting widths.
That is because the width of the cutting deck determines how many passes it is going to take for that mower to finish cutting the lawn. It does not matter if you are cutting a tiny backyard lawn in a city-sized lot that is more garage and driveway than it is lawn, or a giant football field sized lawn. The cutting deck width is going to impact how many passes you can get the job done in. The fewer passes it takes to finish the job, the less time you have to spend cutting the grass. This leaves more free time open for knocking other lawn care tasks off your list, or else just relaxing and enjoying the rest of your weekend with your family and friends.
This does not mean that you should always go for the biggest possible cutting deck every single time. The cutting deck does not exist in a vacuum, and other factors are affected by its size. And in some cases, huge cutting decks can be harder to maneuver and cause the mower to take up too much room in your garage. But it does mean that you should look for a lawn mower with a cutting deck that is on the higher end of the range.
Every lawn mower has a power source – whether they are big zero turn mowers or small manual reel mowers – and the design of that source is going to have major effects on how well they operate. I already know what you are going to ask – how does a manual reel mower have a power source? Well, in this case, the power source is you – but the mechanical design of the mower is going to affect how much power you have to exert to get the mower’s cutting reel spinning fast enough to cut grass evenly!
Reel mowers’ cutting reels are mounted on shafts – called “spiders” in the industry – that are connected to the outer wheels. The shafts are housed in ball-bearings, which are what allow them to spin at a differential rate to the wheels. Older models just have a single spider: more efficient models have 3- and even 4-spider designs. This increases the number of ball bearings that are easing the amount of force it takes to get the reel spinning quickly. Reel mowers with more spiders are going to have more power.
On electric lawn mowers, the power source is either going to be a battery or a plug-in power cord. There are pros and cons to both styles. Plug-in power cords theoretically never run out of energy, so you can run them indefinitely, but at the same time you are tethered to a power outlet and can only go as far as the extension cord reaches. Speaking of extension cords: as we all know, they can be a hassle to wind up and untangle. Battery powered lawn mowers are clearly the better choice here, but they have limitations as well: they have to be charged up, and eventually they run out of juice. The best batteries will have the shortest charging times and the longest run times. Lithium ion batteries are superior to lead-acid batteries in these and almost every other aspect.
Gas lawn mowers have engines with varying specs and abilities. It is generally best to find a lawn mower with an engine made by a trusted name, such as Briggs & Stratton or Honda. You also want to make sure you are getting an engine with high displacement (in cubic centimeters), horsepower and torque. And if possible, find one that has high fuel efficiency and does not produce too many emissions so that it is CARB compliant.
Okay, now that you have a lawn mower that is powering through the lawn and trimming the grass to an even, beautiful cut, what are you going to do with all of the left over clippings? Well, that depends on the lawn mower. The most basic grass clippings management design simply spits the grass out the side of the cutting deck. On reel mowers, the grass is discharged out the rear, but you get the idea. Personally, I prefer to have a lot of options when I am doing lawn work, and different mowers provide a range of them.
In reel mowers, there are two additional options that some models provide: they either discharge clippings out the front of the mower so they do not get all over your shoes, or they have a detachable grass catcher for collecting clippings. While they are not very common options yet, it’s nice to have them, so if you can find them I urge you to do so.
In all other lawn mowers, the other options available are a mulching plug or a grass clippings bag (or bin, as on some lawn tractors). The mulching plug is a great option if you are interested in applying organic methods to keeping your lawn looking lush and verdant. By inserting the mulching plug, the clippings stay in the cutting deck, where they are chopped up into tiny pieces before being deposited on the lawn. This allows them to break down much more quickly into the soil, where they release beneficial nutrients that the rest of the lawn can then take up and use. Some mowers tend to struggle to cut the grass when a mulching plug is inserted, so make sure you are not getting one that has this problem.
The rear bag attachment is a great option if you are like many people and prefer to compost or dispose of your grass clippings. It is important to make sure the rear bag on the mower you are purchasing is able to hold the entire volume of clippings your yard will produce. This can be as much as five or ten pounds per acre, so plan accordingly. You should also make sure that the rear bag does not have any intake issues – some do, and stop filling before they have reached their maximum capacity. Finally, try to find a lawn mower that includes all three options in the initial purchase price – you don’t want to get hit with hidden costs down the line.
In any new product – whether it is as simple as a Phillips screwdriver or as complicated as an SUV – the product’s durability is a major facet in determining how well it will perform over time. And of course, the same rule applies to lawn mowers. Whether it is a basic manual reel mower or an expensive zero turn mower, you want to make sure it is made out of the highest quality materials. If you choose to go the other route, and save a bit of money up front by purchasing a lawn mower that is made of inferior quality products, you will definitely regret it in the long run, when you find that your machine cannot hold up to the rigors of repeated use. Nobody wants that.
The first thing to look at is how the cutting blades are finished and what kind of material they are made of. They should always be made of steel – no ifs, ands, or buts. Not only that, but they should be made of higher gauge steel as well. Like deck width, the steel gauge is going to vary from one class of lawn mowers to the next. Shop around until you are satisfied you have found a lawn mower with cutting blades that are on the higher end of the range. The blades should be heat treated or otherwise finished with some sort of process that improves their overall durability. This is important because it will determine how often they need to be sharpened, how cleanly they will cut the grass, and how long they will last before needing replacement.
The body and frame of the lawn mower should likewise be made of solid, high quality materials. A lot of walk behind mowers have plastic covers for the cutting decks – I prefer to avoid these. Not only will they not be as durable in the face of dings or scratches, this also indicates potential other areas with shoddy craftsmanship. Walk behind mowers with stamped steel bodies are fine. On riding and zero turn mowers, this will also suffice, but I prefer to find models with welded steel if possible. Yes, they will wind up costing a bit more up front. But a riding mower with a welded steel body is going to last for years. And the fact that the manufacturer took the time to weld the components points to a high standard of craftsmanship for the entire machine.
While features like the cutting deck width, power source, clippings management and materials are the most important aspects in determining which lawn mowers are best, they are not the only things you should be looking at. By applying those characteristics, you can quickly determine whether a lawn mower should be on your short list or not. But now that you have a short list, how do you select the perfect lawn mower from it? At this point, it is time to look at the little things – features like the accessories on the mower, its ease of use, and how comfortable and ergonomic it is.
The ergonomics of a lawn mower are more important than they may seem at first. After all, a lawn mower is a tool – and unlike putting a nail in the wall, this is a tool that you will be using for twenty minutes to an hour at a time. So it is very important to make sure it is designed to protect you from chronic strain while you are using it. For walk behind mowers, make sure the handle is padded, adjustable, and designed to be easy to push. On riding mowers, look for seats with high backs, armrests, and lumbar support. These minor details will save your back and shoulders a lot of strain in the long run.
Larger mowers are going to have a range of accessories – on riding mowers I prefer to have a cup holder and a power outlet for running other appliances. On a walk behind mower, it is useful to have an attachment for easily washing the deck. Bigger wheels are always better, because they provide more stability to the mower. And on any gas powered mower, you want an electric starter so you are not struggling with a heavy recoil cord.
Safety features are also very important on all mowers. On power mowers, it is very important to have a child proof starter key so small children don’t accidentally use them, and dead man switches to prevent accidents if you let go of the controls. Riding mowers should be equipped with seat belts at the very least, and zero turn mowers should have roll bars to protect the operator in serious collisions. Having features that are dedicated to the safety and comfort of the operator will go a long way to ensure that the overall mowing experience is an enjoyable one.
2. Best Lawn Mower
The best lawn mowers have several things in common, whether they are simple mechanical reel mowers or giant, powerful zero turn models. They will have high quality parts and manufacturing, comfortable, user friendly design, wide cutting decks and plenty of options. No matter what kind of mower you select in the end, make sure it has those characteristics.
2a. Best Electric Lawn Mower
Electric lawn mowers often seem to be the wave of the future: they use cutting edge, state of the art technology like lithium ion batteries, they run quietly and they produce zero emissions at the point of use, making them perfect for homeowners concerned with their impact on the environment. Not only that, they are quickly catching up to gas powered lawn mowers in terms of cutting deck widths and run times. While they do still have a few drawbacks in terms of power and size, if you have the right lawn, they can be a great way to go green.
- Best Use: Yards less than 1/3 of an acre in size.
- Pros: Very quiet, environmentally friendly, and cheap to operate.
- Cons: They are not yet quite as powerful as gas mowers, limited in range.
2b. Best Gas Lawn Mower
In spite of the rising popularity of electric lawn mowers and concerns about the effects carbon emissions are having on the planet’s climate, gas lawn mowers remain the most popular style in the United States. And there is a simple reason for that: these machines are still the most dependable, most powerful, and have the largest cutting decks of any walk behind lawn mower on the market today. While they may be somewhat noisy and do not have the best fuel economy out there, they have unlimited range as long as the gas tank is topped off and have no problem with tough varieties of grass.
- Best Use: Lawns that are larger than 1/4 acre.
- Pros: Unlimited range, wide cutting decks, powerful engines.
- Cons: Low fuel economy, high carbon emissions, and loud.
2c. Best Reel Lawn Mower
Reel lawn mowers are where it all started – these machines were invented over a hundred years ago, and they are still quite popular for many homeowners. Reel mowers are the only mowers that have a truly neutral carbon footprint – and all they need to run is human power. You will never need a single drop of gas or watt of electricity to run a reel mower. Not only that, they are compact and easy to use. While they are not recommended for larger lawns, if you have a small yard to keep looking great, a reel mower can be perfect for the job.
- Best Use: Very small yards planted with cool season grasses.
- Pros: Compact and lightweight, inexpensive, and carbon neutral.
- Cons: Too small to handle larger lawns efficiently.
2d. Best Garden or Lawn Tractor Mower
When you have a big lawn and you want to keep it looking as great as if a professional had cut it, you are going to want a riding mower. These machines take almost all the work out of keeping your lawn trimmed – all you have to do is hop on, start them up and go. And they have considerably larger cutting decks than any walk behind mowers on the market. Not only that, but lawn tractors are equipped to do a variety of jobs above and beyond just mowing the lawn. With one of these in your garage you will be ready for anything.
- Best Use: Lawns that are 1/2 and acre or larger, or for heavy duty gardening and lawn care.
- Pros: They have a versatile range of uses, and eliminate a lot of the work.
- Cons: They are not very fuel efficient, and take up space in the garage.
2e. Best Zero Turn Lawn Mower
And for the king of them all: the zero turn mower. These are the biggest and most powerful grass cutting machines you can find, with the widest cutting decks and the highest speeds. They are available for residential or commercial use, and it’s easy to see why so many landscaping professionals turn to zero turn mowers for their businesses. With cutting widths of up to five feet, they can make short work of any lawn – you could easily cut an entire NFL football field in well under an hour with one of these machines. If you have a huge yard, this is the lawn mower for you.
- Best Use: Very large lawns, or for professional landscapers.
- Pros: Multiple blades and extra wide cutting decks finish jobs quickly.
- Cons: Somewhat expensive, not fuel efficient, and very large and heavy.
Congratulations: you are now an expert on lawn mowers! From small manual reel mowers all the way up to giant zero turn machines, you should consider yourself fully versed in exactly how to pick out the best lawn mowers for whatever job you might have in mind. Shop with confidence and find the best lawn mower for you.