An ordinary riding lawnmower is fine for cutting a lot of grass. But if you have acres of grass and want to use your machine to do other heavy-duty chores - tilling, snowblowing, scraping the driveway, etc. - a garden tractor is the way to go.
What Is a Garden Tractor?
The terminology used for various riding lawnmowers and light-duty tractors can be confusing, as different people use them in different ways. To be precise about it, a garden tractor refers to a machine with major lawn-cutting capabilities - three blades instead of two and a mower deck of at least 45 inches - and at least a 20 horsepower engine, the minimum needed to operate heavy duty attachments. Garden tractors often come with a PTO (power take-off) hitch which vastly increases the types of attachments that can be used with the machine.
Size and Power
The first thing to consider when selecting a garden tractor is the power of the engine and the width of the mowing deck. All else being equal, the cost of the machine will be proportional to these two numbers.
Amount of Intended Mowing
If you're mowing more than two acres, a 54 inch deck (the maximum deck size for garden tractors) is in order to make the process less time-consuming. Under two acres, and the 45-inch size is probably sufficient. But if speed of mowing is important, always go with a wider deck.
The bigger the tractor's blade, the more power it needs to turn it. Garden tractors range from 20 to 30 horsepower. The higher end will make mowing faster and will give you the feel of a professional's machine, rather than a toy, when using it for pulling heavy loads, digging, tilling, etc. If you mainly want it because you have acres of grass to cut - and you're the type of person that doesn't let the grass get too tall - the lower horsepower models will probably suit you.
To a lesser extent, size comes into play with the wheels of the tractor. Sizes from 20 to 23 inches are common. The bigger the tire, the more stable it will be on rough or steep terrain; it will also be easier to navigate in muddy conditions.
Finally, you also want to make sure the tractor is sized to get where it needs to go. Measure the wifth of gate openings, shed doors and any other tight spaces it will need to pass through and make sure the overall size of the machine is consistent with these constraints.
Old-fashioned garden tractors had manual transmissions that required you to stop the machine in order to shift into neutral. These days, the vast majority of garden tractors are powered by hydrostatic transmissions, a type of automatic transmission that shifts smoothly between gears for you as you accelerate or decelerate.
There are also 'zero turn' machines that have a separate transmission for each of the rear wheels, allowing it to turn on a dime. These are important if you need to navigate the machine in tight places, though they are mainly geared for mowing, not using heavy-duty attachments.
Foot Pedals Versus Hand Lever Controls
The most important decision about the transmission actually has to do with how it's controlled. Some models have a throttle mounted next to the steering wheel, meaning you have to take a hand off the wheel to adjust your speed. The other option is to use a foot pedal, just like the accelerator on a car.
Hand levers function as a form of cruise control - if you're mowing three flat acres it can get tiring to have your foot on the pedal all the time. The downside of hand levers is you have to take one hand off the wheel to adjust your speed and they can get moved unintentionally if your're navigating through brush or low tree limbs, both of which are safety issues. In other words, hand levers are fine for gentle terrain and activities that don't require you to constantly change speed, like mowing and tilling.
Foot pedals are better on rough terrain and for things like digging or scooping soil and maneuvering in tight places. Since garden tractors are geared as much for utilitarian projects, rather than just manicuring the lawn, they often come with foot pedals - especially the higher end models. In general, foot pedals are considered better, but cost more.
There are an astonishing number of attachments available for garden tractors. The high-end models with a PTO hitch expand the options considerably, though garden tractors without a PTO still can do a lot of tricks. Here is a sampling of each.
Carts and trailers, including those with a dumping mechanism
Tanks and sprayers, for carrying and distributing water, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.
Lawn vacuums, mulching, and bagging attachments and associated accessories
- Tillers, harrows, and other implements to cultivate the soil
- Snow blowers and other snow removal implements
- Front end loaders, digging buckets, scraping blades, augers, and other equipment to move/excavate soil and other materials
Making the Match
Garden tractors start at around $2000 and can easily reach near $5000 or exceed it, especially if you're purchasing a number of attachments. Consider the characteristics of your property and the types of tasks you want to accomplish carefully before making the investment.