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Garden Tractors

Homeowners with large yards benefit from a garden tractor. Here are the jobs garden tractors perform and how to choose one.

When Tom Corso's wife,Colleen Van Pelt, left for a two-week business trip to Japan, her last words to her husband were: “Why don't you get something to mow the yard?” Tom and Colleen had just moved into a new house, in Groton, New York, with 15 acres of land. The five acres surrounding the house were lawn (or would be—as soon as Tom and Colleen got the area sodded or seeded). The other 10 acres were a low, brushy wilderness.

It didn't take long for them to realize that they would have to spend some serious time mowing. Colleen had assumed that Tom would buy something small—perhaps a push mower. But Tom saw things differently. When Colleen arrived home, she found her parking spot in the garage had been usurped by a huge, sparkling new garden tractor (with bucket raised in a “welcome home” salute).

Tom, like many homeowners with a large lot, decided to go beyond the expected riding mower to something with more teeth. Initially, he justified the purchase of a garden tractor when he found out that the installation of five acres of lawn around his new home would cost upwards of $6,000. “I thought, ‘I can do the lawn myself,’” he says. And so he went tractor shopping. His garden tractor of choice is a ground-engaging machine that came with a bucket that could lift 200 pounds and a plow blade. Not forgetting his (and Colleen's) original needs, he also bought a mower attachment—with a whopping 72-inch deck.

Tom and his new garden tractor did some light grading with the blade, then sowed the lawn with grass seed. With a brush hog attachment, he tamed the 10 acres of wilderness. He later graveled the driveway, using the tractor bucket to move and level 23 tons of stone. Although owning a piece of equipment powerful enough to do light farming chores wasn't in his plans, Tom admits he's done more landscaping and gardening projects with his garden tractor than he would have with a less powerful machine. “Although I never envisioned needing a garden tractor, I can't imagine now not having one,” he says.

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) categorizes garden tractors as the largest mower for homeowner use. Garden tractors are “designed to supply sufficient power for home lawn, garden, and yard attachments: moldboard plows, tillers, cultivators, snow throwers, sweepers, leaf mulchers, etc.” Garden tractors offer large-lot homeowners a wide variety of use options for all seasons. According to the OPEI, 50 percent of garden tractors are used for areas larger than two acres.

Garden tractors differ from riding lawn mowers and lawn tractors in several key features. In general, these machines are built to do heavier work, in rougher terrain—and faster. To start, they sport heavier frames so they can tackle heavier work. They are also built to be more durable for running for longer periods of time (a necessity when you own multiple acres of turf).

To do more strenuous tasks, garden tractors have more horsepower—from 20 to 40 hp—than do lawn tractors, which usually have 10 to 17 hp. Mower decks are bigger, too, because they need to gobble up as much grass as they can on each pass. Convertible decks come in a variety of widths—48 to 72 inches. (The larger mowing deck is a great feature for large-yard owners who want to spend more time admiring their lawn than mowing it.)

Plus, garden tractor transaxles can tote heavier loads—a necessary feature when you use large attachments such as heavy-duty rear-end tillers. Four-wheel drive comes in handy in mud, sandy soil, or rocky areas. And if you mow on hilly terrain, a garden tractor may feel more solid and safe beneath you.

For homeowners who measure their yards in acres rather than square feet, garden tractors are practically de rigueur. In addition to doing all the functional mowing things a rider does (mow, mulch, bag), these pumped-up machines can also lift heavy loads (such as rocks, compost, or lawn debris), perform minor farming and landscaping activities (such as plowing, tilling, and grading), and either move snow with a blade or blow it out of the way with a blower. Power take-offs (PTOs), three-point hitches, and hydraulics turn garden tractors into veritable Swiss Army knives for eager gardeners and landscapers.

Within the garden tractor category, there is a hierarchy of models that offer more power, more options, and more durability. The basic garden tractor is designed to do general-purpose garden work. The sub-compact tractor offers bigger-model options such as PTOs and three-point hitches. And the largest type of tractor within this category is the compact utility tractor, which is geared toward owners of 5 to 10 acres of land who are interested in doing ground-engaging, heavy-lifting type of work that goes well beyond basic mowing.

Although garden tractors are the rougher big brothers of riders and lawn tractors, they still sport the soft side of comfort. Higher-end garden tractors are indeed fun and comfortable to run. Some garden tractor amenities, such as cushioned seats with lumbar adjustment, adjustable armrests, and tiltable steering wheels, turn hours of work in the saddle into a pleasurable experience.

For homeowners who continue to hone their home improvement skills, a garden tractor has the ability to grow with their new interests and abilities. To that point, Tom and Colleen's next tractor accessory wish-list items are a roto-tiller and post-hole digger. And Tom is also dreaming of a backhoe… Colleen hasn't weighed in on that one yet.