If you have a large property (more than half an acre) and dream about hiring a strong, endlessly energetic teenage boy to work on your landscape 24 hours a day, it might be more realistic to check out the newest lineup of lawn and garden tractors. These heavy lifters do it all: mow the roughest grass and brush, haul brush and firewood, aerate, level a driveway, clear snow, dethatch with some serious oomph, build berms, remove and shift large stones, dig post holes in minutes, till deeply in difficult soils, and haul rock. Some even have hydraulic lift attachments.
Plus, if you like machines, they’re really, really fun. Of course, since these babies cost between $1,000 and $8,000, you have to figure out what you truly need and what you don’t.
What’s in a Name?
A quick lesson in terminology:
A riding mower is a mower that you drive. Some attachments may be available, but this is primarily a machine for cutting grass. The cutting deck is usually in front.
A lawn tractor also cuts grass, but its cutting deck is mid-mounted, which means it’s more maneuverable. It’s also more powerful, so it can run heavier attachments like power tillers and post-hole diggers.
A garden tractor is more powerful yet. It may also cut grass and tends to have large wheels and greater ground clearance. It has enough power for a front-end loader attachment, which is great for leveling, moving, and flattening ground. However, not everyone makes distinctions between a lawn tractor and a garden tractor. The two terms are often used interchangeably.
A compact tractor is really just a miniature agricultural tractor. It’s something only a professional landscaper or farmer would need to own, not the mere gardening enthusiast.
Where to Buy
Roughly three-fourths of all lawn and garden tractors are purchased at discount home stores, and for good reason—they’re lots cheaper. The rest come from lawn and garden stores.
The more conservative route is to purchase from a lawn or farm equipment dealer. Dealers tend to carry the best-quality brands and better-made models of the same brands sold at discount places. They’re also extremely knowledgeable—a huge help at purchase time. They stock plenty of parts, and they can service equipment should anything go awry. And according to some experts, high-end lawn and garden tractors outlive their cheaper counterparts by 50 percent or more. But you pay lots more—often twice as much.
So, as with other types of power equipment, you pay more to get more power, more versatility, and more reliability. Only you can determine how much you’re willing to pay for those things.
How to Buy
Purchasing the right lawn and garden tractor for your needs can be almost as complicated as purchasing a car (and, in fact, most of these cost more than my first car did). Here are some basic questions to ask about each model you’re considering:
How does the manufacturer rank in quality? Even the most shameless salesperson will probably give you some indication of the brand’s reputation. Be sure to ask about the engine, as engines vary considerably in reliability and lifespan.
How sturdy are the frame and axle? In cheaper machines, these critical components are made from steel and welded. Better machines have forged or cast-iron axles, which are stronger and a good predictor of overall quality.
How good is the transmission? These also vary by price, with some working more smoothly and having fewer service problems. Is it gear-driven, which takes more concentration and effort, or clutchless automatic, which is more convenient and precise?
What service can you get? On complex machines such as these, it’s important to ask about warranties and follow-up service. How easy is it to get parts? How will you get the monster, which can weigh several hundred pounds, to and from the service shop? Is pickup and delivery offered?
What’s the horsepower? Surprisingly, with lawn and garden tractors, this isn’t as important as you might think. In fact, a too-large engine can stress an underbuilt frame. Overall quality is more critical than sheer might. Still, it’s useful to know that smaller lawn tractors usually run at 4 to 6 horsepower (hp), while high-end garden tractors have 16 to 27 hp.
What’s the size of the cutting deck? The wider the deck, the fewer passes you make and the faster you get done. Decks start at 38 inches and run up to 70 inches.
What’s the turn radius? A zero-turn radius is a huge advantage, allowing far better maneuverability in tight spots and around obstacles like swing sets. The smaller your property, the more you need this.
How does it look and feel? Silly as it sounds, does the machine have a cupholder? Does it have cruise control, which is nice for long runs where your foot can get tired? Does it have a tilt steering wheel, which is reduces arm and upper back fatigue? Does it have a high seat back to reduce lower back fatigue? Does it have an electric power take-off switch (ideal) or a manual lever (less good) to engage cutting blades with minimum effort and more precision? What sort of traction can you expect on slopes and dew-covered grass? What’s the decibel level? (Wear ear muffs or plugs, regardless.)
How smoothly does it mow? It might be great on rough grass or brush, but is the cut clean enough to make a beautiful lawn? Does it have a reverse mow function?
What’s the speed? Homeowners who used to spend four or five hours mowing their lawn can, with a faster machine, halve that time.
Do the Math
How much will it cost to buy and maintain a lawn or garden tractor? Here’s what you’ll get for your money.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is a garden writer in Ames, Iowa.