Although my seven-year old boy wishes it were otherwise, a garden tractor is generally intended for larger gardens between 1-5 acres. When working with gardens of this size, a garden tractor make the tasks at hand manageable. As the popularity of gardening increases, so does the range of garden tractors available. Tractors generally have engines of between 10 to 20-horsepower, a hydraulic clutch, a 5-6 gallon fuel tank, the options of a power take-off (to harness the power off the tractor engine to drive a variety of machines), and optional 4-wheel drive. Garden tractors can be used with a variety of attachments ranging from an aerator to a plow and they cost between $1,000 to $10,000.
Here are some tips to consider on how to buy a garden tractor:
- Size. My neighbor, who is relandscaping his garden, had a friend come over with his garden tractor to help. Though probably a high quality machine for the appropriate task, the tractor was overwhelmed by the steep slope and slippery gravel that required more horsepower than this particular tractor had. Remember you need enough horsepower not just to move the machine but to have some left over for accessories.
- Attachments. These need to come on and off when you want them to. Have the sales representative walk you through the step by step process so that you can see firsthand how easily you can get the attachments on and off. Can you change the tractor's attachments quickly and easily? Will you be able to do so once outside of the showroom?
- Safety Features. Some machines can detect when the driver gets off the seat and will automatically shut down. How important are safety features to you? Will there be children in the area where the tractor is being used? There are safety standards established by ASAE, SAE, and OSHA--does the tractor meet these standards?
- Engine. Do you prefer gas, diesel or electric? There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these options. Hoye Tractor has a treatise on the reasons why diesel engines are superior to gasoline, chief among them that without spark plugs, rotors, points, distributor caps or a carburetor to gum up, diesel engines tend to store well and start right up. Of course, diesel engines are more expensive, heavier and more noisy, too. Key advantages to electric power are that it is emission-free and inexpensive to operate.
- Drive Train. Attachments that need to be powered by the tractor engine usually use either belt drives, shaft drives or power take-off shafts. Belt drives are a simple and less expensive system that has the advantage that the belt will slip and therefore protect the rest of the drive train if the attachment encounters an obstacle. Shaft drives are more costly but can handle higher loads. Ask if protective slippage under overload is available when purchasing a shaft drive. A power take-off shaft is an extension of the drive train that allows power to be transferred from the tractor to implements. PTOs can be located in the rear, belly (or middle), front, or side of the tractor. Industry standards regulate the speed of these shafts though some manufacturers have created their own proprietary standards.
- Sturdiness. Is it rugged enough? Garden work is hard work and your tractor will take a pounding from dislodged stones and earth, not to mention the wear and tear on the engine. Check the size and durability of axles and linkages. Be sure to get enough of a machine to handle the job at hand.
Both the jobs you intend to use your tractor for and the amount of acreage are important to determine which is the right garden tractor for you. As you decide which garden tractor to buy, keep in mind not only what you want to do now but what you may do with your tractor in the future as you learn more about its features.