Everything You Need to Know About Garden Tractors

- & 6 of the Best Garden Tractors Online

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Best Garden Tractor - Tractor on a fresh cut lawn

Have you been thinking about how much easier life would be with a garden tractor? You won't be disappointed 

DO YOU KNOW what to look for, what features you need, which ones are not quite so important in a garden tractor? After several months spent searching for the right one, I thought I would share what I learned and what in my opinion makes a great garden tractor.

What Are Garden Tractors?

This is probably the first question we need to take a closer look at because not everyone's concept of what a garden tractor truly is. This includes many retailers who consider most riding lawn mowers to fall into this category. So, with this in mind, let's start by looking at the three different types of “garden tractor”:

Older gentleman cutting grass on a riding lawnmower.

Lawn Tractors or Riding Lawn Mowers

Don't let the fact that many of today's riding lawn mowers look like tractors fool you. These tractors are made for one thing, mowing your lawn. They come in a range of sizes and can be equipped with a variety of mower deck sizes and configurations.

Some do feature a tow hitch or loop that can be used to haul small garden trailers around. They are not intended to be used for any type of heavy work but are ideal for cutting large areas of lawn, pulling small trailer loads of leaves, weeds, soil, gardening equipment and so on.

Zero Turn Radius Lawn Tractor in Action

ZTR (Zero-Turn Radius) Lawn Tractors

Again, the ZTR just like the riding lawn mower is a purpose-built type of tractor. These units are designed to cut grass and nothing else. They feature a rear-engine design and have a pair of lever-style steering controls.

The most important thing to remember is that their design allows you to cut close to trees, walls, curbs, path borders, etc. But by nature of their design, these mowers cannot be used for any other purpose, including towing as they have no tow hitch points. They are also extremely expensive and typically used by commercial landscapers.

Image courtesy of tractorbynet

True Garden Tractors

If all you need to do is cut the lawn and haul a small trailer around, a lawn tractor is all you really need. But, if you have bigger jobs in mind, you need something with real muscle power. This is where the true “garden tractor” comes into play. These beasts have the power needed to handle virtually any task like a boss. They feature powerful engines, heavy duty tires and suspension, a heavy-duty tow hitch, and in some cases a PTO (power take-off) that lets you attach extra power-driven tools such as tillers to the back.

The best garden tractors look just like a miniaturized farm tractor in that they have larger wheels on the back, a heavier frame, and the ability to handle a wide range of attachments. Instead of belt-drive, they have a transmission and stronger axles to let you haul heavier loads. And of course, you can still mow your lawn as they have detachable mower decks.

Before You Start Shopping

Now that you have a basic idea of the differences between the different garden tractors, let's take a look at some of the things you should take into consideration before deciding which one is right for your needs and your budget, starting with your property.

The Size of Your Property

No matter what type of garden you plan to buy, the size of your property plays a large part in the decision-making process. If your property measures one acre or less, a simple light-duty riding lawn tractor with a 42-inch mower deck will probably do just fine. If you have one to two acres, you may find that a light-medium duty unit with a 46-inch deck does the job.

Man mowing around tree on zero turn ride on mower

The Terrain

If your lawn has a lot of obstacles, a ZTR model might be a better choice. If you have steep banks, i.e. 15 percent grade, be sure any tractor you buy has built-in stability made to handle this type of terrain. This applies no matter what type of garden tractor you buy. In essence, match the size and type of tractor to carefully match the terrain it will work on.

How Will You Use the Tractor?

Are you planning to buy a garden tractor simply to mow the lawn and haul a small trailer around? Or are you planning to use attachments such as snow blowers, snow plows, large garden trailers, and tillers? What about hauling heavy loads?

Not all garden tractors are made to handle this type of use, in fact, most ZTR models cannot handle any of them. Be sure any tractor you choose can handle the extra tasks. I bought a true heavy-duty garden tractor with a PTO to ensure it would fit my needs during the early days of my garden and keep up with them as changed.

Riding mower pulling a sledA heavy duty tractor with it's torque being tested

Other Things You Should Be Looking At

Moving right along, let's take a look at specific features you should be looking for in your search for the best garden tractors.

Under the Hood

While you may be familiar with looking at the engine when buying a car, you probably never thought much about what lies under the hood of a garden tractor. The vast majority of lawn tractors are powered by gasoline engines. These engines are far more powerful than those found in lawn mowers, have electronic fuel injection, multiple cylinders, large air filters, and in many cases, are liquid-cooled.  

However, when it comes to garden tractors, you also have the choice of gasoline or diesel engines. Diesel engines have become increasingly popular as they are more fuel-efficient and typically have more available torque than a similar size gas engine. The more torque an engine produces, the heavier the load it can pull. The caveat is that diesel engines tend to be noisier, but the trade-off is you get a more reliable and powerful garden tractor.

The Transmission

Most riding lawn mowers and ZTR mowers use belts to drive the rear wheels. As you move the shift lever, the belt moves up or down a series of pulleys causing the drive system to “shift” gears. While this setup is fine for light-duty applications, when it comes to heavier work it simply won't due.

If you are planning to make full use of your garden tractor, you need to buy one that has a heavy-duty transmission similar to one found in a car. Instead of belts, these transmissions use real gears and a clutch.  The best garden tractors also come with a locking rear differential that keeps both rear wheels turning to improve traction.

A Power Take Off

This feature is only likely to be found on the more expensive garden tractors. A PTO typically includes a shaft that spins with the engine that can be connected to attachments such as snow blowers and tillers. While not exactly a necessity, I decided to buy my garden tractor with a PTO so that I could keep my driveway clear in the winter. Then I added a tiller so that I never have to hand-dig my gardens again. Worth every extra penny, let me tell you.

Old style tractor with no accessoriesAn older tractor with no accessories

Other Accessories and Options

Beyond these basics, other things to consider might include lights (most now have at least headlights), a comfortable seat (you are going to be sitting in it for hours), and hydraulics (for power steering, lifting the mower deck, and power attachments. Some look for things like built-in cup holders, sunshades (great for those hot summer days), tires that won't go flat, and more. While all of these are nice, it is more important that you pick a garden tractor that meets your gardening needs, then worry about the niceties.

My Picks for the 6 Best Garden Tractors

Now that you have a good idea of what it takes to be on my list of the 6 best garden tractors, let's take a look at the best of the best. I split this into three sections to help point out the best of each and make it a bit easier to find what you want based on the style of garden tractor you intend to buy.

Lawn Tractors

As stated, these are essential garden tractor look-a-likes that are designed for mowing grass, mulching leaves, and hauling a small trailer. They are not made to haul heavy loads, be connected to attachments, or for anything else.

 

Husqvarna 24V Garden Tractor

Husqvarna 960450057 GTH52XLS 24V Hydro Pedal Tractor Mower, 52″/Twin

Wide-cut, extra comfort, plenty of power

Husqvarna has a long reputation for building lawn and garden equipment. This lawn tractor comes with a 52-inch deck and is powered by a Briggs & Stratton V-twin 24 horsepower gasoline engine. Drive is supplied by a FAST-automatic transmission. The deck height lever is conveniently mounted in a fender and features spring-loaded assistance for easier shifting.  

Pros Cons
FAST pedal operated automatic transmission Fuel gauge is hard to see
High backrest and armrests for added comfort Expensive
52-inch mower deck Deck belt may break more frequently

 

Poulan Pro 960420174 PB24VA54 Kohler V-Twin 24 HP Pedal Control Fast Auto Drive Cutting Deck Riding Mower, 54-Inch

World-Class outdoor equipment at its best

Start with a Kohler 24 hp v-twin engine and end with a 54-inch heavy-duty mower deck that comes with a 10-year warranty and you can't go far wrong. This beast comes with a pair of 20-inch tires on the back and 15-inch tires on the front.

The pedal control fast-auto drive transmission makes driving this riding mower a breeze to drive and control. The 2.5-gallon tank lets you cut for hours between fill-ups. It has a nice 16-inch turning radius and features a cast iron front axle.

Pros Cons
Tight turning radius Some models suffer from quality control issues
24 hp v-twin engine Deck height adjusters tend to pop off
10-year deck and belt warranty Long wait for replacement parts

 

Zero Turn Mowers

These are designed strictly for cutting lawns, they are not strictly “garden tractors” but fall into the same basic category. So I thought I would share two of the best with you.

 

John Deere Z335E Lawn Tractor

Nothing runs like a Deere

John Deere has been in the business of building tractors and farm equipment virtually forever. As the ads say, “Nothing runs like a Deere” and this 42-inch ZTR is no exception. Equipped with a powerful 2-cylinder 20 hp John Deere branded v-twin engine and an automatic drive system, nothing will cut your lawn more efficiently and comfortably. It does have an electric power take-off that lets you use a number of John Deere accessories.

Pros Cons
Powerful 20 hp John Deere branded engine Narrow deck width
Heavy-duty formed and welded steel frame Poor customer service
Zero turn makes mowing easy High cost

 

Troy Built Mustang Zero Turn Mower

Troy-Bilt Mustang 46 22HP 46-Inch Zero-Turn Mower

Definitely not a Trojan horse

Troy-Bilt is one of the most respected names in lawn and garden equipment in the U.S. This 24 hp Briggs & Stratton v-twin powered zero-turn lawn tractor has a lot to offer.

The 46-inch wide deck cuts a wide swatch and the Twin Hydro Dual EZT transmission makes driving it a pleasure. The electric PTO makes kicking the blade in and out nothing more than the flick of a switch. The 18-inch high seat back makes for a very comfortable ride. You can compare it for yourself here

Pros Cons
Electric PTO for ease of blade engagement Cutting deck is not leveled at factory
18-inch high seat back for added comfort Belt drive pulley wear quickly
360-degree maneuverability Thin tires puncture easily

 

Lawn Tractors

Now we are going to take a look at the real deal when it comes to garden tractors. These are the ones intended to be used more like small farm tractors and are capable of handling much heavier loads and work.

 

Kubota GR2120

Kubota GR 2120

Legendary Kubota power and performance

If you are looking for something a little more powerful and adaptable in a garden tractor, nothing beats a Kubota garden tractor. The GR2120 is powered by a 21 hp Kubota 3-cylinder diesel engine that provides plenty of torque to get the job done. The seat offers suspension for comfort along with seat position and weight adjustments. It features hydraulic power steering and deck lift along with a shaft drive transmission.

Pros Cons
Powerful diesel engine Diesel engines are noisy
Single pedal operation Quite expensive
Shaft drive means no slipping belts Lever placement not the best for larger operators

 

Massey Ferguson 2700 Series Lawn Tractor

From the makers of the finest farm tractors in the world

When you want a lawn tractor that has power to spare, is comfortable to drive, and offers year-round performance, there is nothing like the 2700 series from Massey Ferguson. This tractor is powered by a 25 hp Briggs & Stratton Commercial Series V-Twin engine. Power is transferred to the drive wheels via a Tuff Torq® K66 high-speed transmission and Automatic Controlled Traction™ differentia. Extra features include electric height-of-cut adjustment and an electric PTO.

Pros Cons
Powerful engine Leaves a wide swath of grass uncut in turns
Automatic transmission Expensive
Electric deck height adjustment  

 

The Final Cut

Now that you have a much better idea of what to look for in the best garden tractors, you should have no problem buying the right one to fit your needs and budget. I finally settled on the Kubota because not only did I get a great deal on mine, but Kubota offers a great selection of attachments and accessories that make it perfect for my yard and garden. It pays to take your time and do your homework before you invest as garden tractors are not cheap.

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