Gardening Articles: Care :: Tools & Equipment

Lawn and Garden Tractors (page 2 of 4)

by Michael MacCaskey

Engines

To the average gardener checking out a tractor, the siren song is horsepower -- the more the better. Discount manufacturers are likely to put a high-horsepower engine into a so-so tractor body just so you'll be properly seduced. Don't fall for it. For one thing, an S10 pickup with a V-8 engine is still an S10. The engine is only a part of the package.

Ask your dealer about "transfer of power efficiency." Some tractors need several horsepower just to move forward. The most efficient tractors need only about one-quarter horsepower. All else being equal, this means an efficient 14-hp tractor will have the same usable horsepower as an inefficient one with a 16-hp engine.

Efficient use of power also figures into each task you ask of your tractor. Some require more power to cut grass simply because the mowing decks are not as well designed.

How much horsepower do you need? There is no specific answer. Generally, tractors with less power can do most of the jobs a higher-powered tractor can, only more slowly. For instance, a tractor with 10 horsepower can climb as steep a grade as a tractor with 20 horsepower but not as quickly; or a 12-hp tractor might drive the same 36-inch mowing deck as a 16-hp tractor, but more slowly.

Engines with overhead valves are quieter, less polluting and more powerful. Liquid-cooled engines last two to three times longer than engines that rely on air cooling. But they cost a lot more, and it might cost less to rebuild a rundown air-cooled engine than pay for the liquid-cooled engine. Another feature that improves engine life is an oil pump. Again, weigh the additional cost against the increased longevity.

Mowing Decks

In addition to engine horsepower, the other great siren song of lawn and garden tractor salespeople is the width ofthe mowing deck. Again, don't fall for the big numbers.

Actual mowing speed is a function of the tractor's forward speed, the rate of cutting blade rotation and the width of the deck (not to mention the height of your grass).

All things being equal, a tractor with a 60-inch deck mowing at four miles per hour will finish your lawn in half the time as a 30-inch deck mowing at four miles per hour. But all things aren't equal. If the tractor with the larger deck has slower blade rotation than the smaller one, the advantage disappears.

Larger decks save time if you've got a lot of lawn to mow. If you're mowing a half-acre, another 10 inches of deck width might save about 15 minutes. But if you maintain five acres of lawn, that same 10 inches could save hours.

Decks differ in where they discharge clippings: side, rear or as mulch. Side-discharge tractors are most common. These are fine for many situations, but they can throw rocks like bullets. Rear-discharge decks are intended for use with baggers.

We think mulching decks are most practical. They chop and return grass clippings to your lawn, so you don't have to spend time bagging and disposing of the clippings. Mulching decks (or a good compost pile) are essential in communities where it is illegal to send lawn clippings to the dump.

Some manufacturers offer mulching decks as standard equipment, and others offer these decks as an additional attachment. Be careful because some so-called mulching decks are simply standard decks with the exit port blocked. This can result in poor cutting or unattractive furrows of clippings on your finished lawn. Ask the dealer about the mulching deck you're considering, then compare it with other models.

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