Most folks recognize an agricultural-style tractor when they see one, and many can distinguish a modern farm tractor from a modern compact utility tractor, but when you’re in the market for a tiny tractor to park in your garden shed, decision-making lines are easily blurred. Call them subcompact tractors, garden tractors or lawn tractors, today’s diminutive doers are available with a wide range in pricing that relates to an even wider range in capacity and capability. Work a light-duty lawn tractor too hard and you might wind up with a $2,000 boat anchor. Only use your subcompact tractor to keep an acre of lawn trimmed, and you’ve got a $15,000 riding mower in your barn.
North America’s smallest tractors were born as garden tractors shortly after World War I when folks began trading animal power for petroleum power to keep backyard vegetable gardens or small truck (from the Middle English trukien – to barter) patches producing. These early contraptions were heavy and cumbersome; most were constructed with a single pair of drive wheels. Two-wheeled tractors are still available today, and they’re capable of carrying out substantial work – the operator gets a nice workout at the same time. The first production four-wheeled, garden-sized tractors arrived shortly before the Great Depression, and the genre exploded after World War II.
Virtually all early garden tractors were built to withstand long days of hard pulling with ground-
engaging implements such as land plows in tow. Those machines had sufficient weight, traction and stout-enough transmissions for extended pulling. Before 1960, most garden tractors got the work done with less than 6 hp at the drawbar. Today, not all tiny tractors are designed with pulling in mind – even those with more than 25 engine hp – but they all have a purpose, and we aim to help you make the right choice.
At the lighter-duty end of the spectrum are machines that look like miniature tractors, complete with large rear tires and a simple drawbar hitch. Lawn tractors tend to be lighter overall (generally less than 500 pounds ready to work) than the similarly sized garden tractor class, and, in many cases, they are equipped with engines rated with greater than 25 hp.
Most new lawn tractors are equipped with hydrostatic transaxles encased in lightweight aluminum alloy or pot metal housings. These transaxles are generally connected to the tractor’s engine with a drive belt and are perfect if you use the lawn tractor as intended – for mowing grass and light towing or pushing. They’re easy to break if you try to mount too much weight on the lawn tractor or engage in hard pulling with enhanced traction (bar-lug tires, tire chains, rear wheel weights, etc.).
If you need a serviceable and handy riding mower (for up to about 2 1/2 acres) that can pull a garden cart, leaf sweeper, grass clipping bagger, fertilizer spreader and dethatcher, or occasionally push a little snow with a front-mounted blade, then the lawn tractor is right for you.
However, just because the lawn tractor has a drawbar hitch doesn’t mean you should use it to pull a trailing self-powered rotary tiller through an acre of garden or a stoneboat across a freshly tilled field.
Not always easy to distinguish from lawn tractors at first glance, when you check out the underpinnings of modern garden tractors, you will find heavy-duty hydrostatic transaxles (many connected to the engine with a driveshaft), often enclosed in cast-iron housings, and rear hitches designed to pull.
Set the true garden tractor on the scale, and it’ll likely weigh more than 700 pounds in its work clothing. Garden tractors may also come with optional front and/or rear hitches attached to hydraulic or electric lifts, and hydraulic systems designed to allow you to run auxiliary equipment or attachments such as mounted snow throwers, angle plows, rotary tillers and even small front-end loaders.
Garden tractors can be equipped with a heavy-duty, belly mounted finish mower and are particularly well suited to cutting more acres of lawn than even the most robust lawn tractors. In short, the garden tractor is able to do the same things that a lawn tractor can do plus pull or push ground-engaging tools with ease.
Most garden tractors can be safely ballasted with fluid in the tires, front or rear chassis weights, wheel weights or drawbar-mounted weight boxes to enhance stability and/or traction. You also can safely mount bar-lug agricultural style tires on a garden tractor’s drive wheels for even more traction, without worrying about breaking axle shafts.
If you have three or more acres of lawn to mow and maintain, grow a big food garden, muck out one or two stalls, routinely need to grade your gravel lane and remove snow from it in the wintertime, a garden tractor is just what you need. Expect to spend at least $6,000 for a nicely equipped model; however, don’t make the mistake of trying to use it as a heavy-duty landscaping or construction machine. The garden tractor’s frame simply isn’t up to the abuses that commercial-grade work imposes – you need the more robust four-wheel-drive subcompact tractor to extend the machine’s capability and useful lifespan.
The first readily available subcompact tractors to make it to North America were born in Japan – lightweight and diminutive diesel tractors bearing names like Kubota, Satoh Beaver and Bolens G174 (both built by Mitsubishi) were among the first on the scene along with variously branded Isuzu- and Kimco-built machines. These tractors were classified as garden tractors at the time because the compact and subcompact designations really hadn’t been defined yet. But these small tractors were built just like larger farm tractors with heavy cast-iron housings for the transaxle, transmission(s), clutch housing and engine block that when bolted together created a virtually indestructible chassis.
Today, the subcompact tractor genre is situated between the garden tractor and the compact tractor. Virtually all subcompact tractors weigh more than 1,200 pounds without implements attached, and they are stout enough to pull or push some multiple of their weight, lift roughly 50 percent of their weight and carry more than their weight.
Subcompact tractors make great platforms for attaching small loaders and backhoes; they are usually equipped with the industry standard rear three-point hitch, and front, mid and rear power take-off points, which make them about as versatile as any larger tractor – but more effective for smaller jobs. Most subcompact tractors sold in the United States are equipped with 4-wheel drive – all are diesel powered.
If you have more than five acres to mow and/or need a heavy-duty tractor to till an acre or more, push gravel, grade the landscape, clean large barns, handle tons of topsoil and mulch, haul tons of rock and firewood, mow several rough country acres, move a lot of snow, and plan to do all of that for a decade or two, the subcompact tractor is your best bet. The subcompact tractor will do it all and then some, but it won’t be the most efficient fractional-acreage lawn mower any more than the tool of choice for putting up 40 acres of hay. But for many folks with plenty of land to keep track of and budget for a single tractor, the subcompact makes sense – expect to pay at least $12,000 for a subcompact unit without mowing deck or loader.
Former owner of a 20-something unit tractor collection, Editor Hank Will currently employs two lawn tractors, three garden tractors and one compact tractor to get the work done around his place.