Your Multipurpose Garden Tractor, by K.C. in Delaware

[Editor’s Note: A short draft edition of this article was previously posted in a discussion forum].

I am a very new prepper, but feel that I am making some decent advances in my prepping goals. Although my preps may be much smaller then most, I still think I am doing better then most of the general population, and have budgeted for weekly and monthly improvements to my preps.

While reading this and other survival based blogs and forums (not so much here, but other places get real out of hand), I’ve noticed that the conversation or topic tends to lean towards guns, ammo, tactical gear etc. Now granted, these are important topics, but there are other equally important topics. I personally have what I consider to be a good stock of firearms, ammo and parts, but my opinion is, they are just tools. My weapons are a tool to protect and feed my family. I would like to discuss another survival tool, a garden tractor.

When I say garden tractor, most people may be thinking of the 4-wheel drive Kubota/John Deere/Cub Cadet with a diesel, 3 point hitch and bucket loader that you see new at your county fair for approximately $15,000 new. Those machines are actually more referred to as compact utility tractors, and not garden tractors. If you have the means to make that type of purchase, then I say go for it. I’m your average blue collar middle class guy with a wife and two young sons (4 and 6), to say that $15,000 is out of my price range is the understatement of the year! Also, keep in mind that the new tractors on the market, even down to that size, can be as high tech as new automobiles with their computer modules and electronics. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to repair a power-train control module in my yard today, let alone during a TEOTWAWKI situation.

I’ll start with, I am partial to John Deere, but you can choose your flavor if you decide to look into do this as well. The key item to look for, no matter who the manufacturer, is that it have some type of hydraulics. It can be a hydrostatic transmission, or a hydraulic lift for the mower deck. You can add a hydraulic system to any garden tractor (anything with an engine to run the pump actually), but that is well outside of my knowledge and the scope of this information. If you do add a hydro system to your machine, from there you can work along with the following. The key is that it be equipped with a hydraulic pump, once you have that, let the modifications begin.

This all started when I needed a new lawn mower, and there was no way I was going to the big box stores and spending $3,000 on a pile of plastic that wouldn’t last. I knew I wanted a machine to mow the lawn, plow/disc/cultivate a garden, grade the driveway and run a snow blower or snow blade in bad weather. I started my search and landed on a 1976 John Deere Model 312. Some people look at this as a collectible tractor since they wee only built for two years, so if you’re a John Deere purist, you may want to stop reading here. As I appreciate what the machine is, again, in my opinion it is a tool to perform a job.

The 312 was offered as an entry level tractor for a couple years, but I found that tractors, like cars, are easily up-gradable when pulling parts from a similar series/model. In it’s stock form, it has a single circuit hydraulic system that raises the deck, a 12HP Kohler that is virtually bullet proof and still uses points and condenser no electronic ignition, has a hydrostatic transmission and weighs just shy of 1,000 lbs without any attachments or driver. When you go to the big box stores, you see them advertise 20 hp and up engines, but I think they are using the “new” math. This is 12HP but somewhere in the range of 27 ft lbs of torque. This is a stout machine!

From there, it’s time to start working. For your rear ground engaging attachments, there is no need for a 3 point hitch on this size tractor. Almost every garden tractor manufacturer has offered a sleeve hitch as an option, or you can built your own. In it’s simplest form, it’s boxed tubing that is hinged onto the back of your tractor that can be raised or lowered manually or with some mechanical power. Mine is hydraulic, but I have seen electric actuators, electric winches or just handle levers. Here is a link to a piece at Weekend Freedom Machines–a great resource for John Deere owners)- to their PDF blueprints to build your own sleeve hitch for a majority of the older John Deere machines like the one I own.

The attachments you purchase or make have C channel that fits over the box tubing and pinned in place to give a “positive lock” to the tractor, instead of just a pin through a hole that can pivot. Now you can work your implements into the ground.

With mine, I run a 1 bottom moldboard plow, 2 gangs of 10″ discs, a cultivator and a small box scraper. If you are unfamiliar with the use of these attachments, the moldboard plow is used to break ground or turn already broken ground. Setting up the plow properly does take some trial and error. If set too deep, it will stop any tractor in it’s tracks. Set to shallow and it will want to keep jumping out of the ground. When set up properly, the plow will “curl” the row of soil over onto the previous passes furrow, down between 8-10 inches. The disc harrow is then used to chop the clumps, sod, organic material into a finer, more consistent and workable. One quick tip, when making your garden hills, you don’t need a “hiller”. After you’re done discing the soil, raise up your disc harrow, spine the gangs around backwards and angle at about a 20 degree angle. 2-3 passes in the same direction will result in a 8-to-12 inch hill, depending on your soil. The cultivator is of course for weed duties. I would advise that when you purchase, or build your cultivator, you make it adjustable, so you are able to move the tines so they will straddle your your crops while they are small, then can move back together to keep down the weeds in the paths between your rows. Yes, you did read that correctly, even with this size machine, you can do work straddling your crops while they are young. With my machine, there is 10” of ground clearance, that amount will vary by model. Lastly, the box scraper is normally used by landscapers, I used it mainly to grade out my driveway.. In the garden, I like to use it to move around my compost. At the start of the season, my compost pile will be a 4-6 feet tall mound, right next to my garden site. Instead of spreading by shovel, I will back up to the pile and bite into it with the scraper and drag it out around the garden.

Last year’s garden was just about 1/3 acre, will have to see what next year brings. It seems to get larger every year. I have measured out my property, and by using some simple grid paper, I found that I can plant up to just under a 1 acre garden in a survival situation. I do know people that tend 2 acres with this same set up. That size is very time consuming, but way far more efficient then tending that size garden by hand.

As far as implements for the rear, your imagination is your only limit. If you can weld it or bolt it to a piece of c channel, you can shove it in the ground and drag it along. One of my friends was concerned about loosening up the soil deeper them his plow was going. He bought a single 24″ tooth from a piece of heavy machinery for $20 and tacked on the C channel bracket. When engaged in the ground, it is 18″ under ground ripping the soil up. I have made a very simple type of lift for mine. I have a 6 foot long piece of box steel, that I notched and drilled on one end to properly attach to my sleeve hitch. The other end I drilled and bolted a couple link long section of chain with a hook on it. When attached to the hitch, using the hydraulics to lift the sleeve hitch, I can now lift heavy items with a chain, instead of potentially injuring myself trying to lift something way too heavy. Think of this along the lines of an engine hoist in a mechanics shop (actually where I got the idea from).

Now for the front hydraulics. Since you already have a hydraulic pump, it is easy to run a single circuit to the front. On the hydraulic control valve, where the ports are that go to the existing cylinder (deck raise etc), use 2 T fittings, and run 2 lines to the front, with couplers for attachments. On mine, I decided to go with a second circuit to the front, which was a very simple task. I purchased a 2 circuit valve from a higher model 300 series tractor at a salvage yard for $40, and ran a second set of lines. Now I have the ability to not only raise and lower my plow out front, but also angle side to side. This also gives the option of installing a front bucket loader. Yes, they have bucket loaders for this size machine. I have used them before for garden tractors, but I haven’t purchased on yet for mine.

For the most part, the standard front attachments aren’t really survival tools (unless the zombies are slow enough to chase them down with my snow blower), so some may ask, why go through the upgrades for the front hydraulics? First, I’m a guy, like playing with plows and snow blowers and tinkering with stuff. Second, and more to the point, think outside the box a little.. I now have 2 hydraulic circuits independent of each other, that can power almost anything. Keep in mind, most people in America will throw out an item that doesn’t work absolutely perfect and just “go buy another”. I got a log splitter from someone at work that he seized the motor on. There’s this stuff called oil that you are supposed to check periodically to see if it’s still there. Anyhow, I pulled the motor and control valve off, leaving behind the ram, wedge and stop. I took the fittings out of the ram and the info for the couplers to my new hydraulics to my local NAPA. Asked for 2 hoses, 6 feet long with those ends, 10 minutes later I was out of there. Now, my tractor hydraulics operate my log splitter. Instead of 2 engines and 2 control valves to maintain and have parts for, there is only 1. I find that much easier to plan for.

At a yard sale, I found a generator for sale that wouldn’t run. Bought it for $30. Never took the time to find out why it wouldn’t run, just separated the generator from the engine, make a quick little mounting plate for the front of the tractor, added a pulley to the generator and lined up with pulley on front of engine. Now an easily portable generator and again, only one engine to worry about. I am currently looking for a larger generator through.

Which brings be to the issue of noise pollution. If left in it’s stock form, this is far from quiet, and you would let the whole neighborhood know what’s going on in a grid down situation. For my machine, and most garden tractors of this era, they have a cylindrical type muffler. With some tinkering, here is what I’ve found and the results. You can open the muffler by cutting at the seam and removing one end of the muffler, like opening a can of soup. Once inside, gut it. Mine had some of the matting in place still, but I would say, whatever you find in there, gut it. Now get a roll of high temp fiberglass matting. I used the material that is used for making gaskets in propane fireplaces. Line the cylindrical walls with the matting, I went three layers thick, then cover with a thin steel mesh to keep in place. Tack weld the mesh in a couple of spots just to hold it in place, then reinstall the end that you cut off and weld back in place. It is hard to describe the sound difference in the written word. I’m not going to say that this is as quiet as an electric car or anything like that. But, it is rather amazing how quiet it is. I can be sitting on the tractor with the engine at full throttle and talk on my cell phone. I can hear the person on the phone no problem, and the person I am talking to can barely hear the tractor!

Some other odds and ends to help in multitasking. I have installed 4 off road type flood lights, 2 in the front and 2 in the rear. I can work the ground or whatever else I need to do at night, or light up an area for other types of work.. If you plan to do this, I would suggest doing as I did. Find out what types of light bulbs your automobiles use, then find off road lights for your tractor that use those same bulbs. Remember, your vehicles may be lawn ornaments in a TEOTWAWKI situation, might as well use a couple of their spare parts.

Security, yes, I said security. On most garden tractors, the sheet metal that surrounds the dash board is merely for looks, and serve no structural purpose, so have some fun with it. In the panel directly under the steering wheel, facing the operators seat, I cut a hole and on the back side mounted a 10″x8″x8″ metal box that I picked up at a yard sale. That’s where my pistol rides (Bernardelli P018). The right side of the machine is where the brake pedal is, so the left side is clear. On the left side of machine, I made a box out of sheet metal on an angle with padding inside, which is bolted to the tractor’s sheet metal. That’s where my Mossberg Model 500 shotgun rides.

Now for the best part, prices:

1977 John Deere 312 with mower deck – $600
Sleeve Hitch OE John Deere – $80
Moldboard Plow – Free – Look around, lots of people have them and they are just rusting outside
Cultivator – $100
Disc Harrow – $150
Box Scrapper – $125 – Nice for grading driveway, and spreading large amounts of compost in garden.
Used parts for hydraulic conversion – $125
Snow Blower – $250 – This was a right time right place price.
Rear Ag Tires – $175 – you can use turf tires with chains in dirt and snow, but face it, ag tires just look cool! If getting new tires, I found the cheapest ballast was to fill tires with windshield wash fluid. Won’t freeze added 48 lbs per tire and I believe it to be the least toxic affordable option if it were to leak into the garden.

I am sure I am forgetting a few items, but as you can see, this is a very versatile tool and simplifies how many power sources you need to maintain and store parts for. Even with whatever it is I am forgetting, I know I have less then $2500, over the course of a couple of years, in the whole set up….and it mows my lawn too!