Comparative tests seem to be popular here, so I’ll throw this one in. For the last five years I have used a foot-controlled 18 hp Simplicity Hydro riding lawn mower to mow about two acres of lawn, orchard, berms and garden borders at the farm. Far too often it was pressed into service to mow grassed parking lots and occasional stands of tree seedlings for want of another tool to do the job.

That has now changed with the acquisition of a narrow tractor to mow around my 15,000 young trees. I must stress that I currently have a 35 hp tractor with rotary mower for the bulk of the cutting, but as the trees get larger, more and more areas can’t be mowed without casualties.

I decided that the tree farm needed a diesel tractor narrower than 48″. The candidates on Kijiji were a 2WD 15 hp Massey-Ferguson 1010 with a belly mower and this 1981 Bolens 17 hp 4WD with a rear-mounted finish mower. I picked the Bolens for its tall stance and versatility.

After a dozen tanks of diesel I think I can comment upon the Bolens as a mower. After five years with the Simplicity I have a very good idea of its strengths and limitations.

Simplicity 18 Hydro with 38″ deck:

I paid the extra $300. for the foot-controlled model and it was money well spent. The hydro is so smooth to control around trees and obstructions that a first-time operator likens it to waltzing. It’s an excellent mower on the flat where you have to work around stuff. Only on slopes does it run into trouble with a lack of traction. Strategies develop to deal with the traction problem, so the only galling problem I found with the mower was its ineptitude in dealing with dips in the ground which result in the loss of traction to one back wheel. Much hiking out by the operator proved the solution to these frequent spinning situations. I also learned to hike out over the edge to keep my balance when mowing along banks, a common occurrence on this lawn. This involved a fair amount of effort on my part, but the ballast enabled the light mower to do a pretty good job on angular terrain. I always found this a spooky activity, though, and wouldn’t let anyone else run the mower on steep slopes, regardless of the safety interlocks. The nice thing about the foot control when cutting under trees, of course, is that if you stop driving, the mower halts immediately. This is good when one finds himself skewered by an apple bough.

We don’t have much open lawn to cut, just one 400 by 80′ section. The Simplicity eats it up on cruise control at a top speed of around 5 1/2 mph. Reclaimed from a pasture, this section has a few low-lying rocks which jump up and whack the trailing roller an occasional good one. This is distracting to the operator, but doesn’t seem to have harmed the deck. The surveyor’s stake under a pile of leaves on my sister’s lawn, on the other hand, bent the roller, affecting the cut quality until I devised a way to straighten it by removing the rubber rollers and having at it with a 4′ pipe to bend it back.

I should stress that the Simplicity has done a fine job under difficult circumstances. There are a lot of rocks. I have learned to avoid them and mow most of the lawn at a 3″ cutting height. Two 400′ rows of 15 year-old spruces are a pain, but duty requires that I slalom around them at least every two weeks. The Simplicity has been rammed through a lot of foliage over that time and doesn’t show any ill-effects from the abuse. My body, on the other hand, has developed a deep antipathy to the blue spruce as a species. On a hot summer day it’s like running into a barbed wire fence to come up against one of those things. White spruce foliage is much softer.

Anyway, mowing along the ditch which separates the spruces from the flower beds is always an adventure. Larger wheels would be good for clearing occasional washouts. Mowing the berm behind the flower beds is too hard on the Simplicity, though. Basically this is a pile of boulders dug up by the excavator and piled along a fence row. I removed the fence and determined that the only sensible way to reduce string-trimming time would be by mowing the hay and weeds growing between the rocks. Rough going, mitigated slightly by several yards of topsoil brought in by Ranger to build a road for the mower.

But that’s the easy stuff. Last week I had to mow a slalom around 16, 680′ rows of seedlings, one turn every 10′. Thought I’d grind the steering gear right off the poor thing. That’s when I decided we needed a heavier machine for this kind of work. To its credit, though, over three evenings the Simplicity hung in there for about six hours of sustained, low speed mowing of very long grass in a rough field. That’s not the first time, either.

My main criticisms of the Simplicity? Its 18 hp Kohler engine needs to rev at full speed to work the hydraulic pump property. It’s thirsty on fuel and noisy. The ride’s a bit punishing compared to my larger tractors. On the other hand the lawn looks terrific and the mower hasn’t fallen apart after quite a lot of abuse. The only parts needed in five years, apart from two mower belts, oil and air filters and a spark plug, have been two front wheel bushings.

Bolens G174 Compact Diesel Tractor with 48″ Woods RM48YM-2 rear mower:

At 1200 pounds and another 305 for the mower, this is a substantial machine. It rides pretty well if you keep a pillow on the seat and the twin cylinder 17 makes a lot less fuss than the hysterical 18 hp Kohler single on the Simplicity. Traction is excellent in 2WD, let alone 4WD with differential lock. It’s tall and looks tippy. At one point mowing across a slope under an apple tree I stopped the machine and climbed off, fearing a roll-over. I lifted as hard as I could on the uphill fender, though, and couldn’t budge the thing. Hiking out over the side is out of the question on this machine.

A rear-mounted mower can do a fine job on the flat. Sharply undulating terrain, on the other hand, causes problems of geometry and unmowed patches of grass. Even with its traction problems, the Simplicity does a better job on the uneven lawn. The big problem with the Bolens, of course, is that you are cruising along with all gears turning. You aren’t going to stop suddenly and back up the way you do routinely with the Simplicity. Thus the mowing job will consist of gradual, sweeping turns, leaving a lot undone. There’s a reason why the hydraulic mower has taken over the market.

In the field, on the other hand, the Bolens shines. It will power through very long grass leaving the old Woods mower no choice but to follow along. When the three blades are sharp, it does a very good job. Hit enough rocks and the blades will become dull, but the Bolens still has lots of power to beat the blazes out of the hay, even if it can no longer cut it. Sharp turns swing the mower wide, and casualties result if the operator doesn’t plan ahead. And things go by fairly quickly. The mower runs fast, at the middle pto speed of around 700 rpm. 4th gear of 6 seems to be about right, and at full speed that’s 4.0 miles per hour. It seems faster than that.

Update, 24 June, 2010:

Over its first week at the farm the Bolens has been busy. One six-acre field of seedlings has proven too closely-planted to mow with the wider equipment, so it looks as though it will belong to the 48″ mower for the foreseeable future. This work involved long runs down rows of seedlings, cutting weeds out of the way.

When the contractor sprayed 2′ wide rows with herbicide last fall in anticipation of the spring planting he dug up the ground with a crude spring-tooth rig to mark each row. This produced an unusable trough down the centre of each cleared area which the planters dutifully avoided with the trees, veering occasionally over almost to the grassy verge in search of plantable soil. Hence the rough ground and the wonky rows.

This meant the Bolens had to work over rough soil for at least half of its passes down the field. 4WD makes steering easier and improves the ride. The mower thus had to power through a fair amout of sandy soil, though rocks are scarce in this field. Long hay was definitely a factor, but the Bolens seems to have plenty of power to tear its way through heavy stuff, albeit in 3rd gear, low range. It’s awkward to go from 4 hi to 3 low when the grass gets heavy because of the complex shifting involved.

The tractor is durable, though. Two tankfuls of diesel this week have resulted in no oil consumption and no maintenance required save the replacement of the ancient drive belt on the mower and three blade sharpenings. One strong advantage of the 3 point hitch mower is the ease with which one may sharpen the blades on the machine. Just raise the mower up, put a jack stand underneath for safety, and have at it with an angle grinder.

Just for the record the tractor’s headlights are highly functional, focusing in a useful manner on where the mower will next cut.

I’ve mowed the lawn twice with the Bolens now and am getting better at it. Learning to trust it on slopes was the big thing. It can climb its way out of awkward situations very well — as long as the mower is down. When the belt broke I lifted the rig and headed for the garage, up a steep slope. Not a good idea. The beast reared and pivoted 90 degrees on me before I could regain control. This is potentially very dangerous, so today I’m off to get weights for the front. I’ve also started planning a weight-distributing hitch to allow the towing of trailers once mowing season ends. No way will I hang a trailer off the end of the 3 pt. hitch. Too unstable.  (April 12, 2011)  In fact I eventually put one of those cross bars between the arms of the 3 pt hitch and added a hitch ball for a wonky, but serviceable trailer hitch.  Used it on a utility trailer all winter and spring that way, then replaced it with a 3 pt hitch triangle affair with hitch balls permanently mounted on the draw bar.  It works very well, with no weight-distribution issues.

12 January, 2012:  The Bolens has acquired a 3 pt hitch dump box which has become indispensable.  The most obvious use is firewood handling.  The 10 cu. ft. box will hold as much maple as the 5′ bucket on my loader, but can move the wood from anywhere in the woodlot (no kidding, the rig is the same width as a Belgian draft horse) to the woodpile in my shop, sneaking neatly around the stationary woodworking tools.  Even with a stop at the block splitter, this means a major reduction in the number of times I must handle the wood.

Which mower is better?

For cool factor, the Bolens wins, hands down.

For a tame lawn with trees and other objects to mow around, the Simplicity is the clear choice. For field and woodlot work where a conventional tractor is too wide to fit, the Bolens is an awesome addition to the collection. The diesel, gear-driven Bolens is easier on fuel than the hydraulic Simplicity.

Coincidentally, we bought the new Simplicity and the 1981 Bolens for the same price. I expect the diesel tractor to be at work on the property long after the gas mower has departed for the junk yard, but a parts shortage or catastrophic failure might change things.

Actually, the real competition is between the Bolens and my TAFE 35 tractor equipped with a new Rhino 160 rotary mower. The Bolens is doing the lion’s share of the mowing because it is so much handier around little trees. So the TAFE, four times its weight and twice its horsepower, complete with new canopy and expensive mower, sits in the yard while I bounce around on this handy little beast.

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