Landscaping Equipment Choices - Start Small and Grow Big

By Greg Sitek | September 28, 2010

Landscaping has become a major industry segment in the construction market. Until recently it was high-end homes and developments, up-scale shopping centers, hotels, and resort areas that demanded landscaping. In today's world,virtually every office building, manufacturing facility, housing development, warehouse district, and the like do some level of landscaping making it an important part of today's construction market.

The beauty of it is that you can start small and grow big. It does involve a lot of manual labor and demands quick response and reaction. A landscaping project can be any size from a small single-resident project to the creation of a fabulous 18-hole golf course.

When you look at a large landscaping project it encompasses many aspects of the overall construction business: earthmoving, site prep, irrigation, paving, grading, excavating, materials placement and movement, building, lifting, and hoisting with most of this done in restricted space with great concern for the underfoot conditions.

Equipment has been a major contributor to the growth of landscaping. Equipment manufacturers responded to the need for labor-saving devices that would make it possible for one person or a very small crew to do a lot in a short time. Compact equipment and its wide variety of attachments led the way, quickly followed by the introduction of mini machines with their ever-expanding arsenals of work tools — one machine can easily do the work of a dozen with the right attachments.

Typical Landscape Equipment

Small track-type tractors — 16,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds

Application: grading with blade. Hydrostatic drive units are particularly good in this type of application.

Compact wheel loaders and tool carriers

Applications: digging, loading, grading, carrying plant materials, dirt, mulch and rock; with pallet forks handling palletized materials such as sod and pavers; with broom attachment — cleanup; general purpose buckets — all common tasks; light material buckets — handling mulch; grapple buckets — handling large rocks and irregularly shaped objects, and carrying debris such as limbs; and stone sieve buckets — sizing decorative rock and sizing rock for erosion control

Tool carriers have advantages over compact wheel loaders and traditional wheel loaders in that they are designed to handle attachments. The machines are engineered to handle the additional front-end weight of a quick coupler as well as the attachment. Their hydraulic systems are designed to handle the added requirements of hydraulically powered tools. They may be a bit more expensive up front but usually the initial cost will be offset by the benefits.

Skid-steer loaders

Applications: digging, loading, grading, carrying plant materials, dirt, mulch and rock; tool carrier

Versatility is the key to success in landscape contracting. The more tasks your machine can perform, the fewer you'll need. The skid-steer loader is one machine that offers you tremendous options. The best way to get the most out of a skid-steer loader's potential is to take full advantage of work tools or attachments. Manufacturers understand the importance of work tools and have continued to develop new work tools to meet the needs of more landscaping applications. In addition, manufacturers also have improved existing work tools. Attachments on a skid-steer loader can translate into the highest productivity for the dollar.

A skid-steer loader is best suited for landscaping projects where the equipment is working on and around sidewalks, curbs, asphalt, or pavement. Skid-steer loaders work very well for housing builders or contractors working on commercial developments where crews might be on and off the streets a lot, traveling over and/or turning on concrete or pavement.

Rubber tires tend to hold up better than tracks under these conditions and will offer a better ride. In addition, the larger skid-steer loaders have the option of two-speed transmission for faster travel speeds on flat surfaces.

Compact Track Loaders

Applications: digging, loading, grading (superior to skid steer), carrying plant materials, dirt, mulch, and rock (low ground pressure allows work on sod)

Both compact track loaders and skid-steer loaders are valuable machines for landscape work because of their maneuverability and attachment versatility. The key is knowing which one is best suited for the job. There are several variables to consider when deciding whether a compact track loader or skid-steer loader is best suited the job.

Compact track loaders are typically better for rougher ground conditions where the area is wet, soft or sandy. Tracks work better on these underfoot conditions than tires. The dedicated tracks on a compact track loader distribute the machine's weight over a larger surface area reducing ground pressure to 4 psi to 5 psi. The tracks provide better traction and the ability to float over minor dips for smoother grading performance.

If you're working in sandy ground track machines provide better flotation and traction. If you're faced with wet and muddy conditions the compact track loader will make it possible to work the site without waiting for it to dry.

Telehandlers (rough-terrain variable reach forklifts)

Applications: loading, unloading, material placement

With the forks, buckets, carriages, and other attachments available and the lifting capacity these machines are great for placing plants, sod and bedding materials at a distance without getting on existing turf. They are great for unloading sod, plants and other landscape materials.

Mini hydraulic excavators

Applications: trenching for drainage and for irrigation system installation

Because of their versatility and the attachments available, mini hydraulic excavators are great tools on most landscape jobs. Typical attachments would include augers, buckets and thumbs.


Irrigation systems are almost standard in most landscaping projects today and often require extensive underground plumbing. Trencher attachments are good for smaller projects but if you get into large-scale projects you will want to consider using a trencher.

Utility all-wheel-drive vehicles

The selection of utility all-wheel-drive vehicles is somewhat eclectic in that no two makes are alike. Some of the models currently available are Deere's Gator and Kawasaki has a similar type unit as do Polaris and Bombardier. Komatsu has two models of crawler carriers that would be appropriate for large size projects but too big for small jobs. Bobcat recently introduced a larger version of the Toolcat that offers a combination of utility vehicle and compact loader features. Both can host a variety of attachments.

Industrial (Agricultural)-type tractors

A number of manufacturers offer ag-type tractors for the construction market. Landscaping is one of the primary applications for these machines. With their three-point hitch assemblies and other towing capabilities they are ideal for a number of finishing applications. The industrial versions offer more power, better operator stations and greater durability. They are designed for the rigorous demands of construction.

Backhoe loaders

We can't forget backhoe loaders. Because of the machine's dual nature, loader and backhoe, it's an ideal choice for many small contractors because of the versatility. With a good selection of attachments, you could take one machine and do the work of at least a dozen. Its limitations will depend on the size and location of the job site. When you looking a potential landscaping project, don't forget to factor in this machine.

Mini skid-steer loaders

Several manufacturers have entered the construction market with a specific focus on landscaping. The mini skid steers can be walk-behind or ride on units and are designed to power a variety of attachments that are easily changed to facilitate doing many different jobs with a single machine. A couple manufacturers have created packages that include the power source and three or four popular attachments. Some rental yards have added another level of functionality to this packaging. When you rent the power source you take the whole package with you and pay the rental rates for the units that you use.

Typical landscaping attachments are:

Augers — Designed for preparing holes for planting trees and shrubs, the auger can also drill holes for things like playground supports, fence posts and signs in parks and recreation areas. Some landscape contractors use skid-steer loaders with extra hydraulic flow to maximize auger performance.

Backhoes — This attachment is engineered to give skid steers backhoe capabilities and is good for digging drainage channels and trenches for irrigation pipe.

Blades — These come in varying sizes, typically starting at about 72 inches. Blades are used in a variety of tasks, primarily moving and leveling material. Consider a blade with non-metallic edges, which will allow the tool to be used to remove snow as well.

Brooms — The obvious application for brooms is cleaning surfaces after a job is complete. But brooms also can perform regular maintenance in parking lots and at golf courses, including upkeep of cart paths. In addition, brooms can clear snow in the winter, adding another season of use to the skid-steer loader.

Grapple buckets — Grapple buckets help pick up and remove bulky or irregularly shaped material on the job site. Suited for clearing brush after pruning trees, or for cleanup, the grapple bucket offers the ability to grasp and hold.

Landscape rakes — Conditioning, leveling and removing rocks from soil prior to seeding or laying sod is what landscape rakes do best. They also are used for conditioning and cleaning baseball fields.

Landscape tillers — Typical applications include mixing and composting soils for improved seedbeds, soil stabilization and soil preparation prior to landscaping and laying sod.

Light material buckets — While the bucket is built for a light application — such as hauling wood chips, mulch and snow — it also should be able to handle a large payload. This often is accomplished through long floor length and tall back height. Specifically, a 72-inch bucket should have a capacity of just under a yard. Vertical-lift skid-steer loaders are able to reach high and dump materials over the edge of a truck.

Multipurpose buckets — These attachments can be used for digging, dozing, clamping, back-dragging, grading, and leveling during the traditional season and removing snow during the winter. Multipurpose buckets have a range of capacities. Look for one that is big enough to be productive but still able to fit into any tight spaces the job might require. The multipurpose bucket, like the light material bucket, also can be attached to skid-steer loaders with extended reach.

Pallet forks — Pallet forks are labor-saving devices which speed load-and-carry operations for moving materials on-site and are used for loading/unloading palletized materials like sod, fertilizer or decorative stone.

Trenchers — Irrigation and water sprinkler system work is one of the more frequent applications of this work tool. Trenchers also can remove roots that grow too close to buildings and paved paths.

Stump grinders — Tree and brush stumps quickly become chips when this work tool is put to use. Some landscape contractors use machines with extra hydraulic flow to maximize work tool performance.

The beauty of a landscaping project is that once all the dirt is moved, the sod laid, trees and shrubs planted, and the irrigation system is installed and running, it's only the beginning. The project has to be maintained to keep its appearance.