Garden Gear - Garden Tools

Tips for choosing a chipper/shredder

Andrew Vowles
Photography by
Roger Yip

Mulchers, chippers and shredders can reduce yard waste and make beautiful mulch, too

It was after Vern and Linda Radkie saw their neighbour's chipper/shredder in action that they decided they needed one, too.

Keeping up with the Joneses? Not really. Linda says the $1,400 machine has already begun earning its keep on their 14-hectare property in Westerose, southwest of Edmonton.

Besides clearing the spruce, willow and alder branches that accumulate as windfall and deadfall each year, the new chipper/shredder provides plenty of mulch that Linda expects will drastically cut weeding time in their sizable perennial beds.

You might have rather less garden waste than the Radkies. But what can you do with it all—anything from limbs of shrubs and trees, to grass clippings and leaves, to spent flower and vegetable stalks or withered vines and canes—particularly as more municipalities refuse to collect yard waste for disposal in landfills, and most cities and towns forbid burning of garden refuse?

Make the problem an opportunity. Garden waste has great potential as mulch for lawns and garden beds to deter weeds, retain soil moisture and provide a kind of natural, slow-release fertilizer. Three kinds of labour-saving outdoor power equipment—mulchers, chippers and shredders—can help you reduce yard waste by 90 per cent and make beautiful mulch in the bargain. But how do you choose the right equipment for your needs? And how do these machines work?

Picking a winner
How large is your property, and is it in the town or the country? Is it well-treed? How often will you use the machine? Do you have mostly brush, leaves and garden debris, or mostly tree limbs?

The answers to these questions will help you choose the machine you need.

Mulchers, or mulching mowers, reduce grass clippings to fine particles that fall back to the lawn more or less where they're cut, returning nutrients and water directly to the soil.

Some rough-chop leaves, too. Chippers whittle down shrub and tree limbs into small wood chips that you can spread on your garden beds as mulch or even on pathways as a uniform, attractive dressing.

Shredders rip apart softer yard wastes, including vegetable stalks, leaves, collected grass clippings and twigs, turning them into even finer mulch that you can till directly into your beds or throw into the compost pile.

Lawn shots
Most new walk-behind power mowers, suitable for lawns of up to about 1,000 to 2,000 square metres, now come with mulching as a standard function, along with side discharge or bagging options. (For larger lawns, you might look at riding mowers or lawn tractors equipped with an optional mulching attachment.)

Specially designed blades and dome-shaped blade housings, or decks, create a vacuum that draws grass clippings upward to be deflected around the deck and back into the blade. "It basically chops the grass up really fine so it goes into the lawn as fertilizer," says Sandy McGrath, outdoor power equipment specialist at Halifax Seed Company in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Although you can get a four-horsepower mulching mower, most range from five to 6.5 horsepower. You can buy a mulching mower for $200 at a mass merchant, but most models retail for about $400 to $1,000.

"The more power the better, especially when you're mulching," says Greg Kellock, owner of Alberta Forest and Garden in Calgary. Referring to the "one-third rule" (cut no more than one-third of the grass blade at a time), he says, "You can't mulch any more than one inch of grass." Let the grass grow too much longer and you risk either clogging the machine and making the mower less efficient or accumulating too much litter in your lawn.

"If you get a mulching mower and good weather, you're cutting two to three times a week," says Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott Farm Equipment in Lindsay, Ont.

At least one lawn mower company makes a leaf shredder attachment designed to mulch leaves while you mow. Or ask your dealer whether they recommend using your mulching mower in the fall as a leaf shredder and mower, all in one. Some frown on forcing your mower into that kind of double duty, particularly if you end up with too much litter in the lawn.

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