For soft materials alone, Arnott says he used to sell an electric leaf shredder that he describes as a "weed eater in a garbage can," but it didn't catch on. "Why not put the leaves in a pail and run a weed eater up and down inside it?" he reasoned—but he concedes that the machine was ineffective at mulching other kinds of organic waste, such as cornstalks.
A more popular alternative for clearing a lawn is a chipper/vacuum (or chipper/shredder/ vacuum) that you push around like a lawn mower.
Priced anywhere from $600 to about $1,600, these five- to nine-horsepower machines contain a chipper as well as a vacuum fan that sucks up debris through the vacuum head or tube.
The fan pulls leaves and grass clippings through a metal screen, which pulverizes the debris before it passes into a detachable bag. "They're for the guy going around the lawn just picking up leaves, grass, the odd branch," says McGrath, adding that the tube attachment makes these machines useful for sucking litter out of hard-to-reach places, such as flower beds and window wells.
That might sound a bit indulgent, but there's no denying that an element of "macho toys" attends most of these machines. Wanda Soper says she's content to let her husband, Fred, look after the $1,600 chipper/shredder they bought early this year for their 1.6-hectare property in Hampton, New Brunswick.
"It's a toy for a man." No argument from Fred, who enjoys feeding their new machine with deadwood, raspberry canes and leaves, as well as the limbs from a small but neglected apple orchard he's restoring.
"I'll cut down a lot of the branches and stack them, then bring the chipper/shredder to it and sit there and feed the stuff in," he says, describing how the machine chews through limbs up to seven centimetres thick to produce a consistent stream of fingernail-sized chips.
"Apple wood is about as hard as you're going to get, and it just eats it; there's no slowing it down."
Wanda likes rolling away yet another wheelbarrow load of mulched chips to cover one of their extensive perennial beds or line one of the pathways snaking through their riverfront property. She anticipates their investment will yield more than the three or four half-tonne truckloads of mulch they had to buy for the garden last year.
For information about choosing and using lawn and garden equipment, including chippers, shredders and mulching mowers, check the Cyberlawn Web site maintained by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute at opei.mow.org