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How a chipper-shredder can help on your homestead: choose the right machine to convert your yard "waste" into high-quality mulch for your garden.


When it comes to yard waste and windfalls in your woods, almost no chore seems as tedious as bagging up leaves or hauling away yet another load of fallen tree limbs. My attitude toward this "waste" changed when I got my hands on a used chipper-shredder that mounted to the front of my old Cub Cadet garden tractor. With that tool on my team, I began to see my garden debris, fallen leaves and tree trimmings as free garden mulch and fodder for my compost heap.

Wood-based mulches are an excellent source of long-lasting organic matter for gardens (see "Use Wood Mulch to Build Great Garden Soil," Combined with a high-nitrogen amendment such as manure or grass clippings, wood chips and shredded leaves help soil retain moisture and nutrients, and they improve soil texture as they rot. The fungi that assist in the degradation process further add to soil's organic matter content.

Given how valuable homemade wood mulches are, you can see how a reliable chipper-shredder can be a wise addition to your homestead equipment collection. Chipper-shredders are now readily available at farm and home improvement stores nationwide, but how do you choose? The tools used to reduce yard waste range in capability from light-duty electric shredders that can convert a bushel of dried leaves into a quarter bushel of fluffy mulch in 10 minutes, to trailer-mounted, diesel-powered chippers capable of converting a half-ton of 8-inch-diameter tree limbs into chips in about the same time frame--so think about what you want to accomplish before taking the plunge.

Know Your Waste

Yard waste comes in many forms, but for the purpose of choosing the right volume-reducing machine, you'll want to divide the stuff into two categories--chippable or shreddable. For the most part, leaves, hay, straw, small twigs and non-stemmy garden waste are shreddable, while larger-diameter twigs, branches, cornstalks and bush prunings are chippable. You'll also want to determine whether you'll be working with fresh or dry materials, as this will influence the type and power capability of the equipment you'll need.

If you intend to simply shred dry leaves in fall, an electric shredder may do the job, especially if your yard is less than half an acre. At the lightest end of the shredder market, you'll find drum-shaped devices (about $100 to $200) that convert piles of leaves into piles of mulch using everything from string-trimmer blades to highly engineered spinning metal shredding knives. If you take this route, make sure the model you're considering can process both fresh and dry leaves.

If your waste-management work consists exclusively of processing piles of woody prunings, cornstalks and small tree. limbs, then you may want to consider a chipper. Chippers come in many sizes and power ranges, but all tend to be quite expensive-$2,000 or more--due to their heavy-duty nature. Most use a heavy steel plate with one or more chipping knives. As you feed a branch into the chipper, it comes into contact with the rapidly rotating knife or knives and is quickly reduced to a series of chips. Think "supersonic potato slicer."

In practice, most folks would be best served with a chipper-shredder combination unit--you can load the hopper to shred leaves and twigs, and you can send branches down the chipper chute to create coarser material. Also, the shredding unit in the chipper-shredder is often more robust than in smaller, less expensive, dedicated shredders. Most employ some version of a hammer mill, where the materials are torn to pieces by a series of hinged hammers or flails attached to a rapidly rotating shaft or drum. The size of the shredded output is generally controlled by the hole size on its exit screen--many models offer interchangeable screens to create larger or smaller particles. Chip size is generally controlled by how quickly you feed the material to the chipping knife and how quickly the knives turn.

Know Your Volume

Chipper-shredders are relatively expensive pieces of outdoor power equipment. So, unless you just love to collect machines, assess how often and in what capacity you would likely use one. If you tend to pile your windfall limbs and wait to process them along with the garden waste and leaves in fall, then renting a unit once a year may be a good option. On the other hand, if you have several acres to maintain and that maintenance includes processing everything from leaves, hay and straw to saplings, tree limbs and hedge prunings--and you plan to do it at least a couple of times a month on average--then the money spent on buying a chipper-shredder makes more sense than renting. Another solution is to get together with your neighbors and purchase a unit to share.

Should you decide to purchase your own equipment, I'd almost always advise you to choose the combination chipper-shredder. If you have only an acre to maintain, you can choose a lower-powered, lower-capacity model. If you're on the fence between two similar models, choose the model with more capacity in case your needs increase in the future. And, in any case, if you plan to run your machine for more than a couple of days a month, you'll want to consider heavier-duty options or you'll face more frequent repairs, knife replacement and other maintenance issues.



Power, Capacity, Mobility

Most chipper-shredder models are powered with internal-combustion engines (gasoline or diesel), but corded electric models also are available. If your needs are light (less than an acre), consider a 1.5-horsepower electric (or 5-horsepower gas) unit with a 2-inch chipping capacity (about $200 to more than $500). These machines will effectively reduce your leaves, prunings and small branches into mulch, but it will take you awhile to process a half-acre's worth of debris, and if you push these machines too hard, they will fail. If you process yard waste multiple times a year, have 1 to 5 acres and/or need to chip larger branches, the 8- to 20horsepower machines with 3- to 5-inch chipping capacity make more sense ($700 to several thousand). If you already own a tractor with a three-point hitch, consider a PTO-powered chipper-shredder ($1,500 to several thousand)--you'll likely save money over buying a similar self-powered version.


Even the smallest chipper-shredders are usually equipped with wheels. As you make your way to the larger, 3-inch chipping capacity machines, you'll find more of them mounted on four-wheel wagons or two-wheel trailers, which make them easy to tow around your property with a utility vehicle, garden tractor or compact tractor. It often makes more sense to bring the chipper-shredder to the material rather than the other way around, so if wheels are optional, be sure to order them.

Some chipper-shredders are also equipped with shredder hoppers that pivot to the ground so you can rake leaves into the unit, or with vacuum intakes that allow you to suck the debris from the lawn.


Safety Precautions

Never operate any chipper-shredder without wearing safety glasses or, better yet, a hard hat with full face shield. Rocks raked into the shredder hopper or pieces of metal that inadvertently make their way into the chipper chute can come flying back at you with devastating results if you aren't dressed for success. Likewise, if you value your hearing, wear earplugs or earmuffs. As with the operation of most power equipment, wear long-sleeved canvas or denim garments that aren't baggy.

If you decide to purchase a chipper-shredder, request a lesson in safe operation from your retailer and read the manual cover to cover. But don't let the potential for accidents deter you. With the right machine, you can look forward to debris-cleanup as a way to produce your own high-quality mulch and compost.
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Article Details
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Author:Will, Oscar H., III
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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