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The mighty munchers.

mightly munchers Reducing a mountain of garden debris to a manageable little pile: that's what a garden grinder can do. What does that accomplish for you as a gardener?

* If your garden produces masses of prunings each year, a shredder can save you the job of loading and carting the debris to the dump.

* If your soil is the mean type that fights back when you try to slip a spade into it--or the hungry sort that gobbles amendments by the carload--a shredder can help you turn it into a rich black substance that's like potting soil.

On pages 112 and 113, we show four types of garden debris you can put into a shredder, what each looks like when it comes out, and five ways you can use the result. Here and on the next two pages, you see examples of the two basic types of machines that do the job.

Big gasoline-powered machines like the one at far left became popular with home gardeners in the '60s and '70s. Since then, they have continued to improve in safety and in performance.

Small electric models like the one at near left have only recently been imported to the U.S. but have been popular in Europe for some time. Compact and relatively low-priced, these machines make the benefits of shredders available to people with smaller gardens and tighter budgets.

There are many variations and sizes in between, called shredders, grinders, or, if they have a knife-blade, chippers.

The trade offs: gas versus electric

Both gasoline and electric shredders have their assets and liabilities. The best choice depends on your personality and needs. Many gardeners start with a strong preference for one or the other, and an equally strong aversion to the alternative.

We interviewed owners and tested 14 different machines ourselves.

The consensus of long-time shredder operators is this: go for the biggest, most powerful machine you can afford.

"I started with a small 3-hp machine, switched almost immediately to a mid-size 5-hp, and now wish I had gone for something even heavier-duty," says one.

But not everyone finds bigger better. As one satisfied owner of an electric shredder put it, "Gas engines don't like me and I don't like them. They're raucous, heavy, and hard to start. What I like about electrics is that they're more civilized; even a 90-pound weakling can use one."

The advantages of the small electric ones are these: they are lightweight, compact, quiet, and economical. You turn them on by pushing a button and maintain them simply by cleaning out the inside and having the blades sharpened periodically.

Weighing 22 to 67 pounds, most have wheels and are quite portable. Some need a 20-amp circuit. With a 12-gauge extension cord, you can work up to 100 feet from a power outlet; wiht a 14-gauge cord, stay within 50 feet. Smaller-gauge cords (higher numbers) or longer distances are not advisable; they can cause power to drop and the motor to overheat. Use only extension cords that are U.L. listed and designed for outdoor use.

Measuring about 2 feet square and 3 feet tall, they're easy to store. Most cost $200 to $300. But can they do the job?

The answer is a qualified yes. In order to run on common household current of 120 volts, electric shredders are limited to a 1- to 2-hp motor, regardless of claims to the contrary. (That's roughly equivalent to a 2- to 4-hp gasoline engine.)

Soft wood, up to slightly more than an inch in diameter, whisks right through. Leaves and small debris are another matter; due in part to hopper safety features, in part to limited motor capacity, you can load only a small amount at one time.

The model shown at lower right on page 111 has an alternative hopper and a larger blade that make it the most efficient of the small machines for leaves or anything else lacking a stiff stem. For harder-to-compost woody clippings, the slightly more powerful, wider-mouthed machine pictured at near left is faster.

There are also a few slightly larger, American-made electric shredders. These generally have larger hoppers--far easier to load--but often lack the safety features of the tall hopper and hopper shield that are standard on the European models.

Regardless of the material you grind, even with the aid of special attachments, small-to midsize electric shredders have to take small bites or they bog down. They take a long time to chew up a sizable pile.

In contrast, the heavy-duty gasoline grinders are a weighty 170 to 315 pounds and take about twice as much storage space (about 2 by 3 to 4 feet). Medium-heavy 5-hp machines cost about $500; heavy-duty ones are $800 to just over $1,000. These machines are quite satisfactory for most garden grinding, but you can opt for even higher power by substituting a 7- or 8-hp engine.

The advantages of big gasoline machines are power, versatility, and speed. Most 5-hp machines with chippers take limbs 2-1/2 inches in diameter; the more expensive ones take limbs up to 3 inches thick. Their large hoppers and powerful engines also handle leaves, spent annuals, and small clippings almost effortlessly.

Large gas-powered machines usually have either a manual or centrifugal clutch. Both make the engine easier to start; a manual gives more control, while the centrifugal one gives some automatic protection against stalling when the machine is overloaded. The pull-cord starters are easy for some; a hassle for others. Check oil, lubricate, and maintain the motor as directed in the instruction manual.

A hang-up with all machines--gas or electric--is soft, leafy material such as ferns. A few minutes of shredding this soggy stuff can clog the exits of many machines, particularly the smaller ones. The best solution is to alternate juicy stuff with plenty of drier material; this usually keeps the machine clean enough to prevent clogging even with standard-size screens. Most gas machines offer optional screens with larger holes or bars that are less likely to clog.

Making the grind more enjoyable

The best safety insurance is to read and heed warnings and cautions printed on the machine and in the instruction booklet.

Before you buy or use one, open it up and inspect the cutting parts so you know how the blade operates and where it is in relation to you when you load material.

Wear the safety gear shown above. Long pants and sleeves also protect you.

The pleasanter the grinding process, the safer and more efficient it is as well; frustration or fatigue can lead to misuse.

Make it a habit to shred material while it's fresh and before the pile becomes formidable. Alternate shredding with pruning or pulling out so you don't amass more debris than you can handle in a few days. Dry material is dusty; if it's also woody, grinding it is bone-jarring, ear-splitting, and hard on cutting blades. Green wood zips through and smells good.

Learn the limitations of your machine, and don't try to push it beyond them; you'll save time in the long run. Listen to the engine; when you force limbs in too fast or load too much into the hopper, you can hear the motor slow down. If you stop soon enough, the machine can usually recover and keep going. Once the machine stalls, you have to disconnect the power, open it up, and clear the blades and the exit chute.

Every machine stalls once in a while--especially while you're learning what works and what doesn't. But if your continues to stall often, it's likely that either you need a heavier-duty machine to process the kinds and quantities of material you have at the speed you want, or the machine needs maintenance.

Simplify cleanup by shredding onto a tarp, directly onto the composite pile, or into a bag or container. By spreading a tarp first, you can even shred on a lawn.

All machines need a level space with solid footing to operate. Many directions warn against operating the machines on pavement or gravel; such surfaces cause material to ricochet, and tend to magnify the machine's vibrations and noise.

Where to learn more

You can find a few garden shredders at stores that sell power equipment for lawns or farms (look in the yellow pages under Garden & Lawn Equipment or Farm Equipment). To explore the full range of shredders available, write to manufacturers listed on page 266 for brochures, price lists, and dealer locations. Some, especially the small electric ones, are shipped directly to the customer. Most of these need partial assembly. Some arrive with all the tools and instructions you'll need; others take some figuring out.

For all shredders, compare safety and working features. How sturdy and well cafted is the machine itself? How stable? If it clogs, how much time and effort will it take to open it for clean-out? Could I get my hand close to moving blades by accident? (The large and small machines we tested have guards and usually tall hoppers to reduce this hazard; some midsize machines require more caution.)

For any model you're considering, find out how long it's been on the market and what improvements have been made on it over the years. If possible, use the machine yourself or talk with someone who has used it (ask the dealer or manufacturer for references to local customers).

A good garden grinder can do heavy work for many years. Buy the best design and workmanship your budget allows for the job you plan to do.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 1986
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