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Past Articles Library | Lawn & Garden Equipment | Leaf Shredders & Chippers


Leaf Shredders and Wood Chippers

How to choose & buy this essential tool to clean up garden debris year-round

One of the handiest pieces of garden equipment is a leaf shredder / wood chipper. Even the smallest, and least expensive of these machines can reduce eight to ten bags of leaves down into one, and that's great news if you have a lot of leaves you need to deal with every year.

But chipper-shredders don't only deal with leaves. They also make nutrient-rich green mulch from non-woody plant debris and weeds (that haven't gone to seed), which can be added to flower beds and compost piles; and they make wood chips from twigs and branches that can be spread on walkways.

But delving into the world of shredders and chippers can be overwhelming. What horsepower should you get? What capacity will you need? Is electric better than gas powered?

The key to finding the right model for your needs is to answer these questions, which is what we are going to do for you right now!


Think About Your Needs
Shredders and Chippers Can Be Used Year-Round


Many gardeners think only about using a shredder or chipper in the fall, when all the leaves start to come down and cover everything. In actuality though, a shredder/chipper can be used year round like so:

  • During the autumn months a shredder-chipper is a tool that is vital to help clean up and reduce the piles of leaves and debris into manageable and usable mulch or for addition to the compost pile.

  • In the winter and early spring a chipper-shredder makes quick work of the branches and twigs from storms and seasonal pruning of dormant trees and shrubs.

  • In the late spring and summer these machines easily chew through weeds and finished crops from the vegetable garden such as corn stalks and old tomato plants.



What's Available

Shredder-chippers are available in a wide variety of sizes and most come with a range of accessories to help with other jobs around yard.

Their engines begin at the smaller end with lightweight electric models with less than 1 horsepower, and go up to large gasoline powered engines of 4 to 10 horsepower or more.

Some shredder-chippers are driven by the Power Take-Off (PTO) of a tractor and take on heavy duty work, while the smaller electric powered models are best for only shredding leafy green foliage and small twigs.

More are coming onto the market all the time, and an increasing number of small to midsized machines offer the option of letting you rake leaves and other debris into a hopper at ground level or to vacuum leaves and debris right off the ground.

The larger commercial models can handle bigger, tougher material, some up to six inches (15 cm) in diameter.

What's good to know is that even though you can buy either a wood chipper or a leaf shredder independent of one another, most are designed to handle both kinds of work.

Electric Chipper-Shredder:



Gas Powered
Chipper-Shredder:

Leaf Shredders

Shredding is done by either hinged flails or fixed-arm hammers. These devices spin at high speeds, grinding material that is fed into the machine.

Hammers are solid arms that have great shredding power but are liable to break if they hit a rock or similar impediment.

The hinged arms of flails allow them to ride over obstructions such as rocks, but they lack some of the shredding power of hammers.

Some shredder-chippers also come with attachable discharge screens with varying sized holes which determine the fineness of the material produced, and a collection bag is always a good accessory to have, as is a solid towing handle or hitch.

Bottom line: Shredders are better for soft materials such as leaves and small twigs.



Wood Chippers

Chipping is done by one or more fixed blades mounted on a rotary disc. The blades cut up material as it is fed though a chute. On many chippers the blades can be reversed to extend their life.

Some of the smaller, more straightforward electric powered models sit on legs from which you can hang a bag. Other models sit directly over a garbage can or compost pile.

Larger models sit on the ground and shoot the ground-up material off to the side, onto a laid out tarp or well-placed wheelbarrow.

For homeowners with a large number of trees that drop branches, a chipper is a great way to recycle debris. It's able to grind tree branches nearly five inches (12.5 cm) in diameter, and can create all the mulch you'll ever need.

Wood mulch in the garden makes attractive, natural-looking, and inexpensive pathway materials.

Note: If you have black walnut trees, compost the leaf and wood chips for several months before spreading them on your garden beds, so the natural toxicity (juglone) will not be a problem.

Note: Greenwood is easier to chip than dry wood

Bottom line: Chippers are better for heavy stalks and large woody materials.





Making a Choice

Once you have figured out what kind of work you need to do most on your property, compare the width and depth of the shredding hopper - the larger the better - and the diameter of the chipping chute.

In general, the best choice is to buy as large a machine as possible in order to avoid overloading the engine and the hopper.

The smaller electric models which are suitable for greenhouse or light work around the garden only, such as leaf shredding, have less than 1 horsepower. Just keep in mind, smaller diameter chutes are safer but slower to use.

Also make sure to see if the smaller machines come with wheels, and if you live in a wet climate, try to find a model adapted to handling wet material.

A good large-capacity machine will have at least a 4 horsepower, four-cycle gasoline engine. Horsepower is a good indication of a machine's overall capacity - the higher the horsepower - the heavier the material it will be able to handle. Of course the price tag usually goes up accordingly!

If you want to work in different locations on your property, make sure the machine you buy is mobile. Many come with wheels, while some have hitches that can be attached to a lawn and garden tractor for towing.

An electric powered shredder-chipper usually weighs less than the gas powered machines, which is nice if you're going to have to move it a lot, but keep in mind it will also be hindered by the length of its extension cord.

Gas models can be moved and used anywhere, and they usually are much more powerful.

If your main interest is in shredding leaves, pay attention to the types with vacuuming ability. These models suck leaves and material off the ground, shred it, and blow it into an attached collection bag. Some of these machines are also self-propelled.



Electric Shredder-Chipper:

Gas Powered Chipper-Shredder:

Measuring Capacity

The capacity of any shredder-chipper is measured by the maximum diameter of a branch that it can chip.

When buying larger models, look for walls made of welded, thick, 10 to 16-guage steel, and avoid those made of lightweight sheet metal.

In general, it is usually in your best interests to avoid the least expensive machines because their mechanical quality is sometimes doubtful, and because their limited capacity is usually problematic at best.

Try and purchase something middle of the road in price if you don't want to afford the more expensive models. In the end it will save you time and money.

Bottom line: look for the capacity you'll need, compare the width and height of the shredder hopper and the maximum diameter of the branches each machine can chip or shred and you'll be well on your way to buying a reliable piece of machinery that best suits your needs.






Safety Features

Whatever shredder-chipper you buy, make sure to operate it safely. Always check the chutes and hoppers before starting it up to make sure no gloves, tools, or golf balls have accidentally fallen in.

Avoid wearing baggy clothes to avoid getting anything caught in the machine and always wear long sleeves, gloves, ear protection and goggles because small bits of debris can fly out of the hopper at high speeds.

Everyone is different, but you may want to limit your shredding-chipping episodes to about a half hour, because your hands can vibrate for a couple of hours afterward if you don't. This is different for everybody, but keep it in mind!

Also, don't overfeed your chipper-shredder. The model type will tell you the maximum size of branch you can feed in. Most machines made for the homeowner will chip a branch up to two or three inches (5 to 7.5 cm) in diameter. Save the big branches for your fireplace.

Most problems happen when too much debris is pushed down the chute or too many rocks are fed in, but those are two easily avoided problems.

And it may sound silly, but always keep your body, especially your head, clear of openings in case the machine kicks back some debris.

Lastly, make sure to use the tamper that is made for the purpose of pushing foliage and debris into the machine, don't use your hand. If the shredder-chipper becomes clogged, turn it off first; then clear the problem.




Making a Purchase

When you buy anything, it's always a good idea to compare warranties. If you buy your machine from a local retailer, ask to test the machine you want first so you can get a sense of the quality of the retailer's service department.

Basically you will be happiest with the largest chipper-shredder you can afford, or handle. If you can use it before you buy it, do so, because some chutes are too high for shorter people to use and you need to know things like that before you spend the money.

Chipper-shredder prices are all over the board, but they typically start at $200 for small electric models that shred leaves and very small branches.

The heavier-duty, 10 to 18 horsepower, gas-powered models run from $1,500 to $3,000 or more. There are stand-alone types, and models that can be towed by lawn or garden tractors.

Of course there are several very good quality machines in between these price ranges, so you'll have to do some shopping, but with the information above, you'll be able to get exactly what you need at the right price.

Conclusion

A shredder-chipper is one of the best ways to quickly turn huge piles of leaves and twigs into small mounds of mulch, and the best part is that it is an easy to use piece of garden equipment.

Chipper-shredders are fast and dependable and they allow you to get your yard clean-up done quickly so you can get on to other important things you need to do, or would rather do!




Hilary Rinaldi is a member of the National Garden Writers Association, a nationally published writer, and a certified organic grower. She regularly speaks and writes about all gardening related topics, with an emphasis on making gardening a successful and enjoyable process for anyone who wants to learn. Weekend Gardener Monthly Web Magazine concentrates of giving detailed gardening tips and gardening advice to all levels of gardeners.

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