When it comes to yard waste and windfalls in your woodlot, almost no chore seems as tedious as bagging up the debris or loading limbs into the truck for yet another trip to the transfer station. Many years ago 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 garden debris, fall leaves and tree trimmings as the actual windfall, and looked forward to converting all that seasonal waste into mulch and fodder for the compost heap.
Once considered a specialty tool, the modern chipper-shredder is now readily available and more affordable than ever before. But how do you choose? Considering that the tools used to reduce yard waste range in capability from light-duty electric shredders able to convert a bushel of dried leaves into a quarter bushel of mulch in 10 minutes to trailer-mounted dedicated chippers powered with diesel engines capable of converting 1,000 pounds of 8-inch-diameter tree limbs into a half-ton of chips in about the same time frame, you really need to know 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 lump that stuff into one of two categories – chippable and shreddable. For the most part, leaves, small twigs, non-stemmy garden waste, and hay and straw are shreddable, while larger diameter twigs, branches, bush prunings and cornstalks are chippable. And you’ll want to know whether you’ll be working with fresh or dry materials, as this will influence the kind and power capability of the chipper or shredder, or the chipper-shredder combination unit.
If you intend to simply shred dried tree leaves in the fall, an electric-powered dedicated shredder may be all you need, especially if your yard is less than half an acre. At the lightest end of the shredder market, you’ll find drum-shaped devices that use everything from string-trimmer blades to highly engineered spinning metal shredding knives to convert piles of leaves into piles of mulch (from $100 to about $200).
If this is the route you take, be sure to check whether the model you’re considering can process fresh, wet and dry leaves. Fresh or wet leaves have a tendency to clog the cutters on some shredders, so watch out.
If your waste-management work will be exclusively reducing piles of woody prunings, cornstalks and tree limbs, then you might consider taking the plunge on a dedicated chipper. Chippers come in many sizes and power ranges, but most utilize a heavy steel plate to which one or more chipping knives are attached, and most tend to be quite expensive ($2,000 or more) due to the nature of their heavy-duty work. As you feed a branch into the chipper, it comes into contact with the rapidly rotating knife or knives thousands of times per second and is quickly reduced to a series of chips – think of a 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 send branches down the chipper chute to create coarser material at the same time. The shredding unit in the chipper-shredder is also generally more robust than in the dedicated shredder. 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. Shredder output size is generally controlled by the hole size on its exit screen – many models offer interchangeable screens to create relatively larger or smaller particles. Chip size is generally controlled by how fast you feed the material to the chipping knife.
Know your volume
Chipper-shredders are relatively expensive pieces of outdoor power equipment, so, unless you just love to collect machines, you might make an assessment of roughly how often, and in what capacity, you likely would use such a power tool per month or year. If you have several acres to maintain, and that maintenance includes processing everything from tree limbs and saplings to hedge prunings and leaf grinding to hay and straw shredding, and you plan to do it at least a couple of times a month on average, then the money spent on a purchase makes more sense than renting. If you typically pile the windfall limbs and wait to process them along with the garden waste and leaves in the fall, then renting a unit once a year might be the most sensible solution. If you fall somewhere in between, you can weigh the relative costs and expense of ownership to determine which route works for you.
Assuming you decide to make the purchase, I would almost always advise you to purchase 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 face more frequent repairs, knife replacement and other pesky maintenance issues.
Power, capacity and mobility
Most chipper-shredder models are powered with internal combustion engines (gasoline or diesel), however, corded electric models are available. If your needs are light duty (less than an acre), you might choose 1.5-hp electric or 5-hp gas units with a 2-inch chipping capacity (from around $200 to more than $500). These machines will effectively reduce your leaves, prunings and small branches into mulch, but it will take you a while to process a half acre’s worth of debris with these machines, and if you push them too hard, they will fail. If you process yard waste once a year, no problem, but if you do it more often and/or need to chip larger branches, 8- to 20-hp machines (1 to 5 acres) with 3-inch to 5-inch chipping capacity make more sense ($700 to several thousand). If you already own a tractor with a 3-point hitch, you might consider a PTO-powered chipper-shredder ($1,500 to several thousand) – you likely will save money over 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 4-wheel wagons or 2-wheel trailers, which make them easy to tow around your property with a garden tractor, ATV, UTV or compact tractor. It often makes more sense to bring the chipper-shredder to the material than the other way around, so if wheels are an option, be sure to order them.
Many chipper-shredders also are equip-ped with shredder hoppers that pivot to the ground so you can rake leaves into the unit, or vacuum intakes that allow you to suck the debris from the lawn or rake the debris to the end of the intake hose, which makes leaf processing easier. Some vacuum-equipped chipper-shredders are trailer mounted and will vacuum leaves, shred them, and deposit them into a hopper or bagger for easy handling – while being towed around the yard.
Watch your eyesight
Never operate any chipper-shredder without wearing good 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. If you value your eyesight, it just isn’t worth taking a chance on losing it while operating these machines. Likewise, if you value your hearing, it is advisable to wear sound-deadening plugs or muffs. As with the operation of most power equipment, dress for the occasion using long-sleeved canvas or denim garments that aren’t loose or baggy. Leather gloves are a must if you intend to handle limbs and leaf piles with minimal damage.
You can find quality chipper-shredders at your local farm store or one of many independent dealers in your area. Be sure to request a lesson in safe operation from your retailer and read the manual cover to cover before firing up your chipper-shredder. Don’t let their dangerous nature deter you. Once you’re set up with the right chipper-
shredder, I have no doubt you’ll look to the debris-cleanup chores with the anticipation that only creating your own high-quality mulch and compost can elicit.
Editor Hank Will makes use of three chipper-shredders to keep the debris down, down on his Osage County, Kansas, farm.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines.