Monday, January 30, 2006

The McCulloch Electric Chipper/Shredder.

I get a lot of questions about two toys I own: The McCulloch electric chipper-shredder, and the Soil Soup compost tea brewer. They're high-priced toys, so that's why people tend to do a lot of research before buying one. I'll post some links, some information, and answer some questions about both. First, the chipper. Before we go any further, here's a quick little plug for anyone considering buying one: follow this link to Gardener's Supply Company, and you'll be able to pick one up for 15% off: Gardener's Supply Company - 15% off orders of $25 or more! Send me a note if you have any problems getting the discount with that link. Now, on to my reviews, impresssions, answers to questions, etc:

I bought this contraption from McCulloch Motors, makers of a variety of noisy and intimidating power tools for the home and garden. I never thought I’d want to own any kind of gardening power tool: I am frightened of electric hedge trimmers, believing that they will somehow get away from me and wreak havoc in the flower bed. I firmly believe that if I had a lawn, I’d mow it with a good old-fashioned push mower.

But the fact is, my compost habit has gotten out of control. Once I built the flower beds and the berry patch, I realized that I had other garden plans lurking in the back of my mind. It was time to turn one of the utilitarian vegetable gardens into something more ornamental. The perennial border in the front yard was in desperate need of mulch for winter. I had two choices: order up another truckload of compost, or start making my own.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always had a compost pile in the backyard, but I’m a lazy composter. I don’t cut vines and branches into small, easily compostable segments. I don’t turn the pile, ever, not once. I rarely remember to water it in the summer. And I don’t add compost accelerator. (If you’re not seriously into in compost already, you might not even be aware that you can buy a product that will speed up the process by pumping the right kinds of bacteria into your pile of dried leaves and grass clippings. Products like this have a way of turning backyard composting into an Olympic sport. Trust me, you don’t need it. Forget I even mentioned it.)

As a result of my lazy composting practices, I get about three cubic feet of compost every year, just enough to tease the flower beds with a light sprinkling of the stuff. That truckload of compost I purchased put my own efforts to shame. It was time to kick things up a notch. That’s where the electric chipper/shredder came in.

I’d read a review of this product in a gardening magazine. The 14-amp Shredder 1400 was promised to be lightweight, relatively quiet, and not nearly as noxious as its gas-powered counterparts. The manufacturer had given a great deal of thought to safety, quelling any Fargo-inspired phobias I might have had about such a machine. It could handle branches up to an inch and a half thick. It could shred blackberry vines, sunflower stalks, trimmings from shrubs, and all the rest of the brittle, unwieldy fall yard waste that takes forever to break down in a regular compost pile. I’d have all the mulch I wanted, throughout the seasons, all for the price of an occasional blade sharpening.

The Shredder 1400 arrived while I was on vacation. As soon as I got home, I opened the box and started assembling it. The product review I’d read had warned me that the instructions were unintelligible. In fact, the instructions were worse than unintelligible, they were all but missing. Step One explained how to attach the wheels to the axel, Step Two explained how to put the safety cover over the chute, but I would have liked a little information in between about how to attach the wheels to the base and assemble the actual machine. Eventually, I figured it out, and the next day I stood proudly on my back porch, feeding dried leaves and dead limbs into the chute. Out came beautiful, glorious, finely shredded mulch. It was like printing money. I never felt so good.

Pretty soon I learned that there was another benefit to owning a hefty power tool like the Shredder 1400. Several of the men in my neighborhood suddenly took an interest in my garden. I had only been chipping and shredding for about ten minutes before my next door neighbor appeared at the fence, expressing admiration for my shiny new machine.

“Got yourself a chipper,” he said approvingly.

“Yep,” I said.

It was a good moment. I was one of the boys.

A few days later, when a repairman came to do some work near the back door, I apologized that the chipper/shredder was in the way. “I just bought this,” I said. “I haven’t found a place for it yet. Let me move it for you.”

“That’s a nice machine,” he said. “Is it electric? What size limbs can you cut?” I have been inducted, it seems, into a kind of power tool fraternity. Pretty soon, I’ll be swapping hedge trimmers and bright orange extension cords with the guys on my block. Until then, I’ve got an enormous pile of yard waste to shred, and a new bed of roses and sweet peas that could use the mulch.

I've owned this gadget for a couple years now, and in that time I've gotten a surprising number of calls and e-mails from people all over the country who are considering buying one but have questions. Here, then, are answers to the most frequently-asked questions I get:

Q: Is it so noisy that the neighbors will complain?

A: It's certainly no louder than a lawn mower, and I imagine it's quieter than the gas-powered chippers.

Q: Does it do what the manufacturer says?

A: It's easy to use, as long as you don't feed anything into it that is too wet or too big. It's really best for a regular-sized garden with the normal kinds of smallish garden trimmings. If you've got acres of trees or brush to clear, this isn't for you. Basically you make a pile of stuff and stand there, breaking or cutting it into pieces just a foot or two long, and feeding that in.

It's also very safe--there is (probably) no way you could stick your hand far enough down the chute to cut yourself--and the fact that it's electric means no gasoline to deal with.

And having the chipped stuff is FABULOUS. You can use it immediately as a mulch or pile it into the compost pile and watch it turn to black gold. I mix mine with dried leaves & grass trimmings and bedding/manure from the chicken coop, and you would not believe how great that stuff is. Absolutely full of worms, which means I must be doing something right!

Q: How long have you been using it, and what problems have you encountered?

A: Things do get clogged around the blades, or a piece of string might get wrapped around them, which makes it shut off, then you have to stop, take the top off, clear the blades, and start up again. (Hint: The purpose of the red button is to let you test to make sure the motor will re-start before you screw the chute back on.) Over time you learn just the right rate of feed, the right size of trimmings, etc to avoid this. Also, I prefer to just leave it running if I have to step away for a moment. That avoids the possibility that it will think it's clogged and not start again. Also, sometimes the stuff leaving the chipper gets stuck in the "exit chute"--I keep a stick around and poke that up there to break it loose. This is fairly easy to do while leaving the motor running, because the stick doesn't get anywhere near the blades.

Because of our wet weather, I can only use it in the summer when my piles of stuff are dry enough. In fact, I really only use it maybe 3-5 times per year. If I had it permanently set up in a garage or shed, I might use it more often, but I don't have that kind of space. So for me, it might have made more sense to just rent a chipper once a year (although I don't have a truck to haul it in) or actually go in with some neighbors, split the cost of the McCullough, and share it.

It is a real bear to put together. There are basically no instructions. Have as many photos of the thing handy as you can find on the Internet, and if you know someone who is very good with mechanical things, bribe them with pizza, beer, cookies, whatever and get some help. In fact, if you get stuck, send me an e-mail--I have talked many people through it. I will try to post more photos and installation instructions later, so check back.

Q: Were you able to buy it locally, or did you order it from somewhere?

A: Nope, you gotta order it, and it ain't cheap, but as I said earlier, you can follow this link to Gardener's Supply Company, and you'll be able to pick one up for 15% off, which may take the sting out.

Gardener's Supply Company - 15% off orders of $25 or more!