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In the Garden

Of compost and power tools



IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS, I HAVE MADE the two most expensive gardening purchases of my life.

The first was a truckload of compost -- several cubic yards -- plus a crew of brawny gardening assistants who were hired to help me spread it around the backyard. I can't even bring myself to tell you how much this cost. To give you some idea, I'll tell you that it was more than I've spent on -- let's see -- clothing, gin, and DVD rentals in the last year. Make that the last two years. Anyway, it was a lot of money, but it was a smart investment. The addition of all this extra compost allowed me to build several new flower beds and a berry patch in the garden. The plants are putting down roots like no plant has ever done in my garden before. This new soil is extraordinary. Next summer, I'll be glad for the blossoms and the fruit, and I will have forgotten all about the dent in my savings account.

The McCullough Shredder 1400 The purchase of all this compost acted as a sort of gateway drug that led to the second most extravagant gardening purchase of my life: an electric chipper-shredder. 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 compost already, you might not 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. But 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 3 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 a few weeks ago. 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 axle, 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 10 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.


E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


 November Checklist

  • Mulch, mulch, mulch!
  • Prune and divide perennials
  • Seed in cover crops like fava, clover, and vetch to protect soil in vegetable beds
  • Plant cool-weather vegetables like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts
  • Start amaryllis and narcissus indoors for winter blooms
  • Look for bulbs, bareroot trees and berries at the nursery


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