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Mulch Ado About Chipping In

Nancy Spiller is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

The Keystone Kops-like explosion came with an ear-busting bang and white puff of smoke. In the calm aftermath, black bits of electrician’s tape floated to the ground like snowflakes. I was fine, but, sadly, my garden chipper was dead. Having known the joys of chipping for only a few brief but glorious days, I was devastated.

“You’ll want a chipper,” my landscape contractor had said as he finished our new backyard paradise. The latest in landscape design, it was “sustainable,” which meant that everything that came out of the garden should go right back in. No green waste clogging city landfills where broken appliances and used diapers belonged. And since my hillside garden was five to eight flights of stairs from the street, the fewer trips to the curb with clippings, the better. Everything too big to toss on the compost pile would get chipped and shredded into mulch to transform my crummy clay soil into something loose and rich. Kind of like a fancy East Coast finishing school.

But a chipper was easier said than found. First, chippers were ridiculously expensive--$500 to $800. Why, I could buy three handmade Helen Kaminski raffia gardening hats for that. And at 100-plus pounds, they were too heavy for our multilevel landscape.

When we found a working model for $25 at a flea market, suddenly weight was no object. It took two men to drag my Lescha Zak 1800 up to the yard. There it sat on three metal legs supporting a serious little engine and optimistic orange steel hopper. It looked cute enough for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to send to Mars.

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The Lescha’s first hum and thrum, like the sound of a Cessna before takeoff, lifted my heart. As I shoved toyon twigs down its hopper, the wood to whirling blade contact, vibration, noise and heated stink made me feel like a NASCAR driver coming around the bend.

Even through the industrial earmuffs, I could tell I had a winner. This baby could chew! Then, groggy and sated from one too many moist cactus paddles, my little Lescha shut down cold. Repeatedly. Interrupting my rhythm. Breaking my buzz.

A handy electrician did a bypass on the shut-down mechanism, and I went back to shoving euphorbia branches as thick as my thumb down my chipper’s throat. But because it no longer knew when to stop, the chipper soon gurgled, groveled and, finally, exploded. It was back to the chipper hunt.

Let me explain something about gardening and obsessions. There is madness when the two meet. The only thing separating me from Joan Crawford pruning her roses down to nubbins at midnight in “Mommie Dearest” is the proper tool. But the motivations are similar: a raw need to reduce one’s problems to a small pile of stuff that looks like potpourri. The Cohen brothers understood the chipper’s appeal when they had a murderer in “Fargo” use one to get rid of evidence.

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Not that I’m recommending it for that. But when you’re pulling your hair over herbaceous borders, when ants have established their Calcutta in your flower beds, when your garden has produced more clippings than can be jammed into a chorus line of garbage cans, chipping can provide relief. I’ve found that the urge to clip, crush and crunch can be as strong as that to cultivate.

My karma clicked in the day I discovered my three-speed TriSecta garden shredder and mulcher. Made by Central Machinery and a price breaker at $220, it had a 2.5-horsepower engine and the advertised ability to gnaw nonstop on branches as thick as 11/2 inches.

So now I’ve got the chipper of my dreams. It easily works its way through a big ol’ mess of clippings without my having to perform the chipper version of a Heimlich maneuver. Just the other day I was done reducing a mountain of waste to a molehill when I decided to relax with a walk through the neighborhood. A fellow was out in front of his house trimming an oak tree. Oak equals marvelous mulch.

“Mind if I grab a branch?” I asked.

“Sure, help yourself,” he said. “Take all you want.”

Obviously, he didn’t have a chipper. I dragged a huge branch home and hid it alongside the house where my husband wouldn’t see. Now that we’re fully sustainable, I don’t want him knowing that I’m out sustaining the neighborhood.


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