When I decided to let a few acres of my property go back to meadow nearly a decade ago, I expected the results to look like what I’d been used to seeing before I built my home there, when the land was a hayfield: lots of grasses, a few milkweeds and other summer wildflowers, and some goldenrods in fall. And for the first five years or so, that was pretty much the overall effect, as shown in the July 2006 photo above.
When I walked through the meadow in winter, though, I could see that hundreds of little Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) seedlings were coming up. I cut down many of them unintentionally when I did the yearly mowing, but there were plenty left. By Year 7 (below), they were tall enough to be visible over the herbaceous layer even in summer. I could see them well enough to avoid mowing them accidentally, but they were still small enough to run over with the brush mower if they were in the way or too crowded.
The last few years, they’ve been growing quickly, and last winter, I suddenly realized that I’d left way too many of them, so they needed to be thinned out. But wow, what was I going to do with all of the excess cedars? I started contemplating the possibility of running them through a chipper to make mulch. I’d save the money of buying mulch for the garden and make good use of the extra cedars. I could harvest some of them each year, let new ones come up as needed, and have all the mulch I could use.
The one problem with my plan was that I needed a heavy-duty machine to be able to chip up the harvested cedars, and that just wasn’t in my budget. The answer to that came last spring, when I was offered the opportunity to test and review a piece of power equipment from Troy-Bilt. When I explained the project I had in mind, they offered to send me their most powerful chipper/shredder model: the CS 4325 Heavy Duty Wood Chipper and Shredder. The specs said it could chip branches up to 3 inches in diameter, a size even the largest of the cedar seedlings hadn’t yet reached, so it sounded perfect.
Knowing that the machine was on its way, I started stockpiling other materials to chip too: spring prunings from the shrubby dogwoods, hydrangeas, elderberries, spireas, ninebarks, and willows.
When it finally arrived, I set up a work space just outside of my composting area. (You can be assured that the boys were far, far away when I actually had the machine running.)
My first impression was that it was difficult to move around. Granted, it does have a convenient handle at the top for tilting and moving it by hand.
There’s also a detachable tow bar in case one has a garden tractor to hitch it to. However, the axle is so close to the ground that it was difficult to drag the unit over my less-than-perfectly-smooth bark paths and grassy areas without the base catching on bumps and dips.
Once I got it in place and reviewed the user’s manual, I was ready to see what it could do, and it started on the very first try. I’m not the bravest soul around large, noisy machines that contain spinning bits of metal, but I quickly became comfortable around the unit because it seemed so sturdy and simple to use. In no time, I was feeding the stockpiled prunings into the chipper chute. The pieces shot into a detachable collection bag, which made cleanup very easy.
The material was chipped into smaller pieces than I expected and was generally very uniform. It made a nice-looking mulch for the nearby vegetable garden paths, though the small pieces shifted underfoot and were a little tough to walk on. I think the chipped material would be much better for use as a mulch on the garden.
In the process of chipping those prunings, I realized two things that made me decide that my make-your-own-mulch project wasn’t going to be practical.
First, while the machine can indeed chip sizable branches, the chute that feeds into the chipper section (the chute angled toward the left in the photo below) is rather narrow, especially toward the base.
If you’re putting in fresh prunings with slender, very flexible side branches, you can get them to feed through or gently push them through. But prunings that have curves or woody side branches have to be hand-trimmed further before chipping.
Granted, the instructions do explain about this, but I didn’t realize how much more work I’d have to do to get the prunings ready for shredding. I finally shut off the machine and spent a few hours trimming the rest of them down to straight pieces. It ended up taking me a total of 6 hours to prepare and chip all of the prunings that I had stockpiled, and I ended up with a very small amount of mulch as a result: barely enough to fill three wheelbarrows.
Seeing that result made me really understand what the specs meant by a “10:1 debris reduction ratio.” Sure enough, I’d say that chipping is an excellent option for reducing piles of woody garden waste (and stout herbaceous stems such as corn and sunflower stalks too). But to get anywhere near the amount of mulch I was hoping for, I’d probably have to harvest all of my excess cedars at once, and it would take me months to trim off all of the side branches into small enough pieces to feed through the chipper. Factor in the time spent on the actual chipping, and the gasoline used too, and it’s easy to see that my self-made-mulch plan was not practical.
So, then what? I still had plenty of other garden debris to deal with: partially decomposed compost, fresh perennial prunings, and loads of the twiggy bits that were left from trimming the woody prunings to make them straight. Running them through the shredder seemed an obvious solution. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out very well either.
I’d used a shredder before, so I knew better than to dump whole armloads of stuff into the hopper, even though it’s huge and looks like it could handle a lot. But it narrows at the bottom and then turns just before the blades, so even small pieces got stuck if they were at all bushy, and the chute is so tall that it was really hard to get a stick down there to clear the jam.
I eventually gave up on trying to shred for the spring but was determined to try again in the fall, when I did the garden cleanup.
Unfortunately, that part of the test was a disappointment too, because I couldn’t get the engine started. I tried all the tricks I knew but finally admitted defeat and hauled the machine back into the storage shed. I’ll figure out what to do with it in the spring.
You can imagine how awkward it is to not be able to write a rousing review for a product that was so generously offered by a company with such a good reputation as Troy-Bilt. (If you’re interested in reading other reviews, you can find a bunch here at the Troy-Bilt site and here on Amazon). It’s a good lesson to really do your research before you choose a piece of equipment, to figure out if you absolutely need it and if you do, which features are most important for the job you hope to accomplish.
Now, what am I going to do with all of my excess cedar trees? I have a new project in mind: building brush piles. I don’t exactly need more wildlife habitat, but I think it might be the best way to make good use of the surplus. So far I’ve found some intriguing ideas at Brush Piles for Wildlife and Wildlife Management: Brush Piles, including the concept of a living brush pile, which sounds like a perfect option for the meadow. So it looks like I’ll be working on some new experiments this year – once the snow and ice disappear, anyway. That could take a while.