How to Choose the Best Leaf Shredder for You
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Q. Anneke in Lake Leelanau Michigan writes: "Since forever I have been raking my leaves into a big pile and running them over and over and over with a lawn mower. I say, no more! Can you recommend a quiet, long lasting leaf blower; one that collects leaves and mulches them? Is there such a thing?"
A. This is one of THE most frequent questions I get at this time of year, and rather than name brand names I'll let you in on what I've learned about these machines over the years so you choose the best type for your needs.
Oh and the answer is yes Anneke; there is such things. Or are such things. Or...
Anyway, there are a number of corded electric and rechargeable battery-powered electric leaf blowers on the market that have a reverse setting, a funnel to use instead of the blower attachment and a collection bag for the leaves. These will be called 'blower vacs' or something similar. Look at the packaging carefully, as there are also electric and rechargeable machines that only blow the leaves around (which to me is less than useless).
All of these electrically-oriented-machines are much quieter than gasoline-powered machines, virtually of which are exclusively leaf blowers. I use the weasel word 'virtually' because a combo unit may exist out there; but if it does, I couldn't find it. And if it does exist, it's going to be noisier, require more maintenance and make you spill gas and oil all over the driveway every fall.
Back to electric. Combination blower vacs will (or should) have a 'mulching ratio' listed on the box or the product description; a number ranging from 12 to 20. A machine with a mulching ratio of 20 to 1 (meaning that you can fit 20 bags of whole leaves into a single bag after they've been shredded by the machine) will shred leaves into the smallest possible particles but might make a bit more noise than a lesser powered machine. A blower vac with a mulching ratio of 12 to 1 (the low end) might be a little less noisy but would shred the leaves into particles almost twice the size of a 20 to 1. And in composting, smaller particles make better compost.
In my experience, blower vacs with a higher mulching ratio number will have a somewhat higher price tag but are much more efficient. For instance, if you're going to hoard shredded leaves in plastic bags for use as garden mulch next season, the higher the listed 'mulching ratio', the fewer bags you'll need for the same amount of leaves.
Some models also have a 'high' and 'low' power setting. The low setting will be considerably less noisy than high, but it will take more time and may not shred the leaves as finely. Some models (like a rechargeable "Greenworks" unit I have), have a variable dial that controls what I will now call 'the sucking speed'. You heard it here first.
Durability: If you can believe it, I am only on my second 'corded' electric blower/vac; the first one (a Black and Decker model) lasted well over a decade, and my new one (a Toro) still works perfectly after at least a decade of use. In my experience, you're more likely to wear out the collection bag before the actual machine.
More about noise. Keep in mind that the loudest electric machine is going to be much quieter than the quietest gas-powered machine; and those gas-powered monsters are the noisy menaces most people think of when they shudder at the thought of a machine that interacts with leaves. So if you want to be a considerate neighbor, be assured that your electric machine won't be nearly as offensive as a gas-powered one, especially if you also don't suck up your leaves at seven am on a Sunday morning. Oh, and the blower/vacs set on 'suck' don't blast dust and debris all over the place like blowers.
And, of course, always wear ear protection when you shred, no matter how quiet the machine seems to be; especially if, like me, you already lost some of your hearing at a Bruce Springsteen concert. (It was worth it.)
But shred you should. Yes, whole leaves will eventually break down in a 'cold' compost pile, but it will take years; and the compost will be lacking in plant disease-fighting power. (And you're raking up the leaves and then bending over to pick them up. It is the firm policy of this show that bending is for chumps; never bend if you don't have to.)
Finely shredded leaves become compost very quickly and the resulting 'hot' compost will have the power to prevent many plant diseases. And you don't have to bend over. NOTE: You can't (or shouldn't) ever mulch plants with whole leaves.
Can you use a bagging lawn mower to mulch leaves that land on your lawn? Absolutely, as long as your lawn hasn't been chemically treated. Any herbicide-tainted grass clippings that go into the mix can turn compost that should have been fine fertilizer into herbaceous homicider.
That's a word. Really.
And finally, rechargeable vs corded units. Corded machines are limited to the area your extension cord will reach; but there's no battery to run down and you can't run over the cord like I always do with my electric mulching mower.
Rechargeable units are not limited by the length of your extension cord, but the battery limits the time you can suck leaves in any one session, which is fine with me. After a half hour or so of shredding, I'll hear the distinctive beep that tells me my charge is gone, and I'll have to stop for the day, which spreads the work out over time at the nicest part of the year and always brings a smile to my face.