Closing the Nutrient Loop with a Chipper/Shredder

Reader Contribution by Steve Maxwell
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Chipper/shredder in the forest. Photo by Steve Maxwell

The one thing that all yards and gardens have in common is plant growth. Grass, trees, shrubs and vines – they all produce a constant stream of new organic matter. This is obvious, of course, but what you do with that organic matter after it appears can make a big difference to your gardening success and environmental footprint. Let me give you an example from my own place.

As with many rural homes, we rely on a septic system, and like most septic systems the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence, so to speak. The reason is simple . . . massive additions of nutrients and plenty of water, delivered constantly and right at the root zone make for lavish grass growth all over our septic leaching bed. In this sense every septic system is a potential nutrient factory. You just need to move those nutrients to a place on your property where they can do some good. In our case this means raking up the abundant grass growth after mowing the septic leaching bed, composting those clippings, then applying the compost where vegetables and flowers can be enhanced by the additional nutrients and organic matter. Same goes for the trees in our front yard. This area started off as an open, unshaded hay field 35 years ago. Now it’s a shaded grove of maples, oaks, pines and locusts that I planted as seedlings. Taken together these full-size trees produce massive amounts of leaves and needles each year that we collect and use as mulch and soil amendments. It’s all about making use of the very localize nutrients available from your yard and nearby land, but there’s one thing that makes it all much more effective – chipping and shredding. 

To be most effective, any kind of plant matter needs to be chipped or shredded before composting before laying it on the soil as surface mulch. This is where a portable chipper/shredder makes all the difference. 

Chipping tree branches makes them usable as mulch, and shredding loose material such as leaves and grass clippings makes them sit flat on the garden and resist blowing away. The surface mulching we do all the time is the single reason my wife and I are able to maintain as much garden area as we do, without spending a whole lot of time weeding. In fact, we almost never have even a single weed come up in our heavily-mulched perennial gardens because we constantly maintain at least 3 inches of chipped and shredded mulch over all the soil all the time. Perennial flowers break through this mulch unaided each spring, and annuals get planted in the soil after we burrow down through the mulch to the dirt. But like I said, mulching materials need to be processed first for best results, and that’s where chipper/shredders make all the difference. 

 Chipping small branches. Photo by Steve Maxwell

Chipper/shredders get the “chipping” part of their name from the way they produce small wood chips from branches and wood waste. “Shredding”, by contrast, is what these machines do to softer organic matter fed into them, including grass clippings, leaves and trimmings from shrubs. Shredded materials are denser, they lay down better on the garden, and they store more compactly than unshredded loose materials until you’re ready to apply them. 

Do you have municipal pickup of garbage at your house? If so, more and more places won’t accept yard waste, or if they do it’s only at certain times of the year and on certain dates. That’s because yard waste is bulky, hard to handle, and takes up room unnecessarily in landfills. Burying yard waste is a huge environmental waste, too. Chipper/shredders give you the flexibility to process your own yard waste as it’s produced, instead of having to stockpile unsightly waste until the municipal disposal option comes up.

The kind of chipper/shredders that makes sense for closing the loop on the nutrients and organic matter that your own yard and garden produce have a gasoline engine that spins a completely enclosed circular blade. These machines are loud enough that I always wear hearing protection when I’m using one, and it’s natural to wonder about safety. 

Chipped branches. Photo by Steve Maxwell.

How safe are chipper/shredders? The Champion model I use at my place is safer than you might think at first glance. Both branches and soft organic material feed in through large hoppers that keep you’re hands well away from the completely enshrouded blade. It’s easy to be safe with a design like this. In fact, I don’t see how you could possibly hurt yourself with it if you follow the simple and straight-forward safety rules outlined in every chipper/shredder operator’s manual.

Watch the video here for a tour of how chipper-shredders work and a bit about maintaining them.

There’s a reason why every form of modern agriculture uses some kind of machine to enhance and improve plant growth and soil health. Think of a chipper/shredder as a nutrient production machine and you’ll start to appreciate that there’s more to these tools than just keeping your yard neat and tidy. They’re also about closing the nutrient loop on your property instead of just letting valuable nutrients slip through your fingers.

Steve Maxwell is co-author ofThe Complete Root Cellar Book. Get how-to and self-reliance answers directly from Steve at

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