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Thoroughly Modern Machines : From the New Age of Garden Mechanization, Which Produced the Unnerving Leaf Blower, Come Two Power Tools With Redeeming Qualities

September 21, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

The controversy over the appropriateness of power tools in the garden is heating up. An attempt to outlaw the dusty, noisy and intrusive leaf blowers used by professional gardeners generated more mail to Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky's office than any other recent event or subject, and at the risk of offending every professional gardener I've had the pleasure of meeting, I must admit that I hate the things, and I can find no redeeming qualities in this latest bit of garden mechanization.

But I have found two power tools with redeeming qualities, and they may be the first to occupy space in my garage since I sold my lawn mower that never started. One of these new toys may even become a tool I can't live without.

I am quick to justify their presence in my yard by pointing out that they aren't used very often (certainly not once a week, like leaf blowers), nor are they used early in the morning (I save the early hours for garden enjoyment). And neither tool can approach the decibel level of a leaf blower, though I prudently haven't asked for my neighbors' opinions as yet.

The Mantis Chipmate, a small compost shredder, is one of several to appear on the market in the last few years. The whole thing is not much larger than the engines on most other shredders. Its electric motor merely hums when it's not actually shredding, and even then it isn't very noisy. And, of course, it starts every time, which my last power tool did not.

Unlike compost shredders or grinders, this tool is really a chipper, a miniature of the type used by city tree crews. Two hardened steel blades whirl around on a heavy iron drum, passing very close to another blade, chipping away at material, rather than grinding it.

The advantage to this type of compost maker is that it will easily handle what most often ends up on the curb on garbage day. The branches and twigs that usually require my tying them into neat three-foot bundles are now converted into mulch. The machine makes short work of the woody prunings from, say, a ficus hedge or cuttings from a peach tree, yet leaves and other fine matter tend to pass right through with only minor cuts and bruises. Leaves I continue to rake up and throw whole into the compost pile.

The Mantis Chipmate, along with other new compost makers, has a secure safety device that nearly defeats the purpose of the machine. Attached to the top of the hoppers, the safety grates have such small openings that almost nothing can get through. These grates do keep your hands out, but, in my opinion, they've been overdone--and like many safety devices that are too safe, they are soon dismantled. I made a push stick instead, shaped like a crusader's sword, with the part resembling a blade guard preventing the shaft from hitting the blades of the chipper (it can only be forced down so far). Most branches are simply sucked into the hopper by the blades, but the push stick is required at times to keep things moving. (Don't ever let your hands get into the hopper, because they too can be pulled in by the blades. Also be sure to wear goggles or safety glasses; stones and other hard objects are violently kicked out the top of the machine.)

These new shredders can become clogged by moist materials. A plump tomato plant, for instance, was too much for the Mantis Chipmate, which bogged down in a mire of green slime. You learn to hear when it is having trouble with something and to back off in time. Set the suspect plant aside for a day or two so it will dry out enough for a second try.

The new power tool I am in danger of not being able to live without is a miniature tiller by the same manufacturer. Up until this point, power tillers had to be rolled or even powered into the garden bed; this tended to make them practical for only big jobs--a whole bed, not just a piece of it. The Mantis is so light you can carry it around with one hand and drop it in the middle of a flower bed where you've just removed some zinnias and, if need be, cultivate that one square foot. And you can hang it up on the garage wall.

It doesn't do too good a job on previously uncultivated ground, so the first time I prepare a garden bed, I still dig up the whole thing with a spade. But then I run the Mantis through the clods, which it vaporizes. It does a first-class job of mixing in soil amendments, which I never could do well with a spade or spading fork.

Unlike other tillers, the Mantis works backward: You pull it toward you, though it tries to run away from you. The harder you pull, the deeper it digs into the soil, though it's easy to control. This also allows you to begin up against a fence or other tight spot, or to hold it in place while it digs deeper.

The Mantis does have a powerful little gasoline engine that looks very similar to those that run leaf blowers. But it isn't the kind of power tool one uses frequently, and although, admittedly, it is a little noisier, when it is called into action, it makes digging and preparing the soil--the most important job in the garden--a whole lot easier.

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