welcome to the machine

A number of years ago, more than I would care to admit, Jack and I took a trip up to Canada to St. John – just for the heck of it, because we were young and in love (now we take trips because we’re old and in love). Along the way, Jack read me The Design of Everyday Things out loud, which, if you haven’t read it you need to drop everything and go out and read it right this second. Well,  you can finish reading this post first. Anyway, this past week I have had the occasion to want to re-read it since I have been thinking about design in general, and leaf mulchers in particular.

Now let me say first that our new ECHO Bear Cat is in a totally different class than the last mulcher we had, which broke every three minutes (I’m exaggerating, but only a little). To be fair that one wasn’t designed to handle sticks, even little itty-bitty sticks, since it was strictly a mulcher, and since we don’t have time to go over the leaves for every little stick that was mixed in, it didn’t like it. This new one is a mulcher and a chipper so now that problem is taken care of nicely. It even seems to manage the occasional stray stone that gets in, since many of our leaves we have raked off of the gravel driveway. It probably isn’t very good for it but it doesn’t gum up the works, and so far we haven’t chipped a blade. So far so good.

The thing about it is it is finicky. When the leaves are wet it is sooo slow. Even when the leaves are dry I find I have to keep myself from impatiently over filling it and clogging up the works. The best method seems to be slowly shaking the leaves in, SLOWLY. If I push up the flap in so it raises up just an inch, and shake a wad of leaves over the opening I have found I can make them go in at a consistent rate. But does kick up flying bits so I usually stand on one side or the other, wear Jack’s insulated Carhartt overalls, my snowboarding gloves and glasses so nothing hits me.

I have been thinking about the design of the thing and wondering if the designer originally intended to make the machine without the flap but in the testing phase realized the safety issue and had to put the flap on. In the beginning, I tried to fill the top hopper with various amounts of leaves and let gravity pull the leaves through the flap, but they always got stuck. I also tried tapping the flap every so often to let the leaves fall through slowly but that only works a little while before the machine gets stopped up, believe me I have gone through all the permutations.

Lola and I read the manual at break one day and there is a somewhat useful section on troubleshooting problems.  Their solutions for wet leaves gumming up the hopper is to have you either undo the nut and bolt that keeps the trap on, which is frankly a pain in the patoot, or stick a stick in it to try and free the debris (And shut off the machine every time you do it?). My solution is as follows, stop adding wet leaves to the machine, then run the engine at it’s top speed to try and blow out some of the leaf pulp from holes in the bottom. Then, still on the top speed, add a stick or two to the chipper, the chunks of wood rattling around seems to help clear out the wet leaves. Then bring it back down to normal leaf mulching speed, which we have been doing at about three quarters of the way up to rabbit. (They have a little rabbit at the top of their speed gauge). As long as I have been adding leaves very slowly, this seems to work pretty well.

Anyway, we have decided that the whole process is to be treated like sifting compost in terms of speed. Had we started off leaf season with this mulcher (it was due to show up a week earlier) we might have had a ghost of a chance of finishing the mulching before we were due to wrap it up. But with the kind of time it takes to shred leaves, especial wet leaves, we decided we just had to do what we could and leave the rest in low visibility locations on the property.

I come away from the whole experience with a kind of buzzing surreal feeling- thank goodness I don’t have to do it very often. If I were to have get a mulcher/chipper for my own personal use I think at this point I would keep looking for another option.  I think, in terms of my time alone, this is a very expensive way to take care of the mulching on a property.

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