There’s no need to feel overwhelmed by the fall garden and the tasks it suggests. First, fall cleanup can be skipped altogether or at least delayed to early spring, with great benefit to wildlife such as foraging birds and wintering butterflies, moths and other insects. Secondly, an abundance of plant debris comes as an opportunity to make the garden a closed system that requires less outside resources to sustain its vitality. Finally, powerful equipment can make seasonal cleanup significantly easier.
Gardeners lucky enough to reside amid deciduous trees are faced with their fallen leaves each fall, along with branch trimmings and downed limbs from time to time. All of this material can serve a purpose within the garden, but it needs to be prepped first. A chipper, shredder, or combo chipper/shredder comes in handy here.
These tools reduce leaves and woody debris into very small pieces. Large limbs require a chipper for processing, while smaller material like leaves, stems and twigs can be handled by a shredder. The finely shredded material can then be spread as mulch or added to a compost pile. In either place, it will break down relatively quickly because it has been shredded; as it decomposes it releases nutrients to improve the soil.
Leaf- and debris-managing power equipment is expensive, but often homeowners find that the gear will pay for itself over a few years, in money saved on hiring a landscaper to perform leaf cleanup and/or haul away, and in money saved on the purchase of mulch, compost and other amendments. As far as tool maintenance is fairly minimal. The shredder/chipper typically requires simple engine upkeep, such as an oil change and belt tightening. Run dry the gasoline in a gas-powered machine at the end of the season to avoid damage over the winter. Corded electric chippers, shredders and combo units are also on the market.
Small properties or those with few woody plants may not warrant the purchase of a shredder/chipper. The gardens on such lots can still benefit from an application of shredded leaves and trimmings, which is simple to make with tools that the gardener most likely already possesses.
A mulching lawn mower can reduce or even eliminate the need to rake leaves from lawn areas. (A non-mulching mower may work just as well if the blade is raised to its highest setting.) Simply pass the mower over leaves that have fallen on the grass, repeating at least once a week to avoid the leaves piling up too thick for the mower to manage.
Depending on the total amount of leaves, the shredded material can be left on the lawn to feed the soil, or, if it is creating a dense layer atop the grass, it can be blown or raked into beds or gathered in the mower’s bagger and then spread in gardens or added to a compost pile.
Here’s another tool that can pinch hit for a shredder in small gardens or where cleanup is kept to a bare minimum: a string trimmer (sometimes called a weed eater or weed whacker)! Pile leaves and the stems of spent herbaceous plants into an empty trash barrel, then run the trimmer through this material. Debris may fly up, so be sure to wear eye protection when trying this technique.