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Power Tools for Fall Cleanup

Chain saws, chipper-shredders, brush cutters and log splitters make fall yard work quick and easy.

Taming a feral yard isn't easy—especially in the fall, when the garden and surrounding area are bursting at the seams with summer growth. But there are several pieces of equipment that can help any homeowner process an overabundance of plant material with efficiency and ease.


Powerful, fast, and efficient, a chain saw makes quick work of cutting trees and limbs. But chain saws, more than any other type of cutting equipment, require certain skills and strength, prohibiting the use of some models by the average homeowner. Randy Kennedy, an avid gardener who also runs a professional tree cutting and removal service in central Iowa, uses professional-grade chain saws for his clients. But in his own yard, he frequently plugs in an electric chain saw to trim ornamental trees, such as crab apples. “For small jobs, I like electric chain saws,” he says. “They are a little safer and have a low power-to-weight ratio.”

Many chain saw manufacturers make small models, with 12- to 14-inch guide bars. These are lightweight (around 10 pounds) and easily maneuvered by most people. They are well suited for removing small trees and emerging saplings or suckers, cutting low-hanging limbs or dead branches, and slicing the large limbs that mature trees drop from time to time.

You'll spend $200 on up for a small gas-powered chain saw, less for an electric one. There is a third option on the market, too—cordless chain saws come in 12- to 18-volt models, and range in price from less than $100 to around $300.


For homeowners with a large number of trees (particularly, messy ones that drop branches), a chipper-shredder is a great way to recycle debris. Able to grind tree branches nearly five inches in diameter, a chipper-shredder can create all the mulch you'll ever need. Randy Kennedy uses wood mulch in his garden, and believes the best mulch is made of “elms and soft maples—and my personal favorite, mulberry, which has a nice dark red color.” Wood chips also make attractive, natural-looking, and inexpensive pathway materials.

Kennedy offers another use for a chipper-shredder. “I grew a three-acre patch of ‘Bloody Butcher’ corn (a red-kernelled heirloom corn) for my cattle,” he says. “I ground it all into silage using my chipper-shredder.” A chipper-shredder can also make nutrient-rich green mulch from leaves and nonwoody plant debris, and comes in handy for homeowners who live in areas where burning is banned.

Chipper-shredder prices start at $200 for small electric models that shred leaves and very small branches. Heavy-duty, 10- to 18-horsepower gas-powered models run from $1,500 to upwards of $3,000. There are stand-alone types, and models that can be towed by lawn or garden tractors.


When thunderstorms with high winds blow through, they often leave yards strewn with enough fallen tree limbs for a whole afternoon's worth of hauling, burning, or chipping. But for homeowners with a log splitter, large branches or felled trees are a true windfall—in the financial sense. That's because log splitters can eat up log chucks (up to 14 inches thick for some models) and spit them out as useable firewood.

Hazel Peterson, age 72, heats her home with firewood gathered from her property on Dave's Hill in Equinunk, Pennsylvania. Her 300-acre property is thick with oak and hickory trees that provide her with a nearly endless supply of firewood. “We have two wood stoves in our house, and use LP fuel as a backup,” she says. But Hazel's fuel of choice on cold winter days is the wood that she has harvested from her own land. To heat her house, she cuts 15 to 20 cords each year with an electric log splitter that sits on a tabletop. It plugs into a regular 110-volt outlet, offers six tons of splitting pressure, and splits logs up to 14 inches thick and 20 inches long.

For on-site splitting, there are tow-behind models that allow you to hitch the log splitter to a lawn or garden tractor or pickup truck and drive it to felled branches or trees. This works well for homeowners with large pieces of property. They can split wood where it falls, then transport it back to the house or woodpile. Some tow-behind models possess 20 tons of splitting pressure.

Depending on the type and model, log splitters range in cost from $400 to $600 for tabletop electric/hydraulic models, and $700 to more than $1,000 for hitch-pulled electric/hydraulic splitters. Compared to the price of a cord of hardwood (upwards of $100), a log splitter can pay for itself in a season or two, depending on how much firewood you need.


Old-time sodbusters would have salivated over the convenience of today's gas-powered brush cutters. They mow anything that they can push over, including weeds that tower over the head of the operator. And they are tough, too. High-horsepower models can chew through saplings two-and-a-half inches thick.

A walk-behind brush cutter easily chews up and swallows the tall weeds and woody scrub that would choke a traditional lawn mower. They offer bigger wheels and thicker blades than lawn mowers and come in walk-behind and hand-held versions. They are the perfect piece of equipment for homeowners who have wild areas of their property to tame, or hilly ground, where a lawn or garden tractor would be impractical.

Hazel Peterson uses a walk-behind brush cutter around her house. “We like to keep the area as natural looking as possible,” she says. She also uses the brush cutter around her two-acre pond, where the uneven ground would make it impossible for even a tractor to pass. “We don't have a tractor. We use our brush cutter instead,” she says.

For woodland management, brush cutters allow homeowners to remove competing suckers and saplings to enhance the health of the existing trees. For areas where fire is a threat, homeowners can keep low-growing groundcover trimmed back. A brush cutter can take out underbrush in heavily wooded areas, making it possible to create walking or cross-country skiing paths through the thickest of woods. Walk-behind models offer a variety of deck widths (22 to 30 inches).

Brush cutters also come in hand-held, wandlike models (also called clearing saws). Like string trimmers on steroids, electric start, two-cycle engine, hand-held brush cutters offer a lightweight option for negotiating areas between buildings, near fences, and around trees. You can also change the head on handheld models, from kinder and gentler nylon string to a brush-chomping metal blade. You can be as flexible as your flora dictates.

Walk-behind brush cutters cost around $1,100 for the smallest models (seven horsepower). Amp up on power (up to 17 horsepower), thereby increasing the size and density of the brush you can cut, and you'll pay upwards of $2,700. Wand brush cutters range in cost from $150 to $500.