Leaf Mulchers: What to Know Before You Buy

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A leaf mulcher can make quick work of seasonal yard cleanup. Here's a look at how they work and how to find one to match your lawn's specific needs.

Has the annual ritual of hauling leaves to the curb lost its appeal? Or maybe you’re considering starting a compost bin? Either way, it’s a great time to invest in a leaf mulcher.

What Is a Leaf Mulcher?

A leaf mulcher is a standalone or handheld device that sucks in leaves and tears them into small pieces. This makes it far easier to take leaves to the trash. It also shreds them finely enough they can be reused as mulch for the lawn or a compost bin.

How Does a Leaf Mulcher Work?

Leaf mulchers thrash leaves into small pieces with blades or strings. Handheld mulchers often can function as leaf blowers or vacuums, sending the mulch into a collection bag. With standalone units, leaves go in the top and come out the bottom as mulch. You can catch the mulch in a collection bag, spread it across the ground or compost it.

Types of Leaf Mulchers

Handheld and standalone are the main types. Most are electric, although there are gas-powered models available. Gas-powered standalone mulchers usually chip small branches, and often straddle the line between a leaf mulcher and a full wood chipper.

Electric standalone mulchers almost always use a power cord, while handheld mulchers come corded or cordless.

Leaf Mulcher Features and Uses

Handheld mulchers are great for removing leaves from flower beds or bushes, where raking might be destructive. Standalone units don’t help with the actual leaf collection; you’ll still need to rake or blow the leaves to them. But once you gather the leaves, you can’t beat a standalone mulcher for handling lots of them.

The “compression ratio” of a mulcher refers to the reduction in volume of a load of leaves. If 10 gallons of leaves produces one gallon of mulch, that’s a ratio of 10:1. A high compression ratio makes the leaves much easier to fit into small containers, which are much easier to carry to the curb or any collection location.

Which Leaf Mulcher Should I Buy?

The biggest factors are the amount and type of material you plan to mulch. If you’re handling a few gallons of leaves, you can get away with a low cost unit. If you’re handling many bushels of leaves, sticks and assorted wind-blown trash, go for a heavy-duty mulcher. There are a number of mulchers to fit any leaf cleanup.

Handheld shredders should be comfortable to carry and feature a solid enclosure to prevent leaf particles getting inside. Other than that, they should be viewed as part of an existing leaf blower. These two-in-one tools are an excellent choice for multiple clearing chores.

“They can be used as a broom to clean up construction sites and saw dust/debris from home projects,” says Woodstock Hardware owner Vince Christofora. He added they’re also “great to help clean light snow accumulations from sidewalks, decks and driveways. They can even be a great dusting tool — just make sure you have any light objects put away!”

If you need an affordable blower/mulcher, check out the Toro 51619. For light-duty standalone shredders, look for easy-to-change cutting elements and a sturdy base. A good choice for light- to medium-duty mulching is the 21-inch Flowtron Leaf-Eater LE900.

A heavy-duty shredder needs more stability and power. While it’s not as easy to transport as a light-duty model, you should still be able to move it around your yard. The 15-amp Sun Joe CJ603E, which can shred branches up to 1.7 inches in diameter, is a good choice for more robust mulching.

How Much Does a Leaf Mulcher Cost?

Prices range from $70 to $150 for light-duty leaf mulchers. Heavy-duty leaf mulchers don’t cost much more, usually around $175 to $300. Anything above that range should function as a wood chipper as well as a leaf mulcher. Those more powerful chipper/mulchers can cost $500 and up.

The ideal balance of price and power is a machine that slightly exceeds your needs so you’re not pushing its limitations. Where that sweet spot falls for you mostly depends on how many leaves you deal with each year. For most DIYers, $150 is a reasonable starting range.

Leaf Mulcher Safety and Maintenance

It should go without saying, but never stick your hand into the mulcher while it’s running. Sooner or later, every leaf shredder will clog up. When that happens, resist the urge to push the load through with a stick. Be safe and disconnect the power before clearing the clog.

Beyond that, keep in mind the mulcher will kick up a fair amount of dust and debris during operation. Catching leaf debris in your eye probably won’t send you to the hospital, but it’s extremely uncomfortable. Avoid that by wearing eye protection and a mask. Depending on how noisy the mulcher gets, wear ear plugs for hearing protection. Gas-powered leaf mulchers generally are louder than electric models.

Leaf mulcher maintenance mostly entails wiping away leaf dust and changing out the trimmer strings as needed. Gas-powered units will also require a tune-up once a year or so.

Dan Stout
Dan Stout is a freelance writer and author based in Columbus, Ohio. Dan's non-fiction has appeared on numerous sites and in print, while his prize-winning fiction has been featured in publications such as Nature and The Saturday Evening Post. He is the author of The Carter Archives series of noir fantasy thrillers from DAW Books.