A friend has his great-grandfather’s chopper. Not choppers — that would be gross. Chopper. It is a wonderful machine indeed, like a giant cast-iron paper cutter. I have no idea what its original use may have been, but he uses it to chop up plants for the compost pile.
It’s not necessary, of course. You can just pull out your old vegetable plants and annual flowers, cut off your perennial tops, rake your leaves and throw everything in a pile whole. Eventually you’ll get compost. Clumpy compost, but it works.
It works better, however, if you chop everything up. You get better compost faster. Most of us don’t have a 19th century chopper, but we don’t need one. Take leaves, for example. I don’t rake leaves, I mow them. Sometimes I mow them twice, dumping the bag on the lawn and going over it again, especially if I’m going to dig them directly into the soil instead of composting them.
For the gravel paths and patio I use a leaf blower, but I use it backwards, as a leaf sucker. Instead of taking in air through a vent and blowing it out a long snout, I remove the vent and snap a big tube in place and put a canvass bag over the output port. It takes about half a minute.
Leaves are sucked up the tube, through the impeller where they are chopped into fine pieces, and into the bag. It works really well and gives you leaf bits the size of corn flakes to mix in with the green material in your compost pile.
Some truly maniacal gardeners have a chiper/shredder. I have a chipper/shredder. There are two types. There are the big, gas powered jobbies you can hear in the next county and that will eat an oak tree whole. These are actually hammer mills that pulverize large pieces of wood.
More common for backyard gardeners are the smaller electric ones that use a spinning blade to cut soft material and woody branches no larger than half an inch thick. That’s what I have, and it is handy, but usually not in fall.
I have found it does not handle frost-killed vegetable plants very well. There’s too much moisture in them and it clogs the machine. If I must grind such material, I keep a bushel of fallen leaves to feed through regularly and clean out the mush.
The shredder is great in spring, though, for plant parts that have dried over winter. I feed through asparagus tops, ornamental grasses, corn stalks and perennial tops that I missed in November.
For fleshier plants like tomatoes, I cut them up as I clean the garden. With ordinary hand pruners I cut each vine into six inch pieces. This may sound tedious, but it is a pleasant way to spend a lovely fall afternoon. And besides, it doesn’t have to be done all at once.
Those monster zucchinis and cukes that hide under the frosted foliage are especially fun. I have a large, sharp knife, not quite a machete but close, in the compost area. I hold them in one hand and slice them up Zorro-style. I still have all my fingers. So far.
For my continuing chopping needs, I keep the hedge shears sitting next to the compost pile. They have to be someplace, after all; why not there. And whenever I go by I plunge them into the pile and take a few bites. And when I want to yell at someone but can’t, I get a lot of compost chopped very fine.
I have to admit that chopping is not gardening. But by November standards, it’s as close as you get.