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Yard appliance makes short work of fallen leaves

There is a little tub-shaped machine in my backyard that is doing a lot of work these days. It stands on three legs at the end of a long electric cord and excites appreciative comment from anyone who happens to see it in operation.

It's called the Leaf Eater, and its appetite for the annual fall crop is nothing short of gluttonous. It is, in fact, the first new concept in leaf shredders to come along in years. It was also, as Bruce Springsteen might put it, ``born in the U.S.A.'' - in Melrose, Mass., to be exact.

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But first its limitations: The Leaf Eater is not a general-purpose shredder. It will not handle hedge trimmings, spent roses, or even tomato vines. It was designed exclusively for processing leaves, although it does do a dandy job of converting discarded computer printouts into a fluffy packaging material.

It has been described as an upside-down grass trimmer.

More accurately, it is an oversize kitchen blender that uses flexible grass-trimmer filiments rather than fixed blades to flail away at the leaves. Adjustable discharge openings vary from fine (dime-size leaf pieces) to coarse (quarter-size pieces).

It works so easily and simply, and the principle is so obvious, that the wonder is no one thought of it a long time ago. After all, grass trimmers have been doing a successful job for more than a decade now. But Art St. Hilaire, who heads up marketing for the manufacturers, the Armatron Company's Vornado power products division, along with Sal De Yoreo and Tony Conigliaro, worked on a dozen models before the idea of a flexible, grass-cutting flail came up.

The concept worked well right from the start, and because it didn't threaten even a careless operator's hand the way a metal blade would, a large top opening is permissible. This makes feeding the leaves into the machine a simple matter. Though it doesn't match my top-of-the-line power shredder in any other respect, it does process leaves more rapidly because of this ease of feeding.

An early problem - a rapidly wearing string - was overcome by introducing a more durable filament. Still more recent is the discovery that by putting two cutting filaments into the machine, string life can be quadrupled.

Damp leaves are as readily processed as dry ones, though with very wet leaves the machine must be stopped periodically so that material sticking to the sides of the drum can be wiped off. This takes no more than a second or two.

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Not so long ago, an engineering company found that the Leaf Eater could be used to turn old computer printouts into a fluffy packaging material for its machine parts. By stacking the printouts on a table partly straddling the machine, the leading edge of the paper is fed into the machine. Thereafter the process becomes automatic.

The Vornado Leaf Eater is available in many lawn and garden departments of hardware and other retail outlets, or from Gardener's Supply Company, 128 Intervale Rd., Burlington, VT 05401, (802) 863-1700, or Smith and Hawken, 25 Corte Madera, Mill Valley, CA 94941, (415) 383-4050.

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