Worthwhile garden investments

I’ve spent a lot of time in my garden over the past 7.5 years. And a lot of cash, if I’m honest. I can’t say how much exactly. By the time I add up the cost of plants, removing trees, building a retaining wall, installing a chook shed (which we were lucky enough to score secondhand from our neighbour), tools, trellises, even more plants, etc…the cost must be in the shillions (that’s a number my youngest invented at the age of four, when trying to envision the largest number possible).

While I don’t regret any of these expenses, I do think there are some items that were better investments than others. They have raised both the value of our home and improved the overall look or productiveness of my garden.

Compost bins and compost worms

Compost bin

I have three black ‘dalek’ style compost bins that are always in rotation. Two cost $40 each from Bunnos, and the other was free from my local Buy Nothing group. I continually add garden trimmings, coffee grounds, tea leaves, chicken shed waste, and kitchen scraps to the bins. I turn them every time I clean out the chook shed, so roughly every two weeks. By ‘turn’, I mean I tip them over, move them around, pull out the ready-to-use compost, and shovel the rest back in the bins. Some weeks I might get a few buckets out of three bins, and at other times, a wheelbarrow load. I tip it on to whichever part of the garden looks like it needs it the most. Over the course of the year, the whole garden gets a topdressing of homemade compost. I don’t dig it in – I just tip it on top of the existing soil and let it weather in.

I add a box of 1000 compost worms to the bins every couple of years, where they happily breed and chew through the compost. I don’t bother with worm juice or a worm farm; I am perfectly happy just tossing them back in as I turn the compost. A box of 1000 worms costs about $50.

For an investment of $180 over 7.5 years (2x boxes compost worms + 2 x compost bins = roughly $25 per annum), I have homemade compost for my front and backyards. The other important benefit is that we divert kitchen and garden waste from landfill, reducing our family’s carbon footprint. Most weeks, our red bin (garbage) has only one bag.

Tree removal

When we first moved to our property, we paid a professional arborist $3500 to remove five trees. We researched several arborists, and received quotes. One guy quoted us $1000. When he visited us, he was clearly a dodgy operator and we turned him down, even though his quote was less than a third of the other company. At the time, $3500 was a lot of money to spend before we even started our garden. But the trees there were not safe or appropriate for the property, and prevented us growing anything productive. We forked out the extra cash, and a team of professional arborists safety removed the trees. I still think it was worth the extra money.

Good quality trees

You can buy trees from many places. Even supermarkets sometimes sell fruit trees at a bargain price. I’m not averse to picking up a bargain punnet of petunias from my local supermarket, believe me. It might seem that a tree is a tree, and that all that counts is the variety. However, I have learned the hard way that is not the case. Specialist tree nurseries invest in good quality root stock and hire qualified staff with expertise in varieties for your area. I buy most of my fruit trees from a local nursery that understands my soil and weather conditions, and provides advice on growing conditions and care. I pay for that advice by paying more for the trees I buy from them, but it has been worth it. Every tree I have bought from them has thrived.

To compare, I have a lime tree bought from my local specialty tree nursery, and a lemon tree bought from a supermarket. Both were planted at roughly the same time. One is in the front yard and one in the back yard. The lemon tree is a sad, spindly little thing, with not a single flower or fruit to be seen. I have fed it and watered it – and nada. The lime tree, even after fighting off a scale infestation and a leaf miner attack, has glossy dark leaves and has produced its first full crop of juicy limes. It is currently flowering again, getting ready to produce its second crop. Arguably the back yard and the front yard have different conditions. But not that different. I’m getting ready to yank that lemon tree out and replace it with a new tree, from a good nursery. I’m not one to harp on sunk costs.


This should be obvious, but cheap tools are not worth it. I have a solid hard wood handled garden fork that that I bought from the Digger’s Club five years ago, and aside from the muck on it, still looks new. It cost me about $80, but is worth every cent. I can buy a fork from Bunnos for ten bucks, but the handle will snap in no time. On cheap forks, the tines bend very easily, leaving you with an annoying fork that digs and turns unevenly. I dig with my Digger’s fork a lot, and the tines don’t bend, even when digging over hard or rocky soil. I feel confident that this fork will still be in tip-top shape in another five years. I intend to replace my other tools with Digger’s tools as they die, because I know the investment will be worth the extra cash.

Potting mix and fertilisers

Certain things can be purchased more cheaply for sure, but potting mix is not one of them. I know, because I have bought and tested almost all available to me. You will hear many garden experts say to buy ‘premium’ potting mix. I used to think, ‘well, sure, if you’re made of money.’ Then I discovered that the cheap three-dollar bags of potting soil are basically pressed bark sweepings, and do your plants no favours. Cheaper potting mix dries out very quickly, becomes hydrophobic, and leaves your plants hungry and thirsty. Spending money on good plants and not spending on the soil ends up costing you more in the end.

Look for the ‘red ticks’ on the bag. That means it’s a premium mix. ‘Premium’ usually means it has added soil wetting agents such as additional coir, and slow release fertiliser. Of course, you could add this to a cheaper mix yourself, but then you have just raised the cost of the cheaper mix anyway.

I also spend money on good quality, pure organic fertilisers such as pelletised chicken manure (also called Dynamic Lifter or other versions), Blood & Bone, and liquid tonics and fertilisers. I don’t buy brands that say they are ‘Blood & Bone-based’ as this can mean the manufacturer has added cheap fillers to the bag to lower the cost. These do nothing for your garden and may attract pests. It’s worth spending more to get a pure product.

Some gardeners prefer not to use Blood & Bone products, and as a vegetarian, I understand that. There are vegan fertilisers available. However, I am not a vegan, and neither are soil micro-organisms. I am not opposed to using animal products in my garden so long as they are organic. I use a product called ‘Charlie Carp,’ that is made from European Carp, a fish that is a pest and pollutes our waterways, and I also use animal manures such as sheep and chicken. Use what you are comfortable with and that sits with your values. Buy the best products that you can afford to feed your soil. Feeding your soil is the best investment you can make in your garden.

Safety in the garden – tips for being a healthy and safe gardener

Yesterday, I was digging over the compost with my usual gusto, when the shovel slipped and drove into my foot.

Fortunately, I have a tough pair of standard black gumboots, and it slid off with no harm done. But if I had been wearing some other less solid form of footwear, I would have been in real trouble.

That got me thinking about safety in the garden. It’s such an important issue. There are many things I do to keep myself safe while gardening, and a few things I do…that I probably shouldn’t. Here’s a list of safety tips to keep in mind while gardening, some of which I have learned the hard way.

Please note these are not exhaustive and are not professional advice.

Protective footwear

This is one I have already mentioned. We are all guilty of tramping out to the backyard in our Aussie safety sandals (i.e. Havvies/thongs/flip flops), but for time spent in the dirt, gumboots that go up to your knees are really the go.

We each have a a pair of standard black, knee-length gumboots, purchased from the Big Green Shed for $10 a pair. These have lasted us a couple of years and are still good as new (although encrusted with filth). There’s really nothing that can go wrong with them: even a shovel glances right off.

Just remember to check for redbacks before you put them on, and you’ll be right.

I also have a pair of Sloggers, which are rubber garden clogs. These are also great for protecting your toes, but because they are clogs, they do not protect the whole foot. I slip these on when doing some basic garden work, like planting seedlings, but I would not wear them for heavy duty work.

Protective Headwear and Clothing

I live in Australia. This means you slip, slop, slap – shirt, sunscreen, hat, even in Winter. In Winter, I usually wear a beanie because it’s cold, and in Summer, a baseball cap. I know wide-brimmed is better, but I find the brim gets in my way. 50+ sunscreen, and a long-sleeved shirt is preferable to prevent both sunburn and scratching from plants.

Protective Gloves

I always wear gardening gloves. I am obsessive about gardening gloves. When my husband mixes them up, and wears mine, I hunt him down and pull them off his mitts so he doesn’t stretch them out. Good gardening gloves are surprisingly difficult to find. They must be comfortable, protect your hands and fingers, while also allowing the dexterity needed to thin out carrot seedlings, prune a bush, and weed a plot.

Gloves not only protect your hands from dirt and grot, they also protect from thorns, bug bites, and other nasties. They are a barrier between you and the parts of nature that you may not want to be quite so up close and personal with.

I searched high and low for my gardening gloves. I needed a pair that was tough enough to enable me to prune Audrey II, our boysenberry canes. Audrey has spikes that make pruning her a very painful experience. I spent a solid hour in Bunnos trying on multiple pair of gloves until I found ‘the pair’ that seemed tough enough.

If you think I’m being paranoid and too obsessive about gloves, I’m not. A rose or blackberry thorn can cause some nasty damage to the human body, including bacterial infections. If I can avoid, I will. We often have little cuts or nicks on our hands we are not aware of, and gloves act as an additional barrier to prevent bugs getting in.

Anyway, I found a pair. I can’t tell you the brand because, like a doofus, I chucked out the label, dooming me to another hour of searching when they finally give up the ghost.

Face Mask

When handling any garden soil, manure, or compost, I always wear a mask. Potting soil in particular can be a carrier of a type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s Disease. The safest way to handle it is to wet down the potting mix first, so dust does not fly up when you handle it, and to wear a mask and gloves. Also try to use it in a well-ventilated space, rather than in a close-in space like a shed. Wash your hands well after using potting mix, even if you have worn gloves.

I always wear a mask when handling seed raising mix, when digging over my compost bins, and when cleaning out the chook shed. It’s not like masks are hard to come by nowadays.

Back Care and Movement

I learned this the hard way. Sometimes, particularly in Spring, I spend all day in the garden.

But I’m only a part-time gardener. During the week, I basically sit on my can all day, glued to my laptop.

So what happens to a middle-aged lady who spends 60-70 hours a week on a laptop and then tries to spend 8 hours straight digging in the garden?

Bad things. Bad back things.

One Monday morning, I tried to get out of bed, and I just could not.

Not because I was tired. Because I could not move.

All that gardening had buggered my back, because I had moved in a way my body was not used to.

As I healed and saw the physio regularly, she taught me some exercises to do as I garden that help prevent that ever happening again. Every now and then, I stop digging and do my little back exercises. So far, I have not had any further serious issues.

I can’t tell you what the exercises are, because I am not a medical professional. However, can I suggest that if you are like me, and you spend most of your time sitting down, and then want to spend your spare time outside doing physical activity, either ask a professional or look for some resources on small movements you can do to prevent a back injury.

Chemical and Tool Storage

I don’t have little kids anymore. And I don’t use poisons in my garden. However, young kids do visit sometimes, and I do have a lot of garden tools.

I don’t want the kids that visit to pick up a pair of secateurs and remove a finger. And frankly, I don’t want to trip over a rake in the garden either.

We have a dedicated garden shed, and all tools are returned there at the end of the gardening day. I do a walk around after each morning or afternoon spent in the garden and make sure every tool has been put away.

My garden shed isn’t one of those schmick sheds you see on TV. I don’t have one of those peg boards with an outlined spot for every tool. But everything generally has a spot (more like a pile), and it all goes back.

That also saves some cash. The best way to ruin a tool is to leave it in the rain.


Wash your hands after gardening. And scrub under those nails. I try to keep my nails short so fewer nasties can get under them, but I still give them a good clean after every gardening session.


This last one is something you only need to do every ten years – but it’s important. Tetanus is a terrible disease that can kill you. The death rate from tetanus is 1 in 10.

It can be prevented by a vaccine, with a booster every ten years. I had my booster the other day.

It’s a common misconception that tetanus is passed by rusty nails or other items. Tetanus is passed on by a toxin in soil or animal waste – (rusty nails may have tetanus on them, which is why the misconception exists). That is why gardeners are more at risk. If you are not sure of the date of your last tetanus booster, your GP can check on the Immunisation Register.

Do you have any safety tips for the garden? Share in the comments!

Pointless garden tools and gadgets

If you’re a gardener or a cook, you most probably love a tool or a gadget. I can spend a long time at a kitchenware store staring at baking gear, or in a garden shop just looking at gardening tools. Many is the time I have convinced myself I must have a certain tool or gadget, only to find it is either useless (hello, fertiliser spreader) or I just don’t get the use out of it I thought I would (hi there, newspaper pot maker). I have learned over time to just cool my jets and consider whether:

  1. I really need it;
  2. It will really do what it says it will do on the box (I’m looking at you again, fertiliser spreader);
  3. It’s worth the cash I am about to part with; and
  4. I have something else that could do some or most of the job of the coveted new tool. I have to remind myself that buying something is the least sustainable option and does add to future landfill.

Here is a list of truly useless items I have purchased, in no particular order:

  • A fertiliser spreader, $14.99. This thing is supposed to make spreading fertiliser like blood and bone easier by evenly distributing the fertiliser via a nifty handle that you turn. I thought that for a person like myself that has bursitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, this would be easier on my hands and wrists. Epic fail, my friends. The handle is stiff and really hard to turn, and the fertiliser gets stuck in the funnel very frequently. It does not ‘spread’ the fertiliser, but rather dumps it in a clump. Frankly, I have the skills to do that myself without paying $14.99 for the privilege. The fertiliser spreader is now a glorified bucket. I fill it with fertiliser and shake it around. I could have bought a bucket for a dollar, or I could use one of the many recycled pots I have in my garden shed, which is what I was doing to spread fertiliser around my garden before I was suckered into this con.
  • Seedling pot maker, $34.99. That’s right, gentle readers, I paid $34.99 for a tool that would supposedly save me money on pots. Let me tell you that in my shed currently, I already have about 100 pots that I paid not a single cent for. And yet, for some reason I still thought it was a great idea to pay the equivalent of the hourly rate of a mid-level public servant for a tool that I used about three times. So those little newspaper pots cost me about twelve bucks each. Good deal.
  • Jiffy pellets, $5 for 12. Jiffy pellets are tiny compressed pellets of coir, that you soak and then plant a seed in. Each pellet costs 41 cents, depending on when you buy them. A coir brick that reconstitutes to ten times its volume costs about $2. For that you will be able to plant probably fifty times the number of seeds. I spent maybe $20 on jiffy pellets before I learned to do simple arithmetic.
  • El cheapo gardening gloves, $2 a pair. El cheapo gardening gloves are the worst. They never fit properly, the water soaks into them, and they fall apart quickly. I have thrown out more pairs of these darn things than I care to count, until I wised up and realised that instead of six pairs of crappy gloves, I could buy one pair of good gloves, and have them last a very long time.
  • El cheapo tools, $2-$5. Ditto cheap trowels and cultivators. Cheap trowels inevitably rust, handles break, and the tools lose their edge.
  • Underground Worm Farm, $15. I wanted worms for my garden, but I wasn’t sure I could commit to a full worm farm. So I went halfway, partly committed, and ended up in an “it’s complicated” status with the underground worm farm: a plastic structure that you dig into the ground, and dump worms in. This from a woman who spends a great deal of gardening time digging plastic out of her garden. Then you feed the worms and they will supposedly create their lovely castings that you then dig out. Wellllll…..every other critter in the ground decided they liked apartment living with daily breakfast, and moved on in. The worms moved on out, which they could do very easily because the underground worm farm is in the ground, and my worm farm is now home to slugs, slaters, and every other creepy crawly under the earth. Except worms. Happily, I have found many of them living in my compost bin, where they seem very content. The farm-o-slugs remains in the ground, because I really buried that sucker in there.

I am sure there are many other things that I have wasted my cash on over the years, but these are just a few of the items I can recall. Next time I will post a top ten of the most useful, value for money tools that I believe every gardener should keep in their shed.