Essentials for Getting the Job Done
BY ROGER B. SWAIN
so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
—William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”
RIDING IN A WHEELBARROW pushed by my father is among my first recollections of gardening. Building him a wooden one with removable sides was my last gift to him in return. And still each year begins and ends with the wheelbarrow bumping across the shed’s sill. Whatever its color or construction, a wheelbarrow is designed for moving material—lots of it. A gardener’s life is measured in moving things from one place to another, and sometimes back again. Sand, loam, fertilizer, ground limestone, compost, manure, tools, flats of seedlings, bark mulch, more tools, the first picking of weeds, coils of hose, the zucchini surplus, tomatoes for canning, strings of onions, carrots to wash, weeds for the compost, leaves for the compost, mulch for the roses. This is the gardener’s version of mass transit.
A physicist will point out that a wheelbarrow is an example of a second-class lever, since the load is located between the end of the lever and the fulcrum. When properly designed and loaded (so that the weight is close to the wheel) a wheelbarrow will bear 85% of the weight, leaving a mere 15% percent riding on the gardener’s arms. Hence you may consider yourself to be doing the work of at least six. To this add wonderful maneuverability. It is a simple matter to roll a wheelbarrow across even a narrow board in the vegetable garden, or to steer it between clumps of columbines and lupines in the perennial border.
This wheel on which so much rides was once wooden with a metal rim. (This was the most difficult of wheels for a wheelwright to construct, since the small circumference allowed for relatively little expansion of the hot metal when the rim was heated prior to installation.) Today, the best wheelbarrow wheels have rubber pneumatic tires that can be kept fully inflated. The larger and the fatter the wheel, of course, the less likely it is to sink into soft ground. Some trace the etymology of the word wheelbarrow to an actual small barrel used as a wheel, enabling loads to be pushed across soft beach sand, though the wheel barrow’s true origin was in China during the Han Dynasty (1st century C.E.).
As for the body or pan of the wheelbarrow, it can be made of wood or metal or a wide range of synthetics. So-called poly pans have the advantage of being lightweight and resistant to both rot and rust. But if you are the sort that likes to throw the rocks you have picked from the garden into the wheelbarrow, metal will prove the better choice. The shape, too, of the wheelbarrow’s body will vary. The model I use daily (Jackson M11T22) holds 5 3/4 cubic feet in a blue seamless folded-steel pan that is narrow enough to pass easily through 27-inch doorways and garden gates. There are wheelbarrows as big as 10 cubic feet designed for very light materials such as sawdust. Similarly, there are a host of smaller ones, including children’s toys. The lightweight models are fine for light work, but if you want a wheelbarrow to last your lifetime, choose one of the contractor/industrial models and spend your money only once.
The twin handles provide the user the necessary leverage; these can be tubular metal with rubber grips, but most often they are plain wooden shafts. The wood is every bit as strong as metal, and, like wooden-handled garden tools in general, is more forgiving to the human skin. Should one actually break a handle (or any other wheelbarrow part for that matter), replacements are readily available.
More Than Two Wheels
A few years ago, I was given a three-wheeled cart called a WheelAround. Its 20-inch-in-diameter circular platform is supported on one side by an axle that connects two 10-inch wheels; a third turnable wheel connects to a wagon handle for steering. Designed to hold a large galvanized washtub, this little wagon, with its bed a mere six inches above the ground, has proven invaluable for trundling our heavy, washtub-size pans of hardy water lilies from their summer pools to winter quarters each year. Even better known, of course, are four-wheeled little red wagons. Hundreds of these are used in garden centers where customers fill them with the plants they have selected, and many a gardener has appropriated their child’s outgrown toy for their own use at home. A number of companies manufacture dedicated garden wagons. I have an Ames Planter’s Wagon (pictured), whose all-plastic body is compartmented to provide room not only for plants but also for pruning shears, twist-ties, hand hoes, and labels-all those everyday tools and supplies that gardeners like to have when they head out for a morning of work. As an added convenience, the broad handle folds back flat over the body to create a convenient place to sit. And a secure one. Wheelbarrows tip over easily, and even carts will dump themselves if they are unloaded from the handle end first. Of all the benefits of the fourth wheel, the greatest may be simply that it allows a gardener to finally, and safely, rest. —R.B.S.
Though a wheelbarrow is intended to be pushed primarily with your arms and hands, you can also purchase an after-market strap that can be bolted so that it stretches between the handles in such a way that you can use your uplifted thigh to give the wheelbarrow a shove. This is especially useful when starting a heavy load rolling.
There are wheelbarrows designed for extremely heavy loads that possess a pair of wheels, at which point we move into the realm of garden carts. Carts are intended to carry heavier, bulkier loads. My well-used large Gardenway cart has plywood sides trimmed in galvanized metal, and a front panel that can be removed for easy dumping. This cart can carry 400 pounds and hold nearly 14 cubic feet. Sometimes it’s area and not volume that matters. The cart’s flat bottom is much larger than any wheelbarrow, which allows the transport of a great many plants in single layer.
The 26-inch wheels of this cart may superficially resemble bicycle wheels, but their spokes are much thicker, to help them better resist the constant sideways thrust when the cart is pulled across a slope. Bicycle wheels always remain near vertical; cartwheels do not.
From a physicist’s point of view, again, the merit of using a cart lies in the fact that it is usually pulled rather than pushed. When you are pushing a wheelbarrow, invariably a portion of the effort is wasted pushing the wheel downward toward the earth. The wheel of a pulled cart, however, is being pulled away from the earth, meaning that all one’s effort is usefully directed at pulling the cart over any bump. Why not pull a wheelbarrow behind you then? I don’t fully understand why, but it isn’t done easily. I suspect it involves the subtle hand/eye coordination that is necessary to keep the wheelbarrow wheel on the straight and narrow.
Where the object to be moved is too heavy to lift comfortably up into the body of a wheelbarrow or a cart, a third option is a hand truck. These two-wheeled, upright-handled, small-platformed trucks are used primarily in warehouses and by delivery services, but they have found their way into the garden as well. Given the firm surface of a path or pavement, any hand truck will do. For softer terrain, landscapers use a modified version that has fat pneumatic tires and a larger platform. Some are curved to accommodate large root balls. The largest models are capable of carrying 1,600 pounds. Even with the mechanical advantage, these may require a couple of able-bodied handlers to tip and steer the load, but they do an impressive job.
You don’t have to be well heeled to be well wheeled, but all of these tools should be cared for if they are to return the favor. Keep the tires inflated and the axle lubricated. Wash out spilled fertilizers and manure before they corrode the metal. And at the end of the day, put them away. That wheelbarrow on which so much depends itself depends on someone bringing it in out of the rain. H