Thinking about writing a memoir, I recently pawed through my late mother's journal from 1948. I was amazed to read that on my second birthday my sister, Ruth Anne, herself just four and a half, gave me a wheelbarrow, my first. My parents gave me a watering can. My Uncle Ralph and Auntie Ruth gave me a shovel.
With gifts like those, is it a surprise that I turned out to be a gardening guy? Or that I now own seven kinds of wheelbarrows, uncountable hand tools and several watering cans? Spring is just around the corner and this might be a good time to look over the necessities for the upcoming gardening season.
One of my first memories in life is being in the garden with my grandfather when a quick thunderstorm approached. Grampy scooped me up, placed me on a pile of weeds in his wooden wheelbarrow, and we raced back to his old farmhouse. I loved that wheelbarrow.
Many years later I searched for a company making wooden wheelbarrows and found Spring Valley Woodworking in Gordonville, Penn., run by Ike Lapp, who is Old Order Amish. I've met Ike and purchased one of his barrows. It has removable sides, which is nice for lugging fence posts, and a steel-rimmed wooden wheel that never goes flat. It even makes the same squeak my grandfather's wheelbarrow made all those years ago.
To reach Ike and order a barrow, leave a message for him at 717-355-9366. He can't have a phone in his home or workplace, but has a plywood shack with an answering machine in the middle of a field. He will return your call at his convenience, not yours. Maybe we should all be more like that.
My sturdiest wheelbarrow, the one I go to most often is called a Smart Cart (www.shopmullerscarts.com). It is great for heavy and bulky loads. The axle is centered under the load so that it feels light to the touch and turns easily on its two wide 16-inch diameter wheels. It has a tubular aluminum frame and a big plastic bin (seven cubic feet).
You can easily remove the bin from the frame so that you can wash the dog in it, or carry compost in the back of your car. My model (with wide wheels) is rated for 600 pounds; the wire wheel version is rated for 400 pounds. There is also a 12-cubic foot bin that is interchangeable with the seven-foot bin, though I've never seen it.
Everything about this cart is well designed. It's more expensive than a standard wheelbarrow, but worth it. I've kept mine outdoors all summer for years without problems. I visited the web site and see that there are now two grades of carts: contractor (original) and a less expensive residential grade, which I have not tested.
Then there is the standard old-fashioned one-wheeled wheelbarrow in either metal or plastic. I have a metal one, but have had a plastic one, too. The metal ones are better for heavy loads, but do rust over time. Generally they have wooden handles that are replaceable — though you shouldn't have to. Their biggest advantage is that they can turn on a dime and will go down a narrow path in the garden — something two-wheeled barrows generally cannot do. They come in two sizes: six- and four-cubic-foot varieties. I have the larger one.
I also have a plywood garden cart. The original brand, often called a Garden Way cart, is made by Carts Vermont (www.cartsvermont.com) though other companies now make them. These come in two sizes: Mid-size (6.5 cubic feet) and large (13.6 cubic feet), which I have. These are great for carrying bulky loads like hay and leaves. They use 26-inch bicycle tires, but offer a solid tire as an option — which I wish I had. Avoiding flat tires would be great.
Then there is my folding aluminum wheelbarrow. It is the Tipke 2100 folding cart (www.tipkemfg.com/foldit), and is remarkably sturdy. It has removable sides like my grandfather's cart but its main claim to fame is that it folds up — and weighs just 33 pounds. If you are an apartment dweller, you can store it in a closet; it will fit in a small car to go to the community garden, but it can carry up to 330 pounds.
There are also electric powered wheelbarrows that can assist you in getting up a long incline with a heavy load. A rechargeable 24-volt battery is the standard power source. I tried one a few years ago, but the motor and battery add weight and cost, so I was not interested. I've seen several brands online.
I've also tried the cheap plastic wheelbarrows with plastic wheels. They cost well under $100 at big box stores, and are worth even less. I wouldn't have one, but I suppose if you are just beginning and on a restricted budget, one might do the job for a few years.
When possible, I recommend buying wheelbarrows after trying one out. So go to your local feed-and-grain store or garden center and test drive one. Do it now, before you get too busy in the garden.
Henry Homeyer lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, N.H. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.