Wheelbarrows and Garden Carts

If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, you might not think you’re missing anything. But once you get one, you won’t know how you got along without it. Wheelbarrows simplify all your carrying chores; they can be loaded with leaves, rubbish, firewood, compost, children, or whatever will fit; and they can also be used for mixing (for example, potting mix or cement).

Because wheelbarrows have one wheel rather than two, they are easier than carts to maneuver and to keep level on irregular ground—as long as you keep the weight of the load forward over the wheel. Carts, however, are better than wheelbarrows if your path is wide and level. They are more versatile, easier to handle and balance, and easier to load and unload. Also, a large, heavy-duty cart can accommodate larger loads than any wheelbarrow can. The largest wheelbarrows hold 6 cubic feet, while the largest carts hold 18 cubic feet.

If your garden will accommodate a cart, it is usually the better selection. If, however, the wide-set wheels on a cart won’t fit down your garden paths, or if you have a hillside or rough land, a wheelbarrow is the better selection. Wheelbarrows are the 4-wheel-drive jeeps of the garden—you can push one over just about any type of terrain.

Wheelbarrows are also more dangerous than carts. Because of their top-heavy balance a wheelbarrow can get out of control and spill, run away, or wrench your back as you try to wrestle it upright. A cart is only dangerous if you try to take too heavy a cart down too steep a hill, and it gets away from you.

The more durable heavy-duty wheelbarrows and carts have trays (bodies) made of steel and are painted or epoxy-enameled. One exception is the heavy-duty cart that is made of steel with plywood sides and bottom. Some smaller and lighter wheelbarrows and carts are made of plastic.

Good wheelbarrows and carts have enclosed bearings in the wheels. Some of these are sealed and permanently lubricated. Others have a zerk fitting that must be greased with a grease gun once a year (more often in dusty areas).

Carts with two separate legs may sink into the ground more readily when filled than models with a single metal-loop leg running the width of the cart. Wheelbarrows usually have two legs in back, but some have a bar between the legs to make them more stable on soft soil.

Handles on the heavy-duty models are usually made of hardwood; on the lighter models they are made of tubular steel. So many different sizes and shapes of wheelbarrows are available that making a choice might be difficult. But there’s an easy way to choose: As long as you are reasonably fit, get the largest one you can afford. It’s easier to take a single large load, particularly of light material (e.g., leaves or garden refuse), than it is to make two or three separate trips.

You have a choice of many different types of wheelbarrows and carts, as well as some hybrids between wheelbarrows and carts.

Light-Duty Steel Wheelbarrow

This wheelbarrow can carry light to moderate loads. Its tray, which is about 30 by 25 by 7 inches deep and holds up to 3 cubic feet, is made of one-piece steel with a baked epoxy enamel finish. The handlebars are made of tubular steel. The wheel has nylon bearings that do not need oiling.

Contractor’s Wheelbarrow

This type works very well for both light and heavy-duty jobs because it is better balanced. The tray runs from 4 1/2 to 5 cubic feet; on the larger models, it measures about 37 by 27 by 14 inches deep.

The tray is available in three shapes: square with a flat end (for working with loose materials, such as soil); long and rounded (for mixing cement and pouring liquids); and a combination of these two types. The flat-end type is more suited to garden work.

The wheel is about 4 inches wide to support heavy loads in soft ground. Some models have sealed wheel bearings that need no greasing; others have a zerk fitting and require periodic greasing. The contractor’s wheelbarrow is available with either a metal or a hardwood frame.

Many wheelbarrows today are made with two wheels, set just a few inches apart. These wheelbarrows are much more stable than single-wheel models, yet still can be taken down narrow trails and on steep ground.

Light-Duty Cart

These small models don’t have the capacity of the larger garden carts, but are very useful around the garden. They will carry a flat of plants and a bag of compost to a planting site. Many are collapsible for compact storage.

Heavy-Duty Cart

If you don’t have a pickup or trailer, use this big cart to move large loads (e.g., bales of hay, garbage cans, or lumber). The box is made of 1/2-inch exterior plywood and measures about 28 by 48 by 15 inches deep. The plywood is stained to resist weathering. The framework is made of heavy steel. The wheels are about 26 inches in diameter, with ball-bearing hubs.


Wheelbarrows and carts don’t need much in the way of maintenance—basically just to be kept clean and free of rust. Rust can start whenever the enamel or paint on the tray is chipped, thus exposing the steel. If this happens, sand the steel clean, then touch it up with a spray paint to protect the metal. Grease the wheels, if required, about once a year.

Never bounce wheelbarrows and carts over curbs or bumps; lower them down gently. Bouncing will quickly ruin the bearings.


You can injure your back by overloading a wheelbarrow. If a heavy wheelbarrow begins to topple, set it down immediately, rather than trying to force it upright. Redistribute the load, keeping the weight over the front wheel.