Gardening: Toolshed - A barrow for all seasons

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The Independent Online
Wheelbarrows may lack glamour but they are among the most indispensable of garden accoutrements, especially at this time of year, with last season's accumulated detritus and a substantial hillock of compost to distribute. I suspect, though, that gardeners often underestimate the value of a good barrow. That's possibly because barrows have been around fundamentally unchanged since the middle ages - a tribute to the simplicity and effectiveness of their working principle.

The ideal barrow is lightweight but sturdy, easy to manoeuvre, load and tip. Despite similarities of design there is a surprisingly wide variation in performance among the many different models available. Just like buying a new car, it's worth having a good look around before shelling out.

Obviously, much depends on the size of your garden. Large, and you are almost certain to have greater volumes to move over greater distances, so a capacious quality barrow makes sense. In smaller gardens the same barrow could be overkill and might be difficult to manage in tight spaces. Tray capacity for standard barrows ranges in volume from about 60 to 120 litres. In the largest gardens it may be worth investing in a trailer- style barrow which will have larger capacity. For truly small gardens, particularly if storage is limited, you may be best to look for alternatives such as collapsible-fabric barrows, or tough plastic carrying sacks.

Some of the cheaper barrows come with a solid rubber tyre. Avoid them. They are almost impossible to push satisfactorily over anything except smooth paving, and they will rapidly turn a lawn into rutted quagmire. Opt, instead, for a pneumatic tyre. The only exception to this rule is if you regularly have to gather up thorny prunings such as hawthorn, which can often result in punctures ... You know how frustrating it can be to mend a bicycle puncture - well, with a barrow tyre it's about eight times worse.

Many of the larger barrows have two wheels instead of one. This improves stability with heavy loads and can be useful if you find pulling easier than pushing. On the down side they are more difficult to manoeuvre, especially on slopes and steps, and can also be awkward to tip.

The framework of the barrow needs to be as rigid as possible to keep sag and wobble to a minimum when heavily laden. Make sure it has a tipping bar - a U-shaped extension of the frame around the front of the wheel which acts as a pivot as the barrow is tipped up. Handle shape, spread and height vary considerably so try the barrow out to make sure you find it comfortable.

The pan itself is usually of metal (galvanised or painted) or polypropylene. I am a complete convert to the latter and would recommend it unreservedly. Polypropylene is light, extremely strong and more durable than metal, which will rust as soon as its protective coating is damaged - an inevitability in the rough lifestyle of a barrow. At about pounds 40 to pounds 50, polypropylene barrows are only a little more expensive than their metal equivalents. Two other suggestions for particular situations are moto-barrows (battery- powered and pricey but worth it for elderly or incapacitated gardeners) and ascender barrows (especially shaped so the load can be pushed straight in or out of the pan at ground level without the need for lifting).

For catalogues and stockist information call the following. Wide-range barrows: Haemmerlin 01384 243243; Interval Systems 01483 727828 (fax); Chillington 01543 376 441. Larger barrows: Globe Organic Services 0121 707 4120; Trailer Barrow 01825 748200. Ascender barrows: Allen 01235 515400. Folding barrows: Corrie 01730 262552. Moto-barrows 01354 655520.