garden cart, or wheelbarrow? expert thoughts on which one’s the better fit (or gift)

garden cart or wheeelbarrowCART, OR WHEELBARROW: Where do you stand in the debate? Both family members and readers keep seeking advice, but my answer alone would be just the view of one woman on a steep hillside. I sought expert input on which it should be—whether to purchase for yourself, or as a holiday gift.

As I told my six-friend panel, I have four such transport devices, each that has stood up to many years of rough use:

  • one large and one medium Vermont Cart (wood, oversize spoked tires, removable end panel);
  • one aluminum-frame Smart Cart with similar tires, aluminum frame, and removable high-density polyethylene tub that can be used as a soil-mixing vessel;
  • one single-tire, 6-cubic-foot True Temper red wheelbarrow with a steel tray.

The person who for many years helped part-time in the garden loathed my wheelbarrow, but adored the Smart Cart. I beg to differ, and prefer the wheelbarrow’s narrow nose for unloading more precisely, and its slimmer profile for between raised beds. We both turned to the wooden carts for moving things like pots.

I asked others what people have been asking me: Do you use a wheelbarrow, cart, or both, and why? (Click their names to learn more about them on their websites.)

Andrew Beckman, Oregon;
editorial director, Timber Press

6a00d83451bd5e69e201348696f8e0970c-piOUR GARDEN is steep, the paths are narrow, and there are steps between the levels of the garden in many places. I like a wheelbarrow more than anything because I can maneuver it in tight spaces. It is a bitch to push uphill, but still better than the big cart. I like one with a plastic tub; it lasts as long as the metal but it is so much lighter.  Why strain pushing around the tool? The material in it is heavy enough. When moving stuff up and down the steps, I put a couple of wood blocks down to smooth the transition.

In our old garden, with a more open and level site, we used both carts and barrows depending on the task. You can move a hell of a lot of material in one of those big carts, and move it more easily over bumpy ground. We had a couple of wheelbarrows for mixing soil and for mulching (they make it easy to dump the right amount of mulch between plants).

Ken Druse, New Jersey;
garden author and photographer

ken druse 3IHAVE a knockoff cart and I love it. (By the way: the first thing I do is paint/stain the cart, which makes it last much longer.) I also have a wheelbarrow with a plastic bed, which is so much lighter than the steel one that I have. I do not think these tools—cart and wheelbarrow—are interchangeable. I need them both. You can’t remove brush with a wheelbarrow, or move dirt and rocks with a cart. I’m told you can convert most wheelbarrows into carts of a kind with a two-wheel kit. But the answer is, “I need ’em both.”

Ken Greene, New York State;
seed farmer, Hudson Valley Seed Company

ken greene 3WE SEEM to be wheelbarrow folks at the Seed Library farm! We have very narrow pathways between beds to maximize our growing space. For us, a single wheel is best to avoid soil compaction in the beds, and also for easy maneuvering. We use the metal kind because they hold up, and because we have lots of rocks to deal with.

There are certain times when I wish we had one flat-bottomed cart—especially for transporting flats of seedlings for transplanting. So I think in the long run we’ll have three wheelbarrows and one cart.

Joe Lamp’l, Georgia;
public-TV host,’Growing a Greener World’

joe lamp'lI LOVE my Vermont Cart! It’s the best present I ever gave myself. I’ve had the same one for about 25 years and it continues to be a staple in the garden; well-made, easy to maneuver, and stable (once you get the hang of how to load and unload it). I prefer it over a wheelbarrow because it holds more, and it’s lower to the ground (hence the added stability). I especially love the big bicycle tires that make it a breeze to haul even heavy loads. I find that the cart can haul everything a wheelbarrow can, and more.

Given the choice, I’d almost always use the cart over the wheelbarrow, but I still use both. Each has its unique advantages at times.

Bob Hyland, Oregon;
garden designer and retailer

Hyland-bio-pic smallerWE USE wheelbarrows of two sizes, with lightweight poly basins and wooden handles: a standard 6 cubic foot wheelbarrow to haul garden debris, compost, mulch and stone on the more level parts of our garden, and a smaller 3 cubic foot wheelbarrow on the steeper slopes. We have no garden carts, now that we garden on a hillside (but used them a lot at our former nursery in New York, on a flat site). They’re too big, too awkward for here. By the way, we use a handcart with adjustable vertical/horizontal handle for moving pots around on the deck and into/out of our greenhouse.

Tovah Martin, Connecticut;
garden author (and goat keeper!)

tovah martin by kindra clineffI’M A WHEELBARROW gal–because it’s so maneuverable and can fit easily around shrubs that have grown into the pathways. Plus, when emptying time comes at the compost heap, it’s a smooth dumping process—handles up, load off.


tips for shopping

helebore cleanup 1

  • Carts often come with a choice of tire size and style (inner tube or solid, spoke wheel or not). Your conditions and the intended use are factors to consider when choosing tire type. Read the manufacturer site, or ask.
  • Though there are lookalikes in wooden carts, it sounds as if I am not alone in recommending the ones from Carts Vermont (their website), which are sold in catalogs and at Amazon.
  • The Smart Cart I favor is also much copied, but the original is from Muller’s Garden Carts in Maine. It, too, be had in garden catalogs, or cheaper at the ubiquitous Amazon.
  • I don’t know if plastic-tub wheelbarrows were popular when I got my un-fancy red steel True Temper ages ago. If I ever need a new wheelbarrow, I’ll investigate those, thanks to the advice shared by my expert friends above.

So tell us: Which is your trusted tool for hauling things around?

(Disclosure: All Amazon links are affiliate ones and yield a small commission.)

(Photo of Vermont Cart in top-of-page collage from Carts Vermont website.)

  1. Mary O. says:

    I really like my Gorilla cart, as described by Carole Clarin. I made a simple hardware cloth sieve that has blocks of wood to hook over the ends of the cart. With only the two end blocks, instead of a square frame, I can hang it over the walls of my pallet compost bins until I need it again. Also, I bought a 2’x8′ piece of plastic trellis and four quick release clamps to attach the trellis around three sides of the cart. Now I can haul a tall load of debris and leaves from fall garden clean up. The piece of trellis is stored across the top of my compost bins and the clamps hang from the pull handle for the dump bed.

  2. Kathleen says:

    I have an old red, steel wheelbarrow. I used it on our four acres for 15 years to haul mulch, soil, compost, rocks and grandchildren through the woods and around the gardens and raised beds. Now living in town, it still is the best for hauling plants, compost etc. around the flower and raised vegetable beds. And it is still good for a quick ride for a grandchild.

  3. Christina Conklin says:

    I kinda hate to admit this, but I still use the old wooden (yes, wooden!) wheelbarrow that I found in the garage of a house I lived in 40+ yrs. ago. It has removeable sides which makes it handy for moving large items or multiple flats, bins, etc. Due to its age, it does creak a lot & can be a tad shaky in the legs. But, whenever I use it, I think of its original owner, a woman well-known for her gardens & gardening skill, and hope that a little bit of her expertise will rub off on me.

  4. ellen says:

    I have a small 2 wheel poly cart that serves most of my needs well, as my garden is small in comparison with yours. i would like to add a wheelbarrow to my equipment; for hauling mulch around I think it’s a little easier to load and dump out.

  5. A.A. Sokoloski says:

    I am of the wooden barrow vintage (77) . I can remember my elders stacking 6′ timbers sideways and hauling huge loads on that single wooden wheel with the iron rim. If there were a contemporary lightweight version with dual bike wheels spaced about 10″ apart I would snap it up immediately. Otherwise, my main considerations are minimizing tracks as I crisscross the lawn, and ease of storage. I use a wagon with fold down sides often, but the wire mesh bottom precludes carrying mulch and soil. I actually use a cement mixing tub on the wagon. Thus, I am eyeing a mid sized cart with removable or folding handles, so I can store it on end when not in use. (oh, and with the old clunker, we used to always pull the wheelbarrow uphill behind us instead of pushing it. Try it!!)

  6. Joe Lamp'l says:

    Still loving my Vermont Carts. Note the plural here. I have both sizes. One is a little smaller and narrower than its big brother. It goes into places the bigger cart could never go (like navigating all the tight turns in my raised bed garden. Having the option to pick the best cart for the job is a true luxury that has been well worth the investment.

  7. Alan says:

    I used to use a wheelbarrow. Now prefer small tractor with front end loader and small UTV with a dump bed. Shovels and buckets always work for the last few narrow feet. Uphill is no longer a problem. Both do other jobs like moving snow and ferrying hand-tools. They almost make me feel young and strong again.

    Gave the wheelbarrow to a neighbor.

  8. I have an old metal (rusty now) wheelbarrow and a Rubbermaid dump cart that my riding mower pulls. On any big clean-up I haul the dump cart, fill it to the brim, then drive it around to the compost pile. Smaller work gets collected in the barrow. I also just got a few “tip bags” and I’ll be curious to see how they fit into my garden work this year!

    Great, helpful article!

  9. Liane says:

    I live on a very steep slope, so carts of all kind are troublesome to use. Even though I own a steel wheelbarrow, a giant 4-wheeled green plastic cart, a two-wheeled upright green cart, I tend to use the large bag (think Ikea) or handled plastic tubs more often.

    As a result, the large green plastic cart has become my soil mixing station. The steel wheelbarrow is reserved for construction projects — might need to make a step stone or two, or maybe some troughs one of these days. The small upright green cart is available, but most often is a substitute tip bag when none is close and I wander by with a handful of weeds!

    Perhaps one day, I will just dispose of them and free up some under the porch roof space. If the space had some more appealing function, it would have happened long ago!

  10. Tracy says:

    I use a two wheeled garden cart. I can’t manage a one wheeled barrow easily when it’s filled with heavy things– too tippy for me. My ancient cart is heavy duty plastic (?), not metal, and is light weight and very strong. It’s pretty deep and large, and has a metal handle that is one solid piece that goes from one side, up to a straight bar to pull with and down to the other side. I have abused it beyond belief and it’s still going strong. I love it. I hang it from the handle on two pegs, flush to the wall, over the winter.

  11. Kassie says:

    I have an Ames cart with a plastic tub that has served me well. When it broke a wheel, I had it fixed because quality affordable garden carts seem to be non-existent. For cleanups, I spread a tarp out near where I’m working, then I don’t have to aim too well when I toss the debris aside.

  12. Lee Ann Bailey says:

    For longevity and reliability, you can’t beat a garden cart. I have my GRANDFATHER’S original Garden Way cart–I am 67 years old and I got the cart when my grandfather retired and moved to Florida–and that is donkey’s years ago! I can’t even guess how old the cart is. My husband has replaced the plywood panels twice over the years and I do paint the cart every couple years, but I’m sure our kids or grandkids will be using this cart for years to come!

  13. Jane Sherrott says:

    Electric carts of wheelbarrows- are there any around that self dump?

    I have retired to acreage but I am finding that moving compost and dirt around the garden and particularly emptying it is very hard on my back. I am researching wheelbarrows or carts that have a motor that will lift the back end to dump compost or dirt out the front. If anyone has found something like this and can share the information, that would be terrific. I figure I can keep gardening forever with a powered cart.

  14. Sandy Lentz says:

    Would that I had all that garden space, but in my “severely over-farmed suburban backyard” what works for me is a dark green heavy plastic (yes, plastic) wheelbarrow. It’s light, maneuverable, and deals well with wet stuff. Easy to hose out, too. My husband wanted to get me a fancier one, but I resisted. I’ve had this one for years, and wouldn’t trade it for anything else. As your panel indicates, what’s best is what works for our specific settings.

  15. Erin Bailey says:

    I mention this because maybe there is another stubborn gardener with major arthritis and tendonitis issues who could use what I use to continue gardening. I have plastic tubs with handles that I use to transport soil, rocks, mulch and weeds. I use an appliance dolly with two wheels. It does not twist like a barrow nor require much effort or strength. I can stack 3 tubs on top one another and easily push them all around the garden. Then I lift off 1/3 of the weight at a time by the handled tubs and dump them out. Easy Peasy!

    My husband gave me a 4 wheeled garden cart, but I only use it to carry seedling flats from the house to the hoop house outdoors. Pulling with one arm behind me gives me back pain from the slight twist.

    1. Robin says:

      What a great idea. I have “muck buckets” I fill with the manure of my horses, then have to lift and twist in order to put them in the wheelbarrow to go out to the pile. This handcart idea might cut out the transfer step, which is the most troublesome for the back, shoulder, and knee issues

  16. Cindy Donahey says:

    I use a shopping cart. I have a very urban garden. I collect leaves and decayed wood from various places. Crumble or,punk, which is naturally decayed wood is especially interesting to me. I also am taking plants and cuttings to this taken out Cemetery by the railroad tracks in what is mostly an old industrial area. The owner to,d me I could do it. This was prime,land until themfifties. This railroad tracks was an early road.. The spring has been capped. I use the shopping cart for this. Sometimes I take plants in a backpack. I,was down by the Olentangy River yesterday, where this old mill was taken out about sixty years ago. This is an oddball sort of place. put buttercups by the river. There was this homeless man there, who had a wheelchair. He could only have come in from the river.

    I found a moss covered chunk of concrete, as large as I can handle. Am going to take it home in the shopping cart.

  17. Harriet Robinson says:

    I couldn’t garden without a John Deere gator. It is like a golf cart with a damp truck back. My property is large and the distance to haul things is too much for wheelbarrows or carts. I have many 5 gallon buckets that I collect debris in. When they are full, they are dumped in gator, removed, and I start again. For spring tree limb clean-up, which will start if the snow ever melts (more expected here in Maine tomorrow night), I drive gator around the yard and throw them in the back to be hauled off out of sight on the edge of the field. When pruning, I also bring gator close and toss branches right in.

  18. Liz Szymanski says:

    I agree with the lightweight plastic wheelbarrow too. I love it for hauling soil to my garden beds. Also easy to clean.

  19. Pat says:

    I have two large Vermont carts and one medium one. No wheelbarrows needed on my gently sloping lot. I just splurged on a pair of solid rubber flat-free wheels/tires for one of the large carts, because the sweet gum balls are murder on those pneumatic tires, and I’m getting tired of replacing the tubes. I also have an upright hand truck for moving bags of gravel and other small heavy things. My favorite garden workhorse though is a steel-mesh flatbed cart, which I can’t find for sale anymore. It’s not like the four-wheeled kind. It has handles like a wheelbarrow, a 24×48 inch flat bed just a few inches off the ground (which makes loading easy), and two wheelbarrow-sized wheels on either side of the bed at the midpoint of the load. I have moved tree stumps, boulders, and even an injured, 100-pound dog on that thing. It’s great for moving cement-mixing tubs full of soil with no lifting required. I put flat-free wheels on it too. Can’t understand why it’s no longer available — it’s a gem!

  20. Carolyn says:

    We have about 18 hilly acres. We have sheep, chickens and a rabbit. I got a battery powered, 4-wheeled cart when I was about 60. It is expensive but is a real workhorse. It will handle 700 lbs on the flat. The body is flat and plastic which has a manual dump. My husband has a gasoline powered cart which he primarily uses for moving firewood. It’s capacity is larger and has a manual dump. The electric start is broken but he can pull start the power wagon. My battery powered cart is ready whenever I need it.

  21. Mary says:

    Hi. I used a Vermont cart from Gardeners Supply for years until some one stole it. I live in Jersey City and you have to really lock up your cart. It depressed me for three months. I loved that cart. I then bought a Maine made garden cart. I like that the tools can lie flat in it. Its easier to keep things dry in . In the other cart, which is better at different tasks, I got my precious garden tote wet when anything splashed out water, turned over, etc. That was not good . But for mulch and leaves and potting soil, oh my. Both are just fantastic.

  22. Meg says:

    My large-capacity plastic-basin wheelbarrow was my work-horse for over 20 years. It finally developed a large split in the bottom (I think the Texas heat and cold finally did it in) and I just couldn’t repair it. My 86 year-old Dad gave me his large-capacity metal-basin wheelbarrow and OMG, that thing weighs a ton!! I am worn out just wheeling it to the car to get the mulch, and although I’m very strong, I just can’t move as much in it as I could move in my plastic one. At 65, I’m not sure how many more years I’ll be gardening on my 1.5 acres, so I’m reluctant to get a new plastic one. That’s why I came to this site; to help me decide what to get. After reading all the entries, I guess I’ll go get another one of what I had. Thank you for your input!

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