Thoughts from a Foreign Field

Wheel Meet Again…


No matter where you are in the world gardeners all need the same tools (with some variations) in order to keep our gardens gorgeous. Secateurs, spades, trowels, forks hoes and dibbers are all invaluable in this skirmish with nature.

In an idle moment this week (it is August, most of my clients are lying around on a beach somewhere and it was slightly torpid week) I found myself daydreaming: you know how it is sometimes. You look up from crafting a blog for Fine Gardening or sketching a planting scheme, you stare out of the window at a grazing pigeon and the mind wanders. It bounces (or at least mine does) from cheese to international politics to the upcoming final Ashes Test against Australia to that odd mark on my black suede shoes to the shape of a particularly fluffy cumulonimbus to piglets to medlars etc etc.

On this occasion I flitted very quickly from Grace Kelly (I have recently watched To Catch a Thief in which Ms Kelly looks unbelievably wonderful – as does Cary Grant) to wheelbarrows.

The wheelbarrow is one of man’s greatest inventions. One day our ancestors are struggling under a load of rocks, the next some bright spark has stuck a wheel on a plank and life is suddenly simpler. I have no idea which bright spark first had the idea but whoever he was, I salute him. It is one of those perfect designs that cannot be bettered – like knives, the underpant, bricks, the egg, the polka dot bikini or (if I may return to a previous daydream) the nape of Grace Kelly’s neck.

I own four: one that works, one with a puncture, one with a large hole in the bottom which is perfect for clearing weed out of ponds (drainage) and one with no wheel. Nothing fancy just bog-standard builders merchant types but without them my gardening would be much harder. The first illustration of the wheelbarrow is in Chengdu, China in a painted tomb mural dated (with uncanny precision) to 118AD. Although we must assume that it was much earlier that somebody first adapted the well used two wheeled cart into something more maneuverable – especially in narrow places. A chap called Tseng Min-Hsung in 1200 AD boasted that “pathways which are as winding as the bowels of a sheep will not defeat the wheelbarrow.”

As with all the cleverest inventions it is ridiculously simple and the only improvements made to the design over the past couple of thousand years are to make them lighter and to put on a pneumatic tyre. So Hurrah for the barrow.

wheels on wheelbarrows

Here are some interesting facts about wheelbarrows:

Garden designer Tony Smith made a garden of wheelbarrows at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show – it celebrated the hidden labour and talent behind the big name designers and nurseries. The unsung heroes. (Picture by Frickesphotography) He also did wheelbarrow installations at Heathrow Airport.

The Roman emperor, Elagabalus, used wheelbarrows to transport women around the court. This transportation had little to do with gardening or builders. Elagabalus was one of the racier Roman Emperors. He was married five times (once to a Vestal Virgin and once to a charioteer), in addition he slept with a wide selection of the remaining population and devalued the denarius. He was eventually assassinated and chucked in the River Tiber in 222. He was eighteen when he died so you can appreciate his dedication to debauchery and the usefulness of having a wheelbarrow to ferry people around. If they had had to walk he might not have had time to get married so often.

The wheelbarrow has appeared in a painting by Salvador Dali (Pantheon Formed By Twisted Wheelbarrows-1951)

In China they rigged sails to their wheelbarrows in order to take advantage of a following wind – not so good for visibility.

Wheelbarrows make excellent planters: at flower shows there is often a competition (usually for chidren) for the best planted wheelbarrow. In gardens its very portability makes it useful – here is a film we made for intoGardens of Ava Milne, our child prodigy, planting a herb garden.

That is probably enough, otherwise you will start to think that all Brits are weird.

View Comments


  1. user-7006916 08/20/2013

    Sails on wheelbarrows! There may be a video opportunity in that.

  2. MichelleGervais 08/20/2013

    That puts a whole new spin on wheelbarrow rides.... Fascinating post!

  3. user-1020932 08/23/2013

    i think i will rig up a sail for a wheelbarrow this weekend just to drive the guys crazy when they show up for work on Monday. i never knew until i read this article that wheelbarrows had such a interesting history. apparently, i went about my courtships all wrong, i needed a wheelbarrow!

  4. JamesAS 08/29/2013

    tntreeman: Enter the modern age: forget the sail and give them a motor for their barrows!

  5. user-1020932 08/29/2013

    these are smoky mountain boys,,, you don't want to turn them loose with anything having a motor on it,,,,,chaos will ensue

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