As gardeners get older, a little applied physics can make chores easier. No need to go to graduate school for this. It’s elementary, and the simple tools are things we already own.

A shovel combines two simple tools: the wedge and the lever. The blade of the shovel is a wide wedge. A digging fork has four narrow wedges that go into soil even more easily. After you dig around a plant with the wedge, the long handle is a lever, allowing you to lift up by pushing down and letting your weight do much of the work.

If the shovel doesn’t lift the plant as high as you need, add a fulcrum (a brick, rock, or chunk of wood) under the handle near the plant. Placing the fulcrum near the heavy plant increases your mechanical advantage. It’s like a see-saw, when a 30-pound child can balance a 60-pound child if the lighter child is at the end and the heavier child sits closer to the middle.

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Maybe I could still carry a landscape timber a short distance, but I’d rather treat it like a giant lever and “walk” it across the yard. Leaving one end on the ground as the fulcrum, there’s less weight to lift. Depending on how much space there is, I can lift one end up and over to drop on the other side, or I can pivot the timber at waist height in a semi-circle around the fulcrum. Repeat, repeat until the heavy piece of lumber has “walked” from point A to point B.

A hammer and nail are a lever and wedge. To avoid pounding a fingernail instead of the nail, many of us start by tapping lightly holding the hammer closer to its head. Your wrist is the fulcrum. The short distance to the head allows more control but sacrifices power. Once the nail is about halfway in and doesn’t need to be held with your other hand, it’s more fun to hold the handle farther back. Take careful aim, let your elbow become the fulcrum, and enjoy a few efficient whacks with increased mechanical advantage.

Wheelbarrows combine the wheel and the lever. The fulcrum is at the wheel, so put the load close to the wheel for a more stable load and lighter work at the handle end. Upright hand trucks are also useful combinations of wheel and lever for gardeners.

Garden shears combine wedges and levers. To cut thick stems, loppers provide more mechanical advantage with their short, stocky blades and long handles. When it’s possible to brace one handle against a stationary object – the ground, a wall, a tree trunk – you can use both hands on the other handle. It’s less work than pushing the handles together with one in each hand.

Instead of lifting heavy rocks or pots, try rolling them like wheels. Inclined planes (ramps) don’t eliminate pushing a load uphill, but they’re better than lifting and are handy if you need a breather halfway up.

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