The bizarrely named, brilliantly designed tubtrug is the most affordable, versatile, and indestructible tool in the garden shed.

This tubtrug (sitting on just some of the 2000 pounds of gravel it helped move) has survived 15 years of abuse doing triple duty as the go-to utility bucket in the backyard of Sunset editor Hugh Garvey. Photo by Hugh.

Like any homebound gardener getting busy in the backyard this spring, I once again find myself a wanter of wheelbarrows, a connoisseur of carts, and a practitioner of portage. The utility carryall I’m lugging around most often is the tubtrug. This awkwardly named, brilliantly designed object is by far the most dependable tool in my gardening arsenal. The flexible, two-handled rubber tub’s winningest feature is its, well, flexibility. You can squeeze the two handles together to carry smaller light loads such as weeds or potting soil with one hand. It’s equally up to burlier tasks: The sturdy rubber construction can take a beating. I’ve used mine to haul hundreds of pounds of sharp-cornered fire bricks and it held up just fine.

We have three 10-gallon tubtrugs in our house right now, including one that we’ve left outside in the California sun for some 15 years and counting. Originally army green, our oldest tubtrug has faded to a hue not unlike a box of Thin Mints and is only just now beginning to crack. We’ve used our tubtrugs to harvest a tree’s worth of persimmons every autumn, store outdoor toys when the kids were little, ice down bottles of rosé, tote barbecue ash, potting soil, mulch, firewood, dead leaves, shrub trimmings, dirty laundry, and to move 2000 pounds of pea gravel from a forklift bag in the driveway to the backyard. What’s more, the tubtrug is food-grade certified, so you can use it as a massive ice bucket, or, if you were so inclined, deploy it as jumbo gazpacho serving bowl (when we finally get to have parties again). 

Invented some 30 years ago in Great Britain, the tubtrug’s curious moniker is portmanteau of tub and trug, the latter being a shallow wooden basket invented in Sussex in 1820 and used by gardeners and farmers. Inspired by an ancient Anglo Saxon measuring basket called a trog, the original trug was made of sweet chestnut wood and cricket-bat willow by a man named Thomas Smith. They were shallow and oblong and designed to transport  produce and flowers. In 1851 Queen Victoria spotted Smith’s trugs at the The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace and was so impressed that she granted him a Royal Warrant. The Royal Sussex Trug soon became a household name in Great Britain.

While the burly and bright tubtrug is a far cry from the elegant Sussex trug, it’s no less iconic. Popular with gardeners in England and the U.S. it has inspired countless imitators. Red Gorilla is the original manufacturer and offers a near infinite variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. They also produce a line of recycled tubs, though they only come in basic black. Since the coronavirus hit we’ve used our trusty tubtrugs while cleaning out the charcoal grill, amending soil to plant sunflowers, and digging a trench. And it feels good: We’re keeping busy, being economical, and setting up our yard, and ourselves, for sunnier days ahead.