The Heirloom Potting Shed
Through the centuries, gardeners have loved these small structures. Working in them is akin to playing “house.” The structure is small and private, a place to step away from the ordinary. Here we can construct a world that is personal and practical. Garden sheds have probably been around as long as there have been gardeners. Haven’t folks always needed a cool place to stow tools and step out of the sun? Where, for example, could medieval monks have stashed the rakes, seed baskets, and hoes if not in a shed? This humble building, by definition “a small outlying structure for gardening,” was little changed for centuries. Today they may be humble, but many are charming and quirky in design, reflecting the personality of gardeners.
No wonder we love potting sheds. Working in them is akin to playing “house.” The structure is small and private, a place to step away from the ordinary. Here we can construct a world that is personal and practical. And though individuals add their own touches, most garden sheds include a few basics: shelves for storage of pots, bulbs and seeds, hangers for tools, and a waist-high shelf for potting. Windows and chairs are nice as well.
One of the earliest illustrations is found in a work on gardening and farming by the German author, W.H. von Hohberg in the late 1600s. Hohberg’s shed was cozy, with work tables, garden tools and windows to bring in light.
In the 19th century, the potting shed came into its own. There on large estates, a utility building was needed to pot up cuttings and start seeds. These buildings were especially useful in the winter where gardeners could carry on their duties in warmth.
In the popular Encyclopedia of Gardening (1820s), John Claudius Loudon wrote that the shed should be “perfectly light, and well aired with numerous windows.” He added, “along these [should be] a range of benches or tables, for potting cuttings or bulbs, sowing seeds, preparing cutting, … making baskets, … and a great variety of other operations.”
But large estates were not the only homes for such sheds. William Cobbett, an English writer of “how-to” books for the cottage gardener said this in 1829: “There is yet one thing to notice in the laying out of the garden, namely that there must be a shed to serve as a place for depositing tools, flower-pots, and the like, and also for the gardener to retire in case of rain, and to do work there when they cannot do work out of doors.” Further he added, that the shed should be “sufficiently spacious not only for the purposes just mentioned, but also for the hanging up of seeds to dry and for various other purposes.”
Gardeners with small plots found that buildings to house garden implements, pots and seeds were very useful. Many built tiny sheds using scraps of lumber or recycled materials. And still they are popular in England. Any traveler there today will see rows of simple homesteads, each with a shed at the “bottom” of the garden. The London Daily Mail reports that there are about 10 million garden sheds in Britain, and still increasing.
Idle Away the Hours
Clearly, their appeal continues to resonate. Folks on small or large plots can reap the joys of owning a potting shed. Not only are they useful — a place for storage and a place to tend to some of the “dirty” work of the garden; also they are spots for creative expression and places to simply idle away the hours. Many will tell you that they are as much refuge as working area. Folks stack gardening books and magazines there. They install tea kettles and comfortable chairs. Here they can put up their feet and scribble in the garden journal.
Inside potting sheds gardeners often display antique tools, decorative pots, or vintage colored bottles. The exterior can be landscaped with window boxes and potted plants to integrate the building into the garden. A seasonally decorated shed is especially appealing — dried hydrangeas in fall, a bittersweet wreath in winter.
Choose a Structure
Sheds can be simple wooden structures, sturdy stone ones, or metal-sided utility buildings. Often attractive ones are constructed from recycled material — old barn wood or construction site castoffs. Recycled shutters and windows from architectural salvage fit nicely into the shed plan. Old wood pallets, discarded ceiling tiles, repurposed chicken coops, all can be part of a great shed. Ask friends and relatives for extra tools and materials to help the project along.
Recycling is not a new idea in shed construction. In 1862, Samuel O. Beeton suggested recycling to his readers in The Book of Garden Management. He advised using old crates for storage drawers. “Rough boxes, such as those in which tinned lobster, and salmon … are sent to this country, will answer the purpose as well and better than those made by a carpenter, because they cost little, and can be renewed with pleasure.”
Also available are small utilitarian buildings already intact. They simply need installation. Many home and garden stores have sheds in multiple designs and construction materials. You can personalize these as well. Garden centers and lumber yards often have kits or design plans for those who want to construct the shed themselves. Numerous online sites have plans. By making careful decisions about materials and size, you need not spend a fortune to create a space for yourself.
Sheds can be the focal point for the garden or tucked away in a corner. When these buildings are going to be your focal point, their designs and exterior are important. Maybe you’ll integrate the shed’s style with your home’s style — a rustic look or cottage one.
A gardener who prefers seclusion may want an out-of-the-way spot. You’ll want easy access to the garden, yet not take up prime gardening space. For convenience you can attach a shed next to the garage. Gardeners without space or funds for a true shed can consider potting corners or benches in the garage or deck, or sheltered spot.
Soon you’ll have a space that calls to you even when there are no garden tasks to be done. A great shed will not only de-clutter your garden, it will create a comfortable work space, provide a backdrop for plants and become a destination to entertain friends and relax.
So you’re serious about adding a small structure for gardening activities to your yard. What are the design priorities?
First off, find out if your county or town requires building permits. Many specify than any building over a certain size needs to be approved.
Location, location, location. Where should you put the building? A large lot will provide many possibilities. The smaller the space, the more necessary it is to consider the placement and dimensions of your shed.
What are your resources? Do you want to build this frugally and use recycled materials when possible? Do you have building skills or know someone who can help?
Do you want to have water and electricity in your shed? What kind of lighting will you have — a simple window and a door, or additional artificial light? You can operate without electricity if need be. Perhaps you will use battery-powered lights or lanterns and just brew your tea back in the house!
What activities will go on in your shed? Planting seeds, potting up seedlings, drying herbs, storing tools and supplies? Make a list of all these to determine what you’ll need in your space.
Will this be a retreat for you as well? A place to read about gardens, plan next year’s plots, drink tea with friends? Many find that their potting sheds gradually become more than just a spot to pot.
Susan Davis Price is a freelance garden writer and lecturer. Her books include Growing Home, Stories of Ethnic Gardening; Minnesota Gardens, an Illustrated History; and Northern Treasure. Susan’s own cottage garden is loved but not always tidy.
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