Pretty and Practical
Designing a multifunctional potting shed
Anyone who gardens knows how useful a potting shed can be for storing and organizing gardening tools and supplies, keeping garden records and references, and containing the messy business of potting and repotting plants. As a combination kitchen/office/garage, the utilitarian potting shed has traditionally been banished to an obscure part of a property or else camouflaged. But a potting shed need not be an unlovely adjunct to a garden.
Given a little imagination, you can bring it forward as an attraction, a focal point, or a destination. It may be small, but a potting shed can have a big impact on its surroundings.
“A potting shed can add a charming scale to residential properties,” observes Robbi Woodburn, principal of Woodburn & Company Landscape Architecture in Newmarket, New Hampshire. It “tucks into” a garden, she says; plants “cozy up” to it. When asked about design principles, Woodburn is clear: “A shed should be part of the landscape, not just set on top of it.”
A project in Stratham, New Hampshire, which involved a complete backyard makeover and the installation of a swimming pool, demonstrates this principle perfectly. There, the homeowner already had a shed for storing lawn mowers and other equipment, and it was essential that a similar structure be included in the new backyard layout. Since the original shed was new and well made, Woodburn and the owners decided to use it as an element viewed from the pool space, providing spatial definition and interest. Now, in its renovated condition, the shed also forms a transitional element between the hardscape of the patio and the softscape of the woodland beyond, as well as tying in with the house. At the same time, the green door makes it pop. A little paint can go a long way, either to accentuate the shed or to make it blend in with the landscape.
In choosing a specific architectural style for a shed, its relation to other structures on the property is an important consideration. At the same time, whether the aim is to make the shed look like a smaller sibling of the main house or have its own unique features, it is an intimate structure, experienced up close, so the materials out of which it is constructed really matter. Windows and doors merit extra attention, especially since they tend to be large in proportion to the shed’s small quarters.
When building a shed, the contours of the land and the purpose of the shed help determine its placement, Woodburn says. Another consideration, no matter how small the shed may be, is zoning, particularly when putting up a new structure. Setbacks can vary considerably from town to town and even within a town’s differing zones; a shed that is considered an “accessory structure” and is less regulated in one location can be subject to stringent codes in another. Learning about local ordinances is as important as knowing where your property lines lie.
Once you have the setbacks sorted out, you can use a potting shed as a privacy screen for your property. Likewise, you can use it to conceal a neighboring eyesore. A shed may also provide a buffer against the elements—no small consideration for coastal gardens that need protection from destructive winds and corrosive salt spray. Of course, the shed itself must be sturdy. For the base and foundation, native fieldstone can be a good choice; for siding and roofing, shingles are practical and have a classic seacoast look.
Integrating a potting shed into a garden can serve specific practical and aesthetic purposes for the landscape. Another project by Woodburn features beautiful edible gardens. Terraced and bordered in stone with pebble-filled circular paths, this Portsmouth, New Hampshire, garden is sited below a small backyard, hugged by the main house on one side and a potting shed on the other. The elements complement one another, and the potting shed not only enhances the landscape but also forms an anchor in it. This much-used, light-filled workspace and peaceful retreat has plants growing on and around it. Edible nasturtiums clamber up trellises; lettuces flourish in an attached raised box garden. Thanks to Adirondack chairs placed by the entrance, the potting shed has also become an outdoor dining area.
For flower gardeners, a potting shed offers a spot for cultivating climbing roses and twining clematis or annual vines of ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories and black-eyed Susans. Woodburn did this on a small shed, extending the trellis so that a glorious pink rose could grow with proper support over the roof. Some sheds have roof gardens set with shallow trays and planted with low-growing succulents and mosses on the surface. Such features add a touch of charm or whimsy to a potting shed, as do lushly flowering hanging baskets and window boxes.
Whether or not the potting shed itself turns into a garden, it certainly presents an opportunity to plan a garden around it. Here, again, smaller and simpler is better. In a sunny location, flowers and herbs are, of course, fitting, as are hostas and ferns in the shade. Combining annuals with perennials will keep the garden colorful. Planters also offer many flexible design possibilities, while fixed objects, ranging from traditional sundials and birdbaths to original sculptures, can serve as focal points for plantings.
As you plan a potting shed garden, you may also want to take its winter appearance into account. After all, a potting shed is a year-round structure in a three-season growing area, and you might not want it looking stark for three or four months. Here, Woodburn suggests evergreen shrubs for softening edges. She recommends hardy, low-growing juniper for its attractive feathery texture. Dwarf false cypress, which comes in many shades of bright green, works well too. For a neat appearance, consider boxwood or a narrow-growing Japanese holly such as ‘Sky Pencil’, which provides a striking vertical accent.
Deciduous shrubs can also enhance a winter landscape. For a showy effect, look no further than Siberian dogwood with its bright-red branches. Rose of Sharon offers smooth gray bark and a simple vase shape with the added bonus of late-summer flowers. A diminutive Japanese maple with delicate, richly colored leaves and captivating convoluted branches could also add character to a potting shed garden.
Small though a potting shed may be, it lends itself to a tremendous variety of design possibilities—and as a useful addition to the garden.