Open Spaces

The Potting Shed: Sanctuaries for Serious Gardeners

Initially referenced in mid-16th century literature, historic potting sheds were typically small, one-story shelters with one or more sides enclosed for drying herbs to make medicinal tonics. Eventually designed to reduce the clutter and messiness of greenhouses, potting sheds became a staple facility to estate gardeners striving to cultivate plants for vast landscapes at the turn of the 20th century.

By April Anderson

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The Vanderbilts had a combined tool-house and potting shed built adjacent to their greenhouses in Oakdale, N.Y., to provide plants for Idle Hour estate. A windowless room on the west side of the two-story, four-bay Georgian brick structure was created to promote the early growth of seedlings while heavy beams reinforced the ceiling for storing apples.

Likewise, horticulturalist Henry Francis du Pont of Winterthur estate in Wilmington, Del. had potting shed and greenhouse facilities constructed to portray self-sufficiency while providing unique plants, winter vegetables, and landscaping materials for 2,500 acres.

Fast-forward to the present and potting sheds are multi-use extensions of suburban American homes. Organized, but not clean, a potting shed offers a place to feel the dirt beneath your feet and between your fingers. Modest or grand, it’s a building located in the garden where gardeners can plant seeds, write labels, make potting mix, divide and transplant plants, shelter young plants, dry herbs, store seeds, and conveniently store tools and supplies.

Smart Farm’s hoop house

Smart Farm head gardener Meg Mitchell, and her volunteers, utilize an unheated plastic-covered metal hoop house to protect plants from frost and extend their growing season. From late April through early May, the volunteers plant seeds for durable “cold weather” vegetables such as beets, lettuce, broccoli, and radishes, waiting until the end of May to plant “warm weather” eggplants, tomatoes, herbs, and tomatillos.

“The plastic holds in the heat and thick landscape fabric under the hoop house keeps down the weeds,” shares Mitchell. Plywood is placed on top of the fabric at the entrance as well as in areas where volunteers walk to make it easier to get around. Cinder block legs support wood-framed, wire mesh work tables stocked with organic potting soil, trays, and plastic pots, depending on the needs of the project at hand. The hoop house also provides a convenient place to store garden forks, hoes, shovels, trowels, row diggers, rakes, and shovels.

Citizen For Conservation’s mighty shed

For Citizens for Conservation, a white, unheated, garage-like building located behind its farmhouse-based headquarters serves the function of a potting shed. With space inside for keeping tools, working on rainy days, and processing seed for future use, it offers a place for volunteers to create custom seed mixes and for interns to plant rare seeds and sharpen tools. On the west and south sides of the building, cold frames provide a protected space for nurturing native plants.

The Barn Nursery’s advice

Potting sheds don’t have to be the size of a garage to meet the needs of most suburban gardeners. The Barn Nursery’s retail manager, Heather Moister, says that a 6’ x 6’ shed can be sufficient, and describes how one client converted a child’s playhouse to a potting shed which Moister’s team helped landscape. Designing an herb garden, terrace, arbor, ornamental vegetable garden, and pathway to complement the new potting shed, Moister’s eyes sparkle with excitement as she explains the planning process. Potting sheds are no longer limited to estates with gardeners and greenhouses. With more people looking for ways to reconnect with nature, these simple shelters are emerging as handy retreats for building productive gardens and backyard ecosystems.

Tips for Creating the Perfect Potting Shed

Potting sheds come in every shape and size, and depend on available space and resources. Here are ideas to consider to create your garden sanctuary.

Plan Your Use

Determine how you’re going to use a potting shed. “The huge trend is planting thornless raspberry bushes and blueberries in pots,” says The Barn Nursery retail manager, Heather Moister, while explaining the value of an unheated potting shed to buffer these plants from extreme temperature fluctuations. “If you’re going to do a lot of seed starting, you’ll probably want heat,” she says. “For someone passionate about houseplants, you’ll want it close to the house. For flowers, you’re not going to use it until May.”

Regulations and Materials

Check local building and zoning regulations before you build. If you can build a potting shed, consider using permeable pavers or crushed stone for the floor, rather than poured concrete, to reduce runoff. Explore ways to use recycled materials for the sides and roof. Try repurposing an old dresser or desk into a worktable. Moister recommends cutting a hole in the top of a dresser to put in a large mixing bowl for making custom soil mix, stashing tools in the drawers, and keeping the potting bench outside to keep the shed cleaner inside.

No Space? No Problem!

If you cannot build a potting shed, The Garden Club of Barrington’s affiliate member, Dicie Hansen, suggests using part of your garage. If you do not have a garage, create a “portable potting shed” (see “Tools for Your Potting Shed” later in this article). Consider a cold frame using cedar wood on the south or west side of your home to extend the growing season. Cabbage, spinach, lettuce, and beets can flourish in 2½’ tall wooden frames topped with recycled windows.

Start Small

See where you can access water for plant care and tool cleaning. Begin with a storage area in or near the garden that has access to water and natural light (preferably facing south or west) to provide a place to keep plants before you put them out in the garden. “Let your potting shed grow with your garden,” says Dicie Hansen.

Create a Workspace

“The most important thing is to create a work space at the appropriate height,” says Hansen. “You need something taller than most card tables or utility tables to work comfortably. A 32-36” tall counter that will save your back.

Organize Your Tools

“Nail up a 2”x 4”, pound in a bunch of nails, and stick your tools up to keep them from getting them rusty or jumbled,” suggests Hansen.

Personalize Your Shed

“Dress it up like you would your house,” recommends Moister. “Hang old garden tools on the outside, and a living succulent wreath on the door. Place a door mat along potted plants by the door, and a light post in front.”

Tools for Your Potting Shed

If you do not have space outside or inside your garage for a potting shed, a 5-gallon bucket offers a useful portable storage alternative. Everything with an (*), below, can be placed in your "portable bucket" potting shed.

  • Plastic planting trays and pots – 4” pots for cuttings and 10”-12” pots for lettuce container gardens
  • Soil mix
  • Soil scoop (giant trowel)*
  • Hand trowel* – “Everyone has to have one of those,” says Mitchell.
  • Watering tool to delicately soak your plants (showerhead attachment for hose or watering can)*
  • Bypass hand pruners*
  • 3-pronged cultivator* to loosen roots
  • Permanent markers and garden labels*
  • Notebook, pencil and pen* to make notes regarding rotations
  • Bow saw*
  • Narrow-bladed shovel or perennial spade that’s as lightweight as possible (look at what big landscaping crews use)
  • Diamond blade hoe
  • A variety of garden gloves* – nitrol-coated bamboo gloves (because they are naturally antimicrobial and won’t get stinky), heavy leather for working with roses, suede for mulching, fabric for delicate work, and rubber gloves for working with chemicals
  • Good gardening shoes and cushioned socks – worn out cross trainer shoes for the garden and rubber shoes for washing pots or setting sprinklers
  • Racks for shoes
  • Old nylon stockings and stakes to tie up climbing plants*
  • Twine to bundle herbs*
  • Sharp scissors and paring knife to open mulch bags or cut herbs*
  • 5-gallon bucket (to sit on outside)*

Happy gardening!

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April Anderson is a freelance naturalist and writer who can be reached at: team.nature.ed@gmail.com.