The Language of Home

The Garden Shed

Be it ever so humble or fancy, a garden shed inspires both pleasure and escape

By Noah Salt

Some years ago while knocking around rural England, I was invited by old family friends for Sunday brunch in Shropshire and discovered the secret to a long and happy marriage — a good garden shed.

“Would you mind stepping to the bottom of the garden, Love, to let his lordship know that our guests have arrived?” asked his ladyship of almost half a century. “I haven’t the foggiest what he gets up to in his little shed,” she confided with a dry smile. “And frankly, I am bloody well determined never to know. A little mystery and daily removal is good for a marriage.”

Like many British householders, the elderly chap in question, a retired civil servant, was a devoted gardener, as both his fine garden and impressive shed reflected. At one end of the 10-by-12 wooden structure sat a wide potting table bearing various pots, hand tools and garden supplies. Rakes and shovels were ranked with military precision along a wall above a spigot and large utility sink. At the opposite end of the shed, however, I found his lordship nodding in a comfy damask armchair, an open volume of Auden’s poetry on a Queen Ann side table and the London Sunday Times steepled on his chest. He awoke with a cheerful bluster of greeting and insisted that we share a welcoming snort of French brandy before “hobbling up the winding path to feed.” When I complimented him on his literary pied-à-terre, he boomed at me, “It’s nothing of the kind, dear boy! This is a true gardening shed where the business of re-creation is a daily affair — including my own!”

Not long ago, the BBC online reported that Britain has more garden sheds per capita than any country on Earth, and that two-thirds of all Britons own one in some form or another. Of those who don’t, 44 percent wish they owned one. A similar survey revealed that 62 percent of Brits wouldn’t consider buying a property unless it came with a garden shed. “In Britain,” said the author of the BBC report, “the shed at the bottom of the garden is far more than a place to store tools. It’s an institution — a domestic oasis where owners seek refuge, an outlet for individual style and, increasingly, an office outlet.”

Writers seem particularly susceptible to the lure of a quiet garden shed retreat. Children’s author Roald Dahl used to write in a 6-by 7-foot (1.8m x 2.1m) shed he described as his “Little Nest,” where he would go to work at 10 a.m. every day with a woolen blanket over his lap to keep him warm. Dahl’s shed was inspired by — and built to the same dimensions as — the garden shed poet Dylan Thomas used for writing. Thomas called his shed “my word-splashed hut.”

Here in backyard America, a similar passion seems to finally be taking root. Check out your local big box home supply and you’re likely to see a variety of garden sheds ranging from rustic metal to mini-chalet queued up for inspection along one end of the parking lot. Depending on one’s personal taste and budget, some garden sheds actually come pre-wired and plumbed and equipped for making it a man cave retreat or home office, as well.

For the D.I.Y. homebuilder, Pinterest and the HG Network offer no shortage of photos and plans for elaborate custom-made garden sheds ranging from the basic storage unit for tools and supplies to larger affairs built to serve as guest houses in a pinch. We know of a handsome property purchased in Greensboro’s swanky Irving Park neighborhood largely because of the adorable garden shed at the rear of the property, which began life as a playhouse for the family’s two young daughters. After the children grew up and flew the nest, the homeowner turned the miniature house into a garden shed, where he loved to spend time alone after working on his lawn. “It was a great place just to sit and relax, to have a drink and remember my girls,” he reports. “They really loved that little house, and so did I.” A younger couple that recently purchased the property decided to give the shed yet another transformation, a third life as a miniature guest cottage.

Whether you’re his Lordship of Shropshire or the family’s nostalgic lawn man in a world spinning faster by the day, a garden shed’s greatest appeal may be the unique combination of practical utility and feeling of brief escape from one’s busy life that only a little house at the end of the “winding path” can impart.

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