It is a place of new beginnings and renewal, of mystery and imagination, of vision and hard work, and of escape and contemplation. In the winter it mostly slumbers, but come early spring, the gardener, the bulbs, the seedlings and the soil awake, and the place becomes a hive of garden activity.
It is the potting shed, that humble structure that holds the gardener's tools, pots, bulbs, dreams and secrets. Long a tradition in the British Isles, potting sheds are popping up in the United States as gardeners grow in numbers and seriousness.
"In the last five years, there's been a real resurgence" of interest in all aspects of gardening, said Linda Joan Smith, author of "The Potting Shed" (Workman, $18.95), the first in a series of gardening books sponsored by Smith & Hawken. "Now people are becoming gardening connoisseurs."
Gardening is the most popular leisure activity in America, according to U.S. News & World Report, with 37 percent of households taking some part in working the soil.
Smith said that while the tradition of garden beds has run unbroken in Britain, in the United States, "We lost it in the '20s, and became much more enamored of lawns and lawn mowers."
But garden beds require different kinds of tools, and flowers especially need an array of containers and other equipment to keep them going. "As people get more and more into gardening, they realize they need a support system," Smith said.
Enter the potting shed -- as gardeners do for a bit of warmth in March and April, for a place to store mulch and potting soil and pots, for a place to start seeds, for a place to hang up tools.
"It's just a wonderful area to work from," said Susie Russell, whose garden in Baltimore County includes a wooden bench that serves as her potting "shed." In the winter, she covers the bench with heavy plastic, but when spring arrives, and she can peel back the plastic for the first time, it's a magic moment, she said.
Russell's potting bench is tucked behind a trellis next to the tool shed. It is stacked with pots in various sizes and materials, with garden tools, with baskets full of her garden produce. This time of year she's repotting plants that have outgrown their current containers, bringing in baskets filled with the bounty of her kitchen garden and nursing plants that need a little extra care.
Russell collects pots -- "I like pots, that's my California background" -- and the bench is packed with them, as is the tool shed, where she keeps heavier tools, such as shovels and hoes, and has her boot-drying rack.
From bench to wagon
All sorts of structures can shelter a potting bench. Sidney Silber, who's been gardening with his wife, Jean, for more than three decades, uses the back of an old wagon for his pots and tools. The wagon is outside an old barn that the Silbers moved to their Lutherville property from Harford County.
One day recently Silber was potting some bare-root osmunda ferns, and moving some small trees to larger pots. "The barn is where I keep all the tools, shovels, axes, carts, bales of peat moss and cow manure," he said. But the wagon "is the focal point for the garden, the working part of it."
"I have a lot of pots," he said, "and all the equipment is organized -- everything's right here."
Out in northern Baltimore County, Zenobia Kendig takes over a section of one of her greenhouses to repot her extensive collection of orchids. "I run a potting table at one end," she said, noting that the greenhouse is empty because her 350 camellias are taken outdoors about the first of May and aren't returned until the first of November.
All the camellias are in containers, and she uses a potting soil mix designed for camellias, which includes composted soil, fir bark, peat moss, Perlite and organic fertilizer. She also grows begonias in containers and uses yet another mix for those.
Smith, who gardens in California, says outdoor potting areas are common there too. She uses an old garage as her potting shed. Although the romance of it is appealing, a lovely stone structure with a fireplace and Gothic woodwork isn't essential, she said.
"It can be anywhere," she said, "a laundry room, a corner of the kitchen, a space in the garage. The primary requirement is a nice big work surface, and someplace where it's OK to get dirty. The second most important thing is to have a warm place." Warmth is essential if you're trying to get seeds to germinate.
And you need a place to store things. "I use those big plastic containers with lids" for such things as soil and fertilizer, she said, "and I have lots of containers and holders."
Her garage is convenient because it has exposed rafters and studs, so there's plenty of space to hang things up or store them overhead. But her ideal garden shed would have a sink with running water -- "It would be great to have hot water" -- and "a small greenhouse attached."