Designing a Backyard Shed

Working with Seattle photographer William Wright to create Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, I have visited close to 100 sheds occupying city gardens, suburban backyards and quiet country fields. Each of these highly personal destinations provides design inspiration and reveals many possibilities for creating a tiny building with big impact. There are infinite ideas to explore, depending upon your space and ambition. Here are my top design tips:

  • Personal Space: Design a shed to meet your particular interests, whether that includes creating art, making music, writing poetry, growing flowers, playing with children, stargazing, entertaining friends or meditating. Virtually any personal passion can find a home in a small, but distinct garden shed.
  • Form meets function: Consider the architectural aspects of the shed. It can be used to camouflage an unsightly view or become a backdrop for displaying flowerpots, artwork or sculpture. Or let its outer walls support vines and climbing roses. Its role can be pure function or pure folly, or a little bit of both.
  • Site it right: It’s very important to position the pavilion, potting shed or garden house in just the right location in the landscape. It can be a design focal point that you enjoy seeing from the house or garden, or it can be a secret getaway hidden from view. You can orient it to allow sunlight to stream through the windows and French doors, or nestle it beneath a shade tree to create a cool summer respite.
  • Style the inside: So many people build architectural wonders and leave the inner spaces looking rather ordinary. Treat the interiors as you would any room of your house. One couple in Austin, Texas, built a teahouse to echo the look of their dining room. For the walls, it’s fine to expose the rafters and studs, but you can paint them or mount shelves and hooks for displaying collections. A San Diego gardener lined the walls of her potting shed with pegboard, where she hung antique gardening tools as “art.”
  • Doors and windows: Windows should be operable so you can adjust the temperature, create ventilation and — most important — hear the sounds of your garden while inside the shed. Make sure there’s a deep ledge for displaying potted herbs or anything else that makes you happy. As with your home, make sure that the doorway that links your “inner sanctum” with the “outdoor world” is something special. A salvaged door, especially one with divided glass panes, is a nice choice. Coat it with a brilliant color or allow it to weather with time. 
  • Floors for outdoors: It’s okay if you have a cement floor, but consider staining it with an accent color and adding a drain in the center for easy cleanup of gardening projects. Shed floors can be finished with wooden planks, colorful vinyl tile, terra-cotta pavers, flagstone, wall-to-wall carpeting, tiles or pigmented concrete. We’ve even seen sheds elevated on stilts, making them feel like grown-up treehouses!
  • Counter space: Add a counter or potting bench using the dimensions and proportions of your kitchen counter as a guide. Allow enough depth to accommodate stacks of terra-cotta pots or a row of gardening books. And be sure to add enough shelves overhead or storage cabinets underneath. Cover the countertops in a durable material, such as copper or galvanized metal sheeting. One Seattle gardener found discarded classroom cupboards (probably from a high-school wood shop or science lab), complete with countertop and storage bins — voila! It is the perfect potting bench for her garden house.
  • Light it up: Lighting can be another creative aspect to your shed, though to add electricity (and running water) you will probably need a building permit. A flea-market chandelier, carriage lantern or even industrial shop lights will illuminate the shed’s interior and extend your enjoyment into the evening hours. As with electricity, it’s nice to have a source of H20 in order to wash your hands after you’ve been potting plants. We’ve seen some creative (and affordable) solutions on this front, including running a hose from the garden spigot to your shed’s faucet connector. Similarly, an industrial-grade extension cord can deliver power from an exterior outlet to your shed’s lighting.
  • Add art: Artwork — inside and out — will make the shed a personal expression of your style. The freedom of erecting this private room outdoors means that anything goes, including mirrors, stained glass, vintage artifacts, retro pottery, hanging plants, birdhouses, a weathervane, chandeliers, collections of special items and more!
  • Comfy touches: Even if your shed is home mainly to your gardening projects, designate one corner for R&R. Include a bench with cushions or a wicker chair and a good reading lamp (of course, this means electricity), a desk for your reference books, correspondence or even a small tea party. Create a sacred place that nurtures your spirit and feeds your soul.

In the end, your shed should be designed for your private and personal delight. It is the place where you will feel safe, free to create and contemplate, and take refuge from the everyday demands of life.

Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways: Big Ideas for Small Backyard Destinations
By Debra Prinzing | Photography by William Wright
Clarkson Potter/Random House
Hardcover, 224 pages, 200-plus color photographs
$30.00, ISBN: 978-0-307-35291-0