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6 January 2021

Why the demise of potting sheds, like that of telephone boxes, is a creeping modern tragedy

There are books that give the impression at least half a gardener’s waking hours are spent in the potting shed. But do you have one, and more importantly, when did you last see anybody else with one?

By Stefan Buczacki

As the New Year begins, a gardener’s thoughts and resolutions turn to seeds, seed trays, pricking off and potting on. But if you pick up almost any gardening book and look under at least one of the above topics, you will find reference to “the potting shed”.

But they are funny things, potting sheds. They appear in children’s stories, cartoons and in national folklore. There are books that give the impression that at least half a gardener’s waking hours (and a sprinkling of his sleeping ones, too), together with a good proportion of his gardening jobs, are spent there. But do you have a potting shed, and more importantly, when did you last see anybody else with one?

The disappearance of the potting shed ranks alongside the vanishing red telephone box as one of today’s creeping architectural tragedies. I don’t doubt the considerable size of the national shed population, nor that every gardener who is remotely practical will spend some time each season in the act of potting. But the two do not coincide. Modern sheds are for storing things. Greenhouses are where 21st-century potting is done.

Trying to do potting in a modern shed is difficult and inconvenient. The chances are it does not have a bench at the correct height (if at all), it has a window in the wrong place (if at all) and it is some distance from the greenhouse, which is where the plants are to be grown. Potting sheds were for large, labour-intensive Victorian gardens where some of the under-gardeners were allocated to the task of potting and little else.

[see also: Many gardening tips and tricks are repeated every single year – but some are ill-advised]

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I do not have a potting shed, and it was while potting up in the greenhouse the other day that the logistics of the operation came home to me. Should you sit down or stand up to do it? Before you answer, I would add that it depends on the height of the greenhouse bench. In common with benching in general these days, wooden greenhouse staging seems to come in fixed heights of either 900mm or 760mm. The former is ideal for standing at, the latter for sitting. Trying to pot, or sow seeds, or do much else from a standing position at a 760mm bench is distinctly back-aching.

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 Unfortunately, a taller bench can be wasteful of space when used for its other purpose, which is to hold trays and pots of growing plants. There will be a large, vacuous gap beneath. My own solution is to have a removable slatted “riser” that sits on top of the bench and elevates it to a more practical level.

Grovelling around beneath people’s greenhouse benches, as I seem to do rather more often than perhaps I should, also causes me untold alarm. What disturbs me is the state of greenhouse electricity. I do not know if statistics exist on the number of electrical accidents that take place in greenhouses, but it is bound to be too many. Perfectly reasonable people who wouldn’t dream of having inadequately protected electric cables and connections in their home appear to think nothing of having multiple adaptors within watering distance of seed trays and pot plants. And I have lost count of the number of times I have seen standard domestic wiring slung across pathways after emerging through holes in the corners of window frames.

The cost of having armoured cable laid to a waterproof junction box in the greenhouse is not high and will repay itself countless times in your own peace of mind. Now there is a resolution worth keeping. 

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control