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Pacific Northwest | October 10, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMONTH, DAY, home Home delivery

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Making it personal
In the best garden houses, we find shelter for our selves
Even a tool shed can lure you into the far corners of a garden, as this one does in Daniel Sparler’s Seward Park back yard.
When people show me around their gardens, so often the potting shed or garden house is what brings them the most delight. Their tone hushes as they open the door to reveal a collection of old pots, a tidily arranged working space or maybe a yoga mat. It never seems to matter if these buildings are tiny or elaborate; they only need be large enough for one person to fuss about with seedlings or keep all their garden paraphernalia just as they like it.

Such a sheltered, private and personal space seems to mean more to most gardeners than flawless roses or new patio furniture. Is it because we long for that perfect playhouse we never had as children?

The impulse that causes kids to make a fort out of a blanket-draped card table is the same urge we have to build a spot for retreat and respite. Whether such an enclosure is mostly glass or shadowy and secret, it serves the purpose of sheltering out-of-doors. One of the great charms of a garden is that it helps us recapture our sensual, animal selves. So it's no wonder we seek the satisfaction of a space that encloses us as snugly as a turtle's shell.

Garden houses, sheds, greenhouses, pergolas and summerhouses are special because they're custom-made to suit the gardener, ending up unique, personal and often a little eccentric.

What does it mean when architect Michael Graves and Target jump into the garden-house market? The Graves "pavilion" kits range in price from $10,000 to $26,000, and are the most expensive item ever offered by Target. This is what Michael Graves has to say about his customizable garden structures, built by Seattle's Lindal Homes:

"The Michael Graves Pavilions continue a tradition of outbuildings for the home. Customarily, the pavilion is an exceptional room in an estate, a whimsical component to the residence proper."
Cimicifuga simplex
A strong scent of honey is welcome in the garden as spicy autumnal fragrances begin to dominate. Cimicifuga simplex 'Brunette' is a willowy autumn bloomer with dramatically dark purple-brown leaves topped off with sweet-smelling white flower wands. A perennial with the unattractive common name of bugbane, cimicifugas prefer partial shade and moist soil.
You can visit for a multimedia visual presentation of the three styles, complete with floaty white curtains, multi-faceted roofs and paned windows. They are grand and impressive if a little retro in a post-modern style. They strike me as the antithesis of garden houses I've liked best, which are rich in scavenged materials and tucked away in the garden rather than bold in design and presence. Yard sheds are more often made of recycled boards, doors and windows, designed as cleverly as a boat to fit into the garden rather than dominate it. Casement windows, built-in bins for soil and mulches, spots for tools and pots, places to read, nap and curl up seem to be priorities; perhaps stairs are included to afford a bird's-eye view of the garden.

Graves is right about the long tradition of garden houses, though, and the whimsy. Every culture that has made gardens has also created buildings for which there is little purpose but enjoyment. Summerhouses were a romantic Victorian concept, traditionally set at the end of a long walk, where ladies sewed, chatted and wrote letters. The old English name for such structures was "shadow house" — a place of shady refuge on hot days. The Japanese and Chinese built tea houses in the garden, with their own little fences and gardens. Gazebos were originally a Dutch notion, placed at the corner of a property to give a view of the canals. Here the Dutch dined and kept an eye on the boats coming and going.

I love the notion that English estate gardens were rich in "follies" or exotic-looking little buildings crafted with a Gothic flair, or to resemble Greek temples, rustic hermitages or Swiss chalets. This whimsical flair has persisted through the centuries as gardeners have expressed their enthusiasms, humor or artistic impulses in a thousand ways. It is much less daunting and expensive, as well as satisfying, to create something personal and fanciful on such a small scale, which is why I think Michael Graves has the wrong idea altogether.


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