Looking back, I think my Grandad was happiest when pottering about in his shed. An intensely practical man, he could fix broken toys, upcycle furniture, and knock up a stool in an afternoon.

It came as something of a surprise to my Mum that her husband couldn’t do the same. A week after asking him to hang shelves, all she had was a wall like a colander – and no shelves.

When it comes to making stuff, I inherited my Dad’s utter uselessness. Once, when I worked at a national newspaper, a story required me to make flat-pack bedside tables sold by rival retailers. Around four hours in and lot of banged thumbs and expletives later, I wailed at the photographer: “If you don’t help me with this, I’m going to cry.” I meant it, too.

Needless to say, I wasn’t about to build my own shed. A potting area has been on my wish list ever since I moved house, but I know my limitations. With upcycling at the front of my mind, I sketched out a compact yet bijou structure using a combination of old palettes, reclaimed glass, scaffolding boards, and (because I couldn’t find a way to be 100% sustainable), new wood.

I knew this: I wanted it to be open at the front but wide enough to shelter me, its contents and the cats from the elements, incorporate stained glass windows on either side to reduce its impact on the courtyard, and have a living roof. Hey, I haven’t watched Garden Rescue on repeat for nothing.

Over three days, I watched this mighty structure rise from the ground. I hadn’t been this excited since discovering a drive-through chippy 10 minutes from my front door. Matthew, my joiner extraordinaire from Job Done in Ramsbottom, used to build sets and props for TV and film, including Bob the Builder and Tim Burton movies. You know I’m going to boast about this at parties.

And lo, after hours of hard graft by Matthew, there it was: The Potting Shed. It truly is a thing of beauty. Strong, substantial and sexy. I reckon Sir Monty of Don would be proud. I still need to paint it a deep, verdant green (apocalyptic non-stop rain notwithstanding) but that hasn’t stopped me from pottering about with pots and all manner of garden paraphernalia. It reminds me of childhood, messing about in a Wendy House, deciding where everything should go. I anticipate many happy hours in my future.

Of course, it is a practical object, too. No more hunching over seed trays and dropping soil on the cats. No crouching over compost bags, knees cracking and back aching. And no cramming everything into the miniscule shed following a long day in the garden.

However, the lack of a potting area didn’t stymie my seed-growing efforts earlier this year. I may not be able to mount shelves but I could certainly give creating life a go. I crowded my windowsills with propagator trays, and duly filled them with seeds from the RHS. The organisiation’s Members’ Seed Scheme allows subscribers to buy multiple packets of seeds harvested from the RHS’s own gardens, so I filled my gardener’s boots with as many as I could lay my hands on.

As the weeks progressed, I coaxed, coached and cajoled these little beauties into life, from yarrow, carex and cortaderia to erigeron, poppies and rudbeckia. Not all of them poked their heads through the soil but there were enough to bring real joy and satisfaction.

For all that, by the time I had separated shoots, hardened off and replanted, it was clear that all was not well. Previously thriving species wilted and died, regardless of my care and attention. I expect extreme weather was a factor (cold, wet, hot, wet, cold, wet) but I was at a bit of a loss until my Aunt, also a keen gardener, suggested that a lack of peat was part of the problem.

I am a peat-free devotee. Peat extraction has resulted in untold environmental harm, including the release of carbon into the atmosphere. This is a significant driver of the climate crisis. Consider this: in the UK, a whopping 87% of peatlands are degraded and emit a combined 10 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

Thankfully, a number of retailers of horticultural peat have imposed their own bans on the product, but many continue to sell this valuable natural resource. And while a ban on peat compost sales to home gardeners will come into force in 2024, peat use for some professional growers will be allowed for the next seven years.

As a novice gardener, I wasn’t prepared for the side-effects of peat-free compost. Next year I will be more organised. My Aunt recommends earlier feeding and a mixture of vermiculite and compost, so I’ll be giving that a go. She gives good advice. After all, she was right about that bloke on Bridgerton being a total hottie. 

In the meantime, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the sedums growing on my shed’s living roof. Or, as I’m sure the cats will come to call it, the litter tray in the sky.

Words and images by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul


This article first appeared in Catena