Living in the Moment
He has a cave. She has a shed. Both have a sanctuary. A place of refuge—an oasis, retreat, hideaway. A place to call his or her own.
She sheds are a trendy thing, at least as far as vernacular, catchy phrases and marketing soundbites go. But language aside, the thing itself is as old as human history. When in the world haven’t women found a special place for escaping the demands and challenges of everyday life?
For Women and Budding Women
Oh, how memories flood back of times as a young girl in Richmond whiling away endless happy hours in a tiny, exquisite white frame, green-shuttered play house set among the daffodils and rose beds of my best friend’s mother’s backyard garden. Anne Gordon Harrison (double first name in traditional Southern style) and I fancied ourselves as two grown-up ladies hosting tea parties for our favorite dolls in this little organdy-curtained wonderland. A genuine English porcelain doll-sized tea set and miniature flower arrangements of forget-me-nots, candy tuft, and lily of the valley that we arranged ourselves in tiny glass vases completed the scene.
In our make-believe world, our dolls were our children—and we shared their, and our, innermost dreams and secrets. This was seven decades or so ago, and I can still retreat into those sweet innocent memories.
Was this play house a she shed? Absolutely—even if, as little city girls, we didn’t yet know the meaning of the word “shed.”
It was our happy place where imagination ran wild and we were free to be our true pretend-lady selves under Anne Gordon’s mother’s hawk (yet unobtrusive) eye.
A Place for a Poet
Reaching even further back in history, on Pierce Street in inner-city Lynchburg, the Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, 1882-1975, created her own special she shed. Her backyard cottage, according to Jane Baber White, author of Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden, was a “charming, cluttered one-room sanctuary built for her by her husband Edward as a place where she could write.”
According to Jane White, Edward was industrious and imaginative in building the structure, using slabs of greenstone to make the chimney and floor. All materials were salvaged or gifts from friends and neighbors and ingeniously repurposed.
And they cleverly named her cottage Edankraal, which “combines Edward’s name with Anne’s to form a pun on the word Eden and the South African word for dwelling, ‘kraal’.”
Edankraal’s front porch was framed by trumpet vines supported by massive turned posts in aqua blue. And over time, her beloved garden, for which she is also famous, spread around Edankraal and overflowed with roses, bulbs, grapes, lilacs, poppies, peonies, rose of Sharon, daisies, phlox, coralbells and much more.
Edward and Anne’s hospitable home and garden of ever-changing seasonal color blossomed into an intellectual oasis for notable Black scholars and civil rights activists, including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and James Weldon Johnson. And when she could grab quiet moments amid all this intellectual stimulation, Anne would submit to the pull of her passion for gardening, then retreat to the solitude of Edankraal and draw from her garden inspiration for her poetry and musings:
Being a Negro woman is the world’s most exciting game of “Taboo”: By hell there is nothing you can do that you want to do and by heaven you are going to do it anyhow—We do not climb into the jim crow galleries of scenario houses we stay away and read I read garden and seed catalogs, Browning, Housman, Whitman, Saturday Evening Post detective tales, Atlantic Monthly, American Mercury, Crisis, Opportunity, Vanity Fair, Hibberts Journal, oh, anything.I can cook delicious things to eat…We have a lovely home—one that
money did not buy—it was born and evolved slowly out of our passionate, poverty-stricken agony to own our own home.Happiness
Out of passion and love, Anne not only had her own home, but also her very own she shed. And it opened the spigot for her creative literary juices to flow.
Jean’s Sugar Shack
After reading my story in Lynchburg Living about my country cottage garden, a previously unknown-to-me lady named Jean Springer invited me to visit her own beloved country cottage garden in Amherst County. Recognizing that we were kindred garden spirits, I drove out Elon Road five or so miles beyond Woodruff’s Store to discover the spiritual soul of her lovely garden, a she shed she calls the Sugar Shack.
This she shed is a small space, but within its 8×10 walls are so many objects of memorabilia spanning generations of family and friendship that it’s almost impossible to take it all in. Dolls, baby clothes, shaving brushes, lace from a wedding gown, mini-quilts, toys from her childhood and much more. Every single item punctuates a story of a relationship she cherishes and memories of magnanimity. And every feature and flower that grace the Sugar Shack’s surrounding garden—the little waterfall and stream lovingly built by her grandson, a plaque, “Remembering Andy,” and a fabulous assortment of spectacular irises—has its own story of generosity of spirit.
Jean says she sleeps in the main house up the hill (well, most of the time), but her heart is always in the Sugar Shack. And she has even slept there with a passel of grandsons lined up like cordwood in a mini-loft that extends under the porch roof.
She shares stories of sleepovers with the kids, with checkers (no electronics allowed), night-time stories, round-robin bedtime prayers, and heart-to-heart talks after lights out, followed by crisp mornings with hot breakfasts of eggs, bacon and toast fixed on the hotplate. Adding a little stove for wintertime warmth, Jean has created cozy, intimate, and never-to-be-forgotten memories with grandma—coated with lots of grandma’s sugar—in the Southern colloquial sense of the word.
It’s Jean’s happy place, her joy, her gift to herself and to her family. It’s also her quiet place, and she makes time every day for the peace and tranquility it brings her, rocking on her porch or reading her Bible inside.
What’s the Purpose?
Women like Anne Spencer and Jean Springer have been creating their own happy places in their gardens since the beginning of time. Yet, she sheds as a named trend in pop culture are just now catching up with the well-established institution of man caves or other traditionally male pastime places.
Both reflect their owner’s purposes, needs, tastes and preferences. Some men prefer to be cocooned in a dark room with a comfy chair positioned for the best angle to the TV or lined with books. And others would rather have an entirely different set-up to suit hobbies such as woodworking or tinkering away idle hours. Their man caves are their very own space to suit their purposes.
As with men, women’s ideas for garden she sheds are as unique as they are themselves. The purpose, look and feel of Edankraal was right for Anne Spencer, and the Sugar Shack is right for Jean Springer. Others may prefer a pleasurable escape from everyday responsibilities in the form of a different kind of private place to meditate or entertain, enjoy arts or crafts or simply hang out.
She sheds may, of course, be multifunctional. My friend Clarkie Eppes and her husband Tom live in a charming renovated, expanded, and modernized 1930s log home on Fox Hill Road with beautiful landscaping, terraced gardens, and a spectacular view overlooking the James River. Her delightful she shed is a free-standing log cabin in the garden, most likely a garage originally, now converted to accommodations for living, sleeping, desk work, and dining—plus a bath and private terrace. It’s tastefully furnished with family antiques and collections and serves as a get-away for Clarkie. It also doubles/triples as a comfortable guest house for visiting grown children and short-term rental for UVA students doing rotations in family medicine in Lynchburg.
Creating Your Own
The first step after deciding on your purpose(s) is to see if existing space can be converted or adapted: a garage, tool or potting shed, a greenhouse, or kid’s play house. If not, you’ll want to explore options for a pre-fabricated, kit or custom-built structure. A simple Google search will bring up lots of options.
According to author Erica Kotite in her recently released book, She Sheds: A Room of Your Own, you can “plan on spending about $500-$1,000 to rehab an existing shed, $2,000-$5,000 to build a shed from a kit, $6,000-$15,000 for a more customized and pre-assembled kit shed and then $15,000-$35,000 for a top-of-the-line designed shed with installation and landscaping.” Of course, if you want marble floors and crystal chandeliers, you’re out of this range. Pricing is also affected if you want/need electricity, running water or appliances—or if you add HVAC and special insulation to create a multi-seasonal shed.
Next, decide on external visual appeal and internal décor. Do you want your she shed to have a consistent look with your house, à la Clarkie and Tom, or take a daring plunge and go for a big splash? If your décor style and budget say “no” to all new furnishings, why not scout around for early attic, late basement, flea market or consignment shop treasures that could be jazzed up with a fresh coat of paint? Are you yearning to have fun personalizing your space with a fanciful color combo or other touch of whimsy?
How does your she shed fit into your landscape and garden? You may want to add climbing vines or roses to surround the entryway, window boxes spilling colorful annuals, or whatever else works with your existing yard and garden design.
She Sheds Without Walls
Not all she sheds have walls. My own country cottage garden at our farm featured a gazebo that was my happy place. It was as much a she shed to me as any cleverly and artfully designed enclosed garden space. When there, I sat quietly surrounded by nature, and that was all the décor I needed. The rest of the world stood still.
I felt the cooling breeze from the mountains on a sweltering summer day as gaura danced and swayed along the fence line. I saw bluebird mamas and papas taking turns feeding their eagerly awaiting young and butterflies and hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower. I smelled antique roses and heard bees buzzing in droves on purple vitex spikes. And I savored the flavor of ripe homegrown tomatoes. It was my place of mindfulness.
It was there that I came to appreciate more deeply that my place of personal freedom and happiness can be a play house with Anne Gordon or a gazebo at the farm or even the garden bench under a canopy of viburnum at my new home at the Woodstock. A she shed in the form of a physical place can indeed provide peace and joy. As can the self-knowledge that comes from living in the moment.
Meet the Gardener
Susan Timmons served in the 1970s as Virginia’s first Environmental Impact Statement Coordinator, then Assistant Administrator and Acting Administrator of Virginia’s Council on the Environment and editor of The State of Virginia’s Environment. During that time she also served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Environmental Professionals and received the National Wildlife Federation’s Award for Environmental Communications. More recently, she worked in higher education and nonprofit management and, in retirement, she serves as a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Hill City Master Gardeners Association with a series of talks on “Gardens of the World.”