Gardeners seem to share a universal gene for outbuildings, and Bob Bowling has tapped into that on South Whidbey Island.
LIKE MUSHROOMS in damp autumn woods, Bob Bowling’s sheds are popping up all over South Whidbey Island. Small enough to squeeze into a garden corner or side yard, yet large enough to house chickens, hold a yoga mat or tools, the sheds are drop-dead charming.
Is it the peaked roofs, the cupolas and aged windowpanes that lend a sense of history to each tidy little footprint of a building? Perhaps it’s that Bowling has mastered the perfect proportions and garnishes to appeal to our fantasies of a sweet little destination shed. Gardeners seem to share a universal gene for outbuildings, and Bowling has tapped right into that.
After his success at the past few Northwest Flower & Garden Shows, where he won “Best of Show” in the exhibitor category, Bowling is busy building custom designs.
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Don’t be tricked by the cute window boxes and clever cupolas. These sheds are practical. The windows hinge wide open, the roofs are sturdy galvanized metal with overhangs, and the chicken coops come with nesting boxes and windows low enough to give the birds a view out into the garden.
How did Bowling hit on the formula for irresistible sheds? “I never draw them, they just evolve,” he explains. Kind of like how he got into building sheds in the first place.
After working as a flooring contractor in Riverside, Calif., Bowling moved to Whidbey with a now ex-girlfriend, and started crafting birdhouses and benches. He moved on to sheds after discovering the abundant supply of recycled materials on the island.
Now Bowling starts his days poking around the woodpile at the local construction dump and visiting Island Recycling. “I mill around and some days I hit gold,” he says. He stockpiles old doors and windows, and buys bits and pieces on eBay, like the $5 metal spheres he uses as finials.
So what are the specific elements that make these rustic sheds so covetable? First, they’re a manageable size. Most Bowling buildings are 5 by 5 or 4 by 4 feet. Yet they’re tall and transparent enough that they don’t feel dark or cramped. “I’m 6 foot 4 and I need to be able to walk in without hitting my head,” says Bowling.
Despite windows, doors and siding old enough to make the buildings look weathered in place, new underlying framework assures they’re structurally sound. “Nothing is going to blow them over,” he says.
Because Bowling builds with materials on at least their second lifetimes, each shed is unique. If wood or metal doesn’t look sufficiently vintage, Bowling adds patina with a vinegar wash. Old saws, axes and trowels are put to use as door handles and brackets. He constructs cupolas out of metal chicken feeders, funnels, stove pipes or pot lids — whatever ends up stacking in an eye-pleasing and sturdy way.
Bowling’s sense of proportion and detail comes into play from roof to doorknobs. The former is usually steep and galvanized, the latter a worn tool or beveled glass. Dutch doors, weathervanes and window boxes large enough to hold a few herbs or pansies add yet more charm.
While Bowling usually sticks with his square little footprint and tried-and-true proportions, he is sometimes asked to come up with new shapes and sizes. He built an octagonal building he describes as “Gothic” to fit into a hillside garden in Burien. “The largest shed I ever built was 10 by 12, and we dry-walled and insulated it for a studio,” he says.
His sheds have been used as outhouses, chapels, outdoor showers, playhouses and simply as garden focal points. So if you can imagine it, Bowling can build it.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.