The History of Outbuildings, Greenhouses, and Potting Sheds and Why They’re Still Relevant Today

Our San Antonio Interior Designers and Architects Discuss the Significance of Outbuildings, Greenhouses, and Potting Sheds and How to Incorporate One Into Your Garden 

Currently, we are witnessing a houseplant explosion. As we watch our friends, family, and celebrities collect Monsteras and Fiddle Leaf Figs, we see homes turning into conservatories before our eyes. While houseplants and gardening may seem like a recent trend, we have actually been growing and collecting decorative plants for centuries—devoting entire structures to the process! Our San Antonio interior designers and architects discuss the history and significance of outbuildings, greenhouses, and potting sheds, and we share how to add one to your garden. Get ready to expand that plant collection with dedicated planting rooms! 

History of Outbuildings, Greenhouses, and Potting Sheds

Throughout design history, outbuildings have been utilized to separate task rooms from the main living quarters. For example, kitchens were originally housed in outbuildings to reduce the risk of fire. Similarly, outbuildings were developed for other activities—like gardening. Garden outbuildings, greenhouses, and potting sheds provide spaces to control plant environments, store supplies, and contain messes.   

Quarry Bank vineries and ‘curvilinear’ central showhouse National Trust
Quarry Bank Vineries and ‘Curvilinear’ Central Showhouse/Photo from National Trust

The first garden outbuildings were called orangeries. These structures were created by the Roman Empire as far back as 27 B.C. to grow fruits, like oranges, sourced from countries with warmer climates. From the outside, orangeries look like any other outbuilding. They typically featured a brick or stone construction, large windows, and a traditional roof. On European country estates, orangeries were used for growing plants in the winter and were opened up in the summer as entertaining pavilions.

The orangery at Ham House, Surrey - National Trust
The Orangery at Ham House, Surrey/Photo from National Trust

By the early 19th century, new fruit and technologies inspired the glass greenhouse design we are familiar with today. Pineapples brought from South America required higher temperatures and more light than European orangeries could supply. So, designers created structures entirely out of metal and glass. Pitched glass roofs maximized light exposure, yielding the higher temperatures necessary for tropical fruits. With the rise of industrialization, greenhouses became more and more affordable for families passionate about gardening (even those without country estates). 

While outbuildings like orangeries and greenhouses were used to grow and display plants, potting sheds were developed to store and hide the necessary supplies. Potting sheds range in size and quality. For estates with massive gardens, potting sheds may include sleeping and living quarters for groundskeepers. However, for small suburban backyards, potting sheds may only provide enough space to stash gardening essentials. 

Today, homeowners once again recognize the need for garden outbuildings. Living in a world filled with screens and notifications has many people looking for a retreat to nature—and the backyard is a natural first step. Potting sheds can store your growing collection of garden supplies, greenhouses can house your expanding plant collection, and outbuildings can provide indoor-outdoor spaces perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. For many families, a plant hangout room is the new rec room. 

Outbuilding vs. Greenhouse vs. Potting Shed

Garden outbuildings, greenhouses, and potting sheds all sound like similar structures. So, what is the difference, and which ones serve your needs? Here’s the breakdown.  

Hare Hill in Cheshire by National Trust
Hare Hill in Cheshire/Photo from National Trust

Outbuilding

An outbuilding is any detached structure separate from the main house. Outbuildings on a property can house anything from a Roman-era orangery to a private home office to a plant room. Overall, outbuildings provide ways to better utilize your property—including your garden! 

Outbuilding and Hangout Space by Amity Worrel
Outbuilding and Hangout Space/Design by Amity Worrel

Greenhouse 

A greenhouse is designed to regulate environmental conditions for optimized plant growth. They typically feature metal construction with glass walls and a pitched glass roof. Greenhouses can be simple structures to keep plants happy during the winter or grand spaces for elaborate plant displays. 

Palm house at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire by National Trust
Palm House at Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire/Photo from National Trust

Potting Shed

First and foremost, a potting shed is a workroom and storeroom. Here, gardeners can store soil, seeds, and pots and set up workstations for planting and taking cuttings. Since potting sheds are covered structures, a large enough floor plan allows you to garden in any conditions—rain or shine! 

White Outdoor Sheed with Metal Roof
City Farmhouse/ Design by One by 10 Studio

Practical Uses for Outbuildings, Greenhouses, and Potting Sheds

Outbuildings break the confines of our main living spaces and liberate us from the need to store things inside. For example, you may be reluctant to take up gardening if you had to keep pots and soil in your pantry, but a potting shed supplies the freedom you need to get your hands dirty. Garden outbuildings are functional spaces used for storage, hobbies, and getting us outside. 

Why are Garden Structures Still Relevant Today? 

Practical Storage

Garden structures give us the space we need to store gardening supplies and grow our outdoor hobbies. With a potting shed, you can keep your tools, create a workstation, and create a plant retreat to spend the day. 

Outdoor Shed
Photo by Elina Sazonova

Get Us Outside

Outbuildings are a great way to create indoor-outdoor connections. Encourage the use of your outdoor spaces by creating welcoming pathways through the garden to your outbuildings and designing structures to be multifunctional. Make your greenhouse a cozy place to hang out with your plants by including comfortable seating. 

Outbuildings/Design by Amity Worrel

Plants are Popular 

The COVID pandemic has changed how we design our homes, and many homeowners are gravitating towards cozier spaces—preferably filled with houseplants. Garden structures give us the freedom to nurture our houseplant hobby and house plant overflow. 

Glass Green House with Plants
Photo by Phillip Deus

How to Incorporate a Potting Shed in Your Garden

Our San Antonio interior designers and architects recommend keeping these tips in mind when designing a garden outbuilding. 

Plan Your Purpose

With any design, it is essential first to plan the purpose of the space. For example, will your potting shed serve as a storage room, a hangout space, or both? Make sure to define your needs and plan for them. 

Choose a Structure 

Decide which garden structure best serves your needs. For example, if you have an interior sunroom, you may not need a greenhouse but could benefit from a potting shed. 

Pick a Style

Potting sheds and garden outbuildings don’t have to be bland! They can be designed to recede into the garden, match the style of your home, or stand out with their own definitive look. Pick a style, knowing anything from rustic to modern can work when done correctly. Also, consider adding a feature wall that can serve as a backdrop to an inviting patio, further utilizing the space. 

Consider Sizing

Determine both how much space you need and how large of a structure your garden can accommodate. After all, we need to save room to plant in the garden! 

Get a Permit 

Before you break ground on your new garden outbuilding, get a permit. Ignoring local codes and regulations can lead to expensive fines and fixes down the line. 

Consult a Designer

When in doubt, consult a designer. Interior designers and architects will help you maximize the benefits of indoor-outdoor living, tying in function and style in ways that didn’t seem possible.

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