For years, the old structure in the back yard was known as the “haunted shed.” When Rebecca Sweet was a girl growing up in her parents’ Los Altos ranch-style house in the 1970s, even her bravest friends couldn’t make it through a slumber party there.
The roof was caving in. The floorboards creaked. Cobwebs covered old storage boxes. Spiders had taken over every inch. When Rebecca returned to her childhood home 11 years ago and moved in with her own family, the wood shed had only deteriorated further. Her daughter and friends would have Halloween parties and terrify each other over stories of the the eerie presence of the “shed monster.”
But over the last few years, with her husband, Tom Urban, taking the lead, the old shed has been given a new life and new purpose. Gone are the cobwebs and creaks. The structure is now a charming cottage and work studio for Rebecca, who is a landscape designer. As with the rest of the backyard garden once tended by her mother, who comes from a maternal line of avid gardeners, the shed was restored and decorated to maintain the family’s gardening legacy.
The roof on the 18-by-12-foot shed was pitched and decorative wood beams added to create an airy feeling and rustic charm. Her husband replaced the old aluminum windows with vintage cottage windows. He plastered the walls and painted them a buttery yellow. A long counter was built on the far end, stretching across the back, to lay out design plans. The shelves underneath store the family’s earthquake supplies, but are hidden by lovely linen curtains.
A wicker sofa dominates the seating area. Above it hangs a decorative screen made of branches from one of Rebecca’s favorite shops in Los Altos, Cottage Green. One of her most cherished possessions is a dainty painting of pansies done by her great-great grandmother.
Rebecca also likes to point out the old piece of wood siding that bears the carved named of Rebecca’s brother, Tim. He had been punished for defacing the shed at the time. But Rebecca made sure her husband kept it in its rightful place, next to the front door.
Sitting on nearly a third of an acre in a 1950s development of classic ranch-style houses, the shed was an ever-present backdrop to the garden, which was first tended by her mother and now her. Rebecca remembers expeditions to Lake Tahoe to collect rocks along the roadsides that had tumbled down from avalanches. Together, they would choose the prettiest and haul them back to San Jose where her mother would build curving borders for raised garden beds.
“I would watch her build this wall and tear it out because it wasn’t perfect,” Rebecca said. “It was her release.”
While she loves her mother’s stone walls, she has also made the garden her own by adding several sitting areas, curving pathways, fountains and an aviary. She writes about her garden and gardening tips on her blog www.gossipinthegarden.com.
When her mother visits, “she doesn’t come in the house. She goes around the garden first,” Rebecca said.
“We wander the garden and see what’s new. It’s a huge bond. It’s a personal garden, and I think it shows.”
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