> Volume 67 (July/August 2000, pages 136 - 138)
Lathehouses for Every Climate
by Wallace W. Wagner
The first thing one thinks of when you mention
"lathehouse" is a shade structure for use in hot, sunny areas like
California and the deep South where the sun is too hot, the winds too
strong, or the rain too intense.
The truth is that a lathehouse can be useful in any
part of the country. Rather than just a shade accommodation, a lathehouse
primarily modifies the atmosphere, making the sun less strong, rain soft,
and the wind a breeze. Lathehouses should properly be called
We are constantly told that certain plants require
"modified sunshine," "halfshade," "a sheltered position", etc. Then we are
asked to find a location in our garden that meets those conditions, often
without success. It is hardly surprising that most of our gardens consist
of only those plants that will grow any place. What a shame that we miss
out on some prize specimens because we cannot meet, the plant's needs.
An often quoted objection to a lathehouse is that they
are so ugly. And so they can be, if not designed properly. Lathehouses can
be attractive to the eye as well as functional; a place to raise superb
specimens of your favorite plants and a place to relax and enjoy the
filtering affects on your mind and body as well as the well-being of your
Designing the Structure
Structurally, the lathehouse roof should be flat and
covered with the ordinary lathe (1/2" by 1 1/4") spaced the width of a
lathe apart, with the lathe running north and south. The lathe should be
supported at two-foot intervals to prevent sagging. Galvanized nails or
screws should be used throughout. The framework for a sturdy roof should
have 6" by 6" posts with 1" by 6" stringers between posts. Cross stringers
can be 1" by 6".
The posts should be placed in cement to several inches
above the soft level to prevent rot. Posts should be set at least one foot
into the soil.
If you are growing a variety of plants from low
growing to small trees or shrubs, then the roof needs to be divided into
several elevations (photo opposite). Low growing plants wouldn't do their
best under a high roof and conversely, tall plants wouldn't do well under
a low roof. The elevation changes should be in increments of 18 inches,
leaving the space open between elevations. Good elevations would be 8, 9
1/2, 11, and 12 1/2 feet.
Redwood posts will last the longest, but other treated
wood will do. Make sure the chemical used in the treatment is not toxic to
the plants (or to you). Some plants are very sensitive to
If you have no choice of how to orient the lathehouse
then that will dictate the design. The ideal in a moderate climate would
be to have an open front on the north side. If you get cold weather from
the north, then you would want that side to be a solid wall. You may want
to insulate the coldest side with Styrofoam panel painted to match the
wood. All sides should be solid from the base up to three feet.
For maximum protection you can close in all sides and
use doors for entry. All sides except the solid side should be lathe laid
in a square or diamond pattern. Use your decorating sense to design an
attractive pattern. Many lumberyards sell prefabricated 4' by 8' panels of
lathe in various designs. These can be used on the sides, but not on the
roof. A leaded-glass window in the east and west sides would be the
Designing the Interior
When designing the interior of the lathehouse you may
want to consider allowing room for propagating, storage of materials, such
as soil, pots, stakes, tools, etc. You may also want areas to use for
outdoor furniture for relaxing among your plants in the filtered
Several rules will make the lathehouse more enjoyable
- Make a path through the structure that allows
viewing of all plants at their optimal viewing elevation.
- Have varying levels of soil using mounds and
depressions. Make sure you don't pile soil against the wood portions of
- Plan your plantings before starting and don't crowd
The best method for raising beds is to use retaining
walls of rock with the intervening space filled with moss and soil,
puddled together (NO CEMENT) as a good drainage. Use natural stone; not
cement blocks for best appearance. If you plan to grow maidenhair ferns,
plant them against irregular chunks of cement. They like the lime.
Put in enough water lines (underground in cold
climates) to be able to reach anyplace in the lathehouse with a 25 foot
hose. If you have hot summers you may want to install a misting system
about a foot below the roof to keep the air cool and humid. Make sure the
jets are on the bottoms of the pipes so the pipes drain. otherwise the
water in the pipes will become scalding hot in summer and freeze in the
For most plants you will not want to fill your raised
beds with regular soil. Make your own soil from materials available in
your area and customize it to the type of plants you will be growing in
each area. Basically, use the same type of soil you have successfully used
in your pot mix for the particular plant. If you are going to leave the
plants outdoors all year and you have a long rainy season, you probably
will not want to use time-released fertilizer since it will continue to
release fertilizer even when the plant is not growing. That can harm the
plant. If some plants will need to be moved indoors for the winter, sink
the pots into the soil, rather than plant them directly in the soil. Then
you can easily move the pots indoors in the winter.
I would like to acknowledge articles by Alfred D.
Robinson for much of my knowledge of lathehouses. Mr. Robinson, who
developed Rosecroft Gardens in Point Loma, California, is the father of
modem lathehouses. His structures at Rosecroft served as models for my
first lathehouse. His designs are well tested.
photo above, you can see that the lathehouse is a model whose size you can
judge from the flower bed in the background. The side view on the right
highlights the three levels of the roof. Wouldn't we all love to
have a structure like this to protect our precious begonias?