Create a unique and inviting lathe house

For many plant enthusiasts, one of the best ways to duplicate the shady environs of Mother Nature and create an artificial home for tender and juvenile plants is to build a lathe house. 

Lathe houses are not really new; they have been around for thousands of years yet the environment they create is always unique and inviting. Creating a structure that is at once attractive (like the shade house in Balboa Park) and functional in terms of growing exotic and unique plants can be a fun and rewarding experience.

Using redwood, cedar or natural wood to build a shade structure is typically the best and most time-tested approach to employ. Moisture from winter rains and regular irrigation can have a negative effect on typical Douglas fir over time and shorten the longevity of your lathe house.

By ripping or cutting 2-by-4s down the middle or into thirds you can save additional costs to achieve the size material you would like to use for the structure. People who live in Northern climates may have an additional concern because of the heavy winter snows. Lathe houses in these states must be reinforced from underneath to support the weight of heavy wet snows unlike weather in our warmer environs.

If you do live in a colder climate, another benefit of the lathe house is that it can be covered in parts with plastic and double as a green house during the winter. Here in Encinitas I have seen many interesting designs and structures, each unique and designed for the application at hand.

A good rule of thumb is to cover at least 50 percent of the walls with slats, reducing the available light by half. Remember, the number one enemy of most delicate and shade-loving plants is heat. Most people try to achieve a shade zone by installing a fabric or shade cloth, which can be effective in certain situations because of costs.

Unfortunately, many times the cloth will be dark and collect heat inside the shade house having a negative effect upon the juvenile and cooler temperature loving plants you might be trying to grow. Using lathe instead of fabric as a sunscreen can benefit your shade house in other subtle ways as well.

As a general rule, most shade-loving and tropical plants are also water lovers and love a good drink. Lathe houses will get wet during the hose watering of these plants or from overhead spray irrigation. The lathe wood will absorb this water spray and provide a cooling effect inside the house by the process of evaporation as air moves in and around your plants, just like an old style swamp cooler.

I have seen lathe houses also become home to koi ponds, waterfalls, fern grottos and back yard pavilions. The neat thing about the lathe house is that it has so many functions in the landscape apart from just being used as a growing space or for commercial reasons.

Having good structural integrity, the lathe house can obscure an ugly view or unfriendly neighbor. It is great for installing drip or over head irrigation for those of you who are low maintenance-oriented and it allows for the placement of hanging plants, shelves and benches for work, depending upon your special needs.

Growing tropical and juvenile plants is an art and can be quite difficult if you don’t follow Mother Nature’s rules. The lathe house is a great equalizer. When I was first learning about Kentia palms and other tropicals I found it difficult to understand why young 1-gallon and 5-gallon material could turn yellow and brownout even with regular watering, fertilizer and care.

From study and now as I look back on it, common sense will tell you most mother plants or sexually mature trees will drop their seed after growing to a certain height creating a beautiful shade canopy. In a forest of these trees, the juveniles develop in low light in the under story and are genetically predisposed to low light during this growing period.

This doesn’t mean you can’t harden these plants off over time, but a shade house will definitely benefit you in the long run.

Kent Horner is a local landscape contractor and designer with 30 years of experience in all aspects of your garden. For information concerning your project or questions involving your surroundings, email him at



Filed Under: Local Roots


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