For the garden aficionados who have been on the Whidbey Island Garden Tour, chances are they’ve seen one of Bob Bowling’s rustic garden sheds.
Opportunities to see those small, unique sheds pop up across the South End might increase, too, as the sunshine brings with it a chance for Bowling’s business to capitalize on the summer months.
“Summertime and Springtime are definitely the best times of year for the business,” Bowling said. “The people who buy my products are people who are really into their yards, and there really isn’t a better time of year to enjoy them.”
Bob Bowling Rustics specializes in functional garden art and accessories that aims to satisfy South Whidbey’s knack for the rustic aesthetic. Bowling builds structures from his Bayview shop that are meant to fit seamlessly into a garden: greenhouses, chicken coops, playhouses and his primary money maker, garden sheds. The latter, often no larger than 4-by-5-by-10-feet in size, can be seen in yards or gardens across South Whidbey and the Pacific Northwest. Small enough to fit into a garden corner and large enough to hold the necessary tools, his products have proven a hit with local green thumbs, if they can stump up the $5,000 or more it costs to purchase one. They’re not cheap, but Bowling says they’re sturdily built and rustic art, in a sense.
“He builds particularly charming little sheds that fit right into a garden,” Langley resident and former Seattle Times garden columnist Valerie Easton said. “He’s always a hit at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle with his unique sheds.”
As the gardening scene continues to thrive on the island, Bowling’s business continues to grow. Starting as an “army of one” seven years ago, business initially came slow before his performance at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show proved a springboard to success with clientele off-island. He initially worked on about one shed or chicken coop at a time, but these days, three or four can be found at his shop at any given time. Despite continuing to be a one-man team, he cranks out about a dozen per season.
Bowling has taken home the Northwest Flower and Garden Show title for “best in show” in 2011, 2014 and 2015, while finishing first in “best visual display” in 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Bowling says “a couple dozen” private gardens on South Whidbey are decorated with his rustic charm, including some featured in the Whidbey Island Garden Tour, such as Gary and Janie Gabelein’s Farmhouse Garden in 2016. The exposure on-island in recent years have led to clients coming thick and fast, primarily when the weather warms up, he says.
“Business is probably doubled from what it is in December or January, so I’m pretty busy in the summer,” Bowling said. “I’m loaded if I do only a couple sheds per month, since these take time.”
In many ways, Easton and Bowling agree his products are quintessential South Whidbey. His sheds and chicken coops blend the rustic look with a green, environmentally-friendly approach, as his creations are primarily made of repurposed materials. Bowling can be found regularly scoping out potential materials at Bayview Recycle Center “most mornings,” according to Easton.
If the materials don’t have the worn look he’s aiming for, Bowling has methods of distressing them to give them that old, rustic aesthetic. However, like any good magician, he keeps his secrets to himself.
Bowling says the idea has grown over years. He initially built bird houses and garden benches before realizing South Whidbey’s gardeners were willing to spend their dollars on functional sheds that didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The popularity of using repurposed materials on the island encouraged him to head in that direction, while his clients are more than happy to allow him creative room to roam.
Bowling is following his business sense to give the people what they want. But if you ask him, he’s just having fun in his open-air shop.
“I do believe Whidbey is a perfect place for what I do since the repurposing of materials and gardening are huge here,” Bowling said. “On my end, I’m just content doing what I enjoy in the outdoors and in my shop. It’s hard to beat.”