Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden

The term ‘secret garden’ conjures up different images to different people but for me the term recalls the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a little girl, Mary Lennox and her cousin Colin, who discover and rejuvenate a secret garden at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England. Their labor in the garden does more than just bring life back to the garden, it also restores their own health and well-being. It is a lovely story and makes a secret garden a very special place to me.

When building a new house offered the opportunity to have a secret garden, I could not resist. The house was to be built on ¾ acre that had been a tobacco field and only had one tree so the opportunities were wide open. The master suite was going to be located on the ground floor and the garden could be built next to it on the side of the house so it would have a southern exposure. I envisioned a small, walled, very private garden where I could go with my Dalmatian and 3 Siamese cats during the chilly days of late fall and early spring when this enclosed garden would be warm and protected from the wind. I suspected that I would not use the garden in the dead of winter or the very hot humid months of the North Carolina summer.

Karen's secret garden
Karen's secret garden

Here’s what I learned from creating my very own secret garden:

-Decide on your goals for the garden. What time of year will you use the garden? What will you do there? What kind of plantings will you have? What kind of furniture and ornaments will you include? Having answers for these questions will help locate and design it. You will probably redesign the garden many times as you recognize the constraints of your site and budget but having a goal that includes how you are going to use the garden will help you get a garden that you like.

-Look over the possible sites considering how you are going to enter and exit the garden and what time of year you plan to use it. Because the garden is next to the house and in some way enclosed, it will probably be warmer than other areas on your property. This is a good thing if you want to use the garden in cool weather. Especially consider the exposure. A southern exposure is going to be hotter than a northern one. If you plan to use the secret garden in the summer, a northern exposure will give you the shade you will probably desire but the garden will not be so appealing in the cold months.

-Decide on the material for the enclosure. The material can be brick, stone, wood, shrubs, or trees; anything that screens off the garden from the neighbors and makes it. Budget constraints will probably be a great consideration here. Brick or stone are the most expensive but give immediate gratification; shrubs or trees the least expensive but they will take time to grow so you will have to have some patience. If you choose trees or shrubs consider if they are deciduous or not. If they lose their leaves you will not have much of a secret garden in the late fall, through early spring but if your goal is to use the secret garden mid spring to mid fall this is no problem. Another consideration in deciding on the material for the enclosure is air circulation. A solid wall is going to trap the heat in summer and make the garden into an oven that neither plants nor visitors will enjoy but one of shrubs or trees will allow the breezes to flow freely. Since my house was being built of brick I had a brick wall built with a regular pattern of holes big enough for free air circulation but small enough to keep my cats inside.

-Decide on the shape and size of your garden. This will probably be somewhat dependent on the site you choose and your budget, as well as on your own personal space requirements. Everyone has an idea of personal space that is partially learned from the culture around him/her but is also influenced by specific personality traits. My husband and builder tried to talked me into a garden 15’ x 11’ but I managed to increase it to 22’ x ’13. As things turned out, the garden is very cramped because I wanted 6’ wide beds on all sides and that left very little space for a seating area. The lesson to be learned is plan ahead; know what you want to do in your garden and what you want to have there (and recognize that you will probably change your mind a dozen times).

-Decide on the height of the wall. Think about your goals. How private do you want the garden to be? How close are your neighbors? Are you going to have pets in the garden? Are you going to go into the garden in PJ’s, underwear or your birthday suit? You probably don’t want to be able to look over the wall or have outsiders look into your secret garden so plan accordingly. We found that a 6’ wall took care of our needs.

-Design the garden. Keep in mind your goals and decide how much of the garden space you wish to devote to beds, paths, and sitting area. Beds should be at least 4’ wide, more if you want continuous bloom from herbaceous plants with a shrub and tree backdrop. You will probably want a place to sit at the very least, or perhaps a table for drinks or snacks. You will want to go from place to another within the garden so you will have to have paths of some sort. Our secret garden has a brick path and seating area surrounded by 4’-6’ wide beds on all sides. The choice of brick was based on the fact that my husband didn’t want to mow and edge a grassy path or seating area, the brick was easy to get from the builder of the wall, and my husband loves to lay brick. Not the most aesthetic reasons for our choice.

-Decide what objects you wish to have in the garden. This includes plants, ornaments, and furniture. Most secret gardens are small and so you should pick objects that are small in scale and in proportion to each other. A dogwood tree may be more appropriate than a red oak, for example. And a life size statue of a squirrel under the dogwood tree will be more in scale than a full size statue of a Greek goddess. By using texture and color you can fill your garden up or expand the visual space. Hot colors like red and yellow, for example, pop out at you and fill the space while cool colors like blue or lavender recede and make the area appear more spacious. Likewise, fine, lacey textures suggest lightness and increase the visual space while solid, heavy ones fill it. To make your garden interesting as well as beautiful you will want to vary textures and colors just as you would in any other garden. Vines can play an especially important role in this regard because they can have a great impact growing on a wall or arbor while taking up a relatively small amount of space in the bed. Be sure to include some fragrant plants especially near seating areas.

Entrance to Karen's secrete garden
Entrance to Karen's secret garden

-Decide on entrances. Consider how many entrances you want and from what other parts of the house or garden you wish to enter. Will you have several entrances or just one grand entrance? You will probably want at least one main entrance so then you will have to decide if you want it to be hidden like the one into the secret garden of Burnett’s novel or prominent to welcome visitors. Another consideration is how you wish the secret garden to be connected to the world outside it Do you want to be able to look out of the garden when you are inside? Or be able to look inside the garden when you are outside? I decided to have two entrances, one from my bedroom, and the other from the garden. Since my secret garden leads to lawn and my other gardens I chose an entrance with an iron gate through which I could enjoy the view of my other gardens.

-Enjoy your garden. Visit your secret garden often and at different times of day in different seasons. If you plant fragrant plants you will probably find that the scent is stronger because of the enclosing walls. You might also find that the fragrance is stronger in the evening and at night. And share your secret garden with a friend. Funny thing about this, however; when I point out my “secrete garden” to friends, they immediately shy away from it as though they were invading my privacy, but when I point out my “walled garden” they walk right up to it, open the gate and walk in.


Let Us Know

How big is your secrete garden?

What do you find most fulfilling about being in your secrete garden?

What plants do you find most successful in the secrete garden?

By Karen

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5 thoughts on “Tips for Creating a Secret Garden”
  1. Thank you Karen! I always wanted a secret garden. Now that we are moving I will finally have one. Thank you Karen for sharing your experience.

  2. My private garden is really like an outdoor porch. I grow plants there that I want to enjoy close up and include small tatuary and other ornaments that give it an intimate feel. Good luck with your secret garden!

  3. What a lovely surprise to learn that others share my love for a secret place, where each plant holds special meaning. My garden is far different than the one that is shared with neighbors, family, and passersby. While unable to care for their needs as when they were first planted, my heart smiles with each new leaf, or bud, and it gasps with the discovery of each new bloom! The vines, as you mentioned, add impact in several ways, a few of which are visually with texture and color, with fragrance, and with their attraction of butterflies and hummingbirds. The Burnett novel has long been a favorite and may well have planted the seed (Oh, well!), long ago, for my Secret Garden.

    1. Thank you for your comments; you really seem to understand my love of the garden I have created there. You have captured the atmosphere of it without ever having visited it. Thanks.

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