Create a Secret Garden

Transform your garden into an oasis worthy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s "The Secret Garden."

Grow a Secret Garden

Grow a Secret Garden

Photo by: Image courtesy of Lynn Coulter

Image courtesy of Lynn Coulter

What could be more magical than a secret garden?

My bookshelf is probably like yours. It’s packed with books about special plants like roses, hydrangeas, and daylilies, and titles that cover the how-tos of gardening, from xeriscaping to planting in small spaces.

Squeezed in between all the non-fiction books is a favorite from my childhood: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It’s a classic novel about an unlikeable little girl who can’t get along with anybody after her parents die and she’s sent to England to live with her uncle. She’s lonely and miserable until she discovers a neglected garden behind a locked, ivy-covered wall. 

You can guess what happens next. Mary is spellbound by the tangled roses and other untended flowers she finds, and she talks her uncle’s gardener and a young friend into helping her restore the garden. Then the magic happens. Mary changes the garden. She digs and pulls weeds, sows seeds and plants bulbs, and eventually, she’s changed, too, becoming a different, happy, loveable girl. The garden wakes up as it’s filled with color, fragrance and bird song. 

Gardens work that kind of magic on most of us. Even if you don’t have a secret garden to tend, you can make your own magic by creating a sanctuary like Mary’s.

First, pick a planting spot that gives you a bit of a hideaway. Lucky you, if you have a spot that feels like a real garden “room." But if you don’t, look around to see if you have a group or row of trees or shrubs that could give you a sense of being in a special place. A wall or fence, even if it’s only on one side, can also work. So can an arbor draped with wisteria or other vines. You can even set off a spot with a couple of trellises, sections of wooden fencing, or flea market gates.

Then use these tips to add charm:

  • Plant shrubs, vines and flowers for birds, to give them a place to make nests and raise their young.
  • Add a flowering fruit tree or shrub. Cherries, dogwoods, bayberries and crabapples offer food for cardinals, mockingbirds and other kinds of wildlife.
  • Imitate Mary’s garden by planting cottage flowers like snapdragons, delphiniums, larkspurs and poppies. Pansies are pretty in early spring or fall, when the weather is cooler.
  • Grow some plants for fragrance. The more enclosed your garden spot, the more you’ll notice their perfumes. Mignonettes, lilacs, hyacinths, dianthus, sweet peas, lily of the valley, gardenias, nicotiana, lavender, magnolias and heliotropes have rich perfumes. Oriental lilies and many petunias smell sweet after dark.
  • If you really want a garden like Mary’s, grow so called “old garden” or antique roses. ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ is an old favorite with cerise-pink blooms and a spicy, clove-like scent. ‘Cecile Brunner’ sometimes called the sweetheart rose, is another pink beauty with a peppery-spicy fragrance. It’s a rose your grandmother might have grown. One source to try for old-garden roses is Heirloom Roses.
  • Plant Buddleia and daylilies for butterflies.
  • In the fall, let some of your flowers go to seed. Goldfinches love the dried seed heads of flowers like echinacea, also known as coneflowers. Many other birds will visit to feast on seeds as the temperatures drop and their natural food sources decline.
  • Lure hummingbirds with red salvia, coral vine, trumpet honeysuckle, rose of Sharon, columbines, fuchsias and bee balm. (Check here to be sure your plants aren’t listed as invasive or noxious in your area.)
  • Add a birdbath or a shallow pond, so wildlife can drink and bathe.
  • Don’t forget a comfortable chair or bench, so you can sit and spend time in your little sanctuary garden. It’s nice to add a small wrought-iron table and a couple of chairs if you want to have visitors over for afternoon tea or brunch.
  • Finally, don’t work too hard on your garden, so that it feels formal or overly tidy. It will feel more like a place to be discovered and explored when the plants look as if they grew pretty much on their own. Besides, a casual, relaxed look will give you a sense of serenity and being part of nature—and that’s what a secret garden is really all about.

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