“It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some far off place,” said Mary of her secluded hideaway in the iconic children’s book The Secret Garden. But what if such places could exist outside of children’s stories?
In fact, they can. With imagination (and topsoil), homeowners can create a hidden oasis “shut out of the world” in their own back yards. It’s a surprising trend with homeowners this year. Here are the key elements to the perfect secret garden:
The pathway to your secret garden should convey a sense of wonder: a winding passage laid with cobblestones, gravel, or disappearing pavers embedded into overgrown grasses that fade away just before reaching the entrance.
The way into your secret garden should be a well-kept secret, as the locked wooden gate covered in vines from the book. Shroud your gate in low-hanging trees or build it directly into dense hedges that can support its weight.
Consider carving an archway or secret “bookcase door” out of the hedges themselves. If you go with a wooden gate, create an air of mystery with a whimsical peephole that gives only a sliver of a view of what’s behind, and a brass keyhole plate fit for an old-fashioned skeleton key.
The periphery varies according to the size of the garden. For large, expansive spaces the key to enclosure is dense hedges. The most hearty, lush, and versatile species are boxwood, a popular evergreen shrub that grows 12-15 feet tall per year and whose stout underbrush doubles as a natural retaining wall. Other tall, thickset hedges include Barberry, Loropetalum, Cherry Laurel, and Privet, all of which can be pruned to any imaginable geometric shape or size. A note of caution that many of these species can be invasive and toxic to pets so check with your nursery before purchasing.
You can pair the more compact hedges with vibrant, feathery shrubs like fern pines and silver sheen that allow light to filter through to illuminate your secret sanctuary in a radiant glow.
If your space is limited, the solution is to carve out a secret nook within the already existing environment. Here, the options are plenty, starting with lattice screens as dividers cloaked in weeping wisteria, draping clematis, and climbing rose. A vine-covered wood pergola with thatched roof, a private area squared off by bamboo walls, and a gazebo clad in vigorous bine that blooms into gorgeous cone leaves of green and yellow and grows up to 20-feet in height.
All you need is a structure for a screen, and then any variety of climbing vine or bine to train along the walls and top to shroud the interior space from view.
The interior decor of your secret garden is as important as its exterior design. The pieces should convey whimsy and ceremony, as wrought iron chairs and a cafe table to greet guests for tea. Flex your imagination with magical touches like a square sod-and-stone checkerboard with painted rock pieces. Invite comfort with cushioned benches, hammocks, a plush field covered in wooly thyme fit for a picnic blanket, and a rope swing tied to a towering oak.
Set up easels to paint, a cast-iron clawfoot bathtub, and unique salvaged fixtures that enhance the feeling of wonderment like old decaying whiskey barrels as planters, rain chains and wind chimes.
The flora of your secret garden is all about wild, untamed rows of color. This isn’t a manicured royal garden; this is the environmental incarnation of romance and nature with all the senses in mind. The key is to plant native species to your area so plants grow wild.
Give the birds and wildlife a place to drink and cool off with bird baths, fountains, and a shallow pond with a tiny arched footbridge.
As the daylight recedes, illuminate your secret garden with subtle fixtures like small globe lights, tea candles, hanging votives, solar lights, and a chiminea or fire pit, all of which enhance the dreamy surreality of your natural oasis.