The ‘Secret Garden’ Strategy – how to turn forgotten into fabulous

June 7th, 2015
Posted In: Gardening on a budget

Was ‘The Secret Garden’ one of your favourite childhood books? I think there’s a bit of ‘secret garden’ in everyone’s back yard – but those neglected patches can be magical, too. And you can revive your own garden – without spending much money – by tuning into the ‘Secret Garden’ approach…

Secret garden strategies

You don’t need a big estate to have a ‘secret garden’ element – all the gardens in this post are typical town gardens. Debs has a slightly larger walled village garden but it’s still under an acre.

‘The Secret Garden’ is the story of a spoilt orphan girl, an invalid boy and a farmer’s son discovering love, friendship and good health by bringing a forgotten garden back to life. Directed by a cheeky robin, they find a door in a wall, leading to a neglected garden. By cutting away overgrowth and planting seeds, they restore the garden’s beauty. In doing so, they heal themselves, too, and connect to the people around them.

Wisteria over a garden door

Debs Baker rented a house where the garden was covered in brambles and sticky grass. Rampant ivy had smothered the delicate climbers. By pruning and clearing away, she has revealed beautiful planting, such as this wisteria and oleander over a garden door.

If you look out of the window, you may see a bit of ‘secret garden’. You buy or rent a house where the garden’s been neglected. You’ve been too busy with working and/or looking after children to do more than cut the lawn and add a few petunias to pots. Paths disappear. Bossy plants smother more delicate flowers. It can even happen if you’re a professional in the gardening world – your own garden (rather cheekily) can turn into tangled jungle when your back is turned.

Rhododrons and geraniums cleared from brambles

Before Debs started clearing the garden, neither this rhododendron, nor the pink geraniums underneath could be seen. They have sprung into life once the brambles and sticky grass were cleared off them.

Then one day you look outside, and think: ‘I/We must do something about the garden.’ But you may not need diggers and designers – if you take a ‘Secret Garden’ approach, you may be able to achieve a great deal simply by pruning and clearing, and allowing the plants you love to breathe again. It’s cheaper than a major re-vamp. And mature trees and shrubs give a garden a sense of texture that either can’t be bought or can only be bought very expensively.

Hydrangea rescued from over-crowding

When Posy bought her house, this hydrangea was there, but crowded out by other trees and shrubs. It  had lost its shape. By giving it space and shaping it, Posy has discovered its beauty.

Tips for ‘secret garden’ success

1) Give plants space

Posy Gentles, who revives and restores gardens, says that the first thing to do is look at where plants are growing into other plants. ‘Cut them back to give plants space. The vigorous plants won’t mind being cut back.’


It’s amazing what pops up when you clear away undergrowth – this clematis in Posy’s garden emerged from behind an overgrown shrub which had died.

2) Don’t clear it all out and start again

Think about what you want to keep. Garden editor of The Lady, Sarah Langton-Lockton bought a house with a garden that had been neglected for some years, as the owners got older. It was a tangle of weeds, self-seeded saplings, overgrown shrubs and a couple of decaying sheds. While she had much of it cleared, she carefully identified several elements, such as a camellia, an eleagnus and a magnolia, which she has kept.

Transparent pruned camellia

This eleagnus x ebbingei  in Sarah’s garden was a sprawling lump of dark green foliage. Now it is an airy and elegant small tree and the flowers are beautiful.

3) If your budget is limited…

My friend, Debs Baker, rented a house with about half an acre of walled garden. She didn’t have any money to get professionals in – and most people prefer not to spend money on gardens in rented property. Mounds of brambles, ivy and sticky grass covered every shrub and bed. Rather than hire men with chainsaws and a digger, she worked her way round it herself, with stout gloves, cutting back rampant shrubs and climbers, and clearing away. A beautiful garden has emerged – with virtually no spending on plants.

Clematis uncovered from brambles

Debs cleared away the brambles and some of the ivy from this wall. The following year, this beautiful clematis emerged.

4) Try to keep trees – but not all trees…

Posy Gentles says: ‘Try to keep older trees, especially ones that take a long time to grow like oak or cedar. But not all trees were originally even planted where you see them – sycamores, ash, hawthorn and elder are vigorous self-seeders, so if you think ‘why is that tree planted there?’, it may be self-sown. In a garden I did recently there was an ash tree growing up through a cedar tree, so we got rid of the ash to allow the cedar to flourish again.’ A wildlife note: birds do need some dense undergrowth to nest in, so don’t get rid of every overgrown corner…

Transparent pruned magnolia

Sarah had a bulky, congested magnolia in front of her house. Rather than taking it out, she asked Posy to prune it, and a beautiful tracery of branches emerged. It’s also now much lighter inside the house.

5) Prune and shape overgrown trees and shrubs

Posy specialises in ‘transparent pruning’, which allows a tree’s shape to emerge looking natural, while allowing the maximum light through. ‘Take away the dead branches first,’ she says, ‘and then any branches that are crossing over  – take them out where they meet the trunk or other branches, not by chopping across the branch.’ The re-growth may also be a better colour in some plants, such as berberis.

Pruned berberis

This berberis in Posy’s garden was overgrown, and most of its leaves were a mature green. By pruning it, Posy not only gave it shape, but the new growth is a beautiful red colour.

6) You can move plants…

If you don’t like a plant where it is, then it doesn’t matter if it dies when you move it, Posy points out. She’s moved a laurel from one place in her garden to the other, and it’s very happy.

Uncover the beauty in your back garden

Uncover the beauty in your back garden by clearing away and allowing plants to re-emerge.

7) Plants can come out of – and go into – pots

When Rosie Turner bought her house, there were two gasping bay trees in pots at the front door. They had obviously been potted for a long time. She planted them, and now they are healthy bay trees. Equally Posy has just taken a very old rose out of her front garden and given it to me. I’m going to keep it in a pot for the summer then plant it in the autumn – but it is budding happily so far.

Bay tree

Rosie Turner’s bay tree looking healthy although it spent too long in a small-ish pot.

 8) Give it time…

Plants take a year or two to re-emerge, so if, for example, you move into a house with an overgrown garden, start clearing the garden of obvious overgrown shrubs, ivy, sticky grass, self-seeded saplings etcetera. But you don’t then have to make any decisions until you see what comes up the following year. ‘Giving it time’ is a top professional tip – garden consultant Matt Jackson is champing at the bit to renovate the neglected garden of his new house here but he knows that waiting will pay great dividends.

Wisteria emerged

This standard wisteria is one of the beauties that emerged from the tangle of bramble and ivy in Debs’ garden.

Clematis emerges from brambles

Another beautiful clematis in Debs’ garden. It emerged when mounds of brambles were cut back.

9) If something dies, you don’t have to replace it…

Posy says that when a tree or shrub died in her garden, she used to think ‘what shall I replace it with? But you don’t have to replace it at all,’ she says. ‘Live without it for a while, and see how the space changes the garden.’

Climbers that have emerged from the undergrowth

Climbers that have emerged from the undergrowth in Debs’ and Posy’s gardens.

What secret garden bonus have you discovered in your garden? Do share it with us by commenting here, or share this using the buttons below. Thank you! The Middlesized Garden comes out every Sunday morning – to get it delivered to your in-box, just enter your email address in the box top right of this page.

14 comments on "The ‘Secret Garden’ Strategy – how to turn forgotten into fabulous"

  1. Jen Baseden says:

    Thanks for calming my panic! I live in Tuscaloosa Alabama (USA) and EVERYTHING grows very well here, good and bad alike. Just bought this house with a strongly sloping backyard garden that was obviously a labor of love for the former owners for decades–until they got too old to safely navigate the slopes for upkeep. I can see the underpinnings of a fabulous garden here–mature fig, cedar, and peach trees–trilliums in shade–azaleas and hibiscus galore… but also incursions of bamboo and kudzu (not to mention the dreaded “murdered” crepe myrtles for which the Southern US is famous).. I’ve been looking for some guidance on where to start. After reading through your helpful posts I have gotten the blueberries and myrtles properly cut back, cleared the tangle around a shapely fringe tree, and at least made some encouraging inroads with removing invasives. Just now I’ve been watching redheaded and pileated woodpeckers I could only hear before, and spotted my first hummingbird last week. Going to plant a couple of my favorites come fall, but otherwise I look forward eagerly to just seeing what will come up in spring. Thanks! -Jen B.

    1. What a wonderful, if slightly challenging, space you have. It sounds beautiful and I’m glad the posts have been helpful.

  2. Linda says:

    A category 5 hurricane blew down all the large oaks and pine trees in the abandoned lot next to us. After clearing all the debris post storm, all kinds of flowers started coming up. From petunias to hollyhocks, lantana (an indestructible Florida staple) to azeleas and even a camellia. It had obviously been a real garden at some point. And is making a great comeback!

    1. That’s lovely to hear. Plants are so resilient!

    1. Wasn’t sure if you’d finished this comment?

  3. Anthony says:

    Delightful pictures! I’m living on a subtropical island right now and there are some lovely gardens here. Your details have shown me how I can reproduce a lot of the elements when I finally get my own place again.

    And CONGRATULATIONS on being your win in the ‘best posts’ competition!


    1. and congratulations to you, too! Thank you for commenting.

  4. Mary says:

    Fabulous article. We bought my parents house and I have been doing this process for a while but there is much more to do. Thank you for making it so encouraging.

  5. rusty duck says:

    There’s so much truth in this.
    The previous owner here was fond of conifers and planted many of them, unfortunately the sort that grew to huge proportions over his 30 year ownership, towering over the roof and yet only feet away from the house. Chopping them all down for reasons of safety we found two crab apple trees buried within and a huge drift of pulmonaria that now cascades down the bank. He also planted way too close… within a ten foot by six foot border we found a dozen separate rhododendrons and azaleas, all planted in the pots they came in! I’ve cut them all back, virtually to the ground and miraculously they are resprouting. It’ll give me a whole grove of the plants elsewhere in the garden if I can successfully move them.

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