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

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

‘The Secret Garden’ is a magical story about three children restoring an overgrown garden and healing their lives.

And it’s also a testimony to how resilient plants can be. If you’ve moved into a home with a neglected garden, then the ‘Secret Garden’ strategy is a way of renovating it on a tiny budget.

My friend Debs moved into a house which had a once-lovely neglected walled garden. And she revived it bit by bit, cutting away the brambles and pulling up the weeds, without spending much money by tuning into the ‘Secret Garden’ approach.

Secret garden strategies for an overgrown garden

You don’t need a big estate to have a ‘secret garden’ element – all the gardens in this post are typical town gardens. Debs’ rented home had an overgrown walled 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’s ‘secret garden’ door. On the other side of it, 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.

Perhaps you’ve bought or rented a house where the garden’s been neglected.

Or you’ve been too busy. Paths disappear. Bossy plants smother more delicate flowers. Weeds cover borders.

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 can achieve a great deal simply by pruning and clearing, and allowing the plants you love to breathe again.

It’s the best way to do a garden renovation on a budget.

And mature trees and shrubs give a garden a sense of texture that can’t be bought.

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.

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 everything out – look for elements you can keep

Think about what you want to keep.

Sarah Langton-Lockton bought a house with a garden that had been neglected for some years. 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 first identified several elements, such as a camellia, an eleagnus and a magnolia, which she has kept.

If you’re not an expert gardener, then ask a gardening friend to come round the garden with you.

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.

Sometimes you will have to call the diggers in, but it’s worth seeing what you can do first. When Mike and Natalie Newman moved into a house with a neglected Victorian garden, they tried to clear all the self-seeded brambles and trees themselves.

But after spending half an hour, wearing out his domestic chainsaw and only clearing a few square feet of the worst part, Mike called in professional diggers.

He and Natalie have done a great deal of the work restoring their garden themselves, but they have recognised where professionals could do it better and faster. Read about it in where do you start with a neglected garden.

3) If your budget is limited…

My friend, Debs’ house was rented. 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 the tree seems to be in an odd place, it may be self-sown.’

In a garden Posy renovated 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,’ she says.

Pruning trees is generally an expert job. It is dangerous to go up ladders with a chainsaw unless you are experienced at doing so.

And a good professional tree surgeon or arborist will understand how different trees need to be pruned differently. Read ‘what you need to know before you prune your trees’ before contacting the professionals.

And definitely read it before trying to do anything yourself!

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 or 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 remove any branches that are crossing over. Always remove branches where they meet the trunk or other branches, not by chopping across the branch.’ There’s more about this pruning method in How to prune trees for privacy and light.

Pruned berberis

This berberis was in Posy’s overgrown garden. Lack of pruning had meant that 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.

The older a plant is, the less likely it is to move successfully. But give it a try. Move plants in autumn and spring, not in the hot summer.

Uncover the beauty of your overgrown 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 took them out of the pots and planted them in the garden. Now they are healthy bay trees.

On the other hand, 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) Keep the magic – leave a few overgrown corners

We’re all beginning to realise how important an undisturbed patch is to wildlife. Gardeners in the past were strictly lectured on keeping the garden neat and tidy.

Now we’re being told to leave some parts a little wild. Your overgrown garden is a wonderful haven for wildlife.

But that doesn’t mean having a completely wild garden. Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter believes that diversity is the key to biodiversity. Find out how a beautifully managed garden can also be biodiverse in a garden that supports wildlife and looks gorgeous.

I also spoke to the experts at the RHS on why gardening for biodiversity can make life easier for us gardeners.

9) Create a small private area

Your overgrown garden may have felt very private, hidden behind tall trees and un-clipped hedges.

If you’re overlooked, then consider making a small part of your garden private, using screens or dividing the garden up. It’s very difficult to have the whole garden private in today’s towns and cities.

See the best perfect-for-privacy trees, privacy garden screens or hedges for privacy to get plant and other recommendations for privacy.

Or you could buy my Complete Guide to Garden Privacy. This lays out the principles for achieving a private area in the garden with suggestions and plans.

9) Give it time…

Plants take a year or two to re-emerge. If you move into a house with an overgrown garden, start clearing the obvious areas – the weeds, sticky grass, self-seeded saplings and places where ivy has run rampant.

But you don’t then have to make any decisions until you see what comes up the following year. ‘Give it time’ is a top professional tip, although even professionals find it hard to follow.

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.

If your overgrown garden is larger than average…

There are some differences between restoring an overgrown town or city garden and a large country garden.

For example, Stephen Ryan of the Horti-Culturalists YouTube channel has been advising on the restoration of a large garden called Tieve Tara. He says that such a garden will need larger-scale arches – standard garden-centre ones won’t be the right proportion.

You can see more of his advice in 8 important things to consider when renovating a larger garden.

Pin to remember how to restore an overgrown garden

And do join us – see here for a free weekly email with more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration.

Uncover the magic of your overgrown garden with the Secret Garden strategy.


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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 + 2 =