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