We need more secret gardens by Andrew Leslie

December 22, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

The book ‘The Secret Garden’ was an important part of the childhood of many of us and has possibly inspired many people’s garden making. It provides the basis of this piece about the current aesthetic of gardens.

This is our Christmas piece and I wish all our readers the Christmas that they long for and a happy and, in spite of all, – prosperous new year.

Anne Wareham, editor

Secret Garden picture copyright Andrew Leslie

We need more secret gardens, by Andrew Leslie

For me, a garden has to spring from the land around it. Anything else is inclined to be mere willy-waving or its female equivalent (luckily the language has yet to evolve a metaphor there). In other words, I do not much enjoy gardens which control. I enjoy those which respond. Of course the tensions between control and response where landscape is concerned have been with us ever since the Romantics, if not since Dionysius and the Maenads, and most of the time the urge to control has won out. I am certainly out of my time in espousing the opposite; we appear to be in an era of formal garden design which, if not so obtrusive as that of Le Nôtre, is nevertheless pervasive and scalable from great to small.

What is the real meaning of ‘hard landscaping’ for example, if not the ability to impose man-made stuff on nature as a means of exerting control? Your local warehouse-style garden centre will contain just as much of this ‘stuff’ as it will plants, and for good reason. Pots, pebbles, paving and concrete nymphs require less care, are rather more durable than plants, and, for all I know the margins are higher too. So, commercial pressure prioritises things and structures, and garden fashion follows in its wake. I imagine most designers feel compelled to follow too, not least, perhaps because technology makes the controlling kind of design so much easier than the responsive sort. It is, after all, more superficially efficient to sit with a computer and a plant list than to spend an hour lying on your back in a client’s garden pondering shapes and light.

Secret Garden 2 copyright Andrew Leslie

The key text for people like me is of course that ancient classic ‘The Secret Garden’. I am not being completely facile in citing a children’s book, because if a garden cannot evince a childish wonder at growth springing from decay, coupled to a sense of discovery, its core function is lost.  If a garden is designed to look good all year, so that careful succession planting is the norm and even the natural cycle is under control, the mystery is gone. We might as well visit a carpet shop. Is this not part of the reason why we find so many gardens less than satisfying?

The reaction to the ‘discovery’ of Heligan in 1990 suggests that there is an untapped need for a different aesthetic – which forces a response rather more atavistic than that evoked by neat paths and planting notes. We need more secret gardens, and gardens full of secrets.

Andrew Leslie blog


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william martin January 29, 2012 at 12:25 am

My garden ‘wigandia’ often attracts comments with connections to ‘secret/magical’ story books. I regard such comments to be the most touching and indeed humbling.

william martin January 29, 2012 at 12:22 am

My thoughts entirely! Great post.

Azul January 11, 2012 at 12:27 am

Loved your post (and the novel). Could you please tell me who the illustrator of these images is? Thank you!

Andrew Leslie January 11, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Hello Azul,
The illustrations are by Charles Robinson, and are reproduced from my 1911 edition. There have been many subsequent illustrators (who you can find by Googling Secret Garden images), but none quite so good. In fact, many of the modern illustrators lose the sense of Gothic melancholy which Robinson brings, and seek to portray a very different kind of garden, happier and less full of mystery and sadness…which I think is wrong.

Emmon January 4, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Your piece reminds me of secret creativity in general — for me, it’s often music and photography. The secrecy, I think, can be so wonderful in that I can really follow my instincts. There’s an element of creative freedom that the secrecy provides. Happy New Year!

Andrew Leslie December 29, 2011 at 2:43 am

Hello Paul. Hovering on the edge of wilderness is right. Lose that, and you lose the tension. You need to have fragility; the sense that inattention may bring defeat. Hence my argument against too much hard landscaping – it stamps on that sense of fragility.

Paul Steer December 27, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Gardens always involve control otherwise they wouldn’t be gardens..and I agree that it’s about the amount of control..or lack of it…the hovering on the edge of wilderness that makes gardening and gardens exciting for me. I always feel its like sculpting with nature.
Enclosure is again an expression of our nature, our own secret space, a paradise of our own. Not that I know anything really.

Susan in the Pink Hat December 23, 2011 at 2:10 am

But isn’t the very idea of a secret garden dictated by control? Would Mary have had the same sense of wonder and awe if it were not for a strict form of a garden bounded by 4 walls? In a sense she is more curious about the human history of the garden, why it was gated, hidden, and neglected than by the plants growing within it. The mystery of Heligan wasn’t given traction until a scribbled note in pencil from its former gardeners was discovered. In both cases, the desire for discovery and the mystery surrounding the garden was motivated to know its human past. The plants and their seasonal cycles are entirely secondary.

Andrew Leslie December 29, 2011 at 2:36 am

Gardens of course should be inextricably linked to their creators. Part of the problem with institutional gardens – or those taken over by bodies such as the National Trust – is that they lose this link. A garden is a statement of personality, just as much as a painting is. So much of the joy of a garden lies in unravelling its human past – as you say. If it contains something secretive and responsive, rather than being a blatant statement of power and control, so much the better.

Kari December 22, 2011 at 11:04 pm

There is magic in discovering how a garden might revert back into itself, what survives, what flourishes, what blooms and when. To work with nature to foster that evolution is why my garden will never appear “controlled.” I enjoy the participation more than the prettiness … We all have different styles, mine would be too messy for most.

Andrew Leslie December 23, 2011 at 1:58 am

‘Control’ lies at the heart of this debate. A degree of control is needed, obviously. But the blatancy or the subtlety of it is what creates the tone of a garden. It is hard to design for magic, but we need to try.

Sacha Hubbard December 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Perhaps the idea of a secret garden stirs the inner child in all of us – that “hiding under the clothes horse with a sheet over it” feeling of security but excitement at being private and alone in a chosen space and yet, safe. I have a ‘thing’ for walled gardens and I think a lot of people do. They seem to give a sense of discovery and womb-like enclosure that makes them especially happy places to be. Lovely piece, I enjoyed it.

Jacqueline Bradley December 22, 2011 at 9:59 am

This piece chimes precisely with my feelings. I always felt there was an element of safety in the Secret Garden as well – in other words enclosure, sanctity as well as excitement and surprise. Lovely post, thank you.

Andrew Leslie December 22, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Jacqueline: You are right about enclosure and sanctity (a perceptive and somewhat unfashionable word to use in a gardening context). Both are central to ‘The Secret Garden’, – and Sacha’s comment below about walled gardens and womb-like enclosures add to your point that gardens can be far more than mechanical constructs.

Paul Jones December 22, 2011 at 8:10 am

Beautiful post, i really liked it. I love gardening so i do take it serious and reading pages like these makes it feel so special.

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