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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