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verso journal

The secret garden

    31 · 07 · 2019




Spending time in a garden is pure escapism. And likely the perfect escape at that, since time spent in a garden doesn't require the same amount of energy that physical travel does with its too often uninspiring airport routines, tourist traps and disappointing hotel experiences. The garden is a springboard for fantasy and daydreaming and a place of relief. Never complete, it keeps evolving at a super-slow pace. Like a book, the garden is layered and rich. To take in all its beauty at once is impossible. In the garden, the magic is already present. You only need to step into its microcosmos and feel it. What could be more enjoyable than that? Perhaps, a secret garden.

Technically, a secret garden is any secluded garden. Unlike the garden labyrinth that invites visitors to lose and rediscover their way following a meticulously calculated layout of paths, the secret garden is built to remain hidden to those of us who are too absent-minded and revealed to those who have a part of their imagination switched on at all times.

To talk about secret gardens is, of course, a paradox since we can only speak about the ones already known. Still, sometimes it's enough for a garden to be just hidden from view or located in a distant place for it to acquire the right air of mystery.


Secret parks and gardens exist in all corners of the world. Some of the ones we like in particular are the elusive moss garden tended by monks at the  Saihoji temple in Kyoto, Japan, the Lost Gardens of Heligan in south-west England with its subtropical plants, and the surrealistic Las Pozas in Mexico.

Las Pozas is an unusually playful take on the secret garden. Constructed in the Mexican mountains 2,000 feet above sea level in 1962 by the British poet Edward James, Las Pozas features 36 sculptures, from staircases that go straight up in the air to waterfalls in concrete. James counted Salvador Dalí and Belgian painter René Magritte among his friends. And sure enough, the surrealist spirit is all over Las Pozas.

A contemporary secret garden worth mentioning is New York's High Line. Created on a disused railway line from the plants already growing naturally among the tracks by architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf in 2009, this urban garden promenade hoovers just out of sight for the pedestrians on the ground.


The secret garden's magical qualities also make it a perfect setting for novels. It figures for instance in Virginia Woolf's short story "Kew Gardens" and Jorge Luis Borges' labyrinthine "The Garden of Forking Paths". However, the most imaginative uses of secret gardens are found in two classic children's books.

A rusty gate in an English garden spawned the first novel about a secret garden. Hidden behind thick foliage, the door in question sat in the wall that surrounded the Great Maytham Hall country house in Kent. It was discovered by the American author Frances Hodgson Burnett who rented the house in 1898. Inspired by the discovery, Burnett wrote "The Secret Garden" (1911), today considered a children's classic.

"The Secret Garden" tells the story of Mary Lennox, a 10-year old girl living with her uncle after the death of her parents. Left to her own devices, Mary starts to explore the estate and, like Burnett herself, one day discovers an overgrown and hidden garden. Aided by the son of a servant, Mary begins to restore the garden to its former beauty.

In another book for children, probably the most well-known, the secret garden represents the transition into a surreal world. The book is Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1865). Carroll drew his inspiration for the garden in the book from Deanery Garden in Oxford where he lectured in the 1850s. 

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" takes the concept of the secret garden further than Burnett's book. After Alice has tumbled down the famous rabbit hole at the beginning of the novel and landed in a dark hall, she finds a tiny door behind a curtain. Through it, she spots a beautiful garden. A large part of story concerns her efforts to reach it. Once in the garden, Alice meets a host of odd characters: a talking flower, a gardener in the form of a spade playing card and the grinning, philosophical Cheshire cat. This garden is a wonderland in all senses of the word.

Ultimately, the ideal secret garden is probably neither fictional nor real. It’s the one not yet discovered. Because that garden is looked after by the very best of gardeners - our imagination.