Ever since gardens were first made, emphasis has been laid on their seclusion; they were seen as retreats from the fierce world outside. The idea of the hortus conclusus has run through garden design since Roman times, and was influential in shaping both Moghul and medieval European gardens. The ‘secret garden’ has appeared in the literature of many lands. Hidden gardens within a garden were common in 16th century England, and only went out of fashion with the ‘landscape’ movement in the 18th century.
A desire for intimacy and seclusion has reinstated the secret garden design today. Although the need to keep wolves and bears at bay has gone, we still feel the need to retreat from the hectic, sometimes disturbing, world in which we live.
Creating areas within your garden that are screened and essentially secluded, or indeed giving the whole garden an atmosphere of romance and secrecy, will make it a private retreat from modern life.
A secret garden could be reached by a winding, mysterious path under overhanging trees, or discovered by going through an opening in a wall or hedge. Plants within the garden can then be used to reinforce the sense of seclusion and romance: bowers and arbors can be protected from prying eyes by a curtain of foliage or flower from climbing plants; trees and shrubs can be used to divorce one part of the garden from another; hedges can be used to make compartments so that all is not seen at a glance.
Large-leafed plants can be used as living barriers, in the growing season at least. In boggy places, Gunnera manicata and Rheum palmatum may do the trick while in drier places much can be achieved with large clumps of vigorous grasses such as cortaderia and miscanthus.
In this inward-looking romantic garden there should be emphasis on scent, for scents are strongly evocative, and the sometimes fugitive fragrance is best appreciated in an enclosed space. This scented garden can be provided by climbing plants such as honeysuckles or roses, as well as by bulbs, perennials or herbs.
In the secret garden there is no room for brash modern plantings of annuals or complicated geometric layouts. Use lavender, rosemary, roses, honeysuckles, primroses and spring bulbs; use herbs and even wild flowers. Keep colors harmonious and muted: pinks, greys, blues, lemon-yellows. Foliage can play an important part, but use evergreens with forbearance; ‘green shades’ are fine in summer but turn to dank and dripping leafage in winter.
If the garden is relatively large and established, there may well be areas, already partially screened or tucked away, where a hedge or wall or arbor can quickly create a secret area. However, privacy is not enough on its own: the area needs sun and dappled shade, shelter from wind and good planned access from the house or other parts of the garden.
Children adore secret places, preferably those that are more or less inaccessible to grown-ups; if you can leave much of the planning of such areas to the youngsters, so much the better.
In a smaller secret garden, subdivision of space is obviously more difficult, but it is still possible to site screens and arrange planting in such a way as to create pockets of seclusion. If the garden is on a slope, you could cut into the lower part of the slope and then screen it with a combination of planting and trellising above. A path or steps for access could disappear gently from view around the screening, and become a feature in its own right.
The kind of materials you use for the framework or screen to a secret garden is important. While it would be possible to use crisp, modern materials in a contemporary setting, it is far more likely that you will want to use something altogether softer. Mellow brick or stone, with the patina of age, may be ideal, while an old thatched or peg-tiled summerhouse sets its own mood and invites seclusion.
Changing the levels in a secret garden, creating mounds and hollows, would allow you to introduce screened areas, reinforced by planting, behind the higher ground. The essential point to remember is that any area, secret or not, needs careful planning at the garden design stage; unless your garden is old and large, it is wellnigh impossible to add such features later on.