The Secret Garden

– Posted in: Design, New House, New Gardens, The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a path through the woods along the side creek on our property. (See map at the end of this article.) The creek comes under the road through a culvert and then drops several feet to the creek bed below. I refer to this as the waterfall, which may sound a tad pretentious if you are used to spectacular falls of hundreds of feet. However, there’s no doubt that the sound and sight of running water is considered an attractive feature for a garden. I didn’t have to “install” my water feature, I merely had to take advantage of what was already there.

water coming out of culvert

Side brook waterfall as seen from below. (Point A on map) Photo by Cadence Purdy

The fact that it is mostly hidden from view when the trees are leafed out makes it secret. We had a similar path following a seasonal stream through brush and young trees at the old house, which was the first secret garden, so the name is almost traditional.

Design Goals for the Secret Garden

If there is one garden archetype that really resonates with me, it is a path. So that is the overarching design goal, to create a path with purpose. Those purposes could also be considered sub-goals:

  • Provide a way to view native plants, especially spring ephemerals
  • Provide a comfortable place to view the waterfall
  • Provide an excuse to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors when there isn’t time for a long walk

How I Made the Path

My first step was to figure out the best place for the waterfall viewing area. It had to have a good line of sight to the waterfall, and it needed to be relatively level ground. This place seemed a pretty good fit, except for two trees in the way, which the head of Plant Facilities dispatched with a chain saw.

A bench and a chair in the woods - waterfall viewing area

These two trees needed to be removed before the waterfall could be easily and comfortably viewed. (Point B on map)

Then I chose a place where it seemed easy to make an exit back out to the lawn. Next, starting at that exit, I worked my way back towards the viewing area, following the path of least resistance and judiciously pruning with pruners, loppers, and reciprocating saw, depending on whether it was a branch hitting my face or a sapling unavoidably in the way. I also had to prune away some brush that was obstructing the waterfall view:

view of culvert waterfall obscured by brush

This brush needed to be pruned away to reveal the waterfall view. (Point B, view from bench)

Then I lined the path with rocks that had originally bordered the slope garden:

rock-lined path in woods - creating a secret garden

After creating the path, I edged it with rocks that used to edge the slope garden.(Point B, looking down the path)

Giving the path definition takes it just a bit out of “completely wild and uncivilized,” making it more like a garden. It also encourages people to follow the path, and the foot traffic helps keep growth down.

I’ve tried to take advantage of whatever natural formations I find. For example, I turned a little clearing into a room off the path.

path lined with stones - making a secret garden

The path is like a hallway with a “room” off to the left.(approximately Point C on the map)

I have planted some bloodroots (Sanguinaria canadensis) here, and hope they will eventually carpet the “floor”.

bloodroots in my secret garden

I hope these bloodroots will eventually carpet the forest floor of this “room”. (Point C, standing on the lawn and looking in)

But there should be something to attract the eye the rest of the year, don’t you think? A garden ornament of some type? Perhaps a flowering native shrub? This is a work in progress, and I haven’t come up with an idea that satisfies me yet.

My Progress on the Sub-Goals

Spring Ephemerals in the Secret Garden

Much to my delight, several spring ephemerals were growing in this area without being introduced. I found red trilliums, foamflower, jacks-in-the-pulpit, trout lilies, starflowers, partridgeberry and May flowers. In addition to the bloodroots mentioned above (which came from an area closer to the house), I have also added white trillium, celandine poppy, and Virginia bluebells. I hope to add many other spring emphemerals currently building up bulk in Fern Alley.

The Sitting Area

It is much easier to enjoy a water feature when you are comfortable.

branches bench and rustic table

A durable and comfortable bench that sheds water, and a table to set your glass upon, go a long way towards making a comfortable waterfall viewing spot. (Point B)

The branches bench that I got at the old house dries quickly after a rain and has a quasi-woodsy look that fits in with the rustic nature of this area. I recently found the table at the Ithaca Plant Sale. Jerry Yaeger of Chickadee Farm made it, and he made sure I knew it was not sturdy enough to sit on. Still the price was right and it fit right in. The dirty white plastic chair does not fit right in, but at the moment it will have to do. I used it to determine the best view for a second occupant, and discovered that the soil at the back of the chair is very soft. If you sit in that chair with your full weight, the back legs sink rapidly and if you are not careful you will fall backwards. I need to fix that, somehow.

Seasonal Attractions

I like walking the path in every season, but I would like there to be something year round that makes you think about it while you’re in the house, and decide you want to go to the Secret Garden and investigate. For the very early spring time, I’ve planted snowdrops, just as I did at the old house. Then there’s the spring ephemerals.

Then it’s just green. Sitting in the shade in view of water on a hot summer day might be enough. However, when we had a dry spell last summer, the waterfall dwindled to a trickle, barely visible or audible. So, I’m not sure what I can do to make you want to go out there in summer if there’s a drought. (If it’s that hot and dry, I guess it would take a lot.) In autumn, well, there’s spectacular fall color most years. In winter, no one wants to go out unless there’s a thaw, and if there’s a thaw, that’s reason enough. The frozen waterfall can look pretty spectacular:

frozen waterfall - making a secret garden

Even a frozen waterfall can be attractive. On the rare sunny day, it’s worth pulling on your boots and tromping through the snow to take a look. (Point B)


Every year the path must be pruned: Branches grow into the path, sometimes plants fall over, and suckers arise from saplings cut down in previous years. This is a good job for mud season, though sometimes after the trees have leafed out, a heavy rain will weigh them down sufficiently that a trim is required. Marking invasive species and removing them is an ongoing project. I am also transplanting desirables (most Jack-in-the-pulpits) from the path into safety as I have time.

Future Improvements

  • Find a suitable chair to replace the plastic white one, as mentioned above.
  • Create a stone pathway that permits you to traverse this seeping muddy area without needing boots.

    muddy area on woods trail - creating a secret garden

    This wet spot on the subsidiary path needs stepping stones. (Point D on map)

  • Continue to add more native plants. Besides the spring ephemerals, I’d like to add more native flowering shrubs and trees.
  • Find containers or garden art to place on stumps located in various areas.
  • Find a bench and place it to enjoy a long view of the creek and waterfall.
    long view of creek

    Enjoying this long view of the creek would entail asking permission of the neighbors to cut some brush on their side of the creek. Update: Wrong! I learned we own both sides of the creek visible here.

  • Finally–and I’m really dreaming here–I’d like to have a stairway running from the lawn near the waterfall down to the edge of the creek. That would be a lot of work and a lot of money that could get washed away in the next hundred year storm. (We’ve had two such storms recently, in 2006 and 2011).

Map: Location of Photos in the Secret Garden

line map of our property - showing secret garden

Here you can see how the Secret Garden fits into the rest of the property. As with all images in this article, click to enlarge.

This post is part of a continuing series about my new house and gardens, especially about my thoughts when designing new garden areas and revamping existing ones in our new location.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Pauline Robert June 14, 2013, 4:26 am

Wow, this is a pretty awesome idea. Really goes to show that you can do whatever you put your mind to 🙂

I’m working on my garden now and you’ve definitely gave me some points of inspiration.

Rick hoffer June 14, 2013, 12:41 am

Nice Idea Kathy and Wonderful Post. I Specially Love this Side brook waterfall for an attractive feature for a garden. Keep It up.. Keep Green Our environment.

Deborah B June 13, 2013, 1:23 pm

Thanks for the tip on how to create a map. My attempts at mapping (even in a single garden bed) always flounder because I’m not good at staying in scale. I’ll have to try your Google Earth screenshot technique for a garden map.

I have a few small plants of bunchberry (Cornus x) that I got from Eastern Plant Specialties a few years ago. They come back every year but they have never thrived – no blooms or increase in the colony. But I think your garden might be a bit warmer than here; they might be worth a try.

I have Daphne mezereum, with lots of volunteer seedlings every year. It has highly fragrant magenta blooms in very early spring, and red berries in summer. It stays fairly small in full shade with a mature size of only about 2 feet, but the ones in part sun on the east side of our house have gotten much bigger and fuller. Perhaps you have a spot in your Secret Garden for it? You’re welcome to some seedlings when you come visit.

Jayne June 13, 2013, 7:25 am

Great to have well thought out plan. When you veer from the path, you might find some magic, but starting with the plan makes it all seem possible!

Julio Yohe June 13, 2013, 2:19 am

Wow! Your plan is amazing. The side brook waterfall idea is really creative. I can’t wait to see the final garden. 🙂

Phillip Murray June 11, 2013, 10:13 pm

“I think your plan is absolutely wonderful. I really like the way you are taking advantage and enhancing the natural elements that you have. ”

Couldn’t agree more..

commonweeder June 11, 2013, 10:32 am

What a great post. You are able to explain so clearly your thought process which is such a help for us who can sometimes be a bit fuzzy in our thinking.
I have running water on our property, unfortunately not close enough for a short walk. Even so you have given me lots of food for thought for a short walk I could take.

Diane C June 11, 2013, 12:44 am

You’re so lucky to have moving water on your property. I’m still trying to acclimate to my new environs and wish I had those connections!

Carol - May Dreams Gardens June 10, 2013, 5:45 pm

Love reading about the process of creating a garden, using what you have.

Lindsay & Mike June 10, 2013, 6:36 am

This post was so lovely — especially the map! We are definitely linking this post up in our “inspiration” section. That map is plain magical to see the little world you’ve created on your property — that is our dream one day as well!

Kathy Purdy June 10, 2013, 8:18 am

The map was first introduced in this post. I made it by capturing a screen shot from Google Earth and using an image editing program (Corel PaintShop Pro) to draw the outlines on a separate layer. Then I hid the screenshot layer right before I saved it.

Donalyn June 9, 2013, 8:52 am

I love seeing that little table you bought at the sale in place – it looks great!

Donna@Gardens Eye View June 9, 2013, 6:51 am

Kathy how absolutely wonderful to take advantage of your lovely wild areas and make them so you can view them and keep them wild. What a treasure you have. I have created my own with wildflowers in various gardens. But oh a wooded secret garden is such a lovely dream.

Pat Webster June 9, 2013, 2:14 am

Is there a way to hide the culvert and make the source seem more natural? Perhaps an arching shrub would do the trick.

Kathy Purdy June 10, 2013, 8:04 am

Pat, if you look at the very first image–the one that has the words The Secret Garden on it, you’ll see there is a shrub or small tree off to the side that partially obscures the culvert. Most of the pictures I used to illustrate this post were taken in winter or very early spring, precisely because there wasn’t foliage to obscure the structure. That tree grows out of a crevice in the rocks. I don’t think I could plant anything that serves as well.

Dominick Lanting June 9, 2013, 1:52 am

Wow! I can already imagine how it looks like in the future. I want to sit down on your waterfall viewing area and spend the whole day watching your beautiful secret garden. I truly admire your creativity! 😀

Gail June 8, 2013, 5:03 pm

Kathy, It’s a delightful spot and I love your wildflower choices. Charlie has a few good ones, too. gail

Leslie June 8, 2013, 3:00 pm

It’s just wonderful! I love seeing how it all fits into the whole of your property.

Kathy Purdy June 8, 2013, 3:14 pm

Thanks, Leslie. I always find garden maps helpful to orient myself.

Charlie@Seattle Trekker June 8, 2013, 2:50 pm

I think your plan is absolutely wonderful. I really like the way you are taking advantage and enhancing the natural elements that you have. A few Solomon Seals and some Bunchberry around the waterfall and you are off to the races. The plantings you mentioned are favorites so I can imagine how beautiful this area will be in a few years. Good luck on your journey.

Kathy Purdy June 8, 2013, 3:13 pm

Good idea on the Solomon’s seal, I have some at the old house in the old secret garden. Technically bunchberry should do well here, but I have never seen it growing in my area.