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.
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.
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:
Then I lined the path with rocks that had originally bordered the slope garden:
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.
I have planted some bloodroots (Sanguinaria canadensis) here, and hope they will eventually carpet the “floor”.
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.
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.
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).