Blog by Beebe Cline

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Landscape Design: A Secret Garden

We all could use a special place in a garden where we can relax, read a book, enjoy a cup of coffee or simply listen to the birds. It can be a retreat we share with others or use for private contemplation. Whatever the size, purpose or place, the key feature remains the same — it needs to be at least partially hidden from the outside world: a secret garden.

One of my design mantras is that a garden should be experienced, not just observed, and incorporating a secluded nook is one way to achieve this. Create a sense of anticipation by winding paths around billowing shrubs to obscure the final destination. Or carve a meandering path in such a way that visitors suddenly discover a clearing in the forest where a weathered wooden bench or two invites them to linger. Smaller gardens can still have this sense of surprise; just tuck a simple chair under a statuesque tree or perhaps behind wispy ferns and tall grasses.

Here are a few ideas to get you started. Many of these projects are possible to complete in a weekend or less.
1. The Hidden Clearing

There is something exciting about unexpectedly coming across an open space in an otherwise densely planted garden. You can achieve this effect no matter how large or small your garden is. Even clearing a little spot behind a stand of tall grasses can create that sense of intrigue.

While larger spaces can serve as gathering places for toasting marshmallows over a fire, smaller nooks can be a place for sitting and watching dragonflies dance.
The clearing needs to be discovered, rather than fully visible. Use layers of trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses to wrap your secret garden with living walls.

This hidden oasis could be a destination point at the end of a path or a midpoint to be enjoyed as part of a longer garden journey.
The clearing can be a large entertaining space or a secluded spot for two. Consider the intended function before you undertake any major construction. Primary entertaining areas are best sited close to the kitchen, whereas your secret garden is likely to be tucked farther away.
Remove a few plants from the inner portion of a heavily planted border and add a layer of bark mulch or gravel to create an instant nook.

Use repurposed objects to create your own seating. Here the designer set an off cut of decorative acrylic over sections of pipe filled with gravel. Logs would be another perfect seating choice for a wooded setting.
2. The Secluded Nook

Not all garden seating areas have to be formal decks, patios or balconies. A secret garden can be nestled into the edge of a border right among the plants, giving you a front-row seat for watching butterflies and smelling the roses. Add lots of plants behind and to each side to create a leafy enclosure. Fragrant plants in such an intimate space would be a delightful bonus.
Limb up an existing tree (prune the lower branches) to create a small space under its dappled canopy. The tree can be alongside a path or in a garden border.

Search garage sales and thrift stores for charming chairs that can be spruced up with paint.
3. The Arbor Refuge

An arbor may seem like an unlikely choice for a secret garden, but you can make it more secluded by shrouding the structure with attractive vines and by planting shrubs and grasses to the side.

Camouflage furniture by selecting finishes and colors that blend in with the surroundings, such as wood tones and soft greens.
Hang a hammock or swing chair from an existing overhead structure. Raised decks often have an area underneath that otherwise goes unused.
4. The Hillside Retreat

Significant changes in elevation are often considered a design challenge in gardens, yet they can be used to advantage when you're designing a secret retreat. Tuck a bench against the face of the hillside so it will be seen only when someone is exploring the winding path. Ideally, the hillside and plantings will conceal the bench when it's viewed from above.

Place the bench so it hugs the hillside safely while allowing enough room to pass by with ease. A view of a lower garden or an open vista adds to the experience of discovery.
Save the cost of furniture by just adding colorful weatherproof cushions to the top of a retaining wall.

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