Best Kept Secrets

Gardens of seclusion become the next home trend

By Meghan Diemel

First came the stately man caves — followed by chic she sheds — to fulfill our needs for relaxation space. Now enter the newest “room” you need to add to your home: the secret garden. Enjoyable for children and adults alike, the outdoor spaces are gaining popularity throughout the Fox Cities.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in secret gardens, or more of what I’d say is an intimate space or secluded area for people to enjoy their time and unwind,” says Steve Tuma, landscape designer with Lowney’s Landscaping Center in Appleton. “It differs per property and per budget. For some, it’s just a small, secluded patio area right off their master bedroom. For others, it’s in the back corner of the property, a portion of their larger outdoor space, or it’s a labyrinth, for folks who enjoy that type of garden.”

Master gardener Steve Schultz, of Appleton, was ahead of the curve in 2005 when he built his secret garden for the children of friends, with the hope of teaching them more about gardening. He said the enjoyment garnered from it has been immeasurable, especially now as his own grandchildren explore it each year, more than a decade later.

“All is right with the world when you’re in the garden,” he adds.

Establish the space

Prior to getting started on the design, the homeowner needs to balance their needs and desires with any potential drawbacks for the chosen space, explains Chad Vanderloop, owner of Vanderloop Landscaping in Kaukauna.

“We always have to check with the local restrictions, which can be somewhat challenging,” he says. “There could be drainage easements and utility easements, for example.”

Once that is taken care of, the fun can begin as the secret or secluded garden takes shape.

“Arborvitaes can screen the area in a little bit and give it more of a secluded feel in a crowded neighborhood,” Vanderloop furthers. “‘Arbs’ are always a positive thing; the birds like to hang out in them and it gives you good year-round cover. A small entranceway with an arbor is always nice.”

Tuma says the team at Lowney’s has used different styles of privacy panels, in material like wood, steel and vinyl, for those garden spaces they created in tight city lots.

“We’ve even created a small berm that we can build up a little bit and add in maybe an evergreen element or tall grasses to help create that more intimate space, where you don’t feel like you’re in a fish bowl and you can enjoy private time with your family and friends,” he states.

Soft landscape lighting is an important addition to the spaces, Tuma adds, whether that is moonlighting from above or faint path lights to help create extra mood and intimacy. Joe Meulemans, senior landscape designer with Van Zeeland Nursery and Landscape in Little Chute, says candles can also make great accents in secluded gardens.

“They can be real wax candles or LED lights, but they give that type of feel, along with colorful pillows and furniture accents,” he says. “Establishing the space in itself can be magical.”

Use plants and trees to build whimsy

Plants and trees with unique features are great for adding a magical feel, Meulemans says.

“Contorted hazelnut bends and twists in all different directions, so it really is a very interesting plant to use. The Japanese tree peony is a very pretty plant and adds a lot of interest in both flower and foliage.”

In addition to vines like climbing roses, climbing hydrangea and wisteria, which help give a secret-garden feel to the space, Tuma says the long-needled weeping white pine creates privacy and stands out in a garden.

“A pagoda dogwood, where if it’s pruned properly has a layered effect, can give you more of a ceiling to your outdoor element, giving it some height and a layered feel,” he adds.

Even creating a secret entrance doesn’t need to be difficult, as Meulemans explains.

“You can create a secret entrance by doing an offset overlap in plants, so when you look at it from straight on it looks like a continuous wall of plants, but as you get to an angle you can see there is a passage way.”

A natural, device-free zone for kids

Secret gardens aren’t just a great idea for adults who need a place to reset — they’re the perfect space for children to put down their devices and engage in imaginative play. As a master gardener, Schultz began his children-sized secret garden by slowly building a path that went behind a perennial flower bed. From there, the garden grew into several themed rooms.

“My oldest grandchild is about 4 and the youngest is about 2, and last summer they just loved walking through it,” he says. “They can sit, observe and learn as they go from destination to destination.”

Schultz recommends keeping color and scent in mind when planning a children-specific secret garden. He also included crabapples and dogwoods in his, which provide a canopy and give the garden a tunnel-like effect, in addition to flowers and plants that ensure the garden is blooming and inviting from spring through the first frost.

Think creatively, plan with logic

While spring may be the perfect time to start your own secret garden, take time to think about the level of maintenance you can handle before planning, Vanderloop cautions.

“In today’s day and age, as everyone is working and keeping busy, it can get away from people,” he says. “I like to keep things somewhat simple, with perennials and maybe some shrubs. That’s where a small water feature that you can plug in and some uplighting on the plants and arbs can help make it your own little hideaway.”

Whether your garden becomes a secluded enclave for two, or a winding series of rooms, it’s sure to serve up relaxation — right at home in your backyard.

“[Homeowners] can escape from their normal routine and it can be their own space,” Meulemans states. “It’s a place to get out and really relax and enjoy nature.”

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