revisiting the children’s classic ‘the secret garden,’ with marta mcdowell

AUTHOR MARTA MCDOWELL, a gardener and landscape designer in contemporary New Jersey, has an enduring passion for digging into history, particularly into noted authors and their gardens—what she calls the “connection between the pen and the trowel.” She’s written books from that vantage point on Emily Dickinson, Beatrix Potter and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and now her latest is on the prolific author Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of the century-old children’s classic “The Secret Garden” that’s still in print.

Marta McDowell also lectures extensively, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at New York Botanical Garden. She’s here today to talk about the subject of her latest book, “Unearthing The Secret Garden: The Plants And Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett” (affiliate link).

Plus: Enter to win Marta’s new book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the November 22, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

other plant-loving authors we’ve talked about

INTERESTED in learning more about how gardens and plants were part of influential authors’ lives? Marta McDowell and I have talked about these in past shows:

‘unearthing the secret garden,’ with marta mcdowell



Margaret Roach: Hi, Marta. Cleaning up the garden, are we?

Marta McDowell: I am indeed. I just cutting down some clematis vine.

Margaret: Oh boy. In a windstorm the other night, a tower, a tuteur, that I have of one old clematis tipped over. So, I think it might have cut itself down.

Marta: There you go. Well, this is one is one of those old September-blooming white ones, but this one my father propagated, so it’s got a little special spot.

Margaret: Oh. I have to confess this sounds probably terrible, but I don’t frankly know if I was read The Secret Garden as a kid. I don’t have a strong memory of it, having just read your book. It was first published, I think, as a serialized magazine article series or something in like 1910. Tell us about the book and really why it called to you to make it your latest project.

Marta: So, it’s never been out of print. I received a copy when I was probably 9 or 10, which was just the right age, because that’s the age of the protagonist Mary Lennox. So, it’s always nice when you can see yourself in a book. Mary Lennox was also really spoiled, which I think I was too, kind of surly [laughter], but we didn’t get many books in my household. We were a go to the library every week family. So, this really, it was a notable event and I loved the book and I read it so often that the binding was all cracked. It was the edition by Tasha Tudor who’s a pretty well-known illustrator, but it’s also been illustrated by lots of people.

Frankly, Margaret, I didn’t know anything about Burnett when I started on the quest for this particular book.

Margaret: Well, and then that’s what’s so astonishing, because there I am reading your book and it’s like, “Oh my goodness, she’s the author of ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy,’” who people may have heard of that book, and 50 novels, and a dozen plays, and oh my goodness.

Marta: Yeah. So, here is an absolute powerhouse author [above, in her garden], who just has fallen off the radar except for just definitely “The Secret Garden,” and maybe people remember “A Little Princess.” I wouldn’t have passed a quiz on “Little Lord Fauntleroy” before I started down this particular rabbit hole.

Margaret: Oh, O.K. I think because I remember it being used as an expression of … and maybe I’m wrong, but sort of a dandy, or something, gussied-up little guy, or I don’t know.

Marta: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of a pejorative if people remember it at all. It’s like, “Oh you’re just a little Lord Fauntleroy.” So, here we go. I had this author, didn’t know much about her, but figured, well anyone who could write about a garden so poignantly, whether for children or adults, must have had a garden of her own. Let’s go see what I can find out. That’s really how this started.

Margaret: I see, O.K. So in the book, and I’m not going to be able to summarize it as well as you would be able to, Mary—Mary, Mary, quite contrary [laughter], borrowing from another author, I think—Mary, the protagonist, she discovers this secret garden. And each person that’s brought into it, other children and adults, too, they’re transformed by their experience in discovering this place.

So, maybe let’s talk a little bit about that, about the quick version of what happens to Mary and then those that she brings into the secret garden.

Marta: So, like most fairy tales, first you bump off the parents. So, in the case of the secret garden, Mary Lennox is born in India. Her parents are part of the British Raj. They die of cholera, and Mary is sent back to live with an uncle in the north of England, in Yorkshire, at a place called Misselthwaite Manor. Her uncle is a widower, his wife died 10 years earlier and Mary gets wind from the servants that there is this locked-up garden that is really off limits. So, perfect thing to tell a child, “You can’t go in here.” So immediately, she sets off trying to find it, because it’s intriguing.

She befriends a robin, which has a connection to Burnett’s actual story. She makes sort of friends with a gruff old gardener named Ben Weatherstaff. That has a connection to Burnett’s life story, and eventually she finds this garden. She discovers that plants come back to life, and that to me is the most moving part of the book. It’s like, oh, that time in the winter, when everything seems dead.

Margaret: Right. I love in the book where you ask the reader, you Marta ask the reader, whether they’ve had their own secret garden moment and you write, “Where you stepped into the garden and felt a shiver of something, recognition, awe, of what was it?” I think we’ve all had that. I think that’s why even as a children’s story, metaphorical for so many of us, this discovery and this magical place that then can transform us, yes?

Marta: Yes. So I think, especially in our current times, a lot of people have come to gardening, or come back to gardening because it is a relief. It’s like you can get to a different place in your head, if that makes sense, sometimes just by observing things coming back in the garden.

Margaret: Yeah. Now, each of the women, each of the authors that you’ve written about, and I think all of your subjects have been women—yes, they’ve all been women in their gardens. They have a particular plant palette, sort of a signature of plants. I mean, I think when we talked a while back about Emily Dickinson, she loved her flower garden, her lilies, her roses. I don’t remember Laura Ingalls Wilder’s favorites on the prairie and so forth. But let’s talk a little bit about the palette that delighted Frances, her delphiniums, for instance. Oh my goodness.

Marta: Oh my goodness. So, delphiniums, her son later wrote that delphiniums were “her greatest triumph and her greatest tragedy.” I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, Margaret, but once in a while you’ll grow a plant and it will do so well that you just … I think, “Oh, I’m a genius, I can grow X, Y, Z.” [Laughter.] Well, for Burnett, it was delphiniums.

Now delphiniums, I’ve tried to grow them in my New Jersey garden. Honestly, it’s like they go, “We don’t like New Jersey. We want to be in Portland.” But Burnett had this garden on Long Island and she grew so many delphiniums she called it, “My land of the blue flowers.” That was the only year she had that. I have a grainy, washed-out picture of just, it looks like hundreds of delphinium.

Margaret: Oh wow.

Marta: After that, of course she has planted a monoculture, so it’s been this neon sign for all the pests and diseases. She can never do it again. The best she can do is hide a few in her mixed borders.

Margaret: Yeah. She called them, “Larkspurs made big and grand,” I think.

Marta: Yeah, isn’t that a great expression? [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yeah, it is. It is great. She loved roses and I love the anecdote that if you want help with your roses, besides your soul [laughter], if you want help with your roses, you go to the vicar, because the local vicar always knows how to deal with roses.

Marta: Yeah. So she started on her rose-growing bender when she had a garden in the south of England in Kent. So Burnett, first of all, as you can tell from this, she really got around, you know?

Margaret: Yes.

Marta: Never mind modern-day travel, but this woman must have spent so much time on these steam liners going back and forth across the Atlantic, because she went everywhere. So, she created this garden in the south of England and she was 50 years old and she absolutely was bitten by the bug of gardening. She said, “It’s my new fad,” but she always over the top. So, she has some staff, so she says, “Go buy plants, go buy a thousand plants.” I think most of them were rose bushes.

Margaret: Oh my goodness [laughter].

Marta: So, she had a big canvas to work on. So, unlike my little garden, she started out with 200 acres.

Margaret: Right, and then at the other end, not quite as… I don’t know, I think of roses as classic English garden plant at a grand estate and blah, blah, blah—pillars of roses and roses trellised, and this and that. But then she got addicted to zinnias, the big hybrid zinnias, which surprised me. She said she was “educated up to them,” meaning?

Marta: Yeah, so she didn’t like them for a long time. But then during her life… So she’s born in 1849, she lives till 1924. By the last quarter of her life, there’s a lot of hybridization going on, and nurseries and seed catalogs are bringing out these giant zinnias, and I think she was a petite person. I think she was always fighting, she’s this self-made, self-supporting woman essentially in the Victorian era. So, I think there was something about zinnias that she really liked, the big ones, you know?

Margaret: Yeah.

Marta: That would just get big and bold and keep on producing because she did love cut flowers. She was not a vegetable person at all.

Margaret: Right. And she speaks about deadheading as “master’s work.” That it’s important, I guess, she elevates it, the deadheading and because she deadheaded the zinnias, she got more and more and more, progressive-

Marta: That’s right. Right, zinnias, roses, you keep cutting and they keep coming. If you stop cutting, they stop coming.

Margaret: Right, right, right. Of course, she didn’t like the color magenta, so those are the only ones she didn’t really like, right?

Marta: Yeah. Why magenta? I don’t know. I like magenta flowers, but she didn’t like it. One great thing about gardening is you can indulge your own preferences, right?

Margaret: Yeah.

Marta: Because it’s my garden, that’s why. She grew what she liked. Her son, who eventually lived next door to her on Long Island, always wanted to have some more vegetables, and he had to hide them. He called it his sneak garden.

Margaret: Not his secret garden?

Marta: No, his sneak garden, you know? He had to sneak them in some unobtrusive corner.

Margaret: Interesting. And bulbs were another thing she writes about, and you write about in the book, about her. Bulbs with their, “Little sharp green points coming up in the woodlands,” and so forth in early spring and the delight of that, which of course, all of us as gardeners—that’s one of the things, the signs of life again, after the frozen months, is those little green points.

Marta: Absolutely. I am out there, the minute the ground freezes [laughter], I’m out there scouting, are the snow drops up. Are those little winter aconites poking up their funky alien little heads?

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. So, she had a lot of snowdrops in the woods, and bluebells [above], and daffodils and so forth. Then I guess, is it a native primula to England? Is that correct?

Marta: Yes, yes. It’s Primula, I think it vulgaris, it’s the vulgar or wild one, it’s a pale yellow. It’s a beautiful, beautiful primrose. It’s like, why doesn’t that come up in my lawn instead of all the weeds I have? I’d rather have that one.

Margaret: Oh, I know, we have dandelions, right? [Laughter.]

Marta: That’s right.

Margaret: So you mentioned this just a second ago about catalogs, poring over catalogs, and it was fun to see in the book that you mention it as well, you uncovered details about, for instance, how she learned a trick, a horticultural trick—for instance, with gladiola corns, to not plant them all at once. She would order them from the catalogs, but you don’t plant them all at once, because then you get all your flowers at once, but you’d stagger them every week or whatever.

It just made me long for some of the original garden catalogs that I used to read a million years ago. Some of them today, because a lot of it’s online and so forth, we don’t read as deeply, I think, we don’t sit with the catalogs the way that we once did maybe. But they were such educational resources and it sounded like she learned so much from them. So, that made me … yeah, that was sweet.

Marta: Yeah. And I remember that same feeling in my 20s, first getting my own space, my own little bit of earth, if you will, for a garden, and getting … there were these catalogs that were so rich in detail, not only the botanical name, but how you pronounce it and how you plant it and all these little hints. I would just spend hours poring over these catalogs. So, I imagine Burnett doing that too.

She would write to her son—she was not a person who liked the cold, so she’d go to Bermuda. She’d write to her son in New York and go, “Has this and this catalog come in? Can you please send it to me?”

Margaret: Yeah. I mean, in a way, like the different plants, some of which … I mean, I love zinnias, for instance, so just like the different plants, we’re talking about over a century ago and there was this continuity, this feeling of continuity and commonality like, “Oh yes, she’s a gardener, too.”

We’re all gardeners connected by these things like the joy when the catalogs arrive. Like the beautiful colors of zinnias, these kinds of things—the poking through of the first tips of the first bulbs. These are universal things, then and now, and forever hopefully, that bring joy.

Marta: They are. And I think “The Secret Garden” came out of another really universal occurrence with gardeners, when you realize that you might not have this garden forever. Well, you won’t have this garden forever. At some point, it’s going to transition to someone else.

For Burnett, it had happened in England, she had had this garden that she loved, at a place that she said was “my only real home,” and she loses it. She had been renting it as a property. It goes on the market, and for a variety of reasons, she decides not to buy it.

I think it was a trauma and she wrote through that, because that is exactly when she writes “The Secret Garden.”

Margaret: Oh, O.K. Oh, so to get sort of some kind of closure, maybe—to pour it all out, out what was in her heart. Huh, interesting.

Marta: Yeah, so she had this country place, Maytham Hall [above], and she invites all her friends there. It’s a place of entertainment, it’s a place of great joy. It’s also a place of work, because she constantly worked to maintain her lifestyle.

But she wrote to one of her friends and she said, “The Secret Garden is our rose garden,” meaning this little walled rose garden that they made, “if it had been locked up for years and years and some hungry children had found it.” So it’s all about nostalgia for her roses, for her robin that she makes this connection with.

Margaret: Right, the friendship, yeah.

Marta: Yeah, with a bird. Of course, when I was a kid, I always thought of our big American robins, but they have little, cute English robins.

Margaret: Yes. Well, so you just mentioned her lifestyle and working to keep it up and so forth, and all the different places that she lived, and all the steamships that she had to travel on [laughter]. Her home in the United States was this in estate in Plandome, overlooking the water in Long Island. Was her life grander than some of your other subjects of your past books? Was that a difference?

Marta: Well, certainly grander than Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beatrix Potter was raised in a family with money. Emily Dickinson was certainly in the comfortable classes. She didn’t have to work. Burnett was born into a family that was, I’d say comfortable. She was born in England, and they lost everything. So, I’d say, she had this riches-to-rags-to-riches story, and got back to being able to do what she did through her own hard work, from the time she was a teenager. She was kind of a writing machine and we don’t-

Margaret: Fifty novels, oh my goodness.

Marta: I mean, we have no feeling for her. I read a few of her adult novels, and I understand why. They’re kind of sentimental and a little melodramatic and they wouldn’t be to our modern taste. But still, she was popular at the time and always looking for, “How can I monetize this?”

Margaret: Yeah. So toward the end of her life, she filled a prediction she had made maybe 20 years earlier, quote, “To write a garden book someday.” I think it started as a series of magazine articles called “Gardening For Everybody.”

Even though she’d by then, been gardening for a long time, she writes with the wonder and the delight in it of a newcomer. Again, the astonishment: those little green soldiers poking through the bulb tips, and the breathlessness she describes at waiting. I think you quoted her saying, “waiting for tiny seeds, little black things,” that she bought, by the way, just for 25 cents a packet back then [laughter] and poked into the dark soil, waiting for them to come to life.

She writes, “And then suddenly out of the darkness, leaps life.” Again, that wonder persisted to the end. I mean, I hope it does for me, too. I guess you probably do, too.

Marta: Yes. And to me, the most astonishing thing is she really writes that on her deathbed, practically. I mean, during her final illness, she is writing this little series of articles for a magazine. After she dies, she dies at home, so she dies on Long Island. And her son decided that he instead would collect them and publish them as a small book called “In The Garden.”

It really was lovely when I found that, that she had left that behind, and she had left it behind not at the beginning of her exploration of gardening, but at the end, it seemed like a real gift. It’s so hard to find, I just put it at the end of my book. So, now everybody can find it.

Margaret: So, in just the last minute, a favorite takeaway? I mean, I’m the kind of person who pins quotes up on my bulletin board from favorite things I read. Is there a favorite takeaway for you from her, that you want to share with us?

Marta: She said, and I’m not going to get the quote exactly right-

Margaret: That’s O.K.

Marta: … but she said something to the effect of, “I’m flower drunk. I need flowers in every season, spring, summer, fall, but especially winter.” As I have my refrigerator crammed with bulbs that are going to be forced sometime at the end of February or beginning of March, I really understand that, that you get hungry for it.

Margaret: Huh, “flower drunk.” I like that. That’s good and good for your health, too [laughter]. Unlike the other kind.

Marta: I think she liked to indulge a little.

Margaret: Oops.

Marta: She imbibed a bit as well.

Margaret: Tipple. Well, it’s lovely to learn about, because again, this wasn’t a book of my childhood, so it’s lovely to learn about it through you, as always, through your work. So, thank you so much for making time today, Marta, and now get back to cleanup [laughter].

Marta: Thank you Margaret, it’s always delightful.

Margaret: And then drive up here and help me.

Marta: [Laughter.] Yeah, I think I should have. Next time, I promise.

Margaret: O.K., we’ll do each other’s gardens. I think if that’s what everybody should do, they should go do someone else’s. All right, I’ll talk to you soon.

(Photos from “Revisiting the Secret Garden;” used with permission of the publisher.)

enter to win ‘unearthing the secret garden’

I’LL BUY A COPY of Marta McDowell’s latest book, “Unearthing the Secret Garden,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Do you recall reading “The Secret Garden” or having it read to you as a kid? Or maybe another children’s story about a garden sticks in your memory. Do tell.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner when entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 30, 2021. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 22, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. JoAnn Larsen says:

    Just saw this. This book was passed down from my mother and I always loved it. I always use the phrase “secret garden” when I come upon a magical plot!

  2. I was left with my grandparents for a year at age nine with no explanation I could understand, so reading The Secret Garden for the first time that year made it my book, my Northstar. I was also lonely, underweight, surly child in search of … what? Happiness, love? A garden? My beloved grandmother gave me plenty of love and also a garden, where I grew cucumbers, since I liked to eat them. She also read me the Oddessy and taught me to prune roses, and to this day her voice guides me and my busy secateurs. When I was sent to boarding school, I wrote the play of The Secret Garden, directed it and played Mary, of course! It was an obsession. For my 50th birthday, my older sister gave me the Folio edition, and I treasure it. Now I garden in Connecticut, a great distance from my grandmother’s beautiful garden in South Africa.

  3. Patricia Everly says:

    The Secret Garden ( and any real life secret garden since) stirs my soul! Have been thinking about creating one to share with my grandchildren

  4. Siobhan says:

    The raffle has long passed but I absolutely adored reading “The Secret Garden” as a girl and then the movie also captivated me. I resonated with the storyline connection to nature and revival of land and body in a way that is a significant thread throughout my life, upon reflection. In the movie, I remember the fire dance scene w the chanting so viscerally. We would act that out over and over again – it felt magical Wild freeing powerful. We felt beyond the realms of common day life as if we were right with them in the garden conjuring nature spirits nature power within our child bodies. It felt more real in contrast to many aspects of my daily life which felt as though they barely skimmed the surface of Who I Was.. This book, this scene felt illuminating to my soul. So yes! I loved this book and film. Looking forward to purchasing your book. Thank you for your work.

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