Unearthing the Secret Garden by Marta McDowell

Unearthing the Secret Garden

In Unearthing the Secret Garden, Marta McDowell pays homage to the enduring classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett that has enthralled generations of readers.

Through the universal metaphor of garden cultivation, The Secret Garden conveys a message of hope, and the renewal of the life as well as the self.

The Secret Garden introduced the reader to an unlikely heroine, Mary Lennox, a sickly and neglected 10-year-old born to wealthy British parents in colonial India. After a cholera epidemic kills her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle in a mysterious house.

The story follows the spoiled and sulky young girl as she slowly sheds her sour demeanor after discovering a secret locked garden on the grounds of her uncle’s manor. She befriends Dickon, a free spirit who can communicate with animals, and Colin, her uncle’s son, a neglected and lonely invalid.

Unearthing the Secret Garden is Marta McDowell’s gorgeous, deeply felt tribute to the timeless tale. Filled with photographs of the flowers, plants, and gardens that inspired Burnett, it also presents vintage illustrations from several editions of The Secret Garden, a book that has never gone out of print.

The following excerpt is from Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants & Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett. @2021 by Marta McDowell, Timber Press. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.

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Unearthing the Secret Garden

Photo by Anna Fiore
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Spring at Misselthwaite

THE SECRET GARDEN is revealed scene by scene through Mary’s eyes. Only the robin, “who had flown to his treetop,” accompanies her. “It was the sweetest most mysterious-looking place any one could imagine,” the narrator tell us. 

Mary sees stone seats in evergreen alcoves and tall moss-covered urns—formal elements softened by age. The remains of grassy paths meander here and there. The garden’s high walls are thick with leafless stems of climbing roses. Frances Hodgson Burnett infused her nostalgia for Maytham’s rose garden into the atmosphere of the abandoned garden: 

… Their thin gray or brown branches and sprays looked like a sort of hazy mantle spreading over everything, walls, and trees, and even brown grass, where they had fallen from their fastenings and run along the ground. It was this hazy tangle from tree to tree which made it all look so mysterious. Mary had thought it must be different from other gardens which had not been left all by themselves so long; and indeed it was different from any other place she had ever seen in her life.

Now it was to be hers, her own. 

If you have ever stepped into a garden and felt a shiver of something—recognition? awe?—you have had your own secret garden moment. Nature and a gardener have conspired to make a place that resonates at the same harmonic frequency as your spirit. A mystery. Some combination of light, color, plant, and place causes it, like the golden mean employed by ancient architects. It is an effect to which every gardener aspires. 

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Secret Garden illustration by Nora S. Unwin

Mary clears around the “sharp little green points;”
Illustration by Nora S. Unwin
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Mary is uneasy. Is the secret garden dead? Ten years is a long time to be neglected. The grass is brown, the rose plants look gray and brittle—something that never happened in India. But then she notices “sharp little pale green points” sticking out of the earth.

“Yes, they are tiny growing things,” she whispers to herself, “and they might be crocuses or snowdrops or daffodils.” She starts to clear around them with a pointed piece of wood, by instinct wanting to give them more room to breathe.

Back in her room, she can’t stop thinking about the garden. She is struck with a desire to see all the things that will grow in England, plant lust being common to most gardeners, new or old. “I wish—I wish I had a little spade,” she tells Martha that afternoon. Worried that she will give away her secret, Mary quickly adds that she would like to make a little garden somewhere. 

For the acquisition of the spade, Martha promises to employ her brother, Dickon. Mary sends along a written request with some money on Martha’s next day off so that he can buy it in the village. 

“In the shop at Thwaite they sell packages o’ flower-seeds for a penny each, and our Dickon he knows which is th’ prettiest ones an’ how to make ’em grow,” Martha informs Mary in her broad Yorkshire. “Our Dickon can make a flower grow out of a brick walk. Mother says he just whispers things out o’ th’ ground.” 

Like the Greek god Pan, Dickon is at home in nature. Frances once referred to him as a sort of faun, and in the book, he is described as “a sort of wood fairy,” red-cheeked and blue-eyed. He is slightly older than Mary—about twelve. 

In Dickon, Burnett created a character to embody her own connection with the animal world. She was convinced that in past incarnations she had been animals, especially birds. “I am such friends with them and I understand them so and they are so sure of it and are such friends with me,” she had once said. And so it is with Dickon Sowerby. 

Mary first comes upon Dickon in person sitting under a tree in the woods adjoining Misselthwaite’s gardens. He is playing his wooden pipe. Wild creatures are keeping him company. A crow named Soot. Captain the fox cub. Dickon unwraps a package for Mary. There is a miniature spade, plus a small rake, a garden fork, a hoe, a trowel, and some packets of flower seeds. 

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Secret Garden illustration by M.L. Kirk

Mary and Dickon discuss their garden plans surrounded by
his rescued animals; illustration by M.L. Kirk
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After a long conversation about flowers and growing things, Mary decides to share her secret with Dickon, sneaking him through the ivy-hidden door. His reaction doesn’t disappoint. “Eh!” he gasps in an almost whisper. “It is a queer, pretty place! It’s like as if a body was in a dream.” Frances had gauged her friends’ reactions to Maytham’s rose garden in much the same way. 

Over the weeks that follow, Mary and Dickon work in the garden—pruning, weeding, and avoiding detection. He teaches her about gardening. Perennials like lily-of-the-valley need to be divided. Biennials require patience, growing green one year in order to bloom the next. 

Dickon reassures Mary that most of the roses are “wick,” that is, very much alive. They make an unusual pair: a poor but much-loved boy in tune with the natural world and a stunted rich girl who grew up without affection. 

Dickon is Mary’s teacher at Misselthwaite in the same way that Frances’s friends—and vicars—at Maytham had been generous with gardening lessons and advice. To make plants thrive, Dickon knows that one must “be friends with ’em for sure.” 

Like his tame animal friends, garden plants need attention. “If they’re thirsty give ’em a drink and if they’re hungry give ’em a bit o’ food.” It’s good advice for any gardener. Mary absorbs his lessons like a thirsty plant. 

The two children decide to cultivate a different sort of garden. Unlike Misselthwaite’s formal borders—tended by head gardener Mr. Roach and his staff—theirs will be a tad untamed. “I wouldn’t want to make it look like a gardener’s garden, all clipped an’ spick an’ span, would you?” Dickon asks. 

“It’s nicer like this with things runnin’ wild, an’ swingin’ an’ catchin’ hold of each other.” Mary agrees. “It wouldn’t seem like a secret garden if it was tidy.” Like the rose garden at Maytham Hall, the secret garden is to be in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement. 

With her new interest and activities, Mary’s disposition improves as does her appetite. Then reality intervenes. Archibald Craven comes home to roost, and so does Mary’s guilty conscience. 

In a tense interview with her uncle, she reverts into a plain fretful child, worried that he will ban her from the outdoors in general or the secret garden in particular. But he provides a chance opening when he asks if there is anything she wants. He meant a toy or a book. 

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Secret Garden illustration of Mary and her uncle by Nora S. Unwin

Mary approaches her uncle to ask for her “bit of earth,”
illustration by Nora S. Unwin
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Omitting the particular space she has in mind, Mary asks her uncle if she might have “a bit of earth [t]o plant seeds in—to make things grow—to make them come alive.” 

Archibald Craven is stunned, reminded of Lilias, his dear wife, who had also loved to garden. “When you see a bit of earth you want[,] take it, child, and make it come alive,” he responds, full of emotion. That was all Mary needed to hear. Craven leaves the next day for yet another tour of the Continent, and the secret garden is hers. 


Contributed by Marta McDowell: Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She consults for public gardens and private clients, writes and lectures on gardening topics, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design.

Marta’s particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel. In 2018, she was the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Gardener-in-Residence, and she was the 2019 winner of the Garden Club of American’s award for outstanding literary achievement. Her books include Unearthing the Secret Garden, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, and All the President’s Gardens. Visit her at Marta McDowell.


Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
Beatrix Potter’s Letters to Children: The Path to Her Books
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Late-Blooming Author with a Passion for Nature

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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More about Unearthing the Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is indisputably one of the most beloved children’s classics. Published in 1911, it has never been out of print, selling millions of copies worldwide. 

What many readers don’t know, however, is that its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of the most popular and prolific writers of her time. Unsurprisingly, she was also a lover of flowers and gardens—but the path to her literary triumph was a long one, beset with personal tragedy and illness.

In Unearthing The Secret Garden, Marta McDowell starts by chronicling Burnett’s childhood and early life, with a focus on her growing interest in gardens and her development as a writer. McDowell also shares details of the three gardens Burnett created in England, Long Island, and Bermuda. A guide to the plants featured in The Secret Garden will delight gardeners. 

In addition, McDowell transcribes the complete text of three of Burnett’s garden-themed stories, which help to deepen our appreciation of Burnett’s love and knowledge of gardening. McDowell complements her delightful text with period illustrations and contemporary photographs that bring Burnett’s world vividly to life for the reader.

Just as The Secret Garden continues to enchant readers of all ages, so Unearthing The Secret Garden draws us into a richly textured account of the fascinating professional and gardening life that gave us one of literature’s greatest treasures.

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4 classic books by Frances Hodgson Burnett

See also: 4 Classic Books by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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