How we made the Secret Garden

As you may know the Oak Room has a Secret Garden that only visitors can use! In this article I will outline how we created it.

It started life as a horrible rubbly buddlia-ridden plot at the back of the building but with a reasonable space to create a garden and it has a stunning view over the River Exe, West Exe and the hills beyond.

Before works

This is the garden after we had cleared most of the brambles and buddlia – it was a mess!

Creating the garden was one of the first jobs when I bought the place in 2014. I love creating gardens and I could see such potential! I decided it had to be mainly paving as it is to be a space that people can enjoy at any time, it needed to be robust and versatile and easy to maintain. Luckily the garden is also naturally enclosed by stone walls and faces west and the sunset.

I retained a short concrete path to save on paving costs and incorporated a feature at the end of it – a circle with a sun motif within it made of paving. I then ordered some Indian sandstone on the suggestion of my neighbour Mark who also offered to install it!  I had been to India for a month with my daughter which was an amazing experience and I wanted the energy of India to be in my garden. The bright varied colours and roughness of the sandstone was very appealing and would make a stunning first impression.

Next I created a flower bed on either side at the bottom of the walls. We found lots of huge stones so we placed them around to make the edging and filled in with some compost as the soil was very stony and poor. We even found a couple of gravestones! Apparently a father and his two sons were buried there in the 1700’s! We didn’t dig too deep when prepping the ground for the paving!

New flower beds

New flower beds surrounded by feature stones found in the garden. Can you see the headstone?!

My original plan was to have a sun and moon garden on each side and I planted yellow, orange and red flowering plants on the ‘sun’ north facing side and white, blue and pink flowering plants on the ‘moon’ south facing side. In hindsight this didn’t work as expected as the cool colours of the moon side actually ended up being the hottest side in the summer and the ‘sun’ side was more shaded and favoured ferns and more delicate plants. This was fully predictable if I had appreciated the north/south facing difference! Oh well, live and learn!

Next came the job of clearing and levelling the ground for the paving and a friend (Larry) and my neighbour Mark and his son did that. We had to drag 8 tonnes of aggregate and sand up the front steps, through the church and down the spiral staircase! This really is a Secret Garden with no other suitable access!

The site was now starting to take shape and the paving was laid. The colours of the stone was stunning and I loved the uneven naturalness of it too. The final touch was to fill the gaps between the slabs with white kiln-dried sand which looked amazing!

New paving

New paving being laid

Now time to make it into a proper garden! I spent quite a long time and quite a bit of cash collecting feature plants and pots. I also installed a water feature in the back corner which was lined with stone so the water just disappeared into the stones.

Water feature

Water feature takes shape.

I retained one token buddlia bush which grows vigorously every year and gets a bit much at times but attracts butterflies so it it worth keeping it. It has taken several years for the garden to establish but I am very pleased with the result especially as the perennial shrubs are now a sensible size and the tubs continue to expand in number and variety.

In 2017 a nice man called Graham offered to build some raised beds in the garden as I dearly wanted to grow more, especially herbs, fruits, vegetables and salad. He took most of the summer which was frustrating because no-one could use the garden most of that year!

I think you will agree that the raised beds are an attractive and useful addition to the garden and the design incorporated a rail to stop people perching on the end retaining wall which is very low with a long drop the other side. Here you can see them nearly finished but we couldn’t wait to start planting them up!

Building the raised beds

Raised beds nearly completed

As I write this in July 2018 I am loving the garden! It is maturing well and the raised beds have allowed me to grow potatoes, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, courgettes and herbs. Unfortunately I can only seem to grow salad in hanging baskets due to the hungry slugs!

Secret Garden 2018

People enjoying the Secret Garden

It is so nice that people can now enjoy the garden and the views when we have art classes, seminars and other events. I will continue to develop the garden and I very much look forward to watching it mature even more and to growing more food.

More raised beds and hanging baskets are planned and I am aiming to create a more jungle feel with feature plants like bamboo and sambuka, castor oil plant and palms, as well as more climbers. Watch this space!

Raised beds

Raised beds are great for extra growing space

Book our Secret Garden Room or come to some of our events and you will have full access to it.

Come and enjoy the garden!

Written Sue Johnston (Searle) – owner of the Oak Room