Why ‘The Secret Garden’ is still fertile ground for gardeners

Why ‘The Secret Garden’ is still fertile ground for gardeners

I recently watched “The Secret Garden,” a 1949 movie based on the classic book of the same title by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It concerns an orphan girl and how her life and the lives of those around her are transformed through the restoration of a secret garden in Yorkshire, England. If there ever was a movie or a book that the whole family, without reservation, can thoroughly enjoy, this would be it. 

When Mary, the orphan girl, first enters the secret garden, nothing is growing except for some daffodils, whose green shoots have just begun to push their way up through the earth. Later, after the daffodil has flowered, Mary cuts it and places it in a vase. The way she lovingly looks at and touches it is the first sign of her transformation from a headstrong, insolent girl into a sensitive and caring soul.

The innocence of children and the pristine beauty of a garden go hand in hand. More than this, it is the involvement of children in planting seeds, observing the tiny leaves that sprout, and harvesting a crop that gives them a sense of meaning and self-worth from a young age. They also learn about responsibility in caring for what grows and about giving when they share what they harvest among their friends.

Cherry tomatoes are excellent fruit for kids to grow and pick because they fit easily into the smallest hands. And they are available for harvest in Southern California virtually all year long. My Sungold cherry tomato plant has been producing for at least six months and shows no signs of tiring out. It has grown up a six-foot trellis and is still decorated with myriad flowers and continuously ripening fruit. My Sun Dipper tomato plant is also still producing. Sun Dipper is an elongated, hourglass-shaped cherry tomato that is easily held between your thumb and forefinger for dunking in the vegetable or snack dip of your choice.

One of the shrubs that stands out for special mention in “The Secret Garden” is the lilac. Lilacs are large, deciduous shrubs that may eventually reach a height of 15 feet. Lilacs may also be grown into magnificent hedges. Few people, however, take this horticultural plunge, since lilacs are leafless during the winter and do not bloom for more than a few weeks in the spring. 

Speaking of their bloom, no flowers outdo lilacs – whose thick floral clusters can reach a foot in length – when it comes to fragrance. Proof of this is in the fact that “lilac” is a standalone scent in the world of perfumery. An age-old technique known as enfleurage involves placing lilac flowers on vegetable fat in the form of palm, cocoa, or coconut butter to extract their essential oil. In classic enfleurage, lilacs are cut for 33 consecutive days, as day-old flowers are replaced on the butter with freshly cut blooms.

Lilacs are indigenous to areas with cold winters so Southern California gardeners may despair at the idea of growing them locally. However, there is a group of hybrid lilacs that have been bred at Descanso Gardens in La Canada that do not require winter chilling to bloom. Two of  them – Angel White and Lavender Lady – are grown by Monrovia nursery and may be ordered through any nursery that carries Monrovia plants. Descanso hybrid lilacs as well as 250 other lilac cultivars, whose peak bloom time arrives in mid-March, are in a special collection at Descanso Gardens that you could easily miss since they are off the beaten track of the casual visitor. 

Lilacs are known for their longevity, living 100 years or more in their habitat of southeastern Europe on rocky Balkan slopes in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia. A primary reason for their staying power is their strong suckering tendency. New growth is constantly pushing up from the soil, which also makes propagation easy. You can create new plants simply by digging up young suckers along with their roots and transplanting them to other parts of the garden.

Lilacs grow best in soil that has a neutral to somewhat alkaline pH, similar to the pH that characterizes the soil found in most Southern California gardens. Good soil drainage is also essential so if your soil does not drain well amend it with compost before planting lilacs. Lilacs bloom on second-year growth (branches that grew the previous year) and should be cut back by 20-40% to a pair of leaves after they finish flowering. Shoots that did not flower should not be pruned other than to shape the plant. On a shrub that has been in the garden for at least three years, completely remove older branches down to their base in order to encourage new flowering branches and to maintain the plant in a compact form. 

Take care not to overwater your lilacs. Do not water at this time of year unless there has been no rain for a month. During the spring, deep soak your lilacs every two weeks and, in summer, once a week. As for fertilization, it is really an afterthought, especially when a layer of mulch is constantly present, where lilacs are concerned. Too much nitrogen leads to excessive leafy growth at the expense of flower production. If you do fertilize, which you should not do more than once a year prior to bud break, make sure the product contains twice as much phosphorus, which stimulates flowering, as nitrogen. Lilacs grow rapidly to twelve feet and their flowers are famously cut for vase arrangements.

California native of the week: There are not many California wildflowers that can grow in partial shade but baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) is one of them. I will never forget the sight of a huge expanse of these irresistible flowers growing under a several-hundred-year-old oak tree in Topanga Canyon. Baby blue eyes have sky-blue blossoms with white centers. Scatter their seeds now for a late winter and early spring show. They may be grown where bulbs are planted since they do not interfere with bulb growth and nicely complement white narcissus and yellow daffodils, for example. Once in bloom, baby blue eyes flower without interruption until the onset of hot weather whereupon they go to seed – which will germinate in place the following year.

Please send questions, comments, and photos to joshua@perfectplants.com