The Secret Garden

In 1901, Frances Hodgson Burnett published her book, The Secret Garden, a popular work, constantly in print for more than a hundred years and the inspiration of extensive adaptations in film and television.

The story is focussed on a child, Mary Lennox, who is orphaned in India. She is spoilt and neglected by her parents, and as a result is seriously unattractive: ‘by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived’. Her parents die of cholera, and she is sent to live in the grand house belonging to her uncle on the Yorkshire moors. Here she plays alone in the bleak formal grounds. But she is led by a robin, flying over an ivy-covered wall, to find the gate of a locked, walled garden.

The story continues with her absorption in the neglected garden and her attempts to cultivate it. She also discovers her own cousin, equally isolated and confined to bed as an invalid, and assists him back to natural health by taking him into the garden. The pleasure of this story lies in the connections with nature (notably the robin), and the gradual recovery of the two children, who become healthy and sociable in restoring the garden.

Robin Gillanders, Robin on a bench donated by the Friends of the Astley Ainslie, close to the secret garden, January 2018.

This story connects readily to the intentions of the Astley Ainslie trustees – both children and adults, who are unwell, frightened or unsociable may be calmed, charmed and fulfilled in a natural landscape. The Secret Garden is a study in convalescence. And while it may seem unlikely that it could have more direct relevance to the grounds of a working hospital in the heart of a city, the Astley Ainslie has just such a locked, walled garden. This is placed between the gardens of Canaan Park and St Roque.

A walled garden has the advantage that the plants and the gardeners are protected from cold winds. The stone walls absorb the heat of the sun, keeping the space warm and encouraging growth. The garden offers excellent conditions for the convalescent patients, and it was evidently one of the areas where they were encouraged to work during the time of the Astley Ainslie Trust.

Michele Hipwell reports:

In 2009 a garden group was set up by the local community group, Transition Edinburgh South. The garden was then mostly maintained by two people, a member of staff at the AA and her husband with occasional help from charitable organisations. The couple contacted me and I contacted Pat Abel who knows a lot about growing food. The community group was then involved in guerrilla gardening and helping with setting up a community garden at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. They found the walled garden at the AA to be most interesting, with raised beds and paths set up for patients in wheelchairs, fruit trees, soft fruits including raspberries and red and black currants. It included a small woodland and a large neglected space that had obviously been used as a vegetable garden. There was also a life size chess board and interesting flower borders. We baptised it ‘the Secret Garden’. Members from the group started cultivating the neglected space and grew vegetables.

Patients were then reintroduced into the garden, and discovered the pleasure and fulfilment of the work.

Unfortunately, when the organisers decided to analyse the soil there it proved to contain zinc and lead. This may have been simply the detritus left after the demolition of the greenhouses and the water tanks and pipes needed to supply them. No-one had shown signs of sickness after eating the fruit or vegetables grown there. But the management of the NHS locked the garden, and the patients lost the freedom to grow plants and enjoy sitting in the sun surrounded by flowers. In the best traditions of the awkward child in the book, occasional teenagers find their way over the wall, but most of us are barred.

However, this makes the garden interesting. We have not formally interfered with its growth in the intervening years, and nature does not need our assistance to grow in its own way.

The hospital grounds

The Trustees of the Astley Ainslie were concerned to lay out splendid gardens in keeping with the history and setting of the site, and set up a vegetable garden in the south of the grounds. For the first decades of the NHS occupation, a large gardening staff was employed and produced exotic fruit and flowers as well as the vegetables for the patients.

View over the gardens, showing ten or more gardeners and children, published in the University of Edinburgh Journal, 1929-30.

In the later 1970s or early 1980s, the decision was made to reduce the professional gardeners and to take down the greenhouses. In consequence, the grounds of the Astley Ainslie have been maintained now for some forty to fifty years, in the practical sense of ‘kept tidy’. Lawns are now mowed by machine, trees are cut down but not replaced, and shrubs close to the buildings are pruned severely by chainsaw. Pests and weeds are controlled by poisons.

The situation is much improved by the volunteers who plant flowers. And the areas on the fringes, and between paths and buildings allow nature a foothold. Here the trees grow thickly, and an understorey of ivy, holly and other plants has flourished – these are the hopeful areas of the site (I am indebted to Willie McGhee for this opinion). The balance between professional horticultural development and nature has shifted.

In the walled garden for nearly ten years, the land has been left to itself; small birds, animals and insects have shelter, and the robin will indeed flit over the wall to show us the way to something good. Simply locking the door on land cannot be regarded as a scientific experiment, but there are interesting possibilities. We should look at these alongside the biodiversity exploration that AACT proposes to undertake in the spring. It will provide a useful comparison with the range of life in the maintained areas and in the fringes and understorey.

The newly-established birch trees, for example, have two extraordinary benefits for the land. Their long roots stabilise the sloping ground and reach down to bring buried nutrients up to the surface – encouraging other plants. Trees have a particularly important role in fighting pollution and can effectively clear contaminated ground and air. Nature is the original recycler – death and decay will nourish new life. The damp-loving plants, moss, lichen and fungus, colonise the surface of stone and trees adding a further richness of life and colour and breaking down dead matter. It will be instructive to see how far such life may have reduced the contamination found ten years ago.