Secret gardens, or walled gardens, are basically domestic gardens enclosed inside artificial walls. These walls are usually made from bricks, stones or even greeneries themselves, as an extension of the landscape or the estate they were found in.
Secret gardens were originally conceived in medieval England for two reasons. The first reason is to prevent intruders, both humans and animals, from entering the inner region and accessing the fruits, herbs and other plants cultivated inside. This is especially crucial for gardens which contain imported plants and spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, silk and pepper, from the Far East. Prior to the colonisation of Asia and the Middle East, these products were exceptionally expensive owing to the monopoly of the Mediterranean spice trade by a handful of merchant princes. One study hypothesised that, adjusted for inflation, a pound of ginger costs as much as a full two days wage for the average labourer in the 17th century! This is perfectly understandable though, considering how bland food tasted at the time. Less we forget, the spice trade was arguably the most powerful driving force behind the post-Renaissance explorers and colonists.
The second reason for the walls is to act as a mechanism to shelter the more fragile plant life inside the gardens, such as grapes, roses and peaches, from the harshness of cold, especially during winters. Walls typically absorb heat from the rays of sun during the day and slowly disseminate them back into the garden at night. Many walls were also built with vents, which allow the distribution of heat from centralised charcoal braziers or wood furnaces. In a sense, the walls regulate temperatures inside the enclosed gardens. In some instances, the moderate temperature actually facilitated the healthy cultivation of plants native to the Mediterranean and tropical climates.
Interestingly though, the term ‘secret garden’ only gained national prominence in the early 20th century following the publication of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children book, The Secret Garden. Since then however, the term has been used interchangeably with the more popular walled garden.
Today, technological advances and more sophisticated economic and trading models have diminished the practical and economic appeals of secret gardens. Nevertheless, their popularity has withstood the test of time owing to their enduring aesthetic and social appeal.
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