Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

Unearthing the Secret Garden Book Cover


Goodreads: Unearthing the Secret Garden
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: October 2021

Official Summary

New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden.
In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.

Star Divider


I was not sure what to expect when I opened Unearthing the Secret Garden. I hoped for something like an account of the gardens Frances Hodgson Burnett knew, and how they inspired her. I also hoped for a book that is, well, as enchanting as Burnett’s own. Unearthing the Secret Garden does talk about some of Burnett’s gardens, but in an almost clinical way, listing plants and colors she liked to grow. And about half the book is not about Burnett, but some of Burnett’s lesser-known writings on gardening. These proved the most interesting parts of the book, though they seemed a bit out of place in a book that seems not to know what it wants to be, flitting about from biography to short stories to a list of plants you, too, can grow. Finally there is a note from one of Burnett’s descendants urging us all to grow kindness. Frankly, it seems like Marta McDowell did not have enough material for this book, so she created a hodgepodge. How well it works will vary be reader.

Initially, I was most struck by how little material we seem to have on Burnett and her gardens. The book notes three she cared for, but focuses most on one, the other two having disappeared to time. A bit of her biography is interspersed with accounts of the gardens, mainly so readers understand how Burnett arrived at such-and-such a place to start a garden there. But the biography is sparse, and the focus remains on what Burnett was planting. None of the magic prose that makes countless readers, myself included, feel inspired to grow something when I am engrossed in reading The Secret Garden. A lot of it is just lists of flower names and an observation that Burnett loved blue and white flowers, and hated magenta.

Photographs are scattered throughout the book, though I felt some were less relevant than others, and I wished they had had dates or photographer credits on them. The one garden Burnett grew is still around (though vastly changed) and all readers have for a guide as to when photos of it were taken is that some are in color and some are in black and white. And yet, does that mean the black and white ones are actual pictures of Burnett’s garden? Or just period photos? And if her son Vivian took some photos, it would be nice to have that more clearly stated on the photos he took. Photographs of Burnett herself are mostly undated.

The strongest part of the book were the writings Burnett herself did on gardens. One, admittedly a little scattered, is about an English garden feature called the ha-ha. It is short and not particularly inspired, but it is interesting. One is an encouragement for readers to garden, mainly focusing on how one can learn from experience and others and not be fearful. This is mainly interesting now because it was penned by a famous author. But the final piece, the one about the real-life robin that loved to keep Burnett company, and which inspired the robin in The Secret Garden casts Burnett’s magic spell all over again. One can tell she truly loves nature–and she makes readers love it, too.

The final pieces of the book almost seem present just to take up space. There is a lengthy list of plants Burnett actually grew or mentions in her books, for readers who want to grow them, too. (An earlier part of the book mentions that gardeners of the time were not interested in native species, so I suppose actually growing some of these might be counter to some contemporary gardening advice I have seen. But I’m no expert.) And then there is the final note by Burnett’s descendant. I’ve never really been a fan of hearing from descendants of famous people unless they really have a special connection to the writer or some special insight. This is just a note saying we all grow stuff and we should grow kindness. And, if we are honest, it would not be that remarkable except that the writer has a famous ancestor. So there’s that.

For me, Unearthing the Secret Garden is a really uneven book, a hodgepodge of information and selections thrown together to make it look like there is something here worth collecting. But, for me, the only really gripping part is Burnett’s story of the robin. Find a copy of that to read, and you can save yourself the trouble of the rest.

3 Stars

11 thoughts on “Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell

  1. kamifurr says:

    At first glance, this seems like a fun book behind the book kinda thing, but after your review, I dunno. I’m not a plant person by any means. I like the idea of plants, but I tend to kill them. I feel like would be so bored with this book. I’m glad you liked it though. I know a few people who would love this.


    • Krysta says:

      I guess I was expecting it to be like The Secret Garden and make me want to run out and start a garden. But instead I thought, “Huh, it must be nice to be fabulously wealthy so you can rent your own estate with a giant garden and hire gardeners to tend it.” Apparently Burnett did do gardening herself, too, but she had help since her lands were apparently somewhat extensive.


  2. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    I loved Secret Garden but I’m not a plant person and I don’t know things about plants so it wouldn’t help me if most of book was about author’s plants and know very little about author or the inspirations. Great review!


    • Krysta says:

      I like plants, but I usually stick to growing easy things. Reading this book made me think about how much easier it would be to have a sprawling garden that attracts sight seers if I could hire other people with actual knowledge to care for it! Burnett apparently rented an estate in England and had at least one or two people helping out.

      I am also interested in how you can rent a sprawling estate. And apparently just change the landscaping when you feel like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ofmariaantonia says:

    I absolutely LOVE the premise of this book. Sorry that it doesn’t sound like it holds up to its promise! I am very intrigued by the story of the real-life robin! Now, I just need to get my hands on that story!! Thanks for the review!


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