The Secret Gardeners: Creating Book-Themed Gardens

The doorway to what will be the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ garden.

Note from The Literary Onion: Hi. I hope you’re all doing okay, despite these very trying times. The Secret Gardeners, creating Book Gardens is a project both my mother and I are working on together. The blog posts will mostly be written by my mother, like the one below, and the videos are created by me. Hopefully, we’ll improve the more we go along but we hope you enjoy our attempts whilst we do. Thank you for reading.

THE PROJECT               

To plan and build a number of gardens (actual number to be decided) based on book themes at our Writer’s Retreat in Cotes D’Armor, Brittany, France.

We opened our Writer’s Retreat on 13 March 2020 four days before the first lockdown in France (so, well timed).  Between lockdowns and border closures we have had no visitors this year. 


We live in a semi-secluded valley with a few neighbours scattered around.  Our Retreat is an old Breton farmhouse (circa 1890’s) complete with outbuildings and 19,000ish metres squared of land (roughly 4 ½ acres).  A lot of this land is woods but we do have four distinct other areas where we hope to develop our gardens.  We will describe these in more detail as we go along. 

The entrance to the woods is a bit overgrown.


We are a couple of British expats (Mother and Daughter) who moved to Brittany in October 2019 with hopes for a new life and a new business venture.  Together with our long suffering husband/father (who also provides some of the labour but who, he says, is retired) and two dogs we moved to Le Stylo Noir (The Retreat) in February 2020.


When we first moved to France we lived for a while in our small holiday home before we bought the Retreat.

When the lockdown came we had to decide where to base ourselves. Since we had a few jobs to do at the Retreat we decided to stay there for, we thought, a couple of weeks until the lockdown was lifted.  We had taken clothes to last a couple of weeks and a small amount of furniture and personal possessions.  We had already moved some things: our book collection, pots and pans and bed linen.  So on 13th March (a Friday, *insert-haunted-sounds-here*) we moved to the Retreat. 

At the Retreat we only had an old gas bottle oven which was falling apart and no washing machine. This was still at the holiday home.  Needless to say the lockdown lasted a little longer than two weeks.  I washed the clothes by hand we’d taken with us, cooked on the gas cooker and we read a lot of books and watched too much Netflix. 

We got through the jobs quite quickly and wanted to get started on a veg garden but as all the shops were closed except supermarkets we couldn’t buy any seeds apart from a few packets in the local supermarket and a couple of bags of compost. 

By the time we were ‘released’ it was well into the growing season so we went to the garden shop and bought some veg plants, mostly late-tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, chillies, lettuces and, of course, courgettes.   We made the classic mistake of overwatering until we read that this wasn’t good for the plants and cut back drastically (note from The Literary Onion: this is putting it mildly. We watered twice a day, rotting their roots :P).

As time went by and summer came we made jam from our rhubarb and chutney from the plums in the orchard.  We had plenty of time on our hands as we had no guests so we renovated the small cottage at the end of one of our buildings.

The plants grew, one courgette produced plenty of produce and the other didn’t.  The beans and chillies did well but the tomatoes, like a lot of people’s, got blight and were disposed of.  We had quite a few pumpkins (in fact we’ve still got some stored away) and we spent a lot of time mowing the grass. 

This side of the Orchard is going to become ‘Merlin’s garden’.

And then in October we had our second lockdown.  Nothing to look forward to this time, just long nights and short days and even when the lockdown was lifted it didn’t make much difference.  There were no Christmas events or markets. Christmas Day was spent with the three of us and then Boxing Day was on Zoom with the other members of our family (when we could get through).


New Year brought some good news (Vaccines) and some bad (UK had really high Covid numbers and people we knew of were struggling to return back to their French homes after visiting relatives).  

Now, on 3rd February 2021 as I write, we are not in lockdown but it feels like we are waiting for another one.  We don’t really go out except for food shopping and a couple of other essentials (including getting the two cats we’ve adopted neutered, after we had to cancel their operation because of the previous lockdown).


We have decided that until the world is vaccinated we aren’t likely to get any visitors, so we need a project to keep us sane. The one thing we are not lacking in our current house is land. 

Our previous gardens in England (East Yorkshire actually) have been modest in size.  As we worked full time, we spent very little time ‘doing’ the garden.  We have always had a greenhouse so have grown tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and chillies most years.  However, any other vegetables were always a challenge as the soil in our gardens was heavy clay and resisted the attempts to make it any better by adding top soil or manure.  The most success we had was with fruit bushes and courgettes (which seem to grow anywhere).

We decided we wanted to at least have a decent vegetable garden.  We both enjoy cooking (daughter is a trained chef) and we miss some of the vegetables we were able to buy in England.  France’s supermarkets are very seasonal (this is not a criticism) and this is reflected in the vegetables for sale.   We use our local supermarket which is only small so it is even more restricted.  You can’t expect to find chillies and herbs every week.  Summer is the season for soft fruits and salads and winter is very much cabbage, cauliflower and squashes.  So in order to be able to cook some of our favourite dishes we are going to have to grow some of their ingredients and either store or freeze them. 

Whilst doing all the research on the vegetable garden for the coming year we decided, as we had a lot of time on our hands, why not plan more gardens as well.  We have a lot of grass on our land and we spend a lot of redundant time mowing it.  So any improvement which lessens the grass expanses would be time well spent. 

Every field is made up of grass, grass and more grass.

In September, we came up with our grand plan, as I like to call it.  We are a Writer’s Retreat so why not plan a few small gardens based on the books we have read?

We are going to concentrate on our plans to design and build our gardens and share them with other people in this blog and our accompanying videos on YouTube.

So here goes on our new life working on our gardens. Hopefully in late 2021/2022 we’ll welcome people to our Writer’s Retreat (with Gardens!).  

My first attempt at a Garden video. They only get better, I hope 😛 .

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