How To Have Your Own “Secret Garden”

Secret Garden

This post begins and ends with a gift.

Just prior to the Christmas holiday, a very dear coworker of mine, Lorraine, presented me with a silver-wrapped package tied with a string of sparkling stars.  She explained that when she saw this item, she thought of me.  It was whimsical, she said, and she thought — or at least hoped — that I would understand.

Her only instruction was to open it on Christmas morning.

And so I brought the present home and placed it under the tree and stared at it, wondering what sort of whimsy was hidden beneath the silver foil paper.

Needless to say, it was the first present I opened on the morning of December 25 — and I soon found myself in the enchanting Secret Garden, a soft-cover book of imaginative black ink illustrations of flowers and foliage, hidden objects and doodle space.

Secret Garden

And I immediately understood why my friend chose this book.  It’s for children.  It’s for adults.  It’s for the child in all of us.  And just as a child has a curiosity to explore, so too did I have a curiosity about the woman who dreamt of Secret Garden, artist/illustrator/ink evangelist Johanna Basford.

Working from her studio in Scotland, Ms. Basford has won numerous awards and honors for her intricate non-digital work.  More importantly, though, she has shared her imagination in so many inspiring ways.  In addition to her own books, she has also done work for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Starbucks, Nike, and Smart Car — to name but a few.  Given her busy illustrating life, the pencil-and-pen artist managed to find time to graciously answer a few questions from NGDM.

Courtesy of Johanna Basford.

Courtesy of Johanna Basford.

NGDM: I received your book, Secret Garden, as a gift from a co-worker — and as soon as I opened it, I was completely pulled into the rabbit hole, just as you inscribed on the inside cover.  What inspired you to create this world?

JB: I’ve always had a pretty vivid imagination, possibly a result of not watching a lot of TV as a child. I’d prefer to make-up stories, play outside and build dens or little imaginary worlds in the garden. I think my illustration practice is just an extension of this childhood – I spend my days thinking up weird and wonderful worlds, then make them come to reality on the paper.

Secret Garden

NGDM: You designed the book to be a coloring/activity book for adults and children alike, but I have a confession to make.  I’m hesitant to spoil your illustrations with color.  Is there anything you can say to convince me to add color to your world?  What do you recommend I use?

JB: I think you should let your own imagination roam free and just use my lines as a foundation from which to create your own worlds. The pages in the book are a starting point, not the finished work! Think of it as a creative collaboration, I’ve done my bit, now you need to add your contribution. I’ve posted a blog about pens and pencils I recommend here.

NGDM: After exploring your website and blog, I’m quite impressed with your accessibility to people — especially since your illustrating time seems to be so solitary.  You encourage readers of Secret Garden to submit photos of how they chose to color your work.  What most surprises you about how others interpret your work?

JB: I’m very lucky to have a job that I adore, so when other people are equally as enthusiastic about the work that I create, well that’s just the icing on the cake! If people take the time to buy the book, colour the pages and send me photos of their creations, I couldn’t be happier! It’s a real honor.

Generally I don’t work in colour, preferring to create images in monochrome only, so it’s wonderful to see what colours people imagined for different flowers and leaves – until I see their colours I’ve only ever pictured the plants in black and white.

Secret Garden

NGDM: Many of your illustrations are filled with hidden treasures, such as ants and butterflies, as a challenge to readers, and this in turn pulls them in.  But have you ever met an insect you didn’t like?

JB: I’m not a fan of spiders, which is surprising, as I love to draw them! They often end up trapped under jam jars until my husband comes home or the dog eats them!

NGDM: You’ve christened yourself an ink evangelist.  How did you come up with that title and what does it mean to you? 

JB: I like to think I’m a champion of the (wobbly) hand drawn line. I put pen to paper and create all my work by hand instead of using a computer. I think digital illustration has a role to play and there are some of my contemporaries who do amazing work on the computer, but I think there’s something intrinsically charming, honest and characterful in the hand drawn line and the inky pen stroke. Also, like much of my creative content, the hand drawn line is organic and natural; there’s a nice sense of balance there.

Secret Garden

NGDM: Clearly, you have an inky thumb — but do you have a green thumb?  How often do you get the chance to follow in the gardening footsteps of your parents and grandparents?

JB: Not as much as I would like! Our garden is very much a “work in progress” — I’m planning on planting lots of cherry blossoms this year. I tend to go for the ornamental over the edible!  I’ve also got a soft spot for a terrarium.  I think the charm of creating a tiny encapsulating world appeals to my doll’s house mentality.

NGDM: What gardening lessons, if any, did your family share with you?

JB: I’m not sure if it’s a lesson, but this is my most vivid gardening memory…

My dad used to pay my sister and I 50p for every cabbage white butterfly we could catch (to avoid them laying their eggs on the greens and the caterpillars munching the veges!) We spent many summer holidays dashing about the veg patch with bandy nets in pursuit of the white winged creatures in an effort to boost our pocket money. I learnt that gardening could be good exercise and also financially beneficial!

In hindsight, we were a little naive. We both hated cabbage, so had we forgone the financial bribe, we may have spared ourselves a few portions of the loathed green stuff!

NGDM: What flowers inspire you the most and why?

I love ivy and honeysuckle.  They grow around the door of my childhood home. There’s something wonderfully creative about the way they creep and entwine themselves around one another. And the honeysuckle is like a magnet to bees, my favourite of all the insects!

Secret Garden

NGDM: You mention on the FAQs page of your website that if you could be an insect you would be a bee.  Why is that?

JB: I love honey and flowers, so I think a bee and I would have a lot in common. I also admire their industrious attitude to work, as well as the beautiful shapes of the honeycomb they build. Clever little insects!

NGDM: When you were a young girl, did your teachers criticize you for doodling and drawing in your notebooks?

JB: Yes, frequently. I feel I got the last laugh!

If you would like to learn more about Johanna Basford and her fantastical world, you can explore her website,  Also, please enjoy this time-lapse video of the artist at work.

The Giveaway:

As I said earlier, this post begins and ends with a gift.  A copy of Secret Garden will go to a randomly selected commenter.  If you would like a chance to win, just leave a comment about anything — from what inspires you to your favorite color in the garden to just introducing yourself.

If you would like another chance at winning Secret Garden, leave a comment on the NGDM FaceBook page.

A winner will be selected and announced next Sunday.

Happy Gardening!

104 thoughts on “How To Have Your Own “Secret Garden”

  1. Absolutely charming! I will most definitely go out today to buy two copies of Secret Garden to give as gifts…one for my sister and one for myself!But, I’m with you, I would hesitate to add my own color to the lovely drawings. I just might have to keep the color in my imagination!

  2. I love all of the different ways whimsy and magic and awe find their ways into our hearts, minds, and if we’re lucky, our work as well. What a thoughtful co-worker you have!

    • Hello Sarah. It’s so important to work with thoughtful people, considering that we tend to spend more time with them than we do with our own family. Thanks for the comment.

  3. If everyone had a secret garden the world would be a ‘blooming’ marvellous place. Unfortunately I have no space for a garden,but I do have the most photographed window boxes every summer.

    • Hi Mincka. So sorry to hear of your illness. I’ve added your name into the running. If you need a pick me up, several of my posts are humorous. Here’s one:

  4. I love this! I loved coloring as a kid. And when I say kid I really mean all the way up till my twenties and then life got too busy.

  5. Hi Kevin 🙂 its really nice to meet you and I especially love your post.

    My name’s kate leonard and I’m also a little illustrator I’d like to say like Johanna basford once was many years ago when she started out her creative venture as an inky illustrator.

    More than anything I think my inspiration and appreciation is found in the little things in life, much like her book “the secret garden” I find inspiration and creative idea’s like seed’s grow from the things I see around me.

    Walks through the park and over the fields with my muddy golden retriever might mean I happen to stumble upon a collection of feathers a bird left behind, the rustle of autumn leaves that fall to the ground or the branches that brush together in the wind help me to create a picture of an imaginative world in my head.

    Delving into vintage books , flipping through old photos or simply admiring the world and people around me with a warm cup of tea just opens up the chance to see things that could creatively inspire me in a similar way johanna has.

    I also have a wordpress blog so if you’d like take a look at my recent post you’ll see what I mean 🙂 but yep I think these are the things that inspire me in life, how about you ?

    Kate Leonard

    • Hi Kate. Thanks for a beautiful comment. I find my inspiration comes best when I have the chance to be in the garden or in the greenhouse — just alone with plants so that my mind can wander. Morning is usually my most inspirational time of day. I’m on my way to your site. 🙂

  6. After a stressful day, it’s wonderful to relax in the secret garden. Entering into a world of mystical delight. Every page brings warmth to your heart. With animals and insects to find along the way. Bring them to life with an array of colour. Wish there was a secret garden two. 🙂

  7. I’ve had this book on my wishlist for a little while, it’s just so beautiful and inspiring.
    I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with an adult enjoying colouring in! 😉
    Thanks for the chance to win!

  8. I adore thus book. I love flowers, nature, gardening, wildlife, colouring, creating so this book fills me with such excitement. I so enjoyed reading this blog & you asked many questions that I have wondered about; it was lovely to hear Johanna’s responses. Thank you for this opportunity to win this wonderful book. From a new, very happy liker & a loyal follower of the Secret Garden x

  9. I believe this is just an awesome idea and we ought be carrying such a book with us! I bought my 10yo boy Doodle While You Work by Staffan Gnosspelius … Same concept with a few verbal cues to encourage the artist!! Thanks for this!!

    • Hi Handy Helen. I would like to fall into many of the illustrations — especially the ones with a potting shed. It’s no wonder that Johanna’s favorite story is “Alice In Wonderland.” Could the sequel be “Nitty Gritty Dirt Man In Wonderland”? Or “Handy Helen In Wonderland”? 🙂

  10. I used to color in “adult” coloring books while my kids colored in theirs. I chose garden themed books for grown ups. Colored pencils worked best for me. When I mentioned to a friend that I liked adult coloring books, she thought I meant naughty coloring. Then, I had to explain. Still makes me giggle.

  11. I remember my mom gave me a few pages of some books with designs in them that I loved coloring. They were like prism designs, and I loved the details in each. However, they were not pictures of what I love: Flowers, Trees, Plants, Animals, Birdhouses, Insects. I have been doodling the same old boring butterfly design for years. I would love to have more inspired drawings to admire and possibly color. I also think it would be great de-stressing and calming therapy for me while I go through some difficult challenges of life.

    • Hey Donna. I don’t think I could sit in class without doodling — all that empty space in the margins practically begged to be filled in. 🙂 The artist’s process is certainly fascinating.

  12. This is awesome. You have such a sweet friend and your questions were spot on. She is very talented. Thank you for sharing and for the opportunity.

  13. Hi, Kevin – very nice interview – and, what a wonderful gift from your friend! It’s funny – as soon as I saw the pic of the large flower with the ladybug crawling up the stem, my brain started to debate – water colors, colored pencils, crayons, cray-pas – what would I use to color this? And, although the illustration is in black and white, in my mind’s eye it was already in color! Our imagination is a marvelous thing and the child in each of us should not be stifled! Stay young!

  14. Hi Kevin- This is fantastic… just what we need to capture our imagination and get us creating our own secret gardens. Our imaginations will be our limitation… How fantastic.
    I understand the conundrum of not knowing whether you want to add colour or not. Would she have any issues with us making photocopies of our work and being able to apply perhaps different colour schemes to each!.. I have favorite colour schemes for different areas… I use whites and variagated foliage by the pond for a moon garden.. I use bright bold hot colours with contrasting foliage in my large bed and butterfly garden. I tend to use older favorite perennials from my grandmothers garden in my Fairy garden… I am working on a “Secret garden” area….I just haven’t gotten it right so far! It had a lot of taller spruce for the bare bones.. then carpet roses on a berm.. I use large mammoth ornamental grasses to create the rest of the hidden path and “secretness” of my secret garden…. The perennials planted with in are still being changed and rotated from other areas…… Its a work in progress as am I.
    Thanks for sharing this… I so want one!

    • Hi Kate. I have a feeling that the artist really wouldn’t mind various colors on her work. I think that’s what she would love — and you can send her a photo of your finished work. Happy coloring. 🙂

  15. This makes me want to try out that recipe for black walnut ink I found. We usually “golf” the black walnuts out of our yard every fall, but if I save a dozen or so…

  16. My favorite secret garden isn’t in my garden in Iowa but in Grand Portage, MN. I LOVE to lay on the forest floor while on vacation on Lake Superior and look at the miniature landscapes in the moss. My little piece of heaven.

    • Glad you left a comment. It’s a truly beautiful book — and the author is quite approachable and generous with her talent. I like her philosophy of being a partner in her art — just bring your own color. 🙂

  17. What a fabulous gift book. I have two friends I immediately thought of, and will buy this book as a birthday gift. It’s perfect for the artist/gardener in both of them. I have been thinking of how I’d like to add more spots of whimsey in my own garden this year, and the playfulness of these illustrations is a delightful inspiration. Ms. Basford is certainly an open and delightful person, and you are really great at making contacts and interviewing authors. That’s a very particular talent, too! 🙂

    • Hi Anna. There are so many wonderful adjectives to describe Johanna and her work. I’m sorry to say, though, that the giveaway was given away a week ago. Thank you for your comment and please check in again for future giveaways.

    • Hi Barbara. This “Secret Garden” is a bit different — an illustrated vision that invites adults and children alike to add their own splashes of color. Like you, though, I love the novel, as well. Happy gardening!

  18. Found another book for children at Barnes and Noble by Joanne and it mentioned secret garden. I knew I had to find it. When I saw it I was so excited it made me nervous. If I don’t buy it for myself it will be on my Christmas list. Just wonderful!

  19. OMG! I’ve looked and looked for almost a year for the SECRET GARDEN coloring book! I finally gave in and bout “substitutes, if you will, however I’ve not given up not given up on the search!! I could probably order it, but I like to do things on the spur of the moment

    • Hi Pat. I wish I could help you, but that giveaway has been over for some time now. I agree — “The Secret Garden” is a beautiful book, and Johanna has been credited with igniting the adult coloring movement. 🙂 Best of luck with your search.

  20. Pingback: El Taller de Bielisa » Buenos días 2016

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