Spring…can you hear it coming? Deep underneath the melting snow things are beginning to happen. Every “cheep” of the sparrows and “hey, sweetie!” of the chickadees has me daydreaming of lush green secret gardens. Since we have to wait a while for our own, I thought I’d turn the daydream into a cardboard reality.
Open the gates, and a richly textured enchanted garden bursting with color is revealed! You don’t need anything more than scrap cardboard, colorful construction paper, scissors, tape, and a glue stick to make your own as a big backdrop for imaginative play!
This is a fabulous exercise in the practice of building layers to create depth and perspective, exploring hues and shades (so many greens!), and experimenting with the addition of unique textures. Because we used simple organic cutout paper shapes, it’s easy to move things around, try out different compositions, and create a one-of-a-kind secret garden of your own! One of my very favorite things about this unique oasis is that you can fold it up and tuck it away when you’re finished playing with it – just like our fold-up city landscape.
This project also presents the opportunity to observe nature and look at plants in close detail. You can gather inspiration for your garden by…
- Observing the flora and fauna close to you with a tour of your own backyard.
- Visiting local gardens and taking some pictures for reference.
- Gathering garden & landscape inspiration from artists and illustrators. A few of my own favorites include David Hockney, Clover Robin, Roberto Burle Marx, Gertie Huddleston, Beatriz Milhazes, Donna Ong, Bewabon Shilling, Henri Matisse, Zico Albaiquni, Hasui Kawase, Marc Martin (the illustrations for A River are ABSOLUTELY gorgeous!), Rebecca Louise Law, Hurvin Anderson, Georgia O’Keefe, Katsushika Hokusai, and Claude Monet.
- Kids who enjoy drawing with references might appreciate going through a step-by-step like the ones found in this guided plant drawing process packet from Art with Mrs. E.
To make your own fold-out secret garden you’ll need:
Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains a few Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*
- A big cardboard box or large cardboard scraps
- A box cutter
- Water-activated kraft tape (we use this kind from Eco-Enclose)
- Acrylic or tempera paint and foam brush
- Colorful construction paper
- A glue stick
- Our Printable Secret Garden Template Set (free until June 20th, 2021!)
- Oil pastels or colored pencils (to add details to the flowers)
- Mod Podge
- Ribbon (to add a book tie)
- A hot glue gun or craft glue (to affix the ribbon tie)
DIY Fold-Out Secret Garden Instructions:
- Cut 3 large rectangles from a big cardboard box
To create our landscape book pages, we used a box cutter to cut out 2 large rectangles that measured 12 inches wide by 16 inches tall, and one shorter rectangle measured 12 inches wide by 8 inches tall.
We cut the corners off the top of our two large rectangles to create a rounded half-circle shape at the top. Then, we cut one of our large rectangles in half and cut out simple shapes to create our garden gate doors.
Note: You can download and print our full-sized secret garden template set for the gate and garden background. If you’d like to make your garden the exact same size as ours, be sure to choose “print at full size” in your printing options. Each cut template will print onto more than one sheet of paper, as these are larger than the standard letter-sized sheet. Cut out and tape the background template pages/gate pages together, then trace onto cardboard.
- Paint a garden background and garden floor green
Use a green (or any color you prefer!) paint and a foam brush on the large garden background piece and smaller rectangular foldout garden floor.
We only painted one side of these pieces, but you can paint both sides if you prefer.
- Paint the garden gate pieces black
Use black (or any color you prefer!) paint and a foam brush to paint the back of your gate pieces.
- Bind the pages of your landscape book with tape
To hold our book pages together, I used water-activated kraft tape (you can find the link to the exact kind I prefer up in the supply list). I know this probably *isn’t* something you have laying around the house, but there are a couple of reasons I prefer it. ONE: it completely disappears when you paint over it, and TWO: it’s biodegradable! If you make a lot of cardboard projects, it’s well worth a special order!
To bind, simply trim a piece of tape to length, brush with water, and fold over the edges or place along the inner page seams. Notice that there’s a bit of room between the cardboard pieces so they will lay flat on top of each other when folded. If you fold the tape over the outside seams while the cardboard pieces are stacked on top of each other, it will ensure you have enough room to lay flat too.
As an alternative to this water-activated tape, you can use reinforced kraft packing tape OR wait to tape the pieces together until the very end and use clear packing tape.
- Paint the front of your gate black
Once you’ve taped your pieces together, you can finish painting the gate (and cover up the tape!). Slip a piece of newspaper or scrap paper between your gate and the background before painting.
- Cut out simple square building shapes from colorful paper
Tear or cut out different types of organic tree, bush and sky shapes from construction paper or cardstock. You can choose a specific color palette, cut squares from magazines & newspapers, or use patterned or textured papers for a different look!
- Glue your shape to the garden background
Before you begin gluing, lay your shapes out cardboard to make sure you’re happy with your composition.
Once you’re happy with the layout, use a glue stick to create a landscape collage with all of your organic shapes.
- Cut flowers from colorful paper
We cut different types and sizes of flower shapes from scrape-painted paper and construction paper scraps.
Research a few different kinds of flowers. We wanted some long bunches of flowers to cover our gates, so we cut some long violet and pink wisteria. Trumpet lilies and soft pink camellias create a nice variety of shapes and colors.
- Glue your flowers into your secret garden
Finish your garden by gluing flowers on the gate and backdrop. Beautiful!
If you think your fold-out secret garden is going to see some heavy usage, or you’ll want to be able to add some removable details later for play, you may want to coat your collaged pieces with a layer of mod podge.
Ideas for garden play and learning:
Making your secret garden is only half the fun because this was built to be played with! Here are a few ideas to help you make the most of your fold-out garden…
- ADD COLLECTED NATURE FINDS. Because this garden folds out and stands up on its own, it’s a wonderful invitation to fill out the 3D landscape with actual natural materials. We pushed a few twigs into cardboard boxes and added them to our play environment. You can add painted pinecone “pine trees,” create a dream fairy forest, or add a soft bed of flower petals and leaves.
- CREATE A GARDEN SENSORY EXPERIENCE. Adding sounds and subtle scents to play experiences is one of my most-practiced play tricks. The right sound effects, music, natural smells, or sensations can help create the perfect balance of relaxation and stimulation. Sound videos like this one from The Garden of Eden in Maui (take me back!) or these tropical bird sounds worked well for our particular garden. Invite your child to recall some garden smells. Dirt, specific flowers (wisteria in spring!) fresh-cut grass – how could you incorporate these smells into your play?
- GATHER INSPIRATION FROM GARDEN PICTURE BOOKS. We have a full list of nature-themed reading for kids here that includes so many of our favorite garden picture books.
- EXPLORE YOUR GARDEN IN EVERY SEASON. How will your garden look different in fall or winter? Talk through or sketch out drawings of your garden throughout the four seasons.
- DESIGN DIFFERENT TYPES OF GARDENS. What would a Japanese garden look like? Or an English garden? What colors would you find in a desert garden? What types of plants would you find in a tropical garden?
- MAKE A MEMORABLE CARD. Instead of building a BIG garden out of cardboard, make a miniature version out of cardstock for a beautiful keepsake Mother’s or Father’s Day card (we have a card-sized version you can print and cut out as part of our free printable template!).
If this enchanted garden play has set your heart a-flutter, you might also like our cardboard box city neighborhood, upcycled toadstool gnome home, or recycled pet play tank (a great way to use up a cardboard box!). Be sure to check out our 100 Little Homes STEAM-Building Challenge as well!
*A note about Amazon affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Amazon. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click-through to make a purchase, we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!