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Autumn in Shakespeare’s Town Gardens

Apples are picked, bulbs and wallflowers are planted. Leaves turn colour and take flight, flap and twist in autumnal winds. Sunflowers take a menacing turn.

Jane Shaw

And then comes the rain – again, and then again…

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

As at all of our sites the collection of leaves takes up a large amount of time in autumn.

The reasons are twofold: they can be added to the compost, or kept just as pure leaf mould (oak, beech and hornbeam produce the best quality), both of which enrich the soil. It is also necessary to clear them off the pathways – especially if it rains – and hell’s bells and buckets of blood, has it rained this autumn. Wet leaves can be just as slippery as a banana skin; although I have never seen anybody come a cropper on one, nor has anybody else in the gardeners’ office. So that is two people at least. Though I have witnessed somebody fall head over heels after sliding on a clump of soggy leaves. They knocked out a cap on their front tooth, cracked a lens of their spectacles and scraped a fair wad of skin off their palm. Not the greatest look before heading out to a restaurant.

In the hot border we have removed all tender plants to a frost-free glasshouse in order to ensure that they survive the rigours of winter – cannas, dahlias, chocolate cosmos and banana plants such as Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ (Red Abyssinian Banana).

After a particularly heavy downpour, the sort that is guaranteed to flood somebody’s front room, the sort that brings to mind Noah’s Ark, and with seemingly no end in sight of drier weather, we were forced to plant bulbs and wallflowers in rather soggy soil. Trampling on sodden soil is definitely not what the text books would recommend as it is easily compacted and this, along with the soil already being water logged, will further reduce the capacity for plants’ roots to access oxygen. As we could not use planks to disperse our weight on the borders we opted, attempted, mostly pretended, to tip-toe, almost hover over the soil in our steel-toe-capped boots. 

Shakespeare's New Place  

Conker

And so autumn begins: the huge horse-chestnut tree that sits in the corner of New Place spits out thousands of spiky conker-shells which land with a thump and split on impact. Some land on the heads’ of passers-by, fruits sent flying every which way. It can be a shock, and I should know – I’ve been hit many times. After an initial small fright I am always grateful to discover that a solid conker has hit me rather than a soft, squidgy, yet fulsome, deposit that often emanate from the many large pigeons that sit in the tree.

We leave a bucket full of conkers at the base of the tree for the duration of the conker-dropping season. Thank you to all of our smaller visitors, some still in nappies, who have helped to fill the bucket. Visitors with a phobia of spiders, and a penchant for old wives’ tales, often take away a few handfuls of conkers to disperse around their homes as a deterrent against the seasonal invasion of arachnids.

Our most attractive and amusing conker to land in the grounds of New Place adopted a perfect trajectory, its landing site a soft pocket of grass. Its perfectly round shell spit with exquisite precision to reveal a pair of muscular conker-buttocks. It demanded a photo-shoot.

Sunflower shower head

Apart from leaf and conker collecting the season is dominated by bulb planting. At New Place we planted 5,730. All told in the town, including Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Hall’s Croft, it amounted to 15,760; fewer than last year, but still an amount that will guarantee ‘trowel-palm’ unless the operator has placed padding in the glove of the hand that wields the trowel. Trowel-palm is a red, raw, and painful sore, sometimes blister, in the curve of the palm between the index finger and thumb.

Last year we discovered that a lot of our bulbs were uprooted, missing. A fat grey squirrel was often spotted carrying bulbs across the lawn, or outwardly gnawing on them in the open, taunting us with his bravado. This year, to stifle his efforts, we are placing a handful of horticultural grit over the tulip and crocus bulbs before covering them with soil. When he roots around for them the grit, we hope, will irritate his pads and his mission will be aborted.

In harmony with the weather our old anti-social sunflowers (see previous blog) are now imitating menacing looking shower heads.

Apple Picking at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

In between finishing hedge cutting, leaf collecting, and bulb planting, we joined our workmates in the country to pick apples in the orchards.

Apples were first mentioned in the UK in the late 9th century. By the mid-16th century, Henry VIII had an apple orchard in Kent.

AHC apple picking Seamus

The wild ancestors of apples we enjoy today – Malus domestica – are mentioned in 16th and 17th century herbals and plant books as having some medicinal properties and uses. John Gerard states in his Herbal of 1597 that ‘the sweet apples, as the Pippin and Pearmain, helpe to dissolve Melancholy humours, to procure mirth and expel heaviness’.

Malus sieversii, the ancestor of Malus domestica, originated on the borders of Kazakhstan and China. Their fruit were naturally variable; some more palatable than others. Each seed in an apple contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents. If not for grafting – a technique of cloning trees perfected in China around 4000 years ago – every apple in the world would be its own distinct variety. It would be impossible to retain a good one beyond the life span of that particular tree. This tendency of extreme genetic variability accounts for its ability to make itself at home in places as different from one another as New England and New Zealand, Kazakhstan and California. Its offspring propose so many different variations on what it means to be an apple – at least 5 per apple, several thousand per tree – that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.

Our task, along with volunteers who volunteered for a day’s apple collecting, was to round-up one crate of apples for the production of scrummy cider –fallen apples with a slight bruising were suitable – and three crates for the production of apple juice – fruit still attached to the tree. Our mission was completed just as our working day finished.

The apples are now at Pershore College where they are in the process of being processed, pasteurised, bottled and labelled, ready for sale in our shops.

Hall’s Croft 

Winter vegetables stand proudly in line, waiting to be picked and transported the short distance to the kitchen of Hall’s Croft cafe.

Curly kale HC

Curly Kale, a bubbly-looking plant, will provide multiple winter harvests until it will run to seed in spring. Nearby loom vegetables that appear alien in appearance, towers of green baubles topped with leafy umbrella heads – Brussels sprouts. A Christmas favourite for some, with approximately 80% of UK sales occurring a few weeks before Santa hops onto his sleigh. 

HC Brussels sprouts

Then there is kohlrabi with its squat bulb and antennae-like shoots. Its name translates as 'turnip cabbage' and its mild, sweet flavour is somewhere between a turnip and a water chestnut, with a crisp, crunchy texture. Actual cabbage reclines at ground level, large, round, padded with layers, and tempting to kick in to the middle of imaginary goal posts, unlike winter lettuce, its paper-thin leaves too flappy to kick far – to outflank the coldest winter months it may need the addition of a cloche, or horticultural fleece. 

In late autumn we put to good use a recent addition to our team – a turf-spiker. All our lawns, certain areas at least, suffer from compaction due to foot-traffic. The spiker will aerate the lawns, allowing them to breathe.

It is impossible not to reel off a list of benefits of aeration, not least to justify the cost of the machine: it will relieve surface compaction, encourage new root growth, increase rooting depth, improve nutrient uptake, reduce the build-up of thatch below the surface, improve gaseous exchange between the soil and atmosphere, stimulate the activity of soil borne microbes, which are so critical in creating a healthy soil, and it will improve the infiltration rate of water into the soil and thereby drainage.

All went well on the New Place lawn. At Hall’s Croft there was a slight worry over the merits of the machine after endless heaving at the pull cord failed to start the turf-spiker. After various muttered blasphemies it transpired that it was due to a simple reason, a classic error often made by an operator of machinery.

Let us end our blog with a title of a Shakespeare play, written at a time when nobody had to endure the embarrassment of forgetting to put the spark plug in –

All’s Well That Ends Well.

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