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The Gardens of Shakespeare's New Place: April and May

A colourful crowd descend on New Place before gallivanting along the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon in celebration of The Bard's Birthday, a youngster at 454 years' old.

Jane Shaw

Meanwhile, in his old backyard, the bees are a buzzing and a 'vertical pig' discovers it is being stalked by a blackbird with an insatiable appetite in the Knot Garden...

IV. April 2018

The sun beamed on New Place’s Great Garden lawn as it hosted a crowd of happy people before they embarked on the annual celebratory birthday parade for The Bard through Stratford’s streets. The date: April 23rd — St. George’s Day — and the lawn could easily have been mistaken for an airport waiting lounge before a flight to attend The Eurovision Song Contest. Alongside The Stratford Methodist Church contingent - some dressed in fancy dress as wild animals - jostled the rainbow coloured flags and outfits of the LGBT community, while groups of school pupils bounced up and down the lawn rehearsing a dance routine. Songs included.   

It was sad and a great relief to see them all eventually leave.

New Place, Stratford Methodist Church members on Shakespeare's Birthday
Two crocodiles, a big cat, and two chimps, representing the Stratford Methodist Church in Shakespeare’s birthday parade

Later in the day, eyes to the ground, I was intent on cutting back rows of Santolina chamaecyprassius (Cotton Lavender) in the Knot Garden and only vaguely aware of the sounds of the parade that ebbed and flowed outside of New Place. Drums were banged, shouts, chants and songs repeated, building to a crescendo, their route leading to the Church of the Holy Trinity and Shakespeare’s grave.

My mind wandered instead to the subtleties of the earth - the tiny annual weeds and the large pernicious weeds that infiltrate the roots of coveted plants, the stones, the ants, the earthworms, the tiny slivers of cellophane that occasionally blow in from the wider world, and then to the strange events and conversations that can occur in a garden that is visited by many. For instance, last year somebody had buried unopened packets of digestive biscuits in two beds of the Knot Garden. When had they managed to do this, the site is alarmed at night, and for what reason?  As I took a moment to stand upright and ponder upon this mystery I was vaguely aware of a man’s resonant, scholarly-like tones. At first I dismissed them and concentrated on massaging my back, reflecting that this particular job was a a bit like playing the game of Twister for hours on end. An all day fest of bending, twisting and balancing in the knotty-planted Knot Garden.

Then the voice repeated itself and it became clear that it was directed at me.

‘Do you know that a blackbird has been following you for at least ten minutes, searching for food? You’re disturbing the soil for him, do you see?’

The bird had apparently been pecking in the earth that I had ‘tickled’, disturbed with a garden fork, in order to cover my footprints. The man who spoke had been watching me and my feathered friend from the balcony of Nash’s House. Now at ground level I was witness to his titanic beard, flecked grey, descending in a great sea of hirsuteness to the second top button of his waistcoat.

He smiled and gestured to the bird, which had perched on top of a crab apple tree, its buds unbuttoned, shoots and stems beginning to swill with green. After a pause he told me, and I quote, that to the blackbird I was merely a: ‘Vertical pig grubbing in the soil.’

By the warmth of his brown eyes I knew that this was not an insult, merely him giving a voice to the blackbird. I was a means to an end. I felt compelled to reply that to be fair I had been either bent from the waist, or crouching on the ground, or balancing on one leg for most of the day. Not quite vertical. As every gardener knows when delving in the borders our rumps are seen far more than any other part of our body. To this he chuckled and bid me goodbye.

I bent down once again my mind full of pigs walking upright through supermarket aisles (of all the places, far too mundane). The blackbird, ever vigilant, returned to rooting around my heels in the hope of the appearance of an earthworm. 

New Place, hazel supports and tulips

A rather surreal April was further bolstered by the garden team’s attempt at staking, weaving hazel branches into what we hope will support the taller flower-heads of the rapidly growing herbaceous perennials — Golden Rod, Goat’s Rue, Rudbeckias, Thalictrum, Delphiniums etc.. All heading skyward as fast as you can say ‘vertical pigs’. We had finished weaving structures for the two long borders at the Birthplace in heavy rain and started weaving at New Place in temperatures fit for Barcelona in July. It’s difficult to choose what to wear in the morning - waterproofs, fleeces, or a swimsuit.

We will soon erect tee-pees for the runner beans sown in early April, also fans of the vertical. The tips of their shoots are now in early May reaching for any structure in the glasshouse that will help them to the light. Last year the beans were sown and planted out too late in the long borders, and the pods were not regularly harvested, subsequently the display was relatively poor as a result.

We hope for a better performance this year.

Top Tips’ are currently abandoned as we return to the ever fascinating seventeenth century case notes of John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law (1575-1635)

Sir John Pakington of Westwood Park, Worcestershire, died on 18 January 1625, at a grand old Jacobean age of seventy-seven. Hall treated Sir John for painful swelling of the joints with a poultice of mallows, a fomentation of frog spawn, and a plaster. He was purged with Pulvis senae, which contained senna. To this powder Hall added the purgative hermodactylus, a species of colchicum, recommended by Paul of Aegina (AD 625-90) for the treatment of pain in the joints.

Plant of the month

Fritillaria imperialis lutea (Crown Imperial)

New Place, Fritillaria imperalis

A flamboyant introduction from the Middle East that arrived in Europe around the year 1580. A relation of the snakehead fritillary, which had been growing in Europe’s meadows for centuries. Tradition has it that the flowers hung their heads in shame because they stared boldly at Christ on his harrowing journey to his crucifixion.

The bulbs are large and if speared by a garden fork have what is often described as a ‘loathsome stench’. I find it quite appealing, like the aroma that swills around a small kitchen with saucepans full of over boiled cabbages on a hob without a hood and extractor fan.

Shakespeare refers to this theatrically headed wonder in The Winter’s Tale. Perdita compiles a list of spring flowers to counter the striped and streaked carnations bred by florists. Among the native flowers in her list, such as oxlips and primroses, she also includes the Crown Imperial. 

V. May 2018

How terrifying spring is, everywhere the cells of spring bubble, double, treble-double. Weeds battle with each other to cover any bare earth, living by the maxim that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. 

We are fortunate at New Place to have D and M, not recruits from the offices of MI5, but two hardy volunteers who spend a couple of hours' a week on hands and knees patiently removing, battling with these vegetative villains. It is a mammoth task and rather overwhelming at times. There is much else to do besides attend to the weeds...

The Knot Garden suffered quite a battering over the cold, wet, seasons of winter and spring. Pockets of Creeping Thyme and Woody Thyme appeared to be dead, others barely showing signs of life. As such, we were compelled to write a sign to apologise for its appearance.

New Place, Knot Garden slate sign
Please forgive my appearance. the winter has been beastly and left me frayed at the edges. Plans are afoot to restore me to my former glory. Love from the Knot Garden

Instead of digging out any plants that were obviously under strain, we decided to hold back and wait, in hope. Maybe they would re-emerge like the phoenix and save us from a mountain of work. Interestingly, the lavender hedge in one of the four beds has positively flourished and is showing signs of outshining every other bit of the Knot. Not what we want, rather uniformity and harmony, a balance between each plant is what we are aiming for in this area of New Place, but at least it is healthy. The Creeping Thyme is also starting to show signs of life, not everywhere, but more than we could have wished for, and so we will continue to monitor the life — and death — of the Knot Garden. We are resigned to the fact that a tweak here and there is all we can do for the impending summer. We will add bedding and rely on the magnificent Allium Giganteums underneath the standard roses, a nod away from the laburnum trees by the arbour, all four shooting out floriferous waterfalls of yellow. The overhaul that is required will have to wait until the autumn.

Let us quickly walk through our vexing Knot Garden and onto the terrace overlooking the Great Garden. Now we are in what looks like an engine room for bulbs.

New Place, daffs and tulips
Daffodils and Tulips

The newly planted daffodils and tulips appear full of teenage hubris, only later will they sleep, their petals dropping away, bits of silky rags to be found in shadowy corners. The bulbs will then be removed ready for a new generation next year. The adults in the borders, herbaceous perennials, permanent fixtures, will then take over the show.

Lupins at dawn, taking over the show

New plants have arrived for the first two newly designed fallow borders. They will be planted as soon as possible. An annual plant used as a green manure, Phacelia tancetifolia (Fiddle Neck), sown in late March, has been dug in to the next two fallow borders, near to the wild bank, which will be planted in Spring 2019. A few clumps have been left as their flowers attract pollinators like sharks’ to a speck of blood in our oceans.

The runner beans have yet to be planted. The tee-pees have yet to be erected. There is much to do…

‘Top Tips’ are currently abandoned,  as we return to the ever fascinating seventeenth century case notes of John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law (1575-1635)                     

Mary Barnes of Talton, in Tredington was suffering from pains in the head, thirst, and watching or wakefulness. She was in an advanced stage of pregnancy and Hall avoided the emetic and purgative regimes prescribed in other cases of tertian fever. Powder of white hellebore, Veratrum album, on slit figs was laid over the pulse of each wrist. White hellebore was regarded as a drug hot and dry in the third degree and when taken internally purged ‘upwards and downwards’. It was not recommended internally for delicate persons. To treat the pains in the head Hall prescribed an ointment for the temples composed of opium mixed with ointment of alabaster, which was composed of powdered alabaster (sulphate of lime) with the juice of rose, betony and other ingredients.

Plant of the month

Anemone Coronaria ‘Mr. Fokker’

New Place, Anemone 'Mr. Fokker'

A recent addition to the Knot Garden. Its cultivar name when spoken aloud, depending on a person’s dialect and delivery, causes much amusement to some, and slight embarrassment to others of a more polished nature. Despite its controversial name its flowers are luxurious and have added a much needed boost to the Knot Garden.

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