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The Gardens of Shakespeare's New Place: August

The rains return, a heaven sent pitter-patter-pitter-downpour that restores New Place’s beige lawn to various shades of green.

Jane Shaw

VIII. August 2018

With leaden skies clawing over the rooftops of Stratford-upon-Avon a few immediately forecast the fall of summer. The stirrings to yet another Christmas hullabaloo already gnaw at its burnt heels with the patter-pitter of dancing shoes and the piecemeal announcement for the 2018 line-up of Strictly Come Dancing.

Meanwhile, our gardening team jump past the announcement for the winner of the Glitter Ball trophy and plan for the season of Spring 2019 — bulb catalogues are endlessly perused through, pages turned down, up, and then back again. 

Finally, decisions are made and orders are completed.

— And then to battle in the Knot Garden.

Illuminating information has come to light since June's gardening blog. It explains why the beige anomaly, a rectangle section of lawn, is always the first to turn to straw in a drought:  not because it was covered for days’ by a marquee’s ground-cover, but because it was the site of Stratford’s first purpose-built theatre, the foundation stone of which was laid in the Great Garden on 23rd April 1827. The final performance, suitably the staging of Hamlet, took place on 30th April 1872, and the theatre was demolished that same year.

The theatre’s foundations may have compacted the ground below, a mixture of poor soil and rubble that may not be adequate enough to support the quick rehabilitation of dead grass to green grass. The first to die, the last to recover. Its life source flickers, cuts in and out, a suitable ghostly reminder of Hamlet, the last to moodily stomp and creep over the theatre’s boards. The contending energies of creation and dissolution endlessly repeated within a rectangle of lawn.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) describes the heart of nature’s duality, the joyous spring towards complex form and the devilish tidal pull away from it, in his poem, 'The force that through the green fuse' -

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the root of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

A mindful poem to enter battle with the Knot Garden.

As previously mentioned, it has suffered from an overload of the force. First it suffered the ignominy of being imprisoned under heavy snowfall delivered by what the press dubbed as ‘beasts from the east’. A confused spring was then bumped quickly into touch by a long Mediterranean-like summer.

To aid its recovery we have ironed out the creases of its grungy underskirts, cut unsightly growths away, primped and preened its knotty hedges, and tidied its walls to expose bulging figs (delicious with mascarpone and honey) and grapes, notorious for being drip-fed to the most despotic of Roman emperors. 

New Place, Knot Garden grapes
Knot Garden grapes

It turned out to be more of a muscular battle due to the unnatural poses a gardener is forced to adopt, than a war waged with sixteenth century bollock daggers — take a look at my colleague's blog post for more on that. Highly interesting. Shakespeare may have carried such a dagger, even engaged in a fight with one.

As we were removing a particularly vicious rose, its sharp thorns projecting out like a shark’s teeth, we found a mysterious object buried near to a skimmia bush and a crab apple tree; the relevance of which is indecipherable and probably not intended, though would be faintly amusing, if so. It was not an unopened packet of biscuits as previously found, but something to compliment them, a bottle of Oasis re-filled with what we hoped to be water. You never know, sometimes there is a queue for the toilet.

If only we could dig out something more enticing as a gardener did five years ago or more. He discovered three crates of champagne at the back of the Wild Bank, each bottle subsequently valued at £50, or more. They had been dumped, or left for the culprits to pick up later, and were nothing to do with an event at New Place. He reported his find to subsequently discover, much to his joy, that nobody claimed the abandoned bubbly when advertised. He ended up with a fridge similar to that of the character of Patsy Stone in the BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous, full of Bolly and not much else.

Needless to say, the Oasis bottle was carefully emptied and thrown in the recycling bin.

After scrapping with the shark rose and titivating the edges of the Knot Garden the main job was to cut back the backbone of the knot garden, the hedges of Euonymous Japonicus ‘Green Rocket’. This replaced a box hedge that was suspected to have box blight, a devastating fungal disease. The plant is a great mimic, even seasoned gardeners think it is box at first glance. There are many articles now written about alternative plants other than box, as many are concerned about the reach of box blight, first discovered in the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Now there is also the threat of the box moth, Cydalima perspectalis, adult moths first seen in the United Kingdom in 2008. The pesky caterpillars feed within a cloak of white webbing and are capable of completely defoliating plants.

As I was clip-clipping away a lady from Belgium asked me the name of the Euonymous hedge. She had the expression of a gardener fed up with battling a problem on her patch that after endless years of damage control would never be resolved, all hope of rejuvenation lost. Before I could answer she revealed with obvious sadness that the box moth in Belgium was destroying their plants, her own in particular, and that: ‘They predict that by 2020 or so there will be no box left in Belgium.’  

I wrote down the name for her, offered inadequate condolences, and wondered how long it would be before we discovered a Euonymous moth.

Back to the clipping - back-breaking, but nothing that cannot be eased with a good dousing of Deep Heat, which according to the can ‘offers fast relief form muscular aches and pains’. It fails to mention that its pungent odour follows you around all day, obliterating any scent of a flower. Once sprayed on to the lower back it permeates the lining of the trouser waist, wafts down to the lower legs and up past the chest to the nostrils, lingering behind for others to enjoy long after you have left the scene of application.

The efforts made along with the footballers’ changing room stench were worth every last back twinge as the Knot Garden finally looks the part, its design seen from the terrace of Nash’s House.

New Place, Knot Garden as viewed from the terrace

Next job was to cut back the foliage of the espalier fig as its large lobed leaves were lurching over the public pathway around the Knot Garden. If you get anything out of this blog at all then please let it be this:  DO NOT CUT BACK A FIG IN A T-SHIRT. If the fine hairs on fig leaves brush against bare skin they act slowly and insidiously to produce an excruciating itch. A bollock dagger that has been heated in a hellish fire and then repeatedly jabbed in each nerve ending of your arm would surely not cause as much discomfort. To be rid of it you will happily scrape at your arms until they bleed to divert the pain to another pain. It may even be worse than cutting the world’s hottest chilli peppers (a few suitably named Scorpion and Reaper) with bare hands and then accidentally touching parts of you that rarely see daylight. If you are going to make combat with a chilli and fig leaves always wear the appropriate protective gear, eye goggles, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt preferably with elasticated cuffs.

There is also a milky sap that oozes and drips out of cut stems, fixing itself to your arms like superglue.

Strangely enough, John Gerard, the sixteenth century herbalist, recommended using the sap to combat roughness of the skin. He even suggested using the fidgety leaves against the King’s Evil or scrofula, a tubercular swelling of the lymph glands, as an alternative to being touched by royalty.

I find it hard to imagine that any part of this plant, apart from its fruit, is of any benefit to mankind. Granted, this is not an appropriate time to cut a fig, but the vengeance it unleashes upon you unless properly attired is out of proportion to the act. 

New Place, Knot Garden figs

Needless to say, cutting back the foliage of the grapes was an absolute pleasure after battling with the fig.

Be warned: Top Tips’ are creeping back like the slinking Christmas behemoth already twitching at the curtains  —  to avoid fig burn it is worth repeating: Do not expose your skin to fig leaves. It is exceedingly odd that in the Book of Genesis Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity after eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

To return to the ever fascinating seventeenth century case notes of the physician John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law (1575-1635)

Alice Austin

Alice Austin was treated for a cutaneous affliction to her face. Fumaria or Fumitory was used to treat skin maladies. A purgative pill was also prescribed. Local application to the face was in the form of a lotion containing lead salts, alum and borax. This was of an astringent nature and would have been painful when applied to the ‘broken, and crushed’ pustules on Alice’s face.

Plant of the month     

Ficus Carica ‘Brown Turkey’

It achieves the accolade for being the most villainous Iago-like character of the month and the most interesting and tasty. 

Specially selected for the UK climate, our Fig - 'Brown Turkey' - is fully hardy outdoors. A self-fertile tree it produces large crops of sweet, juicy figs with a deep red flesh under smoky purple and brown skins. Its fruits develop in spring and ripen from August to September.

The common fig, Ficus carica, (there are over 750 species), of which the ‘Black Turkey’ is a cultivar, originated in modern-day Iraq. The Romans brought it to Britain and we know, from William Turner, a sixteenth century herbalist, that figs were commonly grown in the 1580s.  

With the introduction of cheap cast iron, coal and sheet glass in the 1830s, and cheap labour, magnificent greenhouses proliferated in Victorian gardens and Ficus carica could be grown as a viable crop rather than an experiment.

Outside of a heated greenhouse they do not get the sustained heat in the British Isles for the succession of fruits to ripen. Last season’s budding fruit should ripen, given the right conditions, but not the fruit that starts to develop on the tree in spring. As a result these should be removed around November in order to divert the tree’s energy towards the new, tiny buds that are found between the irksome leaves and stem, mainly at the top of shoots.

As this summer has been exceptionally warm the espalier fig tree has produced many bulbous hangings of voluptuary joy. They are already quite tasty. To exact my revenge on its sustained attack on me I ate a couple of its children.

The fig has long had associations with female genitalia. It is the vulgar word in Italian for the vulva - figa, imagery due somewhat to the inside of the fruit, a hollow receptacle with a small opening and fleshy, moist, interior.

Well aware of its Italian connections Shakespeare may have found the fig an appropriate fruit to use in the story of an exotic queen legendary for her sexual charms. The fig bookends the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.

Charmian, one of the Queen’s attendants, introduces the fruit in the first act.

Soothsayer: You shall outlive the lady whom you serve.

Charmain: O’ excellent! I love long life better than figs.

- Antony and Cleopatra Act 1 Scene 2

To end the play, Cleopatra terminates her life with the poisonous bite of an asp, brought to her in a basket of figs.

Fig fruit is indeed a botanical peculiarity, neither fruit or flower, yet partaking of both. They are technically inverted flowers that store their pollen inside the fruits. A fig, the hollow receptacle, bounds a horde of tiny male and female flowers. They never see the light of day, coming to full perfection and ripening their seed before the whole fruit falls off the stem, or is plucked off the tree, squashed or eaten. Seeds may be scattered by birds and mammals in droppings and, with the right conditions, create new life from old. 

The common fig, not the variety ‘Brown Turkey’, which is self-fertile, is pollinated by a specialised fig wasp, rather rakishly named Blastophaga psenes. Each species of fig – and there are nearly 1,000 recorded – has evolved with its own species of pollinating fig wasp. They are very small – less than 2mm long in most cases, and their lives are short and unpleasant.

The female finds its way, buzz-buzz, into a small orifice visible on the middle of a fruit. While squeezing through the orifice she will be rendered black and blue, losing her wings and other essential kit like antennae. Her legs meanwhile will be smothered in pollen, and her backside full of eggs, both of which she will spread around liberally, simultaneously laying eggs and fertilising the flowers. Here she will die, whereby special enzymes will break down her carcass into protein. The male fig wasp is basically a penis with big jaws — after hatching he bites a hole through the flower wall and impregnates the hatching females. He then chews a tunnel for his pregnant pollen-dusted female mates to escape from the fig. They will even team up with other males to tunnel together, ensuring the pregnant females a better chance of escape.

To conclude — the fig digests dead insects, making it part of the resulting ripened fruit. Despite this alarming fact, the ‘fig children’ I ingested are, thankfully, unlikely to have contained fig wasp carcasses. The common fig is a rare non-tropical deciduous variety. It produces two kinds of tree — one that grows pollen-bearing fruit, the other, seed-bearing.

The ‘Brown Turkey’ cultivar is a seed-bearing tree, it has the wrong type of flowers for Blastophaga psenes  to lay its eggs in. The female wasps will use their olfactory senses to hunt down trees that produce pollen-bearing fruit. ‘Brown Turkey’ has also been raised to be self-pollinating, one more reason why the wasps will stay away, plus like many folk, it is too cold for them in the British Isles. They are just not here.

Fig footnote:   

There is an intriguing story concerning a forest of fig trees, steel workers, and the River Don in Sheffield. If interested  do the Google ‘thing’ and type in  — river don fig forest — that should bring up enough websites on the topic to keep you busy over a flute or two of Bolly.

If only.


All our best wishes for September from the Gardening Team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust  

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