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The Gardens of Shakespeare's New Place: December

Our filthy, floriferous, garden tale now enters its twelfth, and final act.

Jane Shaw

XII. December

Amongst the sleeping perennials, playing with Tony the squirrel and creating a glow of balminess in the dark cave of winter, a unicorn is spotted. 

New Place, unicorn in GG
The season of baubles-and-bubbles transforms a dream to reality - unicorns do exist

Due to staff gallivanting off to their Christmas holidays this blog is available earlier in the month. Those of us left behind will be winter pruning the apple trees covering the arbour and bordering the two rose beds. In between times we will be delivering and installing Christmas trees around the Shakespeare properties, redesigning the next two beds that are to be emptied of plants and left fallow next year.   

Once we slip-slide in to January, Elton John, and his early present of a piano from John Lewis will be kicked off our screens by holiday advertisements, and we all will be looking forward to spring.

At least until Earth completes its death spiral (see November’s blog). Best not to dwell too far ahead. Academics, usually alongside folk above the age of fifty-ish, always tell us that answers for the future rest in analysis of past events. Let us hope that climate change and the Earth's predicted spiral is curtailed, or at least suffers only a 'half-Dorset' spin. A new gardening term invented by our illustrious team leader - Glyn Jones. No, not a die-hard Welsh man, but a die-hard Rochdale man with a northern accent that at times can be indecipherable. When describing how we fed the lawn to a lovely visitor he mentioned that we only gave it a 'half-Dorset' to begin with, which would then be followed by the rest of the bag of fertiliser later in the month. Two members of the garden team and our visitor looked at each other in bewilderment at this term - a 'half-Dorset'- what the baloney did it mean, and why Dorset? Glyn's reply was thankfully clear and precise, loud enough for the Christmas stall holders on Bridge Street to hear: 'Eh?! I never mentioned Dorset. Ah!! No. I said to George, the garden apprentice, to half-dose it. You know, only use half the bag'. 

And so whenever a lower level of effort, or quantity, is needed it will forever more be known as a 'half-Dorset.'

Back to analysis of past events. Folk tales try and make sense of such occasions. Shakespeare used stories such as those from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses to illustrate the state of his world, astutely avoiding the wrath of Queen Bess, and King James.

To account for the barren appearance of Greek fields in full summer, before their revival in the autumn rains, the ancient Greeks devised a story involving the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods of Mount Olympus, and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.

As I tap-tap on the keyboard, rain hammers on the window panes. Wind whips tree branches at passers-by. The weather is once again cracking at the brutal end of the meteorological stick. It seems an apt year to tap in to the spirit of Shakespeare and make some sense of our haphazard meteorological conditions by clasping at the  ancients and Greek mythology.

A (very traumatic) Winter’s Tale

Starring Persephone, queen of the underworld

Also starring Hades, king of the underworld.

Persephone is gathering flowers in the Vale of Nysa when she is seized by Hades, an original peeping-tom, possibly wearing a dirty mac, and dragged to the underworld. On hearing the news, her mother, Demeter, in desperate misery, loses all concern with the harvest or the fruitfulness of the earth. Widespread famine soon ravishes the land.

Zeus, exhibiting a father’s fury, commands Hades to release Persephone to her mother. But Persephone, like Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, devours a single pomegranate seed in the underworld. Oddly enough this is a heinous crime in the fiery gloom, down ‘there’. Her punishment enforces her to forever spend one-third of her year with her abductor, now husband, Hades. This imposition affects her mother in equal measures. Not so much Zeus apparently; after his initial spat he calmed down a tad. As Demeter is goddess of agriculture and abject about Persephone’s absence, the Earth, her domain, remains barren for an equal time.

In Greece, with a dehydrating hot sun, barren = summer.  For Shakespeare's New Place, barren = winter.

Persephone’s story is one explanation for our unsettling, wintry Christmases. It is Hades wearing a dirty mac, with a hefty wedge of lewdness.

To make sense of our horticultural year at New Place we must take in to account the geology, climate, plant culture and history of the area. 

Not to mention Shakespeare.

Almost every heritage garden run by a charity tends to turn around in small increments, much like a large ocean liner, or a slug slowly slithering its way to a tasty hosta leaf. Plans are often limited by tight budgets, staff numbers, weather, visitor welfare, health and safety legislation, other departments’ priorities, and so on.

Plans, however, are afoot —

An insect hotel should be in place on the Wild Bank by Easter 2019. Ceramic pots specifically designed for New Place will also, once copyright is confirmed, be dotted around the site. With a view to growing gorgeous climbers, discrete cable ties have been fitted on the outside wall of Nash’s House.

Meanwhile, the long borders will continue to be updated and the knot garden is scheduled to have a thorough spring clean, its underskirts thoroughly scrubbed.

Interesting plant fact

Plants have the ability to recognise their siblings using chemical markers. Once this is established they compete less for valuable resources, such as root space, than when surrounded by plants that are strangers.

Plant(s) of the month

Corydalis lutea (yellow fumitory), like Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican Fleabane) which are still blooming underneath the knot garden railings, are nearly impossible to eradicate once established in a wall or terrace. The fumitory has lodged itself in the back walls of the two peony beds. Both plants appreciate good drainage, hence their proclivity for walls and rockeries. 

New Place, Corydalis lutea growing in wall
Corydalis lutea

The inability to remove them is irrelevant as they are attractive, long-flowering, plants. In a tranquil Bristolian accent a recent visitor described the fumitory as: ‘Pretty in the wall.’

He then paused and suddenly his smooth brow corrugated into deep ravines of thought. It was soon made apparent that he veered from one emotion to an other like a murmuration of starlings that swoops here, there and everywhere, changing direction in a split second. As he stared, almost glared, at the yellow fumitory, he muttered their botanical name and then, at great change of tack, loudly declared  - 'They are a weed though!'                               

He brought to mind Archimedes shouting 'eureka!' in the bath. Somewhat baffled, I filled the ensuing silence with the classic gardener's reply when a weed is mentioned - 'But there's no such thing as a weed...

I hesitated, unsure of whether to add the next half of the sentence - they were just plants in the wrong place - as that would suggest the fumitory should be removed from the wall.

As I floundered for words, he looked slightly dumb-struck, maybe of the mind that I was offended at his use of the dreaded 'W' word. Taken by another eureka moment he flashed a broad smile and launched in to a Bristolian soporific lullaby, a cascade of words, each one rolling over the next like waves on a Caribbean beach. He described a wayside hedgerow in his childhood full of wild plants, a buzz-a-buzz, shimmering with all manner of insects. Butterflies as big as his hand. 

Now used to his idosyncrasies I waited for him to swoop in another direction. He soon veered to a wider theme, a David Attenborough type discourse on mankind's destruction of the earth. How after a drive on the motorway thirty years ago his car windscreen would have been pockmarked with the splattered carcasses of insects. Not anymore though.

I wondered whether I should comment upon the newspaper headline regarding the Earth's death spiral, but decided not to as it was a bit morbid so near my going home time. Also an expensive bottle of Prosecco, heavily discounted, was waiting for me.  

His last words went something like this - 'We're b*******g it all up. Nowadays we don't know how to look at things. How to listen to each other. Anyway, all power to you. It's a lovely day. Pretty weeds aren't they? Nice to meet you. Must go, bye.'

I kind of wanted to invite him back for a drink of bubbly.

Happy Christmas and all the best for 2019 from the garden team. 

The hurly-burly's done.

The battle's lost and won.

New Place, unicorn on the mind's eye statue
Once more unto the breach!

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