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The Gardens of Shakespeare's New Place: March

An auspicious fume-filled day dawns. Two 'beasts' create havoc before a soggy deluge and the rise of the earthworm. Unusual 'artwork' is plucked into being on the Birthplace lawn...

III. March 2018

February slammed into March with a roar. Wild winds forged drift-banks of snow, hammered down icy sheets for the unbalanced to twist and turn on — a broken wrist here, a bandaged ankle there, thermal bobble-hats bobbing everywhere. And then the much hyped ‘Beast from the East’ retreated, his pelt of white-darkness ripping apart to reveal blue skies and sun. Coats were left in car boots and house-windows were opened a crack. Only a crack mind as the ‘Beast’ returned twice more to our gardens, flattening daffodil stems, battering flower-buds, sending earthworms further underground. 

There were few soft stirrings to deliver the pleasures that an early spring can offer. Yet in between visits from the ‘Beast’ and seemingly endless hours of rain, a full day of dull and dry arrived and we celebrated by dusting down the lawn mower and cracking open a jerry can — March 14th and the first mow of the season. After two hours of marching up and down New Place’s two thousand square metre lawn a scent of cut grass flirted in the air. A pleasurable sensation for almost all of us, yet the aroma occurs due to what we would interpret as pain. Mowing is a traumatic event for the grass. A freshly cut leaf-blade instantly increases its emission of organic compounds in order to stimulate the formation of new cells at the wound site so it closes faster. Other compounds act as antibiotics that prevent bacterial infection and inhibit fungal growth. The production of defensive compounds also occurs at undamaged sites as a pre-emptive fortification. Still others react with other chemicals to act as distress signals. 

Distress. Chemicals. It brings to mind the 1979 film Apocalypse Now and Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore’s infamous line;

‘Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’

— Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppola
New Place, daffodils
Smell that? You smell that? A freshly cut lawn...

As the lawn quietly raged with chemistry, thankfully with a more amenable outcome than napalm, a few visitors viewed its newly evident stripes with trepidation and politely asked if they could walk on the grass. We usually reply that yes, absolutely, you can do anything on it within reason, which is probably not the best answer when recalling an incident in Shakespeare’s Birthplace garden last year, an act of guerrilla gardening that although mischievous was difficult not to find amusing —

A  rascal, or more likely a bunch of rapscallions, spent time to carefully pluck out grass blades to leave an outline of bare earth in the shape of a phallus.

We choose to believe the perpetrators inspiration for such an act came after visiting the Roman city of Pompeii where they had taken note of the phallic signs to the Lupanar, the largest brothel in the city. The Romans believed the phallus — fascinum — to be the ultimate symbol of power, luck and fertility, which symbolised everything positive. Signs with images of phalluses were also hung or carved outside shops and brothels for good luck, accompanied by the words ‘Here lies happiness’.

And so, whether by accident or design, Shakespeare’s Birthplace lawn was truly blessed by their ‘artwork’.

Birthplace - grass blade 'artwork'

Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.

— Margaret Atwood: Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist

March 2018 has delivered few warm days. One such day, Glyn, our Head of Gardens, fooled by an erroneous weather forecast, chose to wear a pair of extra-warm purple ‘Selina Scott’ socks. Fortunately they are so good that they wick sweat away from the skin (see January’s blog). Safe in this knowledge he took a trip to a local council recycling centre to collect 1 ¾ ton (1780kg) of ‘dirt’, a nutrient rich, black, load of organic matter, which cost £4.45 plus VAT 89p: £5.34 in total. After a day of wheeling barrows back and forth most of the mixture covered not only the raised bed at the entrance to New Place, but also the muck spreader. My bath will never be the same pristine off-white colour again. 

On a day with rain forecast, not difficult to factor into the timetable this month, the two fallow beds nearest to the Wild Bank were sown with a green manure - Phacelia tanacetifolia. Its extensive root system will improve the border’s soil structure and fertility ready for planting in spring 2019. We will dig it in before flowering to ensure all its nutrients enhance the soil, although some blooms will be left because they are great for buzzy pollinators that transfer pollen, increase seed set and fruit development; bees, butterflies, moths, hoverflies. Not to mention that its flowerhead is reminiscent of the surreal plant illustrations in Dr.Seuss books.

Top Tip

This month's Top Tip is in homage to the earthworm, influenced by the seventeenth century case notes of John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law (1575-1635), and a children’s poem by Spike Milligan (1918-2002).

Today I saw a little worm
Wriggling on his belly.
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
And see what’s on the telly.

New Place has hosted a plethora of earthworms on its surface in this rain-sodden March. They like damp soil, but if the rain is very heavy the oxygen in the water-logged soil may run out. In order to live they must wriggle to the surface, find air to breathe, absorb it through their moist skin. As every gardener knows their ploughing through the earth helps to increase the amount of air and water in soil. They break down organic matter, such as leaves and grass, into nutrients that the roots of plants utilise and their castings are also a beneficial type of fertiliser.

Earthworms were listed in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1618. They were recommended as antispasmodics to treat convulsions in children, for diseases of the ear, of the lungs, of the urinary passages, to cool inflammations and to heal cut sinews. As a physician, one of Hall’s favoured remedies for swellings in scorbutic illness was earthworms. He used them to treat John Thornborough, Bishop of Worcester who at Magdalen College, Oxford, was known for his attention to fencing, dancing, hunting and ‘wooing of wenches’ rather than to his books. To combat the Bishop’s ‘scorbutic wandering gout’ John Hall applied live worms to his swollen fingers while whole worms, bruised and strained, were administered orally in white wine. 

Plant(s) of the month

Taxus baccata 300m long yew hedge.

New Place yew hedge
Yew hedge

As the yew hedge will soon be superseded by the pumped-up chests of the herbaceous perennials it seems a good time to honour its Falstaffian nature, its bloated waistline and flushed buttresses. It was planted in the 1920s as a formal, straight lined and well-clipped hedge. Its present marvellously debauched state is due to a lack of labour during the First World War. Regular precise clipping was abandoned and consequently it sagged and grew batwings, as if it had taken to Falstaff’s favourite tipple - sack, a white wine fortified with brandy.

Traditionally yew was used to make English longbows. The sapwood of the yew is good in tension and the heartwood in compression. The best ‘self-bows’ were shaped from a single length of yew, using part sapwood and part heartwood. Once English stocks of yew were depleted, longbow staves were imported from Europe – Spain and Italy in particular. In Tudor times, to ensure a regular supply of fine-grained yew, each ton of certain imports, including wine, had to be accompanied by 10 yew staves. 

English archers were apparently known as the most accurate in Europe, especially after their adventures at the Battle of Agincourt. It is said that the French cut off the first two fingers of the bow hand of any captured English archers so that they would never be able to use their weapon again. In response, archers with their first two fingers intact fashioned the now infamous ‘V’ sign as a visual taunt to their enemies.  

A traditional symbol of mourning, yew appears six times in Shakespeare plays — Edward III, Macbeth, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and Twelfth Night. It is always linked to death, with its appearance onstage postulating a harbinger of poisoning, such as Balthasar and Paris citing yew trees in the churchyard, while in the nearby tomb Romeo drank poison. Yew is supposedly the strongest candidate for the hebenon/hebona poison in Hamlet

Chionodoxa forbesii (Glory-of-the-Snow)

A bulbous perennial from south-west Turkey. Often asked about as it carpets the two rose borders near to the Knot Garden and sets seed in all sorts of nooks and crannies. A breezy-bright warm up act with a low sense of gravity, like most plants at this time of year.

New Place, Chionodoxa

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