X. October 2018
Purple Prince and Professor Einstein, plus another 7,000 and more spring-flowering bulbs, are delivered to Shakespeare's New Place.
The weather continues to baffle, while time flirts back an hour. Spooks and Halloween ghouls whisk dahlias and the month of October 2018 to a chilly oblivion.
Coincidence, or not, our new apprentice drives himself around the bend.
As the final conkers plummet from the high branches of New Place’s mighty horse chestnut tree, its leaves drop at the slightest gust of wind. Many, if not all, have had the sap sucked out of them by a leaf miner moth - Cameraria ohridella - as devastating in the damage it causes to its reluctant host as Attila the Hun must have been to the Roman Empire. Leaves hang on to the tree while the moths feed, until finally they are reduced to what appears like old rolled-up cigarette papers, a mix of dirty beige and brown.
They hit the ground parched and brittle, much like Britons abroad who spend too many weeks lounging by the pool.
The leaf miner first made its appearance in Britain in 2002. Europe has yet to provide an antidote, or a predator, to assuage the problem. A cold winter will not kill the insect.
In the corners and crevices of New Place, leaves of all kinds are blown by the wind as well as by us, the gardening team, with our brand new electric leaf blowers - sycamore leaves, lime leaves, beech leaves, prunus leaves - into piles of what you might think as a potentially emollient leaf mould.
The old, or rather, new adage is that mankind should ‘work with nature’. This can be a difficult task when it appears to spew out discouraging pests with monotonous regularity. A truly healthy leaf mould cannot be produced with a concoction of foliage that includes the horse chestnut’s leaves. An ordinary compost heap will not kill off any insects that winter in the pile, as not enough heat will be generated. One kilo of a horse chestnut’s dead leaves will produce more than 4,000 moths, and in spring each moth will then lay another 80,000 eggs.
So let us take comfort in this photograph. Despite the traumas inflicted by the moth our tree has managed to deliver a particularly engaging conker, complete with two taut assets, and still nestled in its spiky casing.
A large order of spring flowering bulbs arrived mid-October — 7,910 for New Place alone. Cultivar names are inevitably anthropomorphised.
We took advantage of a relatively mild October and planted as many of Purple Prince and Professor Einstein as possible. Sun, combined with humidity and lack of wind, brought out isolated clouds of midges. Planting bulbs in the middle of a swarm led to disturbing, itchy-midgy-bite sensations. Exposed parts of the body were fervently scratched.
A vicious paper cut could not be any worse.
To segue: the gardeners’ lot is riddled with aches, itches, and subsequent moans that relate to the human body. In the break room our team will occasionally, unconsciously, reenact, in a ragtag fashion, the famous scene from the movie Jaws, filmed in 1975. As the cantankerous sea captain, Quint, swaps war stories and compares scars inflicted by great white sharks with the intellectual ichthyologist, Matt Hooper, all Police Chief Brody has to reveal is an appendectomy scar.
Inadvertently we take on these personas, swapping them, depending on our nature at the time. A self-deprecating account of an appendectomy scar can within the space of twenty-four hours turn into the result of a devastating attack by a horse fly (their bite can produce nasty reactions in some people), whilst a secateur cut to a fingertip will be attributed to an assault by a particularly savage grey squirrel.
Gardening one-upmanship - a ridiculous exchange held in many a shed.
In between planting bulbs, and daily gardening work, major projects are underway at the three Shakespeare sites in the town: we are currently stripping out the two main plant borders at Shakespeare’s Birthplace and removing as many pernicious roots and weeds as possible. The borders will be replanted in spring to a new design that is more relevant to the site. Meanwhile, future plans and designs for the restoration of the long borders at Shakespeare's New Place are ongoing, while the vegetable, medicinal and herb gardens at Hall’s Croft continue to be upgraded.
And then there is George — our new apprentice — an energetic newcomer to our team. As Halloween encroached we let him loose, after a thorough training in health and safety, of course, with the petrol driven lawn mower at New Place. Replete with ear defenders and steel toe-capped boots he decided to take a circular route around the lawn: around-and-around the three Black Mulberry trees - circles, circles, ever-widening circles that ultimately met in a rather attractive design. His high-tech watch revealed that he had walked around the bend for 2.5 miles.
The first slight frost developed the night of October 26th.
The morning of Halloween was eerily icy. The breath of those trudging, hunched, to work was visible in the chill air, each huff-and-puff disappearing, and reappearing, with every wearisome stride.
This time of year inevitably sends a creep of melancholy through some of our community. The odd funeral dirge tends to play through my mind, though it is tinged with a sense of pleasure that it is finally time to dust down my thermals and bobble hats. There is a pleasure in rooting out a familiar and warming clothing accessory that is still replete with the scent of fabric conditioner from its last winter wash.
It is a shame that plants have no such recourse.
The Halloween frost sent our bedding dahlias to a black, forlorn, place. They looked perfect for a grim flower display at the devil’s dinner table, but not great around our roses, which continue to flower - just.
1- most likely mentioned before - the warming benefits of organic angora-goat mohair socks are beyond words. Therefore, I shall, and need too, stop eulogising about them as people have begun to mumble expletives and slink away when I remind them about their wicking properties.
2 - if you are due to plant around 7,000 plus bulbs, and you are blessed with hands that are as soft and silky as the belly of a kitten, insert some form of padding in to your gloves to prevent blisters forming on your palms. I think I have noted that before, too.
Plant of the Month
New Place’s 'wild bank’ is a hard area to establish plants. Much to our consternation, even shade loving plants find it difficult to set roots. The deciduous trees on the bank allow light in during winter and early spring, when they are leafless, but for the rest of the year the bank is under a thick canopy of foliage including that of a large purple beech tree. The thirsty roots and foliage of the trees keep the sloping bank somewhat dry. Until a couple of them can be removed in order to allow light in we have concentrated on the bank delivering a colourful show in spring when a swathe of bulbs, such as daffodils and cyclamen, bring it to life.
A few months back we planted autumn flowering giant colchicums, which have added splashes of purple to the bank, a snippet of a show, when not much else provides interest. A rich, black, mulch helped to illuminate their blooms further still. For a good few weeks they provided a twinkling backdrop to Greg Wyatt’s statue of Perdita in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale.
All our best wishes for November from the Gardening Team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust