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Spring in Shakespeare’s Town Gardens

A spring gardening update

Jane Shaw

By mid-March the gardens were blooming with daffodils. High winds blasted, twisting petals (and umbrellas) inside and out. Many flowering bulbs (and a few tipsy people) fell to the ground, only to bounce upright the following day – and all before the swallows appeared. 

Meanwhile, in the town gardens –

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Our biggest horticultural project in the Birthplace was, and still is, the renovation of the two main borders. Our town garden manager, Bertie, was tasked with redesigning the borders to connect more with Shakespeare – plants that he would have been familiar with, plants named after him and his family, and characters from his plays and poetry.

At the time of writing, Bertie’s chosen plants, including a rose named ‘William Shakespeare’, were on hold in pots prior to the big plant-out at the end of May, beginning of June.

At the beginning of May the two borders were a riot of colours, shifting from the blazing shades of orange thrown out by Fritillarias (Crown Imperials) to the blowsy purple-reds of various tulip cultivars and a carpet of wallflowers. 

Birthplace spring beds

Shakespeare's New Place

The long borders, 12 in all, continue to be renovated. They are a gardening tribute to Shakespeare: from his early helter-skelter life, to his meteoric rise in the world of ‘theatre,’ to the untimely death of his son Hamnet, aged 11, shortly before his purchase of New Place and ultimately, his own demise. As such the final display will run from light to dark, with a little leeway for a spring display of bulbs.

The first two ‘light’ borders and the last pair of ‘dark borders’ have already been planted. The next two beds to be renovated have been emptied of their old plants and dug over in an attempt to remove any root remnants. If any of you have tried to dig out Alstroemeria spp. (Peruvian Lily), then you will know it is a difficult task. We may have to resign ourselves and accept its presence for some time to come. It will not interfere with our theme too much as it is nestled in a bed towards the ‘lighter side’ and produces orange coloured flowers. The next task is preparing the soil for a sowing of a green manure, Phacelia tanacetifolia (Fiddleneck).

At this point it’s worth brewing a cuppa and putting your feet up to absorb the finer qualities of P. tanacetifolia — it is a quick-growing, hardy annual green manure that germinates at low temperatures, and is ideal for sowing from March to September. It will grow up to 1m in height, it is tolerant of cold temperatures, and it may overwinter if it is not too cold. It smothers weeds and has an extensive root system that improves soil structure, for it is suited to most soil types, but especially to dry ground. It has a dense fern-like foliage and lavender-blue flowers laden with nectar that ensure its place in the list of the top 20 honey-producing flowers for honeybees. However, it is also a magnet for bumblebees and hoverflies - the latter being notorious aphid-munchers. A small patch could be left to flower, especially near vegetables in order to attract pollinating insects to the area. Keep it to a small patch as the insects will feed on the Phacelia rather than the veg. It also makes an excellent cut flower and has a long vase-life with strong stems. Nothing, however, is without at least one drawback. In the case of P. tanacetifolia, be wary of its capacity to easily self-seed. If it is used as a green manure, dig it in before flowering, or cut it down and compost the foliage. We will dig it in to the soil as a summer/autumn manure and either sow more to overwinter, or leave the borders fallow before planting in spring 2020.  

The Knot Garden is also in the process of renovation. Our first task was to sort out the ‘hedging’, the backbone of any knot, which forms a pattern when seen from above. Designs were taken from embroidery, heraldic shields, or wall hangings of the time. The Tudors were particular fans of the knot garden and the high status it afforded them. Only one knot-bed had a lavender hedge, and as this was looking tired and leggy we have replaced it with a dwarf cultivar. In the remaining 3 knots we have removed a woe-be-gone hedging of woody thyme, much battered by ‘Beasts from the East’ and other bizarre weather formations, and replaced that with the dwarf lavender cultivar also.

One knot-bed had a distinct lack of knottiness to its ‘knot’ as a lot of the woody thyme hedging had been removed for the reasons given above. We replaced it with a hedge of Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ (Evergreen Spindle), a neat substitute for box hedging, and used extensively in the other knots, but only a little in this particular knot.

New Place Knot Garden

All that remains with regards to replacing the hedging, is replacing the over exuberant Santolina chamaecyparissus (Cotton Lavender). That will be a like-for-like swap, though the new santolina will be a dwarf variety and hopefully possess a more refined nature – Santolina chamaecyparissus ‘Nana’. 

Hall’s Croft

A tale of vegetables – 

In the glasshouse at New Place, seeds have been sowed, pricked, and potted-on – parsnip, cabbage, aubergine, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, broad beans, gourds, leeks, and many more. Seed potatoes have been chitted and planted out in the veg plot – in early May their foliage began to break through the ridges of soil covering them.

A patch of newly-dug earth at New Place. In the foreground are three broadleaved plants in pots, waiting to be planted out.
Planting out broad beans

To stop them from outgrowing their allotted space, the lime trees dotting the narrow border beneath the wall adjoining the street were given a neat pollard by our gardening team. Pollarding involves pruning back the young, whip-like branches of a tree, which promotes a dense head of foliage and branches. The cut material that grew from the bulbous ends of the now exposed main branches (as seen in the photograph above) will subsequently be used as plant supports.  

Traditionally, people would pollard trees either for fodder to feed livestock, or for wood. Although we have another reason: to prevent the unfortunate spoiling of clean clothes – in strong sun the lime leaves, which overhang a public pavement, drip their sticky, messy, sap onto any passer-by. In ancient Rome, Propertius mentioned pollarding during the 1st century BCE. It has been practised in Europe since medieval times, and takes place today in urban areas worldwide, primarily to maintain trees at a determined height.

Pollarding tends to make trees live longer by maintaining them in a partially juvenile state and by reducing the weight of the top part of the tree, sometimes a hazard in strong wind. Older pollards often become hollow, so they can be difficult to age accurately. Pollards tend to grow slowly, with denser growth-rings in the years immediately after cutting.

As with Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and New Place, the two herbaceous borders are under renovation. It is a battle every spring and summer to restrict ground elder’s thuggish behaviour. It dominates the borders above, whilst down in the subterranean it spews out its brittle white shoots far and wide. With a view to controlling its growth a border has been emptied of plants and left fallow. Although the pernicious roots of ground elder are inevitably still in the border despite their patient removal by a horde of Co-Op volunteers and the garden team, we will be able to spray any new growth with a selective herbicide, thereby controlling its further spread. A case of damage control – will it work? Maybe not, for much like Tiger Woods, who came from behind at the Golf Masters Tournament, it is already showing signs of making a momentous return.

Spring 2020 the borders will be planted to a new design with a nod to Jacobean times and the world of Shakespeare’s daughter and son-in-law - Elizabeth, and prominent physician John Hall. 

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