Shakespeare Digs a Garden

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Last week, we went to see All Is True, the latest Shakespeare film that Hubby dubs “one of your English-Mama movies.” There was the Bard himself, digging in his garden, or a plot he measured and paced in the lawn, for a memorial to his long-dead son. Ah, methinks, he was a gardener, after all. Or was he?

The film opens with the fiery conflagration of London’s Globe Theatre caused when a cannon shot misfired in the final production of Henry VIII in 1613. Will Shakespeare returned for good to his home in Stratford-on-Avon for a peaceful, prosperous retirement. His wife, Anne, and their two daughters, on the other hand, are not really pleased after nearly two decades living rather independently in the country.  Long simmering tensions in the family begin to rise, revealing domestic strife more layered than in any of his plays.

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All Is True is a story of loss and regret stemming from the death of his only son, Hamnet, at age 11. It’s been 17 years of suppressing his emotions while working and living at New Place in London. Now he attempts to assuage his grief by planting a memorial garden.

“Hamnet is in paradise,” Anne snaps at him. “He doesn’t need a garden.”

“Perhaps I do,” Will replies.

But he discovers it’s hard work, this digging and digging, tossing out clumps of grass and wild flowers and overgrown herbs. (I recognized what appeared to be clumps of rosemary, in the movie.)

“I once uprooted an entire forest and moved it across the stage to Dunsinane.”

“It’s a bit different in real life,” she reminds him.

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As tempted as I am to do an analysis of this story, the relationship of Shakespeare with his family, I’ll refrain. After all, this is a garden blog, and I will focus on that memorial garden. What might go into such a garden? What did Shakespeare have in mind, if indeed the story is true?

The basic elements of an Elizabethan pleasure garden would encompass herbs and roses within parterre beds bordered in boxwood. A more practical garden grown for food would be herbs and vegetables, while a purely ornamental garden would be laid out in a knot design. A fountain, a statue, or a simple sundial would provide a central focal point.

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I rather doubt Shakespeare would have attempted anything on this grand a scale. Perhaps he had in mind a less elaborate design, something conducive to quiet contemplation. A monastery garden?

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Or a natural setting for strolling or sitting under hundred-year-old oaks?

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I rather imagine this one, using existing forms such as trees and shrubbery. Not too hard for the old bard, eh?






Follow-Up to “Shakespeare the Horticulturalist”

How did English bard William Shakespeare know so much about gardening — plant life and lore, fauna and flora?


He read about it in a book . . .

John Gerard's The herball, or General histories of plantes (1597)

John Gerard’s The herball, or General histories of plantes (1597) image from the Shakespeare Folger Library
. . . just as we do today.
What gardening book are you reading this month?


Shakespeare the Horticulturalist

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream


William Shakespeare’s frequent allusion to botany in his plays and poetry reveals the playwright’s extensive knowledge and understanding of plant life. His use of horticultural imagery-simile, metaphor, analogy were not mere literary devices but illustrations of Elizabeth and Jacobean social life.

He knew the power of certain plants to elicit emotion and propel a story forward. Especially in the 16th century, his contemporaries would have known the meanings of individual plants and, thus, caught on right away. They knew the tales behind the plants and used them for medicinal purposes, and so did Shakespeare.

For example, poppies contain narcotic properties to induce drowsiness while parsley improves the immune function.


Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday. ~ Othello




Rosemary enhances memory and concentration, and thyme can treat various symptoms and complaints such as sore throats.


There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,

Love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. ~ Hamlet


And onions?


Mine eyes smell Onions, I shall weep anon: Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher.

~ All’s Well that Ends Well


Shakespeare refers to nearly 200 plants borne of a knowledge from keen observation of his childhood playground in his mother’s kitchen and physic garden of herbs and medicinal plants like thyme and hyssop. He grew up learning botany and plant lore and gardening methods in the Elizabethan era.


‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant Nettles or sow Lettuce, set Hyssop, and weed up Thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs and distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. ~ Othello


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Costumed docent portraying Mary Arden Shakespeare at Croft House


As playwright in the home he shared with his wife, he would have looked up from his desk to see a working garden and farmyard with chickens and pigs, cows and stables, not to mention flowers such as lavender, pansies, violets, roses.


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Roses appear in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets from 96 times; lilies, only 28. Roses serve as metaphor for beauty, elegance, love, softness. Lilies indicate elegance with innocence and purity.


Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell

Of different flowers in odour and in hue

Could make me any summer’s story tell,

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew; or did

I wonder at the lily’s white,

Or praise the deep vermillion in the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

Drawn after you, you pattern of all those. ~ Sonnet 98


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Flowers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets


But roses also serve as metaphor in historical references, such as Henry IV. Here, Shakespeare has the Earl of Warwick refer to the combined red Tudor rose and the white Yorkist rose before the alliance of the two Houses:


This brawl today

Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden

Shall send, between Red Rose and White,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night. ~ Henry VI


Pruning, too, plays a metaphoric role in the history plays. The gardener in Richard II is ignorant of politics, but he does understand horticulture. On the surface, his speech seems to be a list of chores but soon becomes obvious it’s a veiled call for Bolingbroke to remove the king:


Go bind thou up young dangling apricocks,

Which like unruly children make their sire

Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.


“Sire” refers to the king, and “unruly children” to Bolingbroke’s rebels who are like heavy fruit bending and weighing down the monarchy until it snapped:


Give some supportance to the bending twigs,

Go thou, and like an executioner

Cut off the heads of two fast growing sprays,

That look too lofty in our commonwealth:

All must be even in our government


after the king’s fall “like a leaf” because he had not “so trimmed and dressed his land / As we this garden!”

On the other hand, the lines “Cut off the heads of two fast growing sprays / That look to lofty in our commonwealth” makes me think of Richard III’s order a century later. Is there no more shocking metaphor for the two little boy princes, shut up in the Tower and beheaded? Better still to prune the perpetrator, me thinks.

Perhaps a bit of romance will lighten our mood:


The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die;

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. ~ Venus and Adonis


and lead us to practical matters:

Though other things grow fair against the sun,

Yet fruits that blossom first will first be ripe. ~ Othello


Come my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession. ~ Hamlet


Speaking of Hamlet, Ophelia gathers a bouquet of herbs and flowers well known to Elizabethans:


There’s fennel for you, and columbine.

There’s rue for you; and here’s some

For me: we may call it herb of grace a’ Sundays.

You may wear your rue with a difference.

There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets,

But they withered all when my father died.


After she drowns, Queen Gertrude laments:


There is a willow grows aslant a brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purple that

Liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, and envious sliver broke; when down her

Fell in the weeping brook.


‘Ophelia’ (1851-52) by John Everett Millais © DEA Picture Library/Getty Images


Lest we grow too morbid, we end with a Twelfth Night quote:

Like the sweet sound,

That breathes upon a bank of violets.


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The Real Secret Garden

It was a robin that showed Frances Hodgson Burnett the way to the "secret garden" for her book









A spring robin led her to an old garden wall overgrown with ivy tangled with thick canes of climbing roses. It fluttered over the top, then back again, lighting on one of the branches. The robin’s twittering convinced her that a garden must be on the other side, but there was no door. The bird’s chirps became more and more persistent in just that spot. She scrabbled through the vines until she found the door, but there was no key until she found it in the dirt, buried for ten years.

Frances Hodgson Burnett first discovered the garden wall in 1898 after leasing Great Maytham Hall in Kent, England (c. 1721).  Sir Edwin Luytens had rebuilt the Manor House itself and landscaped the terraced lawns and parkland in partnership with Gertrude Jekyll, who planted the gardens and retained the old walled garden.

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Burnett right away began restoring the garden and planted hundreds of roses. During the next decade, she cultivated extensive gardens on the grounds, held parties, and tamed the little robin. She set up a table and chair in the gazebo as a writing studio. Dressed in white and wearing a large hat, she wrote a number of her books in the peace and seclusion of her scented secret garden. It was here that she conceived the idea of a “sallow and unlikeable little girl” from India who, like her, discovers a walled secret garden, led by a robin, at Misselthwaite Manor.

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My children grew up loving the romantic charm of Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, just as my sister and I had. This secret garden for both writer and the young characters was a place of healing and return to health.

“It was our Rose Garden as it would have been locked up for years and years — and some hungry children had found it. You cannot think how everyone loves that story. People write to me with a sort of passion of it,” Burnett wrote to a friend.

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Burnett’s passion for gardens stemmed from her early childhood spent at St. Luke’s Terrance, Manchester, where her family moved when she was three. The Terrace backed onto fields owned by the Earl of Derby. “It was the back garden of Eden,” she recalled later, a place of perpetual summer, “where a small child could daydream beneath the trees and beside the flowers.” Close by were farms and country cottages and a family of market gardeners who kept pigs.

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Burnett never lost her passion for her rose gardens in Kent. In Bermuda where she spent her winters with her sister Edith, she continued to throw herself into gardening, with the help of professional gardeners. She designed extensive gardens and produced award-winning blooms. Roses, of course, remained her favorite and, thus, her trademark.

Frances Hodgson Burnett died in 1924. Her American friends helped erect a memorial to her in Manhattan’s Central Park, consisting of a fountain and bronze figures depicting Mary and Dickon, and surrounded by gardens and reading benches. Created by sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh, in 1936, the memorial is located near Fifth Avenue and the Museum of New York City.

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“As long as one has a garden, one has a future, and as long as one has a future, one is alive.”  ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett






It’s Reigning Roses!

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Several Old Roses reign supreme throughout my June gardens, led by R. Gallica Officinalis long established in my herb garden. Sometimes called the “Apothecary Rose,” this gallica is the official Red Rose of Lancaster, chosen by the House of Lancaster as its symbol in England’s War of the Roses (15th century). The original species is believed to be native to ancient Persia and was first brought back to England by early Crusaders in the 1300s.

Its companion in my herb garden is R. Damascena Bifera, also known as “Autumn Damask” and “Rose of Castile.” Highly fragrant and soft as a powder puff on my cheek, it dates from c. 50 B.C.E. Cicero grew these roses in his own gardens, so I like to think of it as “Cicero’s rose.”

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The third variety in the herb garden is named after Empress Josephine and cultivated in her gardens at Malmaison. My Rosa Gallica Empress Josephine had remained dormant for almost 20 years until, suddenly, this spring it sprouted dozens of buds. Just this week, the buds burst into bloom overnight, surprising me with joy early the next morning. It’s lovely and sweet, but its stems are rather weak and require light support. I had forgotten that and intended to rip it out eventually. I’m glad now that I didn’t.

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Among these roses flourish lemon balm and lavender, a large potted rosemary (potted because it has to be wintered over indoors), sage, French sorrel, chives, fennel and tansy. Violets carpet the floor in spring and creep up between the bricks in the crosswalk.

My herb garden began as a salad potager in 1975, shortly after we first arrived here. Varying degrees of success followed until I gave up and transformed the space into a Medieval-style parterre of herbs and Old Roses, hedged with box, and anchored at one corner with a large spirea. Through the decades, it has developed into more of a Gertrude Jekyll English-style parterre. Herbs and the Empress spill over onto the brick walk, and lemon balm spreads almost willynilly. A faded white bench arbor covered in honeysuckle provides a private bower for reflection and prayer with my morning tea.

Or a late glass of wine in summer moonlight.





Beatrix Potter’s Garden

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Photo Credit: Sharalyn Jackson Shafer


“Once upon a time, there were four little rabbits.” So begins one of the most iconic children’s stories written and illustrated by one of the most iconic children’s authors, Beatrix Potter. Her own childhood menagerie of mice, frogs, snail, lizards, birds, a dog, a hedgehog, a bat, as well as rabbits, served as inspiration for many of her little story books. But did you know that she was a student of natural sciences and a gardener, too?

Although London born and bred, Beatrix was a country girl at heart. Her idyllic childhood summers were at Camfield Place, her grandmother’s 300-acre estate in rural Hertfordshire, the roots of my father’s English ancestors. Great banks of rhododendrons bloomed and a yellow rose climbed the brick kitchen garden wall. Her parents sampled five difference place in the Lake District for 20 years of long summers as they escaped London’s sulfurous air.

When she was in her 20s, botany fed her interest in natural history. She bagged insects to study, dug for fossils, studied anatomy of animals, and sketched Old Roman archaeological ruins. Later, she added fungi to her studies. Having been educated at home while her younger brother was sent to boarding school, she turned her old schoolroom into a botanical laboratory where she could sprout spores and study slides under her microscope. By almost 30 years of age, she had written and refined an academic paper for the Linnean [botanical] Society, but the gentlemen deemed it unpublishable. The topic? “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae.” And that was that.

Beatrix Potter began to garden with pencil and paintbrush, observing plants at close range as well as visiting art galleries with her father. It was the fashion in those days to admire the pre-Raphaelites, and their meticulous copying of flowers and plants influenced her own later works. She could have become an accomplished illustrator of botanical books. Instead, she wrote and illustrated stories for specific children, beginning with picture letters, stories, and traveler’s tales.

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From these beginnings, she adapted one, at the suggestion of a friend: “The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor’s Garden.” Eventually, after several rejections from publishers, Frederick Warne & Co. took on the project in 1902, with the proviso that she would water color the sketches.

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Note, in her illustrations, the exacting detail of plant material, sizes of terra cotta pots, soil sieves, watering can, rakes, spades, trowels,  a wooden wheelbarrow, even a cold frame, drawn from her astute observations of her father’s resident gardeners.

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From her earnings, Beatrix Potter was able to buy property in the Lake District where she had summered with her family. Hill Top Farm was “a regular old-fashioned farm garden” behind the village of Near Sawrey. Farmsteads strung out along the road included cottages with quaint names like Buckle Yeat and Belle Green. She planned her first garden based on an Arts & Crafts style that Gertrude Jekyll popularized in the late 1800s-early 1900s. This vernacular combined traditional materials in dense plantings that we now love as the proverbial English-style garden.

Gardening is a hole dug in the ground into which to pour money, she once told a friend. With no husband to pay the bills, she had to earn her own money. Her book sales and profits from spin-off merchandize funded her garden projects. She never allowed her gardens to sleep as she continually propagated and seeded varieties. As the garden multiplied, so did her stories multiply. Her characters grew up, married, had offspring as prolific as bunnies who became soporific from eating too much lettuce. In fact, garden lettuce was a source used in preparing pharmaceutical sleep aids, according to her copy of 16th-century Herball by John Gerard. I personally first learned that word–soporific–when I read aloud The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies to my own young children.

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Spring at Hill Top brought out English Bluebells, a national treasure, along with primroses followed by pansies and violets. Columbine cultivars often hybridized with one another, then tended to revert to its ancestral blue and purple. Purple clematis wound itself up the canes of climbing roses, and wisteria soon followed the façade of Hill Top house, festooned like bunches of white grapes.  Foxgloves sent up tall spies of pink pendulous bells beloved by bees. Beatrix Potter’s gardener’s eye chose plants appropriate to her characters. For example, mice embroider pansies on the sherry-colored corded silk coat in The Tailor of Gloucester.

Foxgloves bloom behind the “gentleman with the sandy whiskers” we recognize as Mr. Fox. Jemima Puddle Duck collects summer herbs for poultry seasoning–sage and thyme, and mint and two onions, and some parsley”–for cooking goose.

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Peonies and irises flourish in the June garden of The Tale of Tom Kitten. Beetles and bees, spiders and butterflies invade the abode of Mrs. Tittlemouse, just as they still do at Hill top. In Beatrix’s garden, ants still perform a country dance over fat round buds, delirious with the nectar. Timmy Willie eats strawberries in The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse and Peter Rabbit nibbles carrots and radishes and then looks for some parsley in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. 

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Beatrix Potter married late in life, her first love having died after a sudden onset of leukemia. She increased her commitment to farm and garden life–including raising sheep and dairy cows, chickens and turkeys, although probably not geese or ducks–while her husband continued his law practice. Roses “smothered” the walls of Castle Cottage, their marital home across the road from Hill Top. Beatrix planted even more, including a pink “Queen of Bourbons” that exuded an exhalation of pure summer.

Visitors enjoyed seeing the familiar story book garden for real, with potted geraniums in the window sills, orange and yellow nasturtiums, rhubarb where Jemima Puddle Duck tried to hide her eggs. And, yes, rows of lettuce.

Beatrix Potter died 22nd of December 1943. She left all her lands to the National Trust, instructions that her ashes be spread in the soil on the little hill overlooking Hill Tops’s farmhouse. Over 4,000 acres of England’s Lake District–lakes and hills, resident cottages and pastures of Cumbria–remain empty of holiday cottages that spoil other landscapes. Instead, it retains the view of the land that Beatrix herself loved and bequeathed to her young readers through her Peter Rabbit books.

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Above: Detail of my children’s crib quilt, passed on to my nieces, and eventually to grandchildren who learned early to love Beatrix Potter



VERA: A Brief Analysis

He rushed her off her feet, led her “down the garden path,” and tried to keep her under lock and key like the books he had purchased but never read.

She trusted him with sweet acquiescence, an almost holy thing based on mutual grief and a need to be taken care of by a father figure once more, thus allowing herself to be swept along to the altar by his prearranged schedule as stage manager of wedding, honeymoon, life itself.

He tried to own her, body and mind and soul, with no independent thought in a life contrived for appearances’ sake, hours regulated by a gong – a cross school boy being rude, with power to control while professing undying love for his “doll” wife.

And therein lay the crux of the matter: there was only one way of looking at a thing – his way. He forced her to assume the role of the pretty and irresponsible little woman in order to flatter him, reminiscent of Torvald and Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora does escape in the end by running away, just as Vera had by jumping out of her sitting room window. Can Vera’s successor, Lucy, even recognize the similarities in their situations?

Last week, I promised to write about Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera, fully expecting the novel to be full of garden references as her other three books I had read this spring. However, this one has so few that I had to read it a second time and take notes. Here is what I found:

Garden at Cornwall cottage

Fringes of trees hid the cottage from a dusty road. The gate faced the sea glittering in sunlight. The little garden featured a huge mass of fuchsia bushes. A seat, probably a bench as two people could sit on it, stood under a mulberry tree where several early scenes take place in the fresh air of August and September.

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Garden references in London

River at Hampton Court and Palace gardens are mentioned in terse conversation with no descriptions given.

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Garden at The Willows

Flooding from heavy rains turned the entrance roads to oozing black mud. Fringes of willows stand in the middle of meadows, seen from the muddy road. A variety of handsome shrubs encircled the house, down to a flowing river in the distance:

  1. Laurustinus and laurels (bays?) surrounded the house.
  2. Lawns with the sweet April smell of cut grass swept down from the house to a river flowing in the distance.
  3. A huge birthday bouquet of yellow Kingcups graced the dining table, and then was moved to the library.
  4. Wildflowers grew along the river sliding past the garden.
  5. A flagstone terrace lay between the river and the library side of the house.
  6. The scene in Vera’s painting evoked Tuscany, a walled garden with an open door leading to a distant vista, suggesting escape.

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Descriptions of room interiors give color to the story, balancing the dearth of garden scenes. Other than the soft glow of a rare fire in the library and only once in the sitting room, the only interior light comes from bald electric lights so bright that one wishes one had worn a hat!

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