When he was putting pen to paper in 17th-century London, it seems unlikely that William Shakespeare would suspect that four centuries later gardeners would be reading his works and planning their plants based on his references.
And yet, Shakespearean gardens remain popular today. And what, thee might well inquire, is a Shakespearean garden?
“A Shakespearean garden is nothing but a garden that contains the plants mentioned in his plays,” says Charlie Waldrop, a volunteer for Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas. Waldrop recently helped the Fair Park attraction revitalize a Shakespearean garden that had been created in the early ’60s but had lost much of its Bard-celebrated-flora over the years.
Was Shakespeare himself a gardener? Shakespeare’s body of work indicates that he loved nature, but historians can only speculate whether the Bard planted the pansies and poppies in his off-hours.
“Shakespeare displays a great deal of knowledge about plants in his plays and poems,” says Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. “From this, we assume that he tended gardens in his spare time.”
With career success and the accompanying financial reward, Shakespeare purchased New Place, a Stratford house with an extensive garden
“There is no definitive proof to say that Shakespeare was an avid gardener; however, he certainly had a good knowledge of plants,” says Tom Moores, research intern at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. “His work is littered with references to flowers and herbs, often employing flowers in his metaphors and similes used to illustrate people’s personalities. Twenty-nine different scenes in the Shakespeare canon take place in a garden or orchard.”
“He knew plants and plant lore intimately,” says Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard professor and author of Will in the World, a bestselling Shakespeare biography. “It seems clear that this knowledge was not only from books but more from direct experience.”
Public gardens throughout the world often have a designated area devoted to Shakespeare, and you, too, can create a Shakespearean garden in your backyard. Here are six steps to get you started:
1. Plan your garden’s basic design
You’ll need a roomy garden bed that gets at least four hours of sun each day. Prepare the soil as you would for any other garden. Determine the space that you will allocate to plants and any permanent fixtures, such as a brick or gravel pathway. A bench will provide you and your guests a place to sit and reflect on nature.
Some Shakespearean gardens feature a bust or image of the writer as a focal point. A selection of busts of the Bard is available at www.statue.com, with prices starting at $84. Additional elements might include a traditional sundial or antique-looking flower pot. Check out the sundial assortment at www.outdoor furniture.net. Prices start at about $40.
Waldrop created a fresh design incorporating the old structure, which was installed in the original garden around 1960. The project included a brick wall that runs 30 feet along the edge of the garden. Built into the wall is a bas-relief of Shakespeare carved in Italy by skilled craftsmen and featuring the quote “Of all flowers, methinks a rose is best.” The original pavestone path circles around a pedestal with a sundial, circa 1962. The sundial sits inside a center circle that is surrounded by garden quadrants.
To enhance the existing structures, a bushy Red Cascade rose spilling from a large antique urn was placed across from the Shakespeare relief. “It’s perfect for this spot,” says Randy Johnson, horticultural director for Texas Discovery Garden. “It fits nicely.”
Combined, the various shapes and elements give the impression of a traditional English country garden. Waldrop advises home gardeners to be creative in crafting their own Shakespearean haven, however. “Shakespeare gardens come in all different designs,” he said. “Some are formal. Some are wild.”
2. Research plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s writing
In working on the Shakespearean garden, Waldrop researched the various plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s work. A complete list of those plants is at www.lomonico.com/supplementallist2.html. It comes from “The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare,” written by Henry N. Ellacombe in 1884.
Reference guides to Shakespeare’s plants are found on Amazon. These include “Shakespeare’s Flowers,” written by Jessica Kerr and illustrated by Anne Ophelia Dowden, and “Shakespeare’s Garden: Or the Plants and Flowers Named in His Works Described and Defined,” a reprint of Sidney Beisly’s 1864 book.
An inspirational tome is “Shakespeare in the Garden” by Mick Hales, a prominent landscape photographer, featuring shots of Shakespearean gardens and an illustrated compendium of plants. Used copies of the $35 coffee-table book were recently on Amazon.com for $5.
Plants had symbolic significance in the 1600s, and Shakespeare’s every mention of a flower, tree or herb is considered important to the text. One familiar example is the rose, which has long been emblematic of romantic love. It is cited more than 50 times in Shakespeare’s work, including, of course, Juliet’s famous words from “Romeo and Juliet”:
What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name
Would smell as sweet.
Other references include:
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks .....
— “Sonnet 130”
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
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;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
— “Sonnet 98”
Like the lily,
That once was mistress of the field and flourish’d,
I’ll hang my head and perish.
— “Henry VIII”
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips 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”
When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
—“The Winter’s Tale”
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 or 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.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.
When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
—“Love’s Labours Lost”
He was met even now
As mad as the vex’d sea; singing aloud;
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.
3. Select plants that thrive best in your climate.
You may want to search for the William Shakespeare rose created by English rose breeder David Austin. The plant produces velvety burgundy flowers.
It took Waldrop several visits to regional nurseries to find the plants for the refurbished garden, and some were harder to find than others. Broom plants aren’t common, but “he found some at Home Depot,” Johnson says.
A few desirable mentions, such as mustard, were left out because they must be started from seed. Home gardeners can sow mustard seeds directly in the ground in the spring.
4. Select plants and their placement based on their individual characteristics.
“Know what season they bloom and consider the different heights and colors,” Waldrop says. “It’s like planning any other garden. Anyone can do it.”
You might start with a visit to a local public garden; take along a notebook and jot down how the plants are arranged in the garden.
5. Consider using only natural products in the garden
Waldrop thinks an organic garden is historically appropriate since any garden in Shakespeare’s time would have been maintained using natural methods.
6. Add plant identification signs with appropriate quotations.
Most public Shakespearean gardens feature plant markers with the plant’s name and a related quote. You can make your own quotation plant stakes using products from www.metalgardenmarkers.com or www.idealgardenmarkers.com.