Planting a Medieval Garden

I am a gardener.  Despite the gloves (hate dirty hands), the perspiration (ugh!  Excretory system, people), and the labor (no exposition needed), I NEED to garden.  Working the soil, making things grow, creating something beautiful all fulfill me in a way nothing else does.  It allows my mind to wander where it will, freeing ideas or solutions otherwise hidden.

Medieval people were avid gardeners.  Not everyone loved it, of course, or used it to trick their muse into being forthcoming, but folks liked to eat, and most had some basics planted in their yards.  Beauty was secondary to survival when it came to planting.   A quick trip to the grocery store wasn’t an option.  To make it through until the next harvest, food had to be grown and stored.

On large estates, be they castle or manor, medicinal herbs, cooking herbs, onions, and the like were often reserved for what was called “The Kitchen Garden” for obvious reasons.  Now, I’m not suggesting you plant a kitchen garden, per se, but using some of the items found therein among your own decorative plantings adds color, texture, fragrance, and a quick source of fresh ooomph to your culinary offerings.

This is a photo my recently completed ‘Meditation Garden’. 

Front view: Meditation Garden

Within you will find many fragrant herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, basil, mint, oregano (common in Mediterranean gardens), and lemon balm–all of which flower.  Medicinal and edible flowers also populate this garden:  foxglove, holyhocks, lilies, and lavendar, predominently, and add their fragrances to the mix.

Parsley, chives, more rosemary, and lavendar are located in other gardens, all of which contribute themselves to whatever is being mixed, grilled, baked, boiled, steamed, sauteed, or roasted either in the kitchen or in the yard. 

I have a hummingbird feeder and a solar powered fountain, as you can see, as well as solar lighting—none of which would have been found in a medieval garden, of course—but the angel statues, the stone path, and the wrought iron-looking entry aid the illusion.

I’m thinking about putting a willow at the base of the yard—the bark, which can be chewed or brewed into tea, contains salicin, a pain reliever that has since been synthesized into salicitic acid which is the primary component of aspirin–because soaking the green shoots in water produces a rooting compound head and shoulders above what is available commercially.

Medieval gardens also included flowering fruit trees, apple, pear, and plum being the most common in Britain, arbored grape vines, and other climbing medicinals like honeysuckle and ivy.  These were ruthlessly pruned and pulled to keep them from overtaking the entire garden.  Lily of the Valley, Bluebells, and other bulb-grown plants were also used.  The bulbs provided the medicines, the flowers, fragrances for soaps, unguents, and perfumes.

One of my favorite books on medieval gardens is Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden by Rob Talbot & Robin Whiteman.  It warns of the dangers even as it explains the medicinal uses of each plant.  Another good book is called The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg which explains layout and gives a more comprehensive view of how gardens were actually used in a medieval home.

A path lined with fragrant herbs leading to your door will always provide a warm welcome to your guests while saving money on herbs for your kitchen.   Give it a try!


Filed under blog

14 responses to “Planting a Medieval Garden

  1. Hi, Gwynlyn, I’m back to gardening myself. I am only planting things that can be eaten or used for medicine. Your garden looks lovely. One day I hope to have my yard where it looks as lovely, but I have a long way to go.

  2. Gwyn

    Thanks, Diana. In this economic climate, you’ve made a smart choice. The best part? It will also be a lovely choice—eventually. Gardens never look their best in their first season. Too much space between the plantings, but they need room to grow. I’m sure it will look fabulous once it matures. Take pictures!

  3. Gwynlyn, you have clearly put a lot of time and effort into your gardening. So lovely! I’ve read all the Brother Cadfael books and have researched medieval herb lore for writing, but it never occurred to me to plant such a place of my own. Good luck to you!

  4. Gwyn

    So good to see you here, Pat! I hope the thought has occurred now. It’s truly a money-saver (it’s so easy to dry your own herbs!) and most of these plants thrive with pruning so you needn’t feel guilty about taking sprigs and cuttings.

  5. Arlene

    Gwyn, hi! You’re out east, right? Where I live in the mountains of Arizona, the ground is rocky and nights are cold well into spring. I wish I could have a garden, though. My parents did while I was growing up in Indiana. We grew potatoes, corn, beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes … even kholrabi, whatever that is.

    I tried to grow herbs in flower pots once, but kept forgetting to water them. Guess I don’t have much of a green thumb. 😦

  6. Gwyn

    Yes, I’m in the Pocono mountains so know a thing or two about rocky soil. Raised beds beat that every time. Sam’s Club has a lovely 4×8 of recycled materials for about $40. Fill it with soil and garden away. Cool nights don’t hurt, frosty ones do. When frost is threatening, a bed sheet or tarp will protect your plants. As for the interior herb garden, there are tricks to remind you to water there, as well (I use them for my houseplants since they I’ve tucked them in blah corners), if you’re interest. Let me know if you decide to give the raised beds a try! (Stacked beds also help keep the critters out!)

  7. Hi, Gwynlyn! I so miss my old kitchen garden. We grew broccoli, all types of lettuce and sweet peas alongside marigolds, lavender, mint and basil. (I’ve never been able to keep rosemary alive for long). At our ‘new’ inner-city house, which we’re renovating, we’ve got a concrete backyard–not very inspiring! There’s a cypress and an avocado tree planted too close together, and one of them has to be removed. We are planning to build a little urban oasis after winter. I can’t wait to potter around in the garden again.

    • Gwyn

      Remove the cypress, Vanessa. The avacado gives shade and fruit. Once your reno is complete, and your urban oasis can contain few raised boxes for your kitchen garden. Okay, so you won’t be living off the produce, but one or two tomato plants, a pepper plant or two, maybe some lettuce or spinach should provide enough to make you smile, and the herbs will make the space smell wonderful when you entertain.
      I hope you take pictures. I’d love to see the final product!

      • The avo tree has actually been producing good fruit for the first time in four years. It is leaning over into our neighbour’s yard at a very strange angle, though, and who ever planted it put the tree directly over the sewer line. I’ll take pictures when the garden’s done — right now it’s embarrassingly bare out there.

        • Gwyn

          Well, that does give a new twist to fertilizer, doesn’t it? One way or the other, I want pics when you’ve completed your oasis. (I love the sound of that!)

  8. I love to garden, too, though I have only a few edible plants. This year, since moving to a new house, I’ve been pleasantly surprise by what had emerged in the bed. Of course, I had to add knockout roses and a few other favorite flowers like the dahlia, lamb’s ear, lavender and creeping potato vine. I also plunked three tomato plants, four pepper plants and two zucchini down in the back flower beds. I’m bringing a little country to my gated, professionally landscaped neighborhood. LOL. I also put in some rosemary, too. Wish I could post some pics – my hydrangea are lovely and the daylilies and daisies are blooming too. Fun post, Gwynlyn.

    • Gwyn

      You know my email. I’d love to see your pics. Flower beds are wonderful, but there is no reason you can’t incorporate flowering herbs and other edibles. I love the idea of tomatoes and such in the back flower bed. Flowers and veggies grow well together. It’s the grouping that makes it work. Enjoy your new home, Liz, and have fun with the gardens. They are for your pleasure, after all.

  9. darynda

    Fantastic post, Gwyn! I remember when I first learned the importance of gardens back then. It wasn’t just for recreation or a few vegetables on the table. It was for health and well-being. I find herbal remedies and the long history behind them absolutely fascinating. And your gardens are stunning!!!!

    • Gwyn

      Thanks, Darynda! I’m not a big fan of pharmaceudicals, so all this research has opened my eyes in many ways. Thus, it really bites my butt when people call the medicine of today “traditional” medicine. HUH! It’s not been around that long, people. The herbals have sustained man for eons—and with far fewer averse side effects! That’s the traditional medicine, not the synthesized chemical compounds people currently ingest–many to their detriment.

      (Okay, stepping down now. *G*)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s