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Medieval to 16th century | 17th - 19th century | Garden Restoration | The Nonsuch Restoration Project

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The Medieval Kitchen Garden


It is just before sunup in medieval England. The mists from the moor have not dissipated yet, and the little scullery maid can barely make out the entrance to the kitchen garden, where she has been sent by the cook to pull vegetables and cut herbs for the day's meals. The walls surrounding the garden are made of heavy thistle hedges to keep out rabbit and deer, and she snags the corner of her apron as she picks her way to the dirt path. She has a large woven basket on her arm today; there will be a feast tonight for the master's birthday, and she will pick more vegetables than usual to feed the many guests who will start to arrive in the early afternoon.

She begins at the row of turnips and works her way through the onions and beets. The peas and beans will have to wait; they are in a much larger garden further away from the house and are grown in larger fields. This simple kitchen garden has mostly cold root plants and herbs. As she works her way over to the carrots she notices signs of moles - she will have to remember to tell the gardener, as it is not her job to stray away from her kitchen duties to chase small animals out of the garden. She hopes that someday she will move up to be one of the cooks in the manor, for now she is content to cut the vegetables and stir the pots - scouring them clean between uses - skin the meat and help the ill-tempered cook prepare the meals. It takes all day to cook and prepare the food. As soon as they are done with the breakfast, she must wash everything and begin preparations for supper, which is in the late afternoon. After that she will begin dinner. Not today, though, today they will serve breakfast and then keep snacks coming all day as the rest of the house prepares for the feast.

Her mother lives a short distance from the main house, closer to the village. Her kitchen garden is much smaller, with peas, and beans alongside cold storage root vegetables and the same herbs that are in this big garden. Her mother's small garden is also enclosed with briars and thistles-the rabbits and deer didn't care how wealthy you were, they were happy to poach anyone's garden. Her mother's garden has raised beds, the soil around the small cottage is filled with rocks, and so she spent a summer's day sifting through the clay and rocks with her mother, preparing and building foot high beds arranged in a large square. The soil in master's garden has been tilled many times over; the gardener has all day to do it, as this is his primary job around the grounds. The dirt paths through the vegetable rows are packed hard, and the cook keeps talking about asking the master to put in brick, but she never gets around to actually asking him.

The little scullery maids basket is full now, she will drag the heavy basket back to the kitchen entrance and begin to wash them in cold water, after that, she will peel and chop for the next few hours. The master's birthday feast will indeed be the best in the land tonight.

Most medieval kitchen gardens were set up exactly as the story above. Close to the kitchen entrance and walled high with heavy thickets to keep out the animals, these small gardens were for growing rooted vegetables and herbs. The high growing gardens were set further away from the house and were much larger, kept for growing trailing vegetables such as squash, beans, peas, and some arbor fruits such as grapes. A very large piece of land would also have an area just for an orchard, but that is another article.

The garden story above is an example of the classic English medieval garden. In France, edible flowers were grown alongside the salad and herbs.

In Italy, the kitchen garden grew much the same vegetables as the English gardens but some of the herbs were different, and the planting and harvesting was done only during specific times of the week and in strict accordance with the phases of the moon. The same cold weather bulbs like onion and potatoes that were in England were also in Italian kitchen gardens, but they had to be both planted and pulled out of the ground during a waning moon. (This is still very much a part of handed down family tradition in Italy today.)

A well taken care of medieval garden produced something all year round. After the final harvest around October, the cabbage, leeks, and cauliflower still produced long after the first frost. Often they were built on small hills to allow for the best drainage. This was also harvest time for many of the herbs grown in the kitchen garden. While some were for cooking, just as many if not more were used in medicinal poultices and teas.

The medieval times were times of superstition and very little knowledge of how the body worked. A cold could be caused by elves, or an angry fairy. Sores were a curse, and fever was devil possession. The herbs used to treat these ailments were thought to have magic properties, and perhaps they did. When applied and the fever lessened or the sores went away, the people didn't understand how it worked - acidity drawing out infection or the like - they assumed it was magic.

While most of the herbs used for medicine were grown in large monastery gardens, some of the healing plants became part of the common kitchen gardens of the time. Anise was used both as a poultice and a tea to alleviate the stinging from insects and cabbage was used to treat diarrhea and other stomach ailments. (It was also believed to cure drunkenness and hangovers!) Chamomile was used very commonly for fatigue and fever-you'll remember that it was the tea used by Peter Rabbit's mother to soothe him after his run in with Mr. MacGregor in Beatrix Potter's famous story. Chives were not only used as a culinary additive, they were also chopped up and made into a tea for coughs and upper respiratory congestion.

Comfrey was one of the most popular of the medicinal herbs grown in the medieval kitchen garden. The plant with strange, furry leaves and small purple flowers was introduced by Arabs to the Crusaders, who brought it with them when they returned to Europe. Used both as a tea and a poultice, comfrey alleviated pain and helped speed healing of burns, wounds, and other accidents where the skin was broken. A poultice was applied topically and a strong tea was taken internally for the pain.

Coriander is used mostly for Christmas cooking today, but in medieval Europe it was used for cramps, sleeplessness, and as a "cure" for the plague!

There were some sinister medicinal, plants in the garden as well, hidden in the thickets alongside the stone walls of the manor house, or out in the woods a safe distance away from the cottage. To be caught with them might mean certain death for the cultivator-belladonna, nightshade; mandrake, henbane and monkshood were all considered to be the herbs of witchcraft. While it was true that some of them caused terrible, vivid hallucinations that could have been thought to be demon possession, if used properly they were strong pain killers. Other herbs "allowed" in the kitchen garden were systematically used to ward off witchcraft-or win a court case. Dill weed was particularly popular for both. Garlic, of course, is/was well known for its witch and vampire repellent properties. We know today that St. John's Wort is a good supplement to take to ward off the common cold and fever, but it was also believed to keep mice from eating the pages of your books. (However, I can not find out how.) Some wealthy landowners had three or four gardens; a kitchen garden, a medicinal garden, arbor gardens and simple pleasure gardens, but the commoners and peasants had to be content with as large a garden as their small bit of land would accommodate. With most of their days taken up with the necessities of day to day survival work, they didn't have much time to sit leisurely in a flower garden, but many had small benches or small clay statues in their kitchen gardens - usually to bring good luck or keep birds and small animals away.

All of these vegetables, plants and herbs were grown close to the house, whether it was a small commoner's cottage or a large manor house. They had to be within quick reach as they were often used fresh throughout the season, harvested only right before the first frost and hung to dry or kept in dark bins in what would come to be known as a pantry in later times. Even the high hedges of thistles used to keep out marauding animals had their medicinal uses, as nothing in the medieval garden went to waste.

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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