Medieval Kitchen Garden
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.
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.
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.
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.
garden story above is an example of the classic English medieval
garden. In France, edible flowers were grown alongside the salad
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.)
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.
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.
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.
is used mostly for Christmas cooking today, but in medieval
Europe it was used for cramps, sleeplessness, and as a "cure"
for the plague!
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
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.