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OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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Early Medieval Garden Tools


ToftThe work of producing food in the vernacular gardens of early medieval times, just like that of kitchen gardens  today, proceeded through predictable stages:

I.    Preparation
II.   Planting
III.  Cultivation
IV.  Harvest and storage

Whether the area of arable was measured feet or in acres, each stage in the agri- or horti-cultural process made use of specific tools. Among the sources of information about early tools, medieval glosses provide synonym lists, as do works like those of  Aelfric. Some early names are easily recognized; more are foreign to modern gardeners -- but in form and function, most medieval gardening tools and materials will be very familiar.


Preparing the Garden


Enclosures: Dike, fence, hedge, wall

Preparing the seed bed

Fertilizing the soil



The first step in preparation was to enclose your garden (from geard, an enclosure) to protect it from both two-legged and four-legged invaders, as well as to mark its boundaries. Enclosure could be accomplished with:


A dike







The dirt removed from the ditch was piled above at the edge of the trench to create steep bank,  sometimes topped with a palisade or hedge.


Vallum - rampart, ditch and bank with palisade, wooden fence

Fossa - ditch, trench, channel

Scrobis - ditch, dike, trench


Old English

Dælf, delf - ditch

Dic - dike

Dicweall - dike wall


A fence

Fences could be made of wattle -- interwoven branches -- or of boards, or of poles or stakes driven vertically into the ground to make a palisade.


Cratis - wattle fence

Sudes de lignis - stakes of wood, palisade


Old English

Glind – Board or paling fence

Hæcce - Rail fence

Hyrdel - hurdle, fence of interwoven wattle

Scídweall - Wooden fence, palings; from scid, shingle

A hedge



Hedges -- barriers and boundary markers that consist of of thickly planted shrubs and small trees -- are often mentioned in charters documenting property boundaries. Common hedgerow species include blackthorn, hawthorn, willow, wild privet, field maple, crab apple, common buckthorn, oak, ash, and, at one time, elm.


Sude sepis - hedge stake; upright stakes driven in at regular intervals to provide strength to the hedge

Sepes, septimentus, lŏcus septus - hedge, fence, fenced place

Sepis spinorum- thorn hedge


Old English

Cwichege - living hedge, quickset hedge, using cuttings of of hazel or hawthorn

Eodor, eðer - hedge, enclosure, dwelling

Gehæge - enclosed land, garden, paddock

Haga, hecge, hege - fence or a fenced enclosure

Hægþorn - hedge thorn, hawthorn

Wyrttúnhege - garden hedge

Laying a hedge.
Anglo-Saxon Calendar,  
British Library Cotton Tiberius, England, c. 1050

A stone wall



Dry stone walls, laid without mortar, are common field boundaries in upland areas where stone abounds.


Cementum - Wall

Maceriae - Stone or brick wall or enclosure

Muras, muros - stone wall



Old English

Stánhege - stone fence, wall

Stanweall - stone wall

Preparing the seedbed


Before the 20th century, nearly all arable land -- fields and gardens alike – would be turned several times before planting.

An 11th century document from Britain, Be Gesceadwisan Gerefan ("About the Astute Reeve"), says that a wise manager will

....in Maio & Junio & Julio on sumera  fealgian  myxendinegan ut dragan locc  yrdla tilian...


...in May and June and July in summer break up fallow;

dung drag out on field; earth till.


The soil was tilled the first time to break it up, and the second, to break it down -- that is, to pulverize the heavy clumps left from  the first pass. Often it was tilled a a third time as well.

Fertilizer in the form of manure (Latin fimum, stercus; Old English, ding, meox), along with household waste, was often spread in a field prior to the first tilling – a practice that leaves a clear archaeological footprint. Columella, in De Rei Rustica (Of Rural Matters), a classical handbook known by the 9th century in Europe, writes:


...adventum nidis cantabit hirundo, rudere tum pingui, solido vel stercore aselli, armentive fimo saturet ieiunia terrae, ipse ferens holitor diruptos pondere qualos, pabula nec pudeat fisso praebere novali immundis quaecumque vomit latrina cloacis.


When swallows welcome the advent of spring, the farmer should feed the starving earth with rich soil or donkey dung or other manure; likewise, the gardener, bearing full baskets straining with the weight, should not hesitate to bring to newly plowed fallow ground whatever stuff the privy pit ends forth.

Columella, De Rei Rustica I.x.79-85


"Green manures" -- plants that enrich the soil, such as legumes -- were also recognized, planted, and plowed in. Again, from Columella;

et curvi vomere dentis iam viridis lacerate comas, iam scindite amictus tu gravibus rastris cunctantia perfode terga, tu penitus latis eradere viscera marris ne dubita, et summo ferventia cespite mixta ponere, quae canis iaceant urenda pruinis, verberibus gelidis...


And with curving plowshare’s tooth now lacerate the earth’s green hair; tear her garments with your heavy harrow; do not hesitate to scrape and mix with your mattock her depths with the upper turf, that it may lay for the frost to cook...


Weeds were uprooted and buried as the soil was turned, and the debris incorporated into the soil increased fertility. Care was taken to complete at least the first tilling before weeds had set seed.

Medieval garden tools

I. Preparing

II.  Planting

III.  Cultivation

IV.  Harvest and storage


About the Astute Reeve

Medieval baskets


Garden Glossary


Bed, bedd - A garden plot; bed, stratum, lectus

Geard - Enclosure, enclosed place, court, yard, garden, home, region, land; a field, a garden

Gerd - Field, garden

Leactun, leahtun, lehtun, leyhtun - An herb or kitchen garden

Hé leác sette, he planted vegetables

Lusgeard - Plant, yard, garden; from Old Irish lus, plant, herb, weed

Orcerd, orcgyrd, ordceard, ortgeard - Garden, orchard

Pearroc - Enclosure, palisade

Plumweard pearrocs – Plum orchard keeper’s enclosure

Pearrocas, an estate surrounded with a fence of stakes

Seten - A set, shoot, branch, nursery, plantation; setene, what is planted out

Wingeard - vineyard

Wyrtbed - Garden bed, plant bed

Wyrtgeard - Kitchen garden  

Wyrttún - Kitchen garden

Wyrtwalian - To plant



Clausum - Enclosed garden

Cottagium - A cottage and the land on which it stands

Cucumerario - Cucumber field, garden of vining plants

Curtilagium - The enclosed area around a house, its outbuildings, and its gardens; separate from the farm fields beyond.

Gardinum - Kitchen garden

Herbarium - Small garden of flowers and herbs; later usually a physic garden of medicinal herbs

Hortus, ortus - Garden

Ortos olerum, olera - Vegetable garden

Pightellum - Small piece of land enclosed by a hedge

Placea - Plot

Placea - Plot

Pomerium - Utilitarian orchard

Promptuaria - Kitchen garden

Pleasure gardens:

 Virectum - Greenery

 Virgultum - Shrubs
     and bushes

  Viridarium - Tree




Medieval garden tools

I. Preparing

II.  Planting

III.  Cultivation

IV.  Harvest and storage


About the Astute Reeve

Medieval baskets



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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
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F.D. Drewitt


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