Tall stoneware pot with pink foxglove

Wyrtig

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

 

 

If you are thinking about creating a medieval herb garden, your first job will be to narrow down what you mean when you say "medieval," for the medieval period, AKA the Middle Ages, began with the fall of Rome in 476 CE and continues to about the year 1400. This thousand-year period is divided into three shorter time spans:

  • Early Middle Ages (476-1000 CE)

  • High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE)

  • Late Middle Ages (1300-1400 CE)

We know less about the gardens of the Early Middle Ages than about the later periods, but in each period, some traits appear to be more prevalent than others.

 

As you plan your own recreation of a medieval garden, some key points to consider include:

1. Purpose.

Do you want a garden primarily as a feast for the senses, or will you want to harvest herbs for use in your kitchen or elsewhere? This will affect your choice of plants, as well as where you locate your garden, and how you lay it out.

2. Garden layout.

Raised beds in a physic garden

The physic garden of the Early Middle Ages that is drawn in the Plan of St. Gall is very geometric, using raised rectangular beds with paths between. Then and now, raised beds provide the well-drained soil required by many herbs, give the garden structure, and make weeding easier.

A cottage garden

Informal cottage gardens, similar to those of tofts and crofts throughout the Middle Ages, may appear to be unstructured, but actually require considerable foresight in order for each plant to have enough sunlight, air flow, and leg room to flourish. On the other hand, the careful placement of plants can make maintenance easier, and provide seasonings, foliage, and flowers in every season.

A knot garden

More formal gardens were part of Roman garden design, for example at Fishbourne in Roman Britain, whose garden dates to about 100 CE. By the Late Middle Ages, formal parterre or knot gardens, similar to the one at London's Garden Museum, had become popular in Britain and on the Continent. Knot gardens are more ornamental than utilitarian, and require more maintenance.

The books listed to the right, with their wonderful photos and detailed discussions of a variety of gardens, are an excellent source of inspiration.

 

3. A plan.

Whether you want to create a garden with simple, rectangular raised beds, an intricate knot garden, or something akin to a cottage garden, planning is crucial.

Shaded plants along a garden path

First, learn what sort of habitat each of your plants requires to flourish. Group plants by their needs, putting sun-lovers in the well-lit parts of your garden, and settling shade-tolerant varieties together beneath trees or taller plants. Many herbs prefer drier conditions, but not all, and again you should group plants, creating plant communities where the requirements of each individual plant can be met.

A

Draw up a plan, to scale, of your garden, and locate each of your plants within it, paying attention to the height and spread of each plant at maturity. Consider sunlight and shade, soil types, water supply and drainage, and air flow.

 

Think about how your garden will appear in every season, including winter. Consider the vantage points from which you will enjoy it. For example, we see our front garden from the house when we look out our living room windows, which are about 8 feet above the garden -- a wonderful vantage point. But we also view the garden as we walk through it, and passers-by see it from yet another vantage point beyond the fence. All of these views are important to consider.

Maintenance is crucial consideration for all aspects of your garden. For example, beds should be no more than 4 feet wide, so that you can reach weeds without having to walk in the beds. They should be laid out to make optimal use of sunlight and shade, and to allow rainwater to soak in, rather to run-off and cause erosion -- a serious consideration on a sloping site.

 

Paths are important, not just as walkways, but also as boundaries to your beds. They are important structural elements that will be visible in your garden year round. Paths need to be safe to walk on; wide enough to accommodate your wheelbarrow, your visitors, and yourself; aesthetically pleasing; and easy to maintain.

 

Putting your plans on paper will help you to think all this through.

 

4. Plants.

Once you have clarified in your own mind the design and purpose of your garden, you will need to choose the plants with which to populate it.
 

Physalis, from a medieval herbal c. 1000 CEMedieval plants
We actually know a good deal about the plants grown in medieval gardens; a group that includes many old friends, as well as a number of new faces, some truly exotic. Creating a beautiful garden using these plants becomes an ongoing experiment -- one of the greatest pleasures of gardening! You can find many suppliers of seeds and plants online; two of my favorite sources for less common plants are Sandy Mush Herb Nursery and J.L. Hudson Seeds.

 

Finally, a great source of inspiration is a visit to one (or several) of the beautiful re-created medieval gardens to be found in Europe, Britain, and the U.S.

Cottage garden with stone walls

In it's first year, while your plants become established, you'll need to weed and water and generally nurse your garden along. In the second year, the plants will reward your careful planning and hard work with fragrance, color, texture, flavor, and even sound, courtesy of the birds, bees, and hummingbirds who come to share in the bounty you have created.

 

Maintenance will be easier each year, as the weed seeds present in your soil exhaust themselves, and the plants you are cultivating become more robust. Volunteer plants will spring up thither and yon, to be enjoyed, moved, or removed as your garden develops its personality -- while simultaneously expressing yours.


 
To learn more...

Book, Making an Herb Garden

Making an Herb Garden: Beautiful Designs, Plantings and Ornamentation

 

Book, The Romantic Herb Garden

The Romantic Herb Garden

 

 Book, The Essential Garden Design Workbook

The Essential Garden Design Workbook

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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