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Little Edens

28 April 2022
Fontfroide Abbey, cloistered garden
Getty Images

Though centuries-old, monastic garden designs featuring herbs suit today’s smaller sections well.
Words MARILYN WIGHTMAN

Ancient monks were practical, logical-thinking gardeners. By considering the features of their age-old gardens, we can make our own ‘garden of paradise’, creating a small garden to retreat to and reflect in.

Originating in Europe, monastic gardens were often small areas within the confines of a walled space, cloistered for security and allowing self-sufficiency in times of danger. Monks utilised knowledge gained from even older traditions in their gardens. From Islam, they adapted the paradise garden with water flowing through a paved courtyard area. Similarly, the monasteries of England, Ireland and Europe echoed the formal geometric-patterned garden beds of Roman villas and incorporated the Roman design of patios, often with southern-facing covered walkways. (Remember, that is in the northern hemisphere. Here in the south, sun-trapped aspects are northern.) A water supply was essential, and using square and rectangular garden beds allowed workable access to tend and irrigate herbs.

Several garden beds were dedicated to growing medicinal herbs essential for use in the infirmary. The sacristan would dedicate beds to fragrant flowers that decorated shrines or statues, were strewn on the floor, or were manufactured into garlands for feast days. Kitchen garden beds grew the ‘pot herbs’, those flavoursome herbs for stews and salads. The covered walkways allowed the scribes of the day, long before printing presses were invented in the 15th century, to sit outside as the weather permitted and in good light sketch each herb, while also writing up the wisdom the monks were relaying about growing and using them.

A monk residing in Ireland or Egypt could share herbal knowledge with another in Italy or Spain as their common written and spoken language was Latin. Exchanges of herb seeds and plants happened too
as monks went on pilgrimages or were transferred between places of their order, be it Benedictine, Carmelite, Carthusian, Cistercian or Cluniac.

herbal garden in benedictine monastery, schaffhausen
The herbal garden of a Benedictine monastery in Belgium. Photo: Getty Images

Modern adaptation

Many of these ideas of ancient herb designs get used in modern garden landscaping. House design tends towards smaller section sizes these days, so delineating the garden areas organises the activities of the household. Raised or bordered garden plots allow for easy access and easier lawn mowing. Alternatively, having non-grassed or paved walkways eliminates the need to mow altogether.

Traditional monastic garden design has a centrepiece of a topiary tree or a water fountain. Four garden beds are arranged in a square around the centrepiece, forming the shape of a Christian cross. A
bay tree or rosemary would be suitable as a centrepiece. If your section size allows, consider a formal set-out of beds or, if space is limited, a corner area for angled beds. Keep the beds no wider than one metre for easier maintenance.

Taller-growing herbs can be centred, with lower-growing herbs set at the edges. Design the structure by planting permanent, year-round growing herbs – bay, rosemary, mugwort, sage, hyssop, myrtle and lavender. Interplant these with annuals, such as coriander, dill, horehound and cumin. Other perennial
herbs that die back for winter can be included, such as fennel, savory, lovage, mint, agrimony and Madonna lily. Lower-growing herbs of creeping rosemary, thyme, dianthus and chamomile suit being grown to drape over the edges of the raised beds.

To position these garden plots, good sun of at least half the day is required. Raising the beds above ground level allows compost and manure to be added annually to ensure good soil condition and nutrients for growing herbs. As many new houses are built on levelled ground, landscaping has usually removed good topsoil – so this is one way to establish good growing conditions. It alleviates any problems of poor drainage, too.

What else to grow

Monks often interplanted kitchen vegetables among the herbs.

Do remember to have some fragrant scented roses growing. Monks used these for their scent and added
rose hips to medicinal syrups.

Another monastic garden bed to consider growing would be one with grape vines, hops, wormwood,
alecost, juniper, elder, ground ivy and all the other herbs considered useful for brewing alcoholic beverages. Several liqueurs evolved from monks brewing these herbs into tasty aperitifs and cocktails, and many of these liqueurs are manufactured today.

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