Gardens for Contemplation
Medieval monks historically dedicated their lives to a calling; one that centred around a thoughtful vow of poverty, chastity, compliance, and solidity. They lived to serve God, but they also secured their own livelihood and sustenance through carefully cultivated monasterial gardens.
Herbs were grown in a ‘physic garden,’ the earliest version of what we’d now call a botanical garden, featuring medicinal plants. These would usually be planted in raised rectangular beds to prevent roots from becoming waterlogged. Medicinal herbs were often nurtured in this way, including rosemary, wild thyme, sage, lavender, and fennel. The garden would be enclosed by a trellis to ensure privacy during times of contemplation, as well as shade from the midday sun.
Medieval monks would sometimes spend up to five hours per day in the garden; picking herbs to flavour their meals and use as medicine. The ritual of growing and fetching their own home-grown produce was seen as another way to serve God; to grow the freshest yield from His fertile earth.
Today, gardening remains a ritualistic activity enjoyed by many. A recent study carried out by the National Gardens Scheme found that more than one-third of people said that gentle gardening made them feel healthier, and 79% believe that access to a garden is essential for a good quality of life.
For many, watering, weeding and tending to the garden is a way of calming the mind. We may have lost touch with many rituals that have historically helped us navigate our journey through life, but gardening is one that seems to have stuck. Gardening creates beauty in its plants and flowers, but it also creates virtuosity in the mind. According to Waitrose, British gardeners spend 5,675 hours gardening over 50 years, and the most popular type of plants to grow are herbs. Mint is the most popular in this category with 58% of respondents claiming they have grown their own.
For medieval monks, gardening was more than a feeling of virtue or a means to an end – it was a deeper understanding of life itself. Monasteries were places to escape from what was a violent, sinful world. Their walls were built to instil peace, simplicity, and stillness – an escape from the debaucheries of non-holy life. It was Freud who said: ‘flowers are restful to look at”, but we believe that growing them can provide even deeper solace.
Creating your own medieval garden can help you to discover medicinal herbs and their uses, but also to practice mindfulness as a ritual while gardening. Monks were concerned with the spiritual and contemplational aspects of the garden, and the aesthetically-pleasing quadrangular layouts were more of a practical arrangement than an intentional design feature. Here are a few ways you could incorporate some monasterial properties into your herb garden:
- Begin by creating a border out of woven willow or oak trellis to evoke a sense of the past.
- Section your herb areas into chessboard squares, one plant per square. Evergreens like rosemary work particularly well and smell amazing year-round. Support weaker and trailing herbs, like creeping thyme, with low wicker fences. A medieval plot would also include sweet myrtle, sweet bay, and winter savoury, but you could just as easily incorporate a hardy mint, basil and fennel for flavours that work well in a variety of dishes.
- Flowers were widely grown and used medicinally, particularly roses. These would be grown according to variety and picked in the summer months to display or dry.
- Fruit and nut trees were pivotal to the existence of the monks. Most medieval gardens included an orchard, cherry, fig, almond and plum trees were commonly found in monastic gardens.
- Root vegetables such as parsnips and carrots made excellent ingredients for stews and broths in autumn while peas and beans were grown during the warmer months.
- An established tree usually sat at the centre of monastic gardens and served as a place to sit, contemplate and stay out of the sun. Trees provide much-needed shade in gardens, and you could even create a seat around it using straw, willow or wicker for a medieval aesthetic. Creating your own rituals in the garden is key to enjoying this long-lived tradition, so whether it’s weeding, planting, watering or sewing, appreciate the process and reap the rewards.