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Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme: Gardening and Growing Food in 1632
The benefits of growing usable plants near your sleeping place—as opposed to having to search for them whenever you need them—are so obvious that people must have started the first gardens as soon as they discovered that plants would grow from seeds, and that seedlings could be transplanted. In the Germany of 1632 every household—from the grandest palace to the smallest hovel—would have some kind of fenced plot, garden, or backyard near the house for growing at least the all important kale. This article will try to take a look at these gardens, with special attention to the kind of garden a family settling in Magdeburg or Grantville would be expected to start.
Three styles of gardens were common in 1632: the formal renaissance garden, the medieval herbal garden, and the ordinary kailyard.
The main purpose of the formal garden was to display the power of the owner by showing how he could control nature. This style of garden with its regular rows of pots or standard trees, its knot gardens of topiary and clipped hedges, and its evenly spaced flowers and bushes wasn’t limited to the grand manor houses, but would also be found on a smaller scale around the houses of anyone with social pretensions. If the area available for the garden was big enough, a secluded rose garden, to be visited only during the brief blooming season, was also a status symbol, as was an orangery where tender plants could be kept during the winter. The formal garden wasn’t harvested in any way, so the household also needed to have a kitchen garden somewhere near, sometimes with the vegetables growing in orderly rows and patterns in the French potager-style, sometimes without any pretense to ornamentation and kept completely out of sight from the house and the formal walks. One of the most famous potager-style gardens is the Château de Villandry at: http://www.frenchgardening.com/visitez.html?pid=31106784011481.
The herbal gardens were made up of tiny plots of soil laid out in a pattern and separated by narrow paths. Each plot of soil would be planted with a single plant species—annual or perennial—and the plants would all be harvested—either as they were needed or when the entire crop was ready for drying and storage. This type of garden had its origin in the medical gardens at the medieval cloisters, but—at a time when most medicines were locally grown and made—an herbal garden was not something found only at the apothecary, but a type of garden planted by all major or isolated households and with at least one in each village.
The kailyard was originally simply a fenced-in piece of land, where the household grew its kale and any other vegetables and herbs it needed. The area absolutely had to be fenced securely to keep roaming pigs and other animals from eating the household’s sole source of winter vitamins, and as this plot of land was so important to people’s survival, it was regarded as a part of the house itself, and given the full protection of the law against thievery. By 1632 the simple kailyard was still a common part of the small households, and would remain so for centuries, but a household living above existence minimum would try for something a bit more elaborate.
The Average Garden
The gardening books of 1632 were usually written by gardeners working for royalty or nobility, but a look at the less grandiose schemes found in these books—combined with contemporary journals and diaries—suggests that an average garden in 1632 was likely to have borrowed elements from each of the three styles mentioned above. The main purpose of the garden would be to grow the vegetables needed for the household, but it would be laid out with the main paths in a formal pattern—usually a cross—and its content would include a large number of herbs each growing separately either within clipped box hedges in a kind of knot garden or used as edging and low hedges along the paths.
The contemporary books advised to find a free and open position for a new garden—sheltered from the north wind but with sun for most of the day—and suggested the area south of the house as the most likely place. There should be water either within the garden or nearby—but no chance of flooding in the spring—and the area should preferably be either completely level or gently sloping to aid drainage. If only a steep slope was available for the garden, it had to be terraced to prevent erosion, and sturdy steps should be build for easy access to all levels. If there were no buildings to shelter the garden from the north, one or more rows of trees should be planted there as soon as possible.
Once the position of the garden was decided, the area had to be cleaned of stones and roots, dug carefully, and leveled with the aid of a spirit level. A hedge of young thorny plants should then be planted around the garden in a trench filled with well-rotted manure, and with a brush-work fence on the outside to protect the hedge while it was growing. The books made it quite clear that this part of the garden could not be stinted: the fences had to be absolutely tight before any kind of planting could take place. And since pigs were allowed to run loose and find their own food in the towns as well as in the country, this really was necessary.
For the entrance to the garden one or more portals made of juniper columns—which would not rot in the ground—and willow branches—which were easily bent—was suggested, and a wooden gate should be hung on hinges to close the opening.
The next part of the project would be measuring out the pattern of paths. Most patterns started with a cross separating the area into four quarters, and if running water was available it was suggested that a narrow water channel be dug along one of the main paths and lined with handsome stones. Having water channels along both main paths and meeting in a fountain where they crossed was a scheme suggested only for the larger and more elaborate gardens, but a well as a central feature was practical and acceptable in even the most humble kitchen garden.
If a well already existed by the house, a central feature for the garden was still wanted. If the main paths were to be a formal walk lined with pots and ornamental plants, the central feature could be a pavilion or portal covered in climbing roses and vines, but even in what was to be entirely a working garden with all plants grown for food, it was still suggested that the center be marked with, for example, an urn or large clay pot planted with a small tree or large shrub. The basic for this layout was the biblical description of paradise, and was also used in the Muslim-style gardens still found in Spain.
Once the main paths were dug out and filled with white sand or pea-sized gravel, the secondary paths were measured out. Unless the garden was so small that the entire area could be reached from the main paths, there should be a path along the hedge—either right inside or some three feet within to create extra beds along the margin of the garden.
If further division of each of the four main quarters were needed for easy access, the obvious choice would be to split each quarter in four by secondary paths also laid out as crosses, but the gardening books provided a large number of drawings of various geometrical patters to choose from. To strengthen the pattern made by the paths, and shelter the new sprouts from the wind, it was the custom to line each bed in some way. Low fences of ox bones or painted brushwork were recommended for not interfering with the growth of the plants within the bed, but edging with clipped box, lavender, or herbs such as thyme, sage, and rue was also mentioned.
The Basic Vegetables
The preparations described above were most easily done in winter, but once a final layer of fine compost or old manure had been spread over the beds and worked into the soil, the garden was ready for planting in spring. Exactly what would be grown would of course vary from garden to garden, but some vegetables were grown by everybody with even the smallest piece of land.
The most important plant in the garden would be the winter-hardy kale, an originally wild European plant, and one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in the world. Kale was the only reliable source of fresh greens during the winter, and to be without it often meant scurvy for anyone not rich enough to own a forcing-house or at least buy sauerkraut. Kale doesn’t keep long once harvested, and the leaves bruise and break easily during transport, so while it was grown everywhere, and sometimes filled most of a small garden, it was not planted in the fields or grown for more than local sale.
The most common way of serving kale was as a thick soup made by boiling the chopped leaves in the broth made from boiling salted pork, sometimes along with some chopped onions, and often with oats or barley added to further thicken the soup. In many households this dish would be served most days in the week with a bit of the pork, mustard and some rye-bread.
Swedes and Turnips
This group of vegetables was probably more popular in Germany than in any other country, and both Teltow in Brandenburg and Bortfeld in Braunschweig gave name to popular varieties. In these areas the big autumn and winter types were sometimes a field crop as well as a garden vegetable, but as with all winter vegetables they had to be either grown behind fences or harvested before the pigs and other animals were allowed to roam the fields in the autumn. Still, they stored very well, and many gardeners grew a few extra rows to sell, which made turnips the cheapest winter vegetable you could buy in most of Germany.
Winter turnips were often boiled to a puree or added to the kale stew, but could also be fried or even honey-glazed.
The fast-growing spring turnips, on the other hand, were ready for harvest early in the summer, and were very popular garden vegetables. They didn’t keep well, and thus were not grown for export, but they were considered a delicacy and often served with roast or boiled duck.
The head cabbage had been bred by the Dutch and spread from Holland by their traders some decades before 1632, and it was thus a fairly new cultivar in the German gardens. It wasn’t as hardy as the kale, but in a cool and airy place the harvested heads could keep for months, and when made into sauerkraut they could last all year without problems. Head cabbage was much easier to store and transport than kale, but sauerkraut was easier than either, and in some areas—one of them Magdeburg —head cabbage became a field crop, and an actual sauerkraut production took place for selling to ships and armies.
Sauerkraut was made by layering finely sliced white cabbage in barrels with salt and spices such horseradish and caraway seeds. After a while the cabbage juice brine would start fermenting, and once this process was finished, the product was ready for use.
Sauerkraut needed no further preparation before eating, but the un-fermented head cabbage was prepared in much the same way as the kale.
Kale, turnips and cabbage are all members of the same family of vegetables, and as the gardeners of the time were quite aware of the importance of crop rotation, it was the custom to use one quarter of the available vegetable beds for this family and change to a different quarter every year.
Next to the grains, rye and barley, it was the peas that were the most important source of nutrients. Not the fresh green garden peas (in Latin: Pisum sativus), but the hard and dry field peas (in Latin: P. arvense). Field peas were grown in several different varieties, all of which could keep for years once dried, and—as with the sauerkraut—some areas grew enough for an actually production for export.
Preparing a meal from dried peas took time: first they needed soaking at least overnight, and then the spoiled peas had to be picked out before they were boiled in water until tender. Once tender they would normally be mashed to a puree and strained through a colander to remove the tough pea-skins. The puree could then be mixed with the same salty meat broth as used for the kale, and boiled again with vegetable such as onions, leeks, carrots and parsnips plus herbs such as thyme or marjoram.
The succulent green garden peas, which are what most people today think of as peas, would be grown in cane-supported rows only in the gardens. They had to be eaten straight after being picked, and were a treasured summer delicacy to be gently steamed—to preserve the fresh color—and served either with a bit of butter or in a rich cream sauce. Mixing the peas with small, tender carrots, or steamed lettuce and pearl onions, are summer dishes that have remained popular from medieval times until today.
In 1632 the long green garden beans had barely arrived from America, and in many areas the European broad bean types were considered suitable for animal fodder only. In Italy, Sweden, the Low Countries and the UK broad beans were grown for the kitchen, but in Germany these would have been eaten only in the poorest households.
Peas and beans are from the same family, and as both have the added benefit of adding nitrogen to the soil, they were normally grown on a third or fourth of all fields as part of the crop-rotation. A similar rotation was recommended in the garden, and if filling a quarter of the vegetable beds with garden peas wasn’t possible—and beans were not wanted even to feed the servants—it wasn’t unusual to sow the rest of that quarter with field peas simply to improve the soil. These field peas could just be whatever kind was grown locally, but seeds of special types such as the large Grey Russian could also be acquired.
The Flavor Vegetables
A steady winter diet of rye bread, beer, yellow peas, and kale—plus salted pork and herrings—grew boring very, very quickly, and people tried to vary the dishes with small amounts of strongly flavored vegetables and herbs. So, if one quarter of the garden was filled with vegetables from the cabbage family and one from the bean family, then the third was likely to be filled with roots and members of the onion family.
Onions and Garlic
Regardless of the variety the taste of an onion depend on the climate in which it is grown, and a cold climate produce a much stronger flavor than a warm. Onions in Germany were therefore—like garlic—used more as a spice to flavor other dishes than as the independent vegetable it was considered in Southern Europe. Onions and garlic were commonly grown, but rarely as a commercial crop, and many made do with wild garlic gathered in the forests.
Leeks could—with a bit of protection—keep in the garden during a mild winter, but they needed more care and fertilizer than the hardy kale, and in most areas leeks were used mainly in soups and to vary the flavor of the kale and pea dishes.
Carrots and Other Roots
The common carrots in 1632 were not the orange-red roots, we known today, but rather dirty-white or pale yellow. The Dutch had developed quite a few varieties, all of which were used in soups and stews, for garnishing, and as side-dishes—very much like we use carrots today.
Yet another Dutch root, the parsnip, was popular in vegetable dishes all over central Europe in medieval times. By 1632, however, it was considered only fit for animal fodder in the south, where the Italian influence was strong, while in the west, where the connection to France was strong, it was used mainly in soups. Only in the northern areas did the parsnip maintain its popularity, and was served as separate vegetable dishes in the Dutch and English style.
The beetroot was grown in both a red and a white version, and despite it storing well during the winter, the most popular use in Germany was to pickle it in sour wine with caraway seeds and horseradish. The eastern European beetroot soups still popular today were known and mentioned in German cookery books, but it was not a common dish.
Other roots such as the radishes, the black and the white salsify, and the hamburger parsley (a type of parsley where it is the winter hardy roots that are used) were grown from time to time by those who liked them, but played no large role in the common kitchen.
The Manor Vegetables
In addition to the common vegetables the big kitchen gardens at the estates would grow quite a lot of the more delicate and rare vegetables, as well as the newest arrivals from America and Italy. The seeds for most of these rarities could, with a bit of effort, also be obtained by owners of more moderate gardens, and would be grown either in the fourth quarter of the garden or be tucked in among the plants in the other quarters. The big glass windows needed for an orangery or forcing house would be far beyond the means of most garden owners, but the construction of a few cold frames was perfectly possible for most. The contemporary gardening books describe very carefully how a flat hole should be dug within a frame of wooden boards, and filled with fresh horse manure covered with a layer of good soil and several woven grass mats in January. Come spring the soil in these frames would be much warmer than the surrounding ground, and tender vegetables such as the Mediterranean artichokes (often served elaborately garnished), cucumbers (mainly eaten pickled), fennel (mainly used as a spice), melons (a rare treat) and pumpkins (very rare) could get an early start—and a covering mat of woven grass in case of a late freeze.
Other vegetables not found in all gardens included the loose-leaf lettuce, which had been known since ancient Egypt, but was being bred to the more popular head lettuce by the Dutch. The bitter salads of the chicory and endive types sometimes grew in the wild, and could be gathered during the summer, but gardeners were also beginning to dig up endive roots in autumn, and make them grow pale, new heads in darkness for the winter tables. These various green leaves weren’t normally eaten raw in Germany, but were braised or stewed the way spinach often is today. Whole heads of lettuce could also be stuffed and steamed, and the forced endives were very popular braised with a little honey or served as part of a pie-filling.
The popular cabbage family also had some rare members. The cauliflower and the broccoli were just beginning to spread from Italy to the rest of Europe in 1632, and would be found only in the gardens of the keenest gardeners. Brussels sprouts from the Low Countries (now Belgium ) had been around as spruyten/sprouts since medieval times, but they had not ...