Garden History - Peasant Vegetable and Flower Gardens- The dawn of the beloved Cottage Garden in England

"Gardening is for peasants" - That was the common refrain of the uber rich uber snobby upper classes. Those rich folks worshipped the lawn. This religion came in handy for those who were privileged and lazy, and did nothing all day but admire the green expanse of nothingness outside their mansions and castles, which they never tended themselves, crowing about their croquet and tennis courts, and hosted big outdoor luncheons upon them. If there was a garden somewhere out there, you can be assured that the serfs and peasants took care of it. Sometimes, a Lady in the manor had a love of growing things, and when all efforts to prevent her from getting medieval soil under her manicured fingernails failed to deter her, she could be found lovingly tending a garden, which was most likely out of view of the rest of the upper class family and friends, and was not to be seen from the street or from within, through the windows. Thankfully, the medieval peasants and serfs didn't mind being the inventors and curators of the beautifully disorganized and beautifully scented English Cottage Garden.

Among all the horticultural contributions made by the nation of impassioned gardeners, none may be so influential and charming as the humble English cottage garden. Appearing as if it sprung naturally from the earth, the cottage garden is an impressionistic work of art, and a riot of scent and color.

The gardens of the middle and upper classes were formal, sometimes almost flowerless, at other times filled with the most exotic annuals. It was the peasant plots in Medieval England that often provided the only refuge for plants that were virtually discarded by affluent, fickle gardeners.

The English cottage garden was free-form by nature, rejecting straight lines and neat beds, it employs certain elements that have become its hallmarks:  fragrant roses over an arched doorway, the scent of rosemary outside the kitchen window, the seemingly wild tangle of poppies and hollyhocks that spill over onto well-worn old stone paths.

Today, the charming ''artlessness'' of the English garden is often carefully planned by landscape architects. But the rustics who first planted them had no intention of creating an international fashion in gardening. They simply constructed the most traditional shelter they could afford, and surrounded it with a wide range of hardy perennials that could survive the English winters.

Medieval Peasantry
It wasn't called The Dark Ages for nothing.
Serfs were peasant farmers who were neither fully free, nor were theyslaves.  They could not leave the village, sell an ox, or marry without the lord of the manor's permissions. The peasants had a little more freedom but still rarely left their local area. According to the law, serfs did not belong to themselves. They and all their belongings, their house, clothes, and even their food, were owned by the lord of the manor. They were bound to work for their lord, who allowed them to farm their own piece of land in return. Their lives were ones of constant toil. Most struggled to produce enough food for their own families as well as fulfilling their duties to the lord of the manor. Life expectancy of the serfs was 27 years.

For centuries, serfs (real meaning: slaves) had worked the land belonging to great lords. Suddenly, the Black Death of 1349 nearly wiped out the population. In England, more than one-third of the population died, and only a tiny proportion of the rural labor force survived. The great imbalance of supply and demand for manual labor gave the serfs an opportunity to put a premium on their services. Many  serfs were allowed to take over vacant land and they became remarkably liberated as tenant farmers.

Peasant Practicalities

Soon afterwards, gardens began to appear around their cottages of stone and wood and thatch. These were used at first for practical plantings: vegetables and herbs. Peasants rarely had or ate meat; so plants provided most of their nourishment. Herbs were not only an inexpensive source of seasoning, but also an important source of medicine.

Peasants might stop along the lane on their way home from work and dig up a wildflower for their home gardens. This marked the beginnings of the cottage wildflower garden... Hybrids were created by mere chance. Botanical oddities were revered as treasures, pried loose from soil and between stones by hand, tucked into a pocket, and carried home to be set among the vegetables and herbs. Little by little, the peasant garden became a place of delightful disorder, a green cabbage growing with cabbage roses, daffodils surrounded by onions and marigolds, and so on.

Cottage Gardens

An enclosed yard with a stone wall or wood fence separated the garden from the main village road. A straight path led from this lane to the front door. This walk was edged with herbs, and behind them were vegetables-arranged for easy access. A few fruit trees and perhaps a beehive completed the basic plan.

As the cottage garden became more and more sophisticated, vegetables and fruit were restricted to a separate site. In many instances, tall hollyhocks, foxgloves and delphinium backed the flower borders and shielded the homely vegetable plots from view from the sitting-room windows of the cottage. 

By the 16th Century, increased commerce overseas helped to introduce many new flowers to English soil. Huguenots, fleeing persecution in France, brought many flowers, such as auricula (a species of primrose) and dogtooth violet (Erythronium). 

From the early 17th Century on, many plants began to arrive from the Americas. A gardener named John Tradescant introduced to England the spiderwort (Tradescantia) and many blue asters. The wilds of Canada were the source of several  goldenrods and rudbeckia (blackeyed susan). These valuable introductions greatly extended the growing season of the English garden. 

By the 18th Century, the English cottage gardens contrasted greatly with the meager gardens of the French peasants, which consisted almost entirely of apples and cabbages.

In 1500 there were perhaps 200 kinds of cultivated plants in England. By 1850 the varieties had reached 18,000. 
Nearly all garden flowers of today were the glories of these fertile years of the cottage garden. The triumphant naturalized landscapes so fashionable today are the offspring of those rustic little plots of cabbages, herbs and flowers invented by English peasants.

These rustic landscapes were so slightly appreciated in industrial Britain that they barely survived the 19th Century. The old-fashioned hardy perennials of the cottage garden were fast losing popularity with townspeople who wanted to imitate the upper classes and plant the most flamboyant and gaudy annuals. 

Those who had profited greatly from the Industrial Revolution wanted broad, expansive lawns around their homes, which they felt gave their estates a grandness representing wealth and refinement. The last thing the rich wanted in 19th Century England was a peasant`s garden.

In 1889. a partnership set a style that became known as the ''Surrey School,'' in essence, an approach to landscaping that emphasized harmonious arrangement of informal gardens within formal structures-the very epitome of the gardening trends most respected today.

Plants Grown In The Peasant Cottager's Garden

Essentially there were 4 types of plant in a medieval peasant garden. Vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit. Peasants grew all the herbs we know today, plus many more since forgotten. Some flowers were  grown for ornamental use, others for salads and medicinal potions. The most common fruit was apples, pears, quince, rhubarb and elderberry.

An example of a peasant food garden design is the French  Potager Garden (kitchen vegetable garden). Download the design and layout, free.

Authentic gardens of the yeoman cottager would have included a beehive and livestock, and frequently a pig and sty, along with a well. The peasant cottager of medieval times was more interested in meat than flowers, with herbs grown for medicinal use and cooking, rather than for their beauty. By Elizabethan times, there was more prosperity, and more room to grow flowers. Even the early cottage garden flowers typically had their practical use—violets were spread on the floor (for their pleasant scent and keeping out vermin); calendulas and primroses were both attractive and used in cooking. Others, such as sweet william and hollyhocks, were grown entirely for their beauty.

Until the late 19th century, cottage gardens mainly grew vegetables for household consumption. Typically half the garden would be used for cultivating potatoes and half for a mix of other vegetables plus some culinary and medicinal herbs. 

John Claudius Loudon wrote extensively on cottage gardens in his book An Encyclopædia of Gardening (1822) and in Gardener's Magazine from 1826. In 1838 he wrote "I seldom observe any thing in a cottage garden but potatoes, cabbages, beans, and French beans; in a few instances onions and parsneps, and very seldom a few peas". An 1865 issue of The Farmer's Magazine noted that in "Ireland and much of the Highlands of Scotland, potatoes are the only thing grown in the cottage-garden".

A few plants that were historically grown and wildcrafted by the medieval under-classes for food, ornamental purposes, medicine, and magic

  • Angelica
  • Blessed Thistle
  • Catmint
  • Chickweed
  • Chicory
  • Chives
  • Comfrey
  • Cowslip
  • Dill
  • Foxglove
  • Fennel
  • Good King Henry
  • Horehound
  • Lady's Mantle
  • Lemon Balm
  • Mints
  • Mugwort
  • Mullein
  • Nettles
  • Oregano
  • Poppies
  • Soapwort
  • Sorrel
  • Tansy
  • Thyme
  • Vervain
  • Wormwood
  • Yarrow

Gardens of The Medieval Peasantry

The "kitchen garden" was where some vegetables and herbs might be grown for food, as well as for fuel or as habitat for animals which were hunted. The "physic garden" would be planted with various medicinal herbs. The "aesthetic garden" was developed largely for ornament and pleasure. Many times a gardener would use a plot of ground for a mixture of the recreational, aesthetic, and practical purposes. Flowers in a garden with their fragrance would be both practical and aesthetic. Medieval gardens were frequently enclosed; the fragrances of flowers and herbs were confined and concentrated.

The tasks of the peasant in tending a garden

Spring was the time to sow seeds and nurture plants and bulbs from the previous year. There were no chemical fertilizers, so nitrogen had to be found growing naturally, then used as a tilled-in amendment. Usually, this took the form of manure.  "Muck spreading", as it’s commonly known in England, dates back at least 8,000 years.

As summer approached, the peasant garden was at its best. Flowers were blooming, herbs, fruit and vegetables all thriving. Peasant gardeners had to ensure the soil was not too dry, and most peasant gardens had their own well. If not, they had were usually close a stream or river because water was a prime factor in good garden ‘housekeeping’

Autumn and Winter
Autumn was the time for harvesting. Tasks were varied, and involved picking fruit from trees, gathering herbs and flowers, and uprooting garden root vegetables. As winter approached, peasants spent much of their time preserving fruits and vegetables to make storable sources of nutrition.

The Peasant’s Diet

The Peasant's Diet is actually considered a very healthy diet. Eating meat was a rarity, fish, 
poultry, vegetables, grains, dried berries and fruits comprised the majority of their food intake.

Below is some 16th century artwork depicting peasant diets and their kitchens.

  • Since they carried out heavy work and were subjected to severe weather conditions during the winter period, medieval peasants needed to consume many calories a day.
  • Cereals were the most widely-used food, especially for making bread, which was generally made with wheat flour (however, most peasants made bread with rye flour).
  • Wheat and other cereal flour, such as barley, millet and oats, was also used in the preparation of soups, ravioli (stuffed with meat) and, rarely, sweet and savoury pies.
  • Although of poor quality, wine was always present on the tables of peasants.
  • It was rare for peasants to eat meat, since it was often only obtained through hunting, and hunting was reserved for the noble classes.
  • An alternative source of protein to meat was eggs and fish (especially in mountainous areas rich in streams).
  • Milk was used primarily for the preparation of cheese and butter: only occasionally was it used as a drink.
  • Butter was a very rare product for peasants and was found mainly in the diets of the nobility, unless peasants owned livestock.
  • Fresh fruit was not popular due to storage difficulties, but food such as walnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts was easily found in the woods and was easy to preserve for a long time.
  • Although cereals represented the basis of every meal, vegetables such as cabbage, beets, onions, garlic and carrots were also very common foods, and were grown in peasant gardens..
  • Many of these vegetables were consumed on a daily basis by farmers and manual workers and, therefore, were considered less prestigious foods than meat. Nobles and richfolk avoided these foods. 

Foraging was also important, and mushrooms, herbs, and other root vegetables were commonly used in making "pottage", a type of stew made in a pot. Pea pottage was the main choice for supper and would be slow-cooked over a fire. It was a very hearty and healthy meal, usually containing peas, onions and herbs found in the wild, or grown in their gardens. Spices were far too expensive and out of reach for most peasants, so instead, many got creative with the herbs they could grow or find.

Among the useful garden flowers were those of the artemisia family.
Southernwood’s hair-like leaves were used to relieve fevers and wounds and, when dried, it was valued for its aroma. The ability to purge a person of worms and poisons was attributed to wormwood, which was also respected as a cure for constipation and stomach discomfort, and as a flea repellent (as was pennyroyal).
Wormwood has a bitter taste, unlike mugwort, which was used to flavor drinks.
The tansy flower was an insect repellent. The entire plant is aromatic and bitter to the taste, and all parts of the plant were used in cooking. 

Another useful flower was the marigold, which was used both as a medicine, against stings and pestilence, and in cooking, as a bitter spice. Marigolds were well-known insect repellents in the garden.

The blue iris had many uses. The iris root made a good ink and, when dried, had a sweet smell. Iris leaves could be used in making mats, patching thatched roofs, or for rushes used in covering floors. The iris also made a dark blue juice that was used for spot removing, as a salve for teeth and gums, and as an ingredient in a dye for cloth.

Periwinkle garlands and wreaths could easily be woven because of the long, supple stems, and the plant grew low, making it a useful and attractive ground cover. Medieval English liked flowery meadows, or meads, of scythe-mown grass, fragrant herbs, and flowers like violets, daisies, primroses, and periwinkles, to walk, dance, and lie among the visual beauty and surrounding aromas. Violets were popular, and symbolic of humility, freshness, purity, and innocence. Dishes made were sometimes garnished with violets. The petals were used as an emetic and purgative, and the oil could scent a bath or soothe the skin. Like periwinkles, daisies were made into garlands and crowns, and were included in gardens.

The primrose could be made into wine. The leaves were used on wounds to ease pain and on the skin to avoid blemishes, and they were eaten to ease muscle aches. The petals were also eaten for pain relief, cooked into tansy cakes and pottages, and floated in comforting baths.

The gillyflower, ancestor of the carnation, was respected for its usefulness and attractiveness. It was used in cooking as a spice for its aroma and clove-like taste, and was used to cover the bitter taste of some medicines as well as in wine and ale. 

The seeds of the peony were used in flavoring meat, or were eaten raw to warm the taste-buds and stabilize the temperament. They were also drunk in hot wine and ale before retiring at night to avoid disturbing dreams. 

Sweet woodruff was frequently used for garlands, with a sweet fragrance and white color, and was also added to drinks. The leaves were so scented that they were known as “sweetgrass,” and were strewn when dried on floors and packed with clothes as a freshener.

The white rose was a garden favorite. 
Red roses were also found in
England throughout the Medieval period. Roses were used as symbols of the Holy Spirit, and were scattered in churches. Along with these cultivated roses there was the native wild rose, known as the sweet briar or eglantine. It has a lovely fragrance, is a good climber for walls and fences, and was used in the making of mead and various medicines. The flowers of Medieval cultivated roses were smaller, more open, and more fragile than today's roses, and they had a more delicate fragrance. The Medieval rose plants were more like rambling bushes, and the thorns were longer and more plentiful. When the rose petals were dried and powdered they had the most powerful fragrance. The petals of the red rose were used in the making of rose water, rose oil, rose preserves, garnishes, and rose sugar.

The lily was a special devotional flower, associated with the Virgin Mary. 
The white petals represented her purity, and the golden anthers the light of her soul. The lily was an ancient fertility symbol. The lily represented purity, innocent beauty, and chastity, a parallel for the virgin birth of Christ. The central setting of  The Song of Songs in the Old Testament is that of a garden. Therefore the example of sensual literature most widely known to Medieval people took place in a garden.

Traditional Medieval Pottage Stew
This sounds like something i would make in a crockpot
as a slow-cooked stew or soup for cold winter days.

"Pottage" Stew, from Old French pottage 'food cooked in a pot') is a term for a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish. It was a staple food for many centuries. Pottage consistently remained a staple of the poor's diet throughout most of 9th to 17th-century Europe. It was meant to keep a peasant or serf working and healthy. 

Pottage was typically slow-boiled for several hours until the entire mixture took on a homogeneous texture and flavor; this was intended to break down complex starches and to ensure the food was safe for consumption. It was usually served with bread, when available.

Pottage ordinarily consisted of various ingredients, mostly, if not all, vegetables that were easily available to serfs and peasants, and could be kept over the fire for a period of days, during which time some of it could be eaten, and then more ingredients added. The result was a dish that was constantly changing in flavor. Today, we would consider Pottage to be a healthy part of our fast-food-addicted diets. Very little meat or fats appeared on a peasant's plate.

The earliest known cookery manuscript in the English language, written by the court chefs of King Richard II in 1390, contains several pottage recipes including one made from cabbage, ham, onions and leeks. During the Tudor period, a good many English peasants' diets consisted almost solely of pottage. Some peasants ate self-cultivated vegetables like cabbages and carrots and a few were able to supplement this from fruit gardens with fruit trees nearby.

Some pottages that were typical of medieval cuisine were  jelly (animal flesh or fish in aspic), mawmenny (a thickened stew of capon or similar fowl), and pears in syrup. There were also many kinds of pottages made of thickened liquids (such as milk and almond milk) with mashed flowers or mashed or strained fruit.

Typical Pottage Recipe -Add game meats, poultry, bits of pork, beef or fish, when available. The main components were vegetables like peas, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, spinach, turnips, parsnips and rutabagas, and a variety of grains in a milk or broth “stew”. Meat, cheeses or eggs could be added. Herbs were used to give flavor. Pottage was a healthy and hearty recipe that filled you up,  kept you warm and your energy levels high.

Suggested  Ingredients:

1 ¾ c. chopped vegetables of your choice. Include root vegetables.
 “knob” of butter (2-3 tablespoons)
¼ c. uncooked oats

Fresh, chopped garden herbs and seasonings of any type
Onion, shallots or scallions
1 pint of vegetable broth or stock

Variation: include small, cubed bits of game, ham, beef, chicken or fish


1. Melt butter in a cauldron or dutch oven, and fry the vegetables to soften them.

2. Add the chopped herbs and oats and stir gently.

3. Carefully pour in the stock. Cover with a lid and simmer slowly, stirring from time to time, for several hours.

4. Once the oats have thickened the sauce, and the vegetables are softened, the pottage is ready.

To serve enough for a family, double or triple the amount of ingredients. Serve with hot, crusty bread, and use the bread to sop up the juices.

To use the traditional long-cooking method over a period of days - serve some of the pottage when ready, and add more ingredients to the pot. Simmer again with more broth and oats if needed, rotating the added ingredients as the stew is eaten. Keep the pottage consistently hot until the last serving.

Article ©2021
Compilation and adaptation

Article Compiled using these Sources
The Great Courses Daily
Wikimedia Commons
Artwork in the Public Domain

Original Manuscripts from The Book of Hours

Chicago Tribune 1987
Historic Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
Medieval Recipes
Roots Web - Society in King Egbert's Time

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