By Cheryl B. Wilson – Bulletin Contributing Writer -Thursday, August 8, 2013
‘A mess of pottage,” a simple stew or thick soup made of root vegetables, herbs and legumes with the occasional addition of meat or chicken, was the staple diet for commoners in Renaissance England. The pottage or kitchen garden was right outside the cottage while grains for bread and forage for animals were grown in larger plots of land in the community.
A typical pottage garden was created this spring at the Massachusetts Interdisciplinary Center for the Renaissance in Amherst by six students in an independent studies course at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A special free open house at the garden will be held Aug. 17 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The garden is also open to the public weekdays from 10 to 4 p.m. free of charge.
Jennie Bergeron, a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, who took the independent studies course, is in charge of the garden this summer, working two or three days a week maintaining the garden.
In an email she wrote, “In the quiet yard of the slated roof house that is the UMass Renaissance center, I often pretend I’m working in the Renaissance and try to picture what it might have been like for the common person, the hunger they would have had to stave off each day and ask myself, ‘What would they harvest and store, what would I make for pottage today?’ ”
There are 49 kinds of vegetables, herbs and fruits in the garden. Bergeron and her classmates did extensive research last fall on medieval and Renaissance gardens. They were fortunate to use original Renaissance books as well as reproductions of 16th- and 17th-century gardening guides, all owned by the Renaissance Center. Of particular interest were the “Kreuterbuch,” or herb book, printed in Germany in 1564, and”Gerard’s Herbal,” by John Gerard, a classic work from the early 17th century. The work by Gerard became “the bible for the garden,” said Arthur Kinney, director of the Renaissance Center. All the plants in the garden are listed in Gerard’s book.
What to plant?
Incorporating the research by the half-dozen students last fall, Bergeron took on the task of designing the garden and drawing up a list of desired plants. Professor John Gerber of UMass Stockbridge, who taught the course, found the seeds from a variety of sources. Some of them were planted in greenhouses at UMass by Stockbridge students and later transplanted into the garden. Others were directly sown.
The project began more than a year ago when Kinney decided to plant an orchard at the center.
He contacted apple experts at the UMass Orchards at Cold Spring in Belchertown and they located authentic varieties that would have been grown in England between 1500 and 1700. The orchard was dedicated in May 2012.
“Gardening was such an art form in the Renaissance, I have always felt it important to have gardens around the center,” Kinney explained last month. He noted that the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a small flower garden while the Huntington Library in California also has a garden, though it isn’t strictly Renaissance.
The UMass pottage garden is a utilitarian garden of the 1500s, Bergeron explained. It includes leeks and onions, turnips, carrots, several forms of beans, kale, cabbage, radish, peas, endive and escarole and many, many herbs.
“No one plant was used for just one thing,” Bergeron explained during a tour of the garden.
Chamomile is an herb used for a soothing tea but also important as a strewing herb for making a fragrant renewable “carpet” for the dirt floor of the cottage. Sage had many uses, especially for respiratory ailments, as well as a seasoning for meats. Hyssop is another traditional herb with multiple uses. Horehound and rue are seldom seen in today’s gardens but were well-known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
“Fresh herbs could be added to the pottage to change the flavor of the meal,” Bergeron said.
Borage with its bright blue flowers was used in drinks, and lovage, which tastes like celery, could be used in the pottage. Heartsease or pansies were another flower used to brighten meals.
Several kinds of beans are found in the new garden: fava or broad beans, long used in England and northern European vegetable gardens, garbanzos or chickpeas from the Middle East, and dry shell beans such as Vermont Cranberry, which came from the Americas after Columbus. Peas were an English staple and the UMass garden has ‘Champion of England’ peas, which Bergeron said can grow 10 feet tall. These are shell peas, not Asian snow peas or modern sugar snaps.
Part of the garden is laid out in simple square raised beds. One section, however, has a more elaborate design with a circular center and sets of triangular beds— similar to the look of gardens of the nobility.
Kinney said he is very pleased with the outcome of the garden project.
“I am impressed by the size of it and the design, I like very much,” he said. “I thought it would be more scrambly like herb gardens.”
Keeping pests at bay
Creating a barrier against pests is always a challenge for a vegetable garden. Cottagers traditionally used taller plants like mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) on the periphery as a barrier, Bergeron said. On the garden tour last month, she commented, “Oh good. The mugwort is getting big, just what I wanted.”
After depredations by woodchucks and rabbits, Bergeron decided to use wire fencing in addition to the natural barrier. A woodchuck devoured the kale and Bergeron said “I know I’ve had a deer.” The plan is to build a traditional wattle fence, usually woven of supple willow boughs, to enclose the garden as would have been common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Aaron EvanBrowning, a friend of Bergeron’s who works on a farm, is working diligently on that project but has run into a snag — a lack of willows.
They had amassed a huge pile of willow but the first fence section used the entire bundle. Now they are searching for more sources of willow branches.
“It’s becoming a real challenge,” Kinney said. ”It’s hard to find willow branches.”
Recently they thought they had found a good source but the trees were surrounded by poison ivy, Bergeron said.
“At this point and in the interest of time, we are looking for any sapling, small branch, shrub or vine material that we can harvest,” she said. EvanBrowning is now using hawthorn, which is very accurate to the time period.
Other damage has been caused by insects and disease. The caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly quickly found the parsley and dill, their favorite food. In addition to companion planting, Bergeron has resorted to modern neem oil, an organic product. She said she is concerned that the fava beans have developed a fungal disease, evidently a common problem with that species.
Although the science behind companion planting might not have been known to the Renaissance peasants, Bergeron is sure that they knew the efficacy of planting certain vegetables and herbs together.
“They would have been in their gardens every day. They would have noticed how certain plants thrived together,” she said.
In addition to the orchard of antique apple varieties, the new Renaissance Center garden has heirloom hops and strawberries. Bergeron explained that Sonia Schloemann, a small-fruit specialist at UMass, found the plants through the USDA Germ Plasm Center in Corvallis, Ore., which stores antique varieties. ‘Fuggle’ and ‘Kent’ hops (Humulus lupulus) and ‘Woodland’, ‘Ruegan’, ‘Pineapple,’ ‘Moschata’ and ‘Mignonette’ strawberries (Fragaria vesca) arrived as tiny plants. Bergeron said she was afraid they wouldn’t survive, but they are doing nicely. There are also Alpine strawberries. All of these have much smaller berries than modern hybrids but are reportedly extremely sweet.
Hops are vines which must be staked, Bergeron noted. They were newly popular during the English Renaissance for brewing ale. Previously beer and ale production in England had strictly relied on malt for fermentation but on the Continent hops were more common. Mead, a honey-based drink, and cider were also popular beverages since water was often a source of disease due to poor sanitation practices.
“What pleases me most about the garden is showing up each week and noticing a new bloom or how much the perennials are establishing. It brings me joy when the plants are happy and vibrant. It’s almost magical to view the variety of pollinators that appear in front of me while I’m weeding,” Bergeron wrote in an email.
Bergeron said she hopes people will visit the gardens any weekday throughout the growing season.
“We want people here. I love when people stop by to see the garden and spend time in it.”
Kinney added, “The more people come here, the more they will know about the Renaissance.”
Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com
The Open House Community Day is Aug. 17, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bergeron and Gerber will be on hand to answer questions and there will be a handout about the garden. The event is free.
The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies is at 650 East Pleasant St. in Amherst. For information call 577-3600 or visit www.umass.edu/renaissance. A blog for the garden, done by Gerber and Bergeron and the students, can be found at renaissancegarden.org.