Genesis of the garden of eatin'

The evolution of kitchen gardens from monastery to backyard plot

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Historically, many kitchen gardens produced all the household vegetables - those that were eaten fresh as well as those preserved for out-of-season use.

But kitchen gardens weren't limited to vegetables; they often included fruits, herbs, and flowers.

A kitchen garden might be a small herb garden planted with parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, and oregano, or a

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50-foot-by-100-foot vegetable garden that fed a family of six, or even one like the old European estate kitchen gardens, which encompassed acres.

The concept of kitchen gardens is ancient. The age-old pleasure gardens of the Mideast, which might be considered a forerunner of the kitchen garden, were as practical as they were beautiful. The walls kept the gardens warm, so all sorts of exotic fruits and vegetables could be grown within their shelter.

A pool in the center of the garden provided water for the plants. Often the pool was home to a variety of fish, which were functional as well as beautiful: They frequently served as part of the meal after family and guests had admired them.

The Middle Ages saw the emergence of the first true kitchen gardens - the herb gardens of monasteries. These gardens were enclosed, symmetrical, foursquare designs. Two central paths ran perpendicular to one another, intersecting in the middle of the garden, dividing it into four equal parts.

Often a well or spring was at the center, eliminating the need for carrying water great distances to irrigate the garden. Each square was divided into raised beds, delineated by permanent paths.

These efficient gardens were planted with a variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs. This diversity of plant material did not tax the soil the way a single crop would. And the garden attracted an assortment of birds, insects, and other small creatures that helped keep pests in check.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the French took kitchen gardens to a high art form. Since their decorative gardens, called potagers, were on a grand scale, the owners took pains to ensure they were nearly as attractive out of season as during peak growing time. They added intricate curves to the garden's design, and formally edged the beds with evergreen herbs and plants such as boxwood and germander.

The French were masters at training plants to grow over arbors, pergolas, and trellises. They espaliered and cordoned fruits - training them to grow flat against a wall or as a living fence, which added to the formal majesty of the gardens.

The size of the potager was in proportion to the owner's wealth. A nobleman's kitchen garden might be as large as 10 acres.

As with the ancient pleasure garden, a potager was often surrounded by a brick or stone wall, which tempered the climate within the garden, allowing more tender fruits and vegetables to be grown.

Today you can see evidence of these gardens at the famed potager in Villandry, France, still growing much as it was hundreds of years ago.

Across the ocean in rural Colonial America, the kitchen garden was the mainstay of the household. It was the garden from which householders harvested a variety of produce for their own consumption, as opposed to the large fields of single crops that were cultivated for commerce.

American kitchen gardens were more practical and much less formal than their European predecessors, yet they kept the basic foursquare design with its inherent efficiency and practicality.

Thomas Jefferson's kitchen garden at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Va., is one of the best-known historic American kitchen gardens. In a plot 1,000 feet by 80 feet, he grew 250 varieties of vegetables and herbs.

A master of "edible landscaping" more than 200 years before the term was coined, Jefferson designed his kitchen garden to be aesthetically pleasing as well as immensely practical. He included colorful vegetables for their beauty as a part of the overall design.

Also in Virginia, George Washington's Mount Vernon estate had an impressive kitchen garden that preserved some European formality. It is maintained today with many of the plants that Washington may have grown in the garden.

At Mount Vernon, instead of the entire kitchen garden being enclosed by walls, there is a wall on only one side, which helps to protect the espaliered fruit trees nearby.

Dwarf apple and pear trees form unique two- to three-foot-high living fences to some of the beds. Herbs - such as lavender, rosemary, and thyme, are used to edge some of the other beds.

Washington was ahead of his time. He composted kitchen waste, as well as animal waste, to improve the soil.

Today, American kitchen gardens continue to evolve. Gardeners in different parts of the country adapt the designs to suit their needs and habitats.

Still, the basic tenets of multiple raised beds, some type of enclosure, and proximity to the house and water remain to this day.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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