September 30, 2013

Revisiting the Renaissance

A 16th-century garden brings insights for the future of farming

Mugwort, rue, wormwood, borage, heartsease, feverfew, lovage, yarrow, tansy, and thyme, parsley, fennel, and bugloss…. the names of the plants in the new sixteenth-century garden at the UMass Amherst Renaissance Center resonate like lyrics to an old ballad, or ingredients for a magic spell.

The garden, a joint project of the center and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, is on the center grounds just a short drive north of campus. The garden’s wattle fence currently encloses 49 varieties of herbs and vegetables, such as a sixteenth-century family would grow.

Head gardener Jennie Bergeron conceived of and designed the garden as a kitchen or “pottage” garden—a utilitarian plot including vegetables and fruits for eating, and herbs for medicine, seasoning, brewing, or “strewing”—casting on a dirt floor for their scent. Pottage, a staple meal, was a broth cooked with whatever herbs and vegetables were on hand. To explore the intersection of nature, culture, and history that the garden represents, Bergeron, a certified herbalist, studied old herbals, many of which are in the center’s rare books collection, to trace the origins of heirloom plants and design the grid-and-spoke layout of the garden.

Open to the community, the garden will serve as an ongoing resource for Stockbridge students studying history and ethnobotany, interested in the larger meaning of the garden as an example of sustainable, genetically diverse agriculture without chemicals or waste.

“In the seventeenth century, there were no commercial fertilizers or pesticides,” points out John Gerber, professor of sustainable food and farming. “People lived without using fossil fuels or biotoxins in their gardens. So we can think back to a time before chemicals. How did people provide nutrients then, and what can we learn from them about soil fertility? This is useful knowledge for any homeowner wanting to grow a chemical-free garden. We can learn from history how to live and garden without destroying the world.”

The Renaissance Garden joins the Renaissance Center’s family of gardens, which includes a knot or topiary garden, rose garden, heritage apple orchard, and a contemplation grotto that was recently cleared for construction by local goats. Gardens can be a long-term commitment: the Renaissance Center will maintain the garden forever, says Director Arthur Kinney.

Information about the UMass Amherst Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies and its resources can be found at http://www.umass.edu/renaissance/ and their caprine brush-clearing methods at http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/renaissance-center-employs-goats-prepare