Renaissance Center opens new 16th-century kitchen garden

Visitors to the Renaissance Center this summer can enjoy the sense of traveling back in time to experience sights, smells and tastes of an authentic 16th-century kitchen garden, now open for tours in North Amherst. Stockbridge School of Agriculture students under the direction of professor John Gerber raised many historic fruit and vegetable varieties to create the full-scale replica on the center’s grounds.
 
Many plants chosen for the 1500s-era garden are based on research by recent Mount Holyoke graduate Jennie Bergeron, who steeped herself in Renaissance herbal lore at the center’s library to help plan the project, which was first envisioned by director Arthur Kinney.
 
“This garden is what we are calling a ‘pottage’ or kitchen garden,” says Bergeron. “It represents the utilitarian garden of the common family of 400 years ago and contains both herbs and vegetables, with a couple kinds of flowers, but mainly herbs that were used in the daily pottage food stuff of commoners.” She serves as head gardener and will lead this season’s tours.
 
Pottage was an onion- or garlic-based broth made with whatever was available from the garden or farmyard to provide the staple meal of working families. Gerber and Bergeron say people in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and other northern European lands grew such crops as garlic, onions, turnips, beets, cabbage, fava beans, leeks and carrots in “pottage gardens” in medieval and Renaissance times.
 
Bergeron says most homes also had an herb garden. In addition, wealthier people could afford more than one garden for different purposes, such as a flower garden or “herber” for sweet-smelling blooms and plants. Herbs were categorized by their use: pot, cup, floor or distillery. Hops were grown for beer; fragrant plants such as angelica, anise, tansy, yarrow, evening primrose, coriander, mugwort, hyssop, horehound and vervain for flavoring food or for “strewing” on the dirt floor because they smell good or have anti-microbial properties. She says the Renaissance Center’s new garden has 49 different fruits and vegetables.
 
A special feature of the project was arranged by UMass Extension berry specialist Sonia Schloemann, who obtained small amounts of authentic heirloom beer hops and strawberry cuttings from the 16th and 17th century from the USDA Germ Plasm Collection in Corvallis, Ore.
 
Gerber says, “It will take a couple of years, but these small cuttings will be propagated by Stockbridge students in our greenhouses for use in the Renaissance Center gardens. It’s very exciting,” he adds. “Strawberries in medieval times were much smaller and sweeter than the cultivars we are used to eating,” he adds. But many other plants, for example herbs such as hyssop and anise have not changed much at all in 1,000 years. “Many herb varieties we have today would be familiar to medieval gardeners,” he notes. 
 
Renaissance Center librarian Jeff Goodhind has set up a display of books that Bergeron and her classmates used for her research, including a gardener’s almanac published in London in 1632 that lists garden chores by the month, a Latin “Dictionarium rusticum” or Rustic Dictionary from 1717 and a 1564 “Creuterbuch,” in German with hand-painted color plates, plus John Gerard’s famous folio of 1632.
 
A plant list and map of the pottage garden will be available soon. In coming years if all goes well, Bergeron hopes she and Stockbridge School students can add wattle fencing authentic to the period, signs describing the uses of certain plants, an arch for hops to climb on and more Renaissance period plants.
 
The new garden, the adjacent Renaissance apple orchard and grounds are free and open to the public for tours and picnics from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For those who can’t visit during the week, Renaissance Center staff also plan a Saturday, Aug. 17 event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.