Across the track, directly opposite our plot, there’s a hole where a hedge should be, the charred remnants of a shed visible. The lower gate to our plot is shattered, the locks on both sheds have been forced and the contents ransacked. We don’t leave expensive tools, don’t own expensive tools to leave. It’s the arbitrary nature of the act that’s unsettling; one shed damaged, another on an adjacent plot untouched, why? What remains of the shed opposite might be the most obvious and dramatic evidence, but sheds have been broken into all the way up the valley.
Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, it’s been five or six years since a similar incident on the site, our sheds not targeted that time. Looking at the chaos in the top shed, we’re not so fortunate this week. That said, two trays of elephant garlic remained untouched, apart from one bulb, the cloves separated and thrown onto the veranda, and nothing taken apart from a small lump hammer.
We’ve been on this site for over twenty years, arbitrary acts of vandalism happen; years ago, a caravan on the plot next to ours was set alight destroying our neighbour’s occasional workshop, but fortunately they weren’t at home. Allotments are havens of tranquility, but vulnerable too; all too easily disrupted.
The damage done, we replace boxes on shelves, repair the locks and get on with life on this plot; the early potatoes have been harvested, the beds refreshed and our leeks are in the ground now. We’ve picked our first beetroot; Madhur Jaffrey has a wonderful recipe for beetroot purée that we never grow tired of, and we’re growing Golden Burpee courgettes this year. They have a lovely flavour, are much firmer than our other varieties and planted into manure and compost which is a mixture of tea, egg shells, and banana skins. We garden on chalk which can be poor, so the nutrients in the tea mix are valuable for greedy crops like courgettes and pumpkins.
We’ve been making lots of courgette frittatas:
Courgettes seared dry on a skillet
Potatoes, cooked & sliced
Onions & garlic, sautéed
Mixed Herbs + seasoning
Herbs grow, colonise, move around the garden, always pushing beyond the artificial boundaries we attempt to impose. Common Mallow (Malva silvestris) threatens to engulf Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Iris (Iris florentina), Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis) overruns the House Leek (Sempervivum tectorum); there’s a balance to be struck between natural growth and the organised nature of the physic garden. We’re attempting to restore that balance, clearing Calendula from the House Leek, thinning out the Common Mallow, and weeding out the Orach (Atriplex hortensis) which has emerged again among the Bisort (Polygonum bisorta).
Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert, grow in the gaps between paving, disrupting the divisions between pathway and bed, and there’s something in this unruly habit that’s to be welcomed; leave them, let them grow, within reason, acknowledging the tension between artifice and unconfined growth.
The Physic garden’s function is primarily aesthetic and informative, which sometimes poses problems. Many of the plants are regarded as weeds; numerous conversations with people visiting the garden bear this out, as well as the surprise and delight that weeds such as Herb Robert in flower can look so extraordinary, a mass of feathery red foliage studded with geranium pink flowers. Common Mallow is associated with the peripheral zones of the urban environment. Edward Step, in Wayside and Woodland Blossoms (1930), believed that one of its common names, Rags and Tatters […] could only have been suggested by one of the unfortunate specimens that have chanced to grow between the roadside and the ditch […] liberally coated by road dust they do present a forlorn and ragged appearance. Among the common names listed by Geoffrey Grigson in The Englishman’s Flora (1955) are, Chucky Cheese, Old Man’s Bread and Cheese, referring to the seeds, which develop after flowering. Children still eat these discs or ‘cheeses’, as they are known from Cornwall to the Border. Valued medicinally, the foliage can also be eaten as a vegetable; ragged on the roadside, but also a useful plant.
Working in this garden, weeding, tidying, replanting where necessary, we are aware of what little connection there is to a time when these plants, considered unruly and invasive by some of our visitors, were food and medicine. Teresa McClean suggests that, so many medieval plants were so variously used that almost all of them were classified as herbs, including those grown in the specialised area of the monastic infirmary garden.
John Gerard’s Herball, first published 60 years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, informs the original planting in the physic garden; the decision resting on the understanding that many of the plant remedies listed in the Herball were already considered traditional, having the authority of the classical Greek and Roman texts that the friars may have been familiar with. But Gerard wasn’t concerned with the monastic garden. A 9th century poem in Latin, by Walafrid Strabo, On The Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus), offers an insight into that intense familiarity, born out of necessity that McClean alludes to. Walafrid was Abbot of the Abbey on the island of Reichenau in the Bodensee, southwest Germany, when he wrote the poem, some four centuries before the founding of Michelham Priory.
On the Cultivation of Gardens (Hortulus) is anchored in the physical processes of gardening, an activity central to the monastic ideal of prayer and work familiar to the friars at Michelham Priory: as long as you aren’t afraid of going outdoors and getting calluses all/over your grubby hands […] I gained my expertise through hard work and experience. He clears nettles that are, covering the whole area with stinging poison, carefully prepares the ground, making raised beds by edging them, with some planks. He works rich yeasty fertiliser into newly turned earth, and begins to plant out his garden. We try to coax forth some of our herbs from seeds, other we try to rejuvenate from old roots. Although separated by centuries, the poem’s intimate connection to the earth and growing resonates; time taken in careful preparation ensures that, the garden has brought to life all/the shrivelled stocks and seeds assigned to it […]. But now all my skill is required-and my learning/and eloquence as well-to present the names/and virtues of the gathered fruits, and thus/to grace these small things with my reverence for them.
He lovingly describes the plants in his small plot, mingling medicine and everyday magic with an awareness of wider economic interests. Among them Pennyroyal; a commercial commodity, reportedly valued as highly by the physicians of India/as a whole sack of black pepper amongst the Gauls; it’s medicinal actions carminative, useful to cure a sluggish stomach; and with magical properties. According to his informants, If you stick a twig of pennyroyal behind your ear, it will combat the effects of a hot summer sun.
The herbs Walafrid lists, including Agrimony, Betony, Catmint, and Sage, would be as important to an infirmary garden, as they were to his courtyard plot. They are also among the herbs we tend in this garden.
We’ve weeded out the Feverfew and Yarrow, Hypericum and Salad Burnett, Herb Robert; the paths are cleared, aesthetics triumphs, at least for the moment.
A quiet morning, before the gatehouse doors open, and people enter the garden. We’ve been moving Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) to make way for White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare), weeding and tidying; it’s the time of year. And then we’re distracted, captivated by a Hummingbird Hawk moth hovering next to the Lavender, mesmerised by its feeding habit, and then it’s gone and we need to get on with our work.
This garden poses problems; seeing the herb in the weed, the medicinal in the commonplace, is a common thread in conversations we have with people visiting the garden. Why are we clearing Chickweed from the area where Daisies are growing, both are considered garden weeds. ‘And what about the patch of Herb Robert?’ a woman asks in passing. ‘That’s a nuisance. Gets everywhere, it’s a weed. And what’s that?’ pointing at the Orach (Atriplex hortensis) we’ve been clearing from the Bistort (Persicaria bistorta); one has a place, the other isn’t welcome. Native to Asia, there is evidence to suggest that Orach was in general cultivation in the Mediterranean by the 6th century BCE, and common enough in England by the 16th century for William Turner, in 1548, to observe that, Atriplex called…in english Orech or Orege…groweth in gardines and in some Cornefieldes. It remained an important cultivated crop until replaced by spinach in the 18th century. Like many of the other herbs in this garden it is now considered a weed.
Suggestive rather than productive, the planting in Michelham Priory’s Physic Garden is indicative of herbs, both medicinal and for the household, that might have been in common use during the period that Michelham was a functioning Priory, from it’s founding in 1229 to the Dissolution in 1537. Bounded on three sides by a yew hedge and an old stone wall, a sense of enclosure is completed by the Refectory. Sheltered, so that even on the coldest days it’s still a pleasant place to work, to sometimes stop and talk with people about the garden, or just listen as they walk through. Plants provoke memories; Dock leaf for Nettle stings, don’t pick Dandelions they’ll make you wet the bed; remnants of a folk tradition that throw into relief the gap between herbs in the contemporary garden, and a time when they were essential to the well-being of the monastic, and wider community of which they were a part. Teresa McLean suggests that, the Medieval herb defies modern classification. It might be a flower, vegetable, fruit or grass as well as what we think of as a herb...the best broad definition…is that it was a very useful plant; this garden is indicative of that broad definition.
Necessary to a degree that we no longer appreciate, plants were food and medicine, part of manufacturing processes too: Alexanders (Smynium olusatrum), native to Southern Europe, introduced by the Romans, a common vegetable before celery replaced it in the 18th century, the plant was also valued for its medicinal properties; Borage (Borago officinalis), also a native of the Mediterranean region, introduced in the 13th century, grown for its flowers, but also useful as a restorative; Dyers Madder (Rubia tinctorum), another native to the Mediterranean region, cultivated in England since Anglo Saxon times, and important to the textile industry. Deep rooted and long lasting Elecampane (Inula helenium) was valued by the Romans and Anglo Saxons, as a source of food and medicine. These herbs, introduced through colonisation, trade, and ecclesiastical exchange, have a deep history if we care to listen.