When we think of castles in the medieval periods particularly, we generally think of staid, damp, barren places. Within some areas, they certainly were. It was a harsh, brutish time for many. It and the times leading up to it were filled with violence – hence the need for wall-ringed castles and hillforts in the first place.
And yet in these periods when death by violence and disease was prevalent, when survival was a constant chore, we find castle gardens within the very walls that were so utilitarian. By medieval and Tudor times, portions of the castles and even villager areas were being designed for pleasure as well as productivity. While we may not have enough land or resources to truly create our own castle, we can take away a fair bit from the layout of those castles, hillforts and even some of the equally guarded and protected monasteries.
First let’s take a look at some of the general consistencies between castles and protected areas during the pre-cannon times, and then we’ll look at how the residents can impact how we arrange large, sprawling homesteads and even small areas and yards.
British Hillforts tended to be Spartan environments, but even there – and when the Spartans existed – defensive structures also included water sources and regularly livestock and at least some limited garden spaces or wild foods within the safest palisades.
In the case of castles, there was even greater gardening taking place within the tiers of earthworks and walls carved out of hillsides.
Dunlop Hillfort and village – a macro-example of defensive structures and Spartan existence.
Castles and hillforts both made use of terrain. At the time, high was good, since it afforded more outward line-of-sight and thus more time to sound alarms. Deep trenches or moats surrounded the innermost walls and upper levels. Attackers not only had to scale the lower and outlying walls, they had to get themselves and siege equipment uphill, while defenders had the benefits of gravity and elevation on their side in all phases of attack.
If they could hold a force outside even middle and lower rings and walls, the defenders could even still reap the benefits of having crops and livestock grazing the rings around the inner walls.
Bonus – Fun Fact: This is the era in which we became obsessed with lawns. Rich folks had bunches of livestock, especially sheep. Sheep grazed all around, closely cropping grass and anything else that dared grow. It resulted in tightly mown lawns. The more sheep, the more pure grass and closer shorn it was. Having nothing but foods, shrubs and trees right around the house meant you couldn’t afford sheep. That poverty-wealth dichotomy stayed embedded as specialization grew, and everybody wanted a lawn so show their worth. It has stayed so embedded that here we are, hundreds of years later, burning fuel to prove we’re rich enough for short grass and competing with neighbors to have the most perfect, even, level grass on the block.
We can apply the lesson the same way Iron-Age Europeans did. We can create alleys or rings of silvopasture to shade and feed livestock and ourselves, creating tough fixtures and alarms where we can’t see – like the age-old sheepdog and sturdy gate or ha-ha. We can arrange properties large and small so that lower pastures and fields are outlying, allowing us more time to visualize threats.
We can create some of our first-line defensive walls with things like hugelkulture beds and other raised beds, and create ditches across roadways or leave trees standing that we can use to reinforce gates. Low or mid-height and dense, thorny brambles can also form our walls or create enough depth, noise and pain that simple thugs can’t make the jumps or choose and easier target.
We can use water catchment, mandala and keyhole beds, and our buildings and vehicles to form an inner wall from which we can defend property if necessary, keeping the things and supplies we most need access to safe within the innermost ring.
And we can use the castle gardens as examples of ways we can still produce food and medicine even if we decide to retreat inside our high, inner walls and abandon the rest.
The aerial view of Pensevey ruins helps show the amount of green space inside a hillfort and its moats, with sheep still grazing one of the inner walls and farm and grazing land still laid out around the lower and outer earthworks. We don’t have to have a true castle or that much space to follow the example laid out.
In permaculture, a concept called zoning is at the forefront of design – right up there with the ever-pressing reminders of health and productivity through diversity and edge habitat. Zoning is where we create spaces for each thing, working by patterns of traffic frequency.
The places we go most are Zone 1, and we put the most needy members of our homesteads there, the things we’ll need to visit most often. Zone 5 is the outer limit. It’s basically an area left wild, only periodically visited for at most a little foraging and hunting.
The terms and definitions may have changed, but castles made use of the same theories.
The inner set of tall, high walls would be our Zones 1-2, with 3-4 those rings of livestock and feed and large crops outside the moat. Maybe we have a true Zone 5, or maybe we designate little patches of brush, hang bug motels and bat houses, and create towers and boxes where swallows and owls will do their things – ridding us of pests as they do.
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Pottager gardens are just a different way of saying kitchen garden – or they were.
Starchy peas, turnips, potatoes, and the grains for bread were largely grown in some of the outer rings and beyond them – the equivalent of Zone 3 and 4 from our permaculture example – but most of the rest was either from the hedgerows and wild fruit areas, collected by foraging, or grown very near the kitchens where they’d be used.
Most of the British populace ate little meat and roasted foods even up into Tudor times. Instead, pottage was the daily meal – and was for a long, long period of history. It’s basically just a stew based around peas and whatever is in season. The gardens that mostly influenced the stew’s flavor picked up the same name.
Pottagers evoke certain images for designers and historians: small beds, regularly bounded by wattle (woven horizontal branches and saplings) or stone, raised as often as they were ground level.
They were usually surrounded by bent-hedge (laid hedge) living fencing, dense hedges, brush fencing that used upright posts filled with thick timber debris laid horizontally between them, rip-gut twisted-timber and -stick fences, vertical wattle, or simple vertical stick and top-rail fences, either vertical posts or arranged in a series of bottom-heavy X’s with horizontal poles laid in the cross sections.
The fencing was largely dependent on what it guarded against – poultry, dogs, rabbits, a loose horse in some areas, geese – and was made out of fast-growing “junk” brush and the leftover debris from cutting housing timbers, firewood, and clearing fields. Wattle was even used to make livestock housing in some temperate areas of Great Britain, particularly.
Medieval Style Garden
We see pottager beds inside tight castle spaces as well as out among the village cottages and even used in the wide-open outlying guard shacks.
Outside the castle walls, fencing would typically be stronger and taller to prevent entry by deer, but thick debris fencing was even used to contain or exclude pigs.
Square beds predominate, with triangular or curving beds as well, particularly in later periods. In the small square and rectangular courtyards between various walls and towers and portions of the castles and hillforts, they were efficient to work by hand without losing much space.
It’s hard for us to conceive breaking up long rows, even with our high-yielding, milder, sweeter vegetables. In fact, Europeans and early colonists with their less-efficient crops may have benefitted hugely by using them instead of the plows.
Pottagers were visited and tended much more frequently than crops that were alternated with grazing animals between the rings of the further, lower outer walls around a castle. The field crops had to deal with much less compaction as a result.
Working the smaller beds from walkways likely kept those beds in better health because no one was stepping on the soil, packing it down the way we do when we work down our rows and lines.
While there were gardens near kitchens, and while chatelaines typically also had gardens, they all also had to compete with the chapel gardens that were typically allowed and with the physic gardens maintained by the official healers.
It could get tight.
Because so many people could be expected to cram into castles and protected monasteries during attacks, carrying everything they could, to include livestock, and because the early castles and the hillforts, especially, tended to be high-traffic areas, growing space within the inner walls was at a premium – a condition many of us can relate to.
Growing food and herbs in long sweeps between sets of castle walls
It was also vital to be able to grow some of the food inside walls in case of siege.
So they made use of roadsides not only for foragable hedgerows, but also for small trees, flowers, herbs, and annual and perennial fruits. In some cases, they even built up raised beds against the castle walls themselves.
It was also very common to have orchards in the graveyards inside one ring of a castle or another, to use arbors around gates for vining fruit, and to make use of the steep sides of the earthworks that were left with sometimes vary narrow verges.
Images: Recreation of the castle-interior kitchen gardens of Highcote
The small spaces weren’t necessarily a bad thing. From the narrow spaces available between pathways and walls, to the kitchen, noble women’s, and monk’s gardens, the tight quarters led to increased diversity in garden strips, hedges and beds.
Historians have decided that it was actually pretty rare for herbs and high-yielding fruits and vegetables to be separated into rows. Bulk-produced foods – especially those that needed each other for pollination, kept close because gardeners realized they did better when grouped even if they didn’t understand the mechanics – might occupy whole beds, but most were rambling and intermingled where there was space for annuals.
Recreated and English-style kitchen gardens typically have fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers intermingled, with perennial hedges, shrubs, arbors, and trees in corners an surrounding the garden space.
Beautification and “smelling” gardens around trees in graveyards and orchards increased diversity there. Even when things were only planted to take advantage of pre-leaf-out sunlight and make every use of the space, it resulted in longer periods of flowering, a heavy mixing of herbs and perennials near and with annuals, and a great many microclimates where all the plant types met each other.
Until formal gardens took over, those “margin” areas undulated and staggered in differing waves and sizes, further increasing the amount of edge.
Diversity and a mixing of microclimates creates the same relationships we see with both companion planting – where a plant attracts or repels something for another plant – and at the edges of roads, places where water meets woods or meadows, and other verges – places that we harvest the most game and the most edible weeds.
With rich, diverse webs of life taking place in the soil, nutrients are cycled effectively. Mixed plants mean roots are drawing from different levels, and pests find it harder to locate their victims.
It also creates resiliency. With so much life, if something in the soil is wiped out one way or another, it’s not that big of a deal. There’s plenty of other life available to make up for it.
Likewise, with many types of herbs and foods growing together, should one fail in one spot, another might survive. If all of a type were lost, because gardens were so diverse, there was still food production taking place – inside the inner walls, even if it was unsafe to venture out into the lower-walled sections with bulk crops and livestock.
Fences were made with what you had on hand, designed for simple function.
We can learn a lot from history, and given the defensive mindsets of preppers, we can apply some of the defensive lessons directly to even our suburban and urban homes. Really, up until the last hundred years, we still very strongly relied on defensive works designed surprisingly similar to castles – well after the widespread adoption of cannon and cartridges.
The gardens kept within the walls of palace castles and hillforts have particular application as well, both for efficiency and for remembering that even when life was short and brutish in the Iron Age an medieval eras, peons and princes still planted their castles for beauty as well as yield.
Castle defenses, medieval gardening methods, and permaculture sectors and zones are all things that can be further researched to forward the preparedness of our homesteads. Permaculture’s stacking functions can help make our spaces even more efficient.
They can also help city dwellers, looking at apartments and condos as inhabitated towers and making use of the narrow strips of greener. Japan’s container and small-bed growing has been in place since the time of the Samurai in the largest cities – about the same time we’re looking at European castles – and can make for good study as well for those in tight, tiny spaces.
For more information about some of the garden features from the Iron Age through medieval and Tudor times, check out http://www.castlesandmanorhouses.com/life_06_gardens.htm and http://www.sudeleycastle.co.uk/gardens/tudor-physic-garden/ . There are tons of images, as well as lists of foods and medicines valued by people who depended on what they pulled out of the ground.
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