By Catherine Winter
Have you heard of a potager garden before? The term comes from the French word “potage“, which means “potted dish”: basically a soup pot. Specifically, the pottage that medieval people basically lived on. As such, these gardens feature ingredients that are meant to be tossed into the soup pot. Clever, isn’t it?
These types of gardens are generally placed just a few steps away from the kitchen. In fact, the basic premise of a potager garden is that all ingredients should be in easy reach for the person cooking.
If you loved themed gardens as much as I do and you’re aching to create one that Ruth Goodman would be proud of, here are a few key aspects to keep in mind:
- Make it a space that’s as beautiful as it is utilitarian. This garden should be pleasing to the eye, as well as the palate. Play with geometric garden beds, symmetry, and vertical elements like arbors and trellises.
- Incorporate as many traditional Medieval vegetables and herbs as possible. If you really love your tomatoes and peppers, grow them in a different spot so as not to interfere with the overall theme/aesthetic.
- Work with natural materials and textures. Use wattle or stone for your raised beds, add wooden benches and trellises.
Vegetables for a Potager Garden
As mentioned, pottage was a staple food throughout the Medieval era. If you’re not yet familiar with it, pottage is basically a thick vegetable and grain stew that’s normally served with a slice of bread. Meat or fish could be added as well, if available.
Mostly, pottage consisted of a bit of barley, wheat, oats, or rye that had been boiled for hours to soften the grains into a porridge-like consistency. Vegetables and herbs were tossed in later, then cooked on low heat for hours to combine the flavours.
You might think that the Medieval diet was quite boring—after all, people were eating the same thing on a daily basis—but that’s not entirely true. Unlike today, where we pop down to the shop for strawberries in January, Medieval people ate what was in season.
As such, their pottage would contain different ingredients from week to week. For example, fresh peas would only be around for a few weeks in springtime, whilst leeks and cabbages would only be eaten in autumn and winter.
Traditional Medieval Potager Garden Vegetables
Below is a list of vegetables that you can incorporate into an authentic Medieval kitchen garden design. You don’t have to use them all, of course: use those you love best, and incorporate a couple of heirlooms for the sake of interest and authenticity. We’ve included links to websites where seeds for some of the more unusual varieties can be purchased.
These lovely members of the onion family turn deliciously tender when braised or added to soups. They reach their peak in late autumn, but can be grown through the winter in milder climates.
Both the round and long Black Spanish radish varieties are ancient heirloom types. They’re spicy and flavourful, and excellent raw or roasted.
Get seeds here.
Every potager garden needs peas! This traditional crop comes in both field and pole varieties, and can be eaten fresh, or dried for soups. Try the ancient “Carling” (or “Carlin”) variety for an authentic Medieval experience.
Buy them here.
No self-respecting potager would be complete without several cabbage varieties. Savoy, round head, and even various kales are all era-appropriate options.
Did you know that Medieval carrots weren’t orange? The orange ones we’re accustomed to seeing were only cultivated in the Netherlands a couple of centuries ago. For authenticity, choose red or purple varieties instead, like these Purple Dragon carrots from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
7. Good King Henry
Sweet and spicy, these carrot cousins have always been a staple in European cuisine. Here’s a tip: pre-roast or pan-fry them with some garlic and savoury before tossing them into your soup, as that will enhance their nutty sweetness.
9. Brussels Sprouts
These sweet little mini cabbages are as delicious as they are adorable. They’re also biennial, so it’s a good idea to plant them for two consecutive years. That way you’ll always have one productive batch while the other is dormant.
Since potatoes weren’t introduced to Europe until the late 16th century, turnips were the root veg of choice way back when. They’re surprisingly versatile roots that taste gorgeous when roasted with garlic and herbs, or mashed with butter and salt.
These vegetables were well-loved in the Medieval period, though physicians warned about eating them! Cucumbers were believed to promote ill health, probably because they flourished near stagnant water, which could make people sick.
Try an heirloom Polish variety (like Monika) for authentic flavor.
This was an absolute favourite during the Medieval and Tudor eras, and is thankfully making a comeback. Also known as “oyster root”, its creamy flesh is said to taste of cooked oysters when cooked.
Buy seeds here.
Lettuces were just as popular in the middle ages as they are today, and were eaten raw in “sallats” or added to pottage. The Cracoviensis variety is an authentic Medieval lettuce with rich, bronze leaves.
Get seeds here.
14. Fava Beans
Modern gardeners cultivate countless different pole and bush bean varieties, but fava (or broad) beans would have been the staple several centuries ago.
Known as Mangold in German, chard has been cultivated across Europe for thousands of years. The Bionda Di Lyon variety is a French heirloom that’s about as close as you can get to what Medieval folks would have chowed down upon.
Buy seeds here.
16. Artichokes (or Cardoons)
Artichokes and cardoons require a lot of sun and heat to flourish, so they’re not ideal for Canadian growers. If you’re in the southern UK, France, Spain, or the southern US States, then definitely add these to your list.
Although we generally try to keep plants from cross-pollinating, sometimes allowing them to do so can yield interesting results. For example, rutabagas showed up in the wild in the late Medieval period, when turnips cross-pollinated with cabbages.
These hardy root vegetables taste like a mixture of the two vegetables.
One of the most delicious and versatile greens you can grow! Try a bunch of varieties tucked into several different beds to see which you like best.
No respectable Medieval garden would be complete without a solid onion crop. Bunching onions in particular are very close to their pre-1500s counterparts, with Welsh onions being as true to their ancestry as you can get.
This almost-forgotten vegetable has had a bit of a comeback in recent years, as hipsters and heirloom aficionados alike have cultivated it in their yards. I haven’t tasted it yet, but it’s been described as having a flavour similar to peppery carrots, or sweeter parsnips.
You can find seeds here.
Both the bulb and fronds of this liquorice-flavoured vegetable are edible, and they add lovely flavour and texture to autumn dishes.
These delightfully peppery greens are as lovely raw in sandwiches and salads as they are tossed into soup just before serving. Packed with vitamin c, this crop is ideal for those whose gardens have low-lying, wet soil.
Beetroot is another ancient vegetable, and both the golden and red varieties would have been common in potager gardens. Both the roots and green tops would have been used for food, though the latter can also be used as fodder.
A staple seasoning in the middle ages, as it is now. The various Rocambole varieties are as close as you can get to Medieval garlic, especially the French and German cultivars.
Get them here.
This wonderful pot herb has meaty leaves that taste like celery. They can be eaten raw, but are delightfully tender when added to soups and stews. Try it as part of a springtime soup with potato and fresh sorrel.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but may give you some ideas about what to incorporate into your own Medieval potager garden.