A Renaisance Garden Grows in Massachusetts

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AMHERST, Mass. – Visitors to the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies in Amherst, MA 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.  UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture Sustainable Food and Farming students raised historic fruit and vegetable varieties to create the full-scale replica on the center’s grounds.

Many plants chosen for the 1500’s-era garden are based on research by recent Mt. Holyoke environmental studies and nature culture history 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 Center Director, UMass Professor 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.”

“Pottage” was thin, onion- or garlic-based broth made with whatever was available from the garden or farmyard to provide the staple meal of working families. 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, who also serves as the head gardener for the project, 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.  The 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 to come to the Renaissance Center garden from the USDA Germplasm Collection in Corvallis, Ore.

It will take a couple of years, but these small cuttings will be propagated by Stockbridge students in UMass greenhouses for use in the Renaissance Center gardens.  Strawberries in medieval times were much smaller and sweeter than the cultivars we are used to eating. 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.

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.

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.  Renaissance Center staff are planning an…

Open House on Saturday, August 17 from 10:00am – 3:00pm,

…as well, for those who can’t visit during the week. A plant list and map of the pottage garden will be available for visitors.

Be sure and watch this 3 minute video describing the project.

For more background on this project, see:

Special thanks to Janet Lathrop and Elizabeth Wilda from the UMass News Office for the press release from which this post was developed and the excellent video.
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For more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And also check out more World.edu posts.  If you like this project, you may be interested in the 15-credit Certificate, the 2-year Associate of Sciences degrees or the 4-year B.S. Sustainable Food and Farming major in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

Quercus Questions: “I am oak”

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Okay, so this blog is quite different than most of my others

Summer time you know!  

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A small, gray squirrel stopped his running about one day to say hello to his friend and provider, the great oak tree in the wood. Scampering up the rough, whitish trunk, he sat among the many branches, sighed and said “you are so strong – so tall – so old – you have seen much in your many years here in the wood – but don’t you ever want to run about like me, to play, to jump, to climb?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied quietly… “I am oak.”

The small, gray squirrel nodded knowingly (or at least as knowingly as the small brained rodent could nod). He said to the oak, yes, yes, yes you are oak, but really aren’t you even curious to see what is over the next hill, beyond the woods, where I can go whenever I want? Oh yes, I remember you telling me how your roots intermingle with the other trees in the forest and you do know what lies around you for many hills – but come on, wouldn’t you just like to get up and go see it for yourself?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied quietly…

I am oak.”

Slightly exasperated the small, gray squirrel said, yes, yes, yes I know you are oak, but aren’t you at all sad when you drop all your acorns and most of them are eaten by my brother squirrels, and those ridiculous little white-footed mice, the rabbits and even the very hungry bears? Most of your seed never sprout and grow into oaks like you – oh, well except for once in a while when I forget where I’ve stored my winter supply, and they sprout in the spring. But, but even then those small sprouts of oaks rarely grow up – most are eaten by deer or mice before they see one winter. Oh yes, I remember you telling me how you feel complete when you can be of service to others, giving of yourself that they might grow and live. But come on really, wouldn’t you like to see more baby oaks around here?  Wouldn’t ya? Wouldn’t ya?”

After a moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied quietly…

I am oak.”

After a long slightly angry pause, the excited little gray squirrel thought of something that would surely elicit a more satisfying reply than “I am oak” – from the oak. With a scheming glint in his eye, the little gray squirrel said to the oak, “so what about those humans, huh?” He thought he felt a slight shudder in the trunk of the great tree, but it may just have been the wind. What do you think of their saws and bulldozers and trucks? What do you think you would do if you saw a human approaching, measuring (as they always do), looking you over with the eye of the hunter, desirous, greedy, murderous, what then? Would you be so generous then? You who love to give of yourself then – what would you say to that? What about those humans…. huh? huh?”

After a much longer moment, while the wind played softly among the leaves of the old tree, the oak replied quietly…

I am oak.”

With that, the little gray squirrel decided this game was no longer fun, he jumped to a lower limb and back to the ground, and just ran off without even saying goodbye. The oak took a deep breath and seemed to smile.

As time passed, the oak did as the oak always did and was content in his place – breathing the clean air, taking nourishment and water from the soil, dropping acorns in the fall for the many animals that lived at his feet. Dropping leaves in the winter to replenish the soil – in thanks. Occasionally the oak noticed a small sprout from one of the acorns the silly squirrels had planted and forgot, but always a deer ate it before it saw one winter. The oak didn’t mind, he was oak and that was his place. Once in a while he thought about the question of the human, but not having seen one for a long time he chose not to wonder, but just to breath, to grow slowly in place, to be oak.

One day as it happened, he heard a strange sound. Yes, it was a vehicle of some sort – which meant one thing – a human. He heard, well really he felt the on-coming presence of the human, measuring (as they always do), looking about with the eye of the hunter, desirous, greedy, murderous (you see, he did remember the words of the excited little, gray squirrel). As the human approached, the oak became curious. This man had no saw, no bulldozer, no truck. In fact, he looked fairly harmless, all in all.

The man approached the mighty oak, stopped, looked up, breathed deeply – and seemed to smile. Yes, it was a smile, but he was not measuring, he didn’t quite have the eye of the hunter, he didn’t appear desirous, greedy or those other things the squirrel had talked about. The man simply stood quietly before the oak – breathing the same air as the great tree, the small animals, the earth.

Slowly, with a voice full of quiet gratitude and much love the man spoke. “Spirit of the oak, I honor you  you have lived long and seen much. You have felt the wind and the rain, the warmth of summer, the cold of winter. You have fed the earth with your leaves and the animals with your acorns for many, many years. My people honor you and all you have given. You are indeed oak.”

The oak wondered, how could this human – understand?

The human continued slowly “I come from a tribe that wishes to build a new home for a young family in our village. We come here to ask your permission and forgiveness. We wish to take your mighty trunk for timbers for a new dwelling that will stand for many years. We wish to make furniture of your limbs, to be used and admired in this home for many generations. We wish to take your many branches for the fire, to warm this home. We have come to thank you for your gifts to the soil, to the little animals, and to ask your permission to allow us the greatest gift you have – your self – for our needs.”

The oak breathed deeply.

The man breathed deeply.

The earth breathed deeply.

The man then said, I will return when you have dropped your leaves to feed the soil and your acorns to feed the many animals. At that time, I will seek your reply. The man left.

The oak signed.

As time passed, the oak did as the oak always did and was content in his place – breathing the clean air, taking nourishment and water from the soil, dropping acorns for the many animals that lived at his feet. Dropping leaves to replenish the soil – in thanks. He noticed one small sprout from one of his acorns had grown in a place that seemed to have more light and had not yet been eaten by a deer. Perhaps this one would grow? Perhaps this one would be the one?

And the man returned, as the oak knew he would. Once again the man stood before the great oak, smiling in appreciation – breathing the same air as the oak, and the animals, and the earth. After a time he said with a quite, grateful, loving voice “will you become part of a home for a young family in our village, part of the furnishings in this home, part of our lives, to be admired and appreciated for many years? Will you heat our homes so that our children can be warm? Will you give us permission and forgiveness for ending your time in this wood?”

The oak breathed deeply.

The man breathed deeply.

The earth breathed deeply.

And the great oak replied with acceptance and love…

I am oak.”

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For more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And also check out more World.edu posts.