Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Early Spring Garden in the Dark Ages: Hope amid Scarcity

By Kim Rendfeld

Around this time of year in early medieval times, dandelions emerging from the soil would be a welcome sight. The leaves offered nourishment when the stores of grain, dried beans and peas, and root crops were dwindling. They were also a sign to plant a kitchen garden soon.

As spring approached, Christians were already accustomed to doing without. Lent dictated that they eat only one meal a day in the late afternoon. That meal could have no dairy, no eggs, no meat — like a vegan diet with the exception of fish.

Still, this was the time to think about when to sow seeds. Although timing was a gamble then (as it is now), the folk would know many plants could tolerate a few frosts but not too much cold. Gardeners needed to make a calculation, just as they did when deciding which livestock to slaughter in the late fall. (That ham they were saving for Easter might be the only meat left.)

Part of a ninth century illustration,
public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Some crops would already be in the ground. Parsnips planted the prior spring would be awaiting harvest. Some leeks would be overwintering; a few would be allowed to go to seed and become inedible. Perennials such as chives and dittander, along with garlic planted last fall, might start to poke through.

But there would still be clumps of soil to break with a two-pronged wooden tool, mole tunnels to flatten, and weeds to dig out. When the bed was ready, gardeners could sow seeds for plants with edible leaves and roots such as corn salad, cabbage, mustard, arugula, beets, onions, radishes, parsley, and turnips.

The more complicated decision, especially after a bad harvest, would come with seeds like peas and beans. The more the family ate now, the less they had to sow for the future harvest.

As the plants grew, gardeners did their best to keep away weeds and pests. In warmer weather, they might add cucumbers, melons, and gourds to their plot.

Then comes another choice: consume crops like radishes and turnips while they’re tasty and tender or wait under they’ve grown as big as possible to feed as many people as possible? Does the family use the gourds as vegetables or vessels? If the family was almost out of food, do they eat today and risk having less tomorrow?

Even in the shadow of hunger, seedlings shooting from the ground might have given gardeners the hope winter and scarcity wouldn’t last forever.



On the Cultivation of Gardens by Walafrid Strabo, translated by James Mitchell

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Thanks for the fascinating post, Kim! People in those days had a lot of decisions to make that we don't. And that's assuming there was a decent harvest and no drought to complicate things!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. For many of us, it's a disappointment if the garden fails. For them, it was life or death.

  2. Great details! It's kind of crazy to think of people struggling to get enough food, but still observing Lent. Those folk were made of stern stuff.

    1. For the common folk, Lent might not have made that much of a difference. They might have already been looking for ways to make it stretch. I've heard that chickens and cows slow down anyway.

  3. Lots to think about in this interesting post. My husband and I were just saying yesterday how we and millions of others were totally dependent on truck delivery for our food. Yikes


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