From a miniature orchard to a moveable feast, create magic in a small spring garden with tips from designers who look to the past for inspiration.
Medieval gardens of the 15th and 16th centuries offer design ideas for today’s gardeners and Victorian-home owners. Both practical and ornamental, the gardens of the Middle Ages are defined by their ingredients: highly valued culinary, aromatic and medicinal plants. People cared more about the benefits of a plant—for nourishing, healing or scenting the home and its occupants—than about its appearance. Over time, an appreciation for the natural beauty of medieval herb gardens emerged. Orchards featured fruit-bearing trees trained into attractive espalier patterns along stone walls. Tidy rows of lavender and rosemary became the ingredients for weaving intricate “knot gardens.” A rainbow of colorful vegetables filled raised beds in diagonal rows or diamond-shaped plantings called parterres.
When presented with a long, slender area in which to create a showcase garden, designer and horticulturist CJ Forray of California-based Cottage Garden Design immediately thought of adapting a traditional medieval kitchen garden with culinary and ornamental plants growing together companionably. “I wanted to take away from the big white wall and to break up the rectangular feeling of the garden,” she says. “Linear gardens have so much potential.”
The wall suggested an enclosed Medieval-era garden. Historically, the gardens of manor houses, monasteries and abbeys were planted in walled, courtyard-like spaces. Similarly, Forray used the retaining wall as a vertical backdrop against which to grow vines and train fruit trees. Forray also planted apple trees in decorative urns to draw attention to their sculptural forms. Concord and Chardonnay grapes occupy large containers; their vines will eventually be trained against the wall, Forray says.
Invite Magic and Repose
At the heart of this miniature orchard is the central artistic element of the garden: a pair of massive doors adorned with intricate ironwork. Estimated to be 125 years old, the doors suggest a hidden entry and reinforce the garden’s “courtyard” feeling. Forray is passionate about using doors as architectural elements in her gardens. Whether mounted on a base as a freestanding focal point or rested against a permanent structure (fence or wall), the door feels magical and secretive. This technique is often called a garden trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye).
In keeping with the doors’ beefy proportions, Forray incorporated heavy iron seating—two benches and three chairs. Some of the ornamental scrollwork echoes the iron grill openings in the doors. Seating is a priority, no matter what size the garden. “You need places to sit there or you won’t enjoy it,” she says. “You have to have a place where you can breathe deeply in the garden.”
Lettuces and pansies grow together in one bed while basils and parsley intermingle with nearby petunias. “Perennials and edibles are very compatible, unless you’re a chemical gardener,” Forray says, noting that organic gardening practices are best when edibles are grown with annuals and perennials.
A stone sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi lends authenticity “and the bowl he is holding provides water for the birds,” Forray says. Look for neglected areas in your own garden worthy of transformation with culinary herbs, edible flowers and fruit-bearing trees and vines. “That practicality makes sense to many gardeners,” Forray says.
by Debra Prinzing
Produced by Hillary Black
Photography by Mark Tanner