The garden of the Mount Grace Priory cell is English Heritage’s best preserved example of monastic horticulture. It was replanted for the first time in 1994, following archaeological excavation of the cells. The excavations showed that the lay-out and use of each garden varied according to the inclination and interest of the individual monk.Share
The pattern of paths and beds in the garden was based on archaeological evidence, but it was uncertain which plants were used or how they may have been arranged in the beds. None of the recent planting was intended to be a restoration or reconstruction of the original garden. It instead was a demonstration of the kinds of plants that were grown in gardens at the time the monastery flourished.
Equipment, too, has changed how we tend to our gardens today. Monk’s tools would have been simple wooden and metal ards (like a small hand pulled plough) or mattocks rather than the mechanised marvels of today’s horticulture. Rather than a tractor, power for larger plots would have been provided by oxen.
Cell gardens as at Mount Grace Priory provided monks with the opportunity for manual labour within the confines of their own cell, which was a key part of the Carthusian ideal. As a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) they also had biblical associations including the garden of the ‘Song of Solomon’, and alluded to the ‘original’ Garden of Eden, or to ‘Paradise’ itself. These spaces were not primarily for food production but had multiple functions of spirituality, health and utility. The mass of food for the monks came from much larger kitchen gardens, plots and farms elsewhere.
These cell gardens were strongly geometric in form, often compartmentalised (defining spaces for medicinal or poisonous species) and in the 15th century started to become decorative. This included a mix of medicinal and aromatic herbs, and flowering plants to lift the mind and spirit and to aid contemplation. (Read more.)