For gardeners with a sense of history

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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Fulda Sacramentary, Bamberg State Library, Germany, 980 CE




Tools for Planting




Seeds and plants





String, cord

Watering pots




First, save seed

It is such a simple thing, but before you can plant, you must have seeds, and one of the first questions that come to mind is how did people in early medieval times preserve their seed supplies through the winter?


After gathering seed for the coming year, where did they put it to dry? Once dried, cleaned, and sorted, how did they store it? No paper envelopes, no plastic containers, no jars with lids, precious few storage places – shelves, closets, drawers, cupboards; spots secure from moisture, freezing temperatures, weevils, and rodents.


Seed for larger fields of grain was probably stored in granaries, whether above or below ground. In a 1st century CE Greek manual of farm practices known to the later medieval world, its author explains, 


When the harvest is just ordinary, we should select all the best heads and store the seed from them by itself; when there is a more generous yield… everything… should be cleaned with a sieve, and the grain that settles to the bottom because of size and weight should be kept for seed.

Columella, Res Rustica, II.ix. 12


Bean seed and that of other legumes was often stored in large, earthenware pots, sealed with ash or other barriers, and buried in the ground. Or it could be stored in sacks hung from the rafters, or in crocks with crockery lids, stored in rooms that wouldn't freeze.


Was garden seed stored with seed for field crops? Or was it stored separately in the home, perhaps in pottery, metal, or wooden containers?


One possibility is that garden seed was kept in lidded jars, or perhaps in small pots -- these pots could have been made of pottery, or of rawhide, stone, or wood. If not lidded, they could have been covered with fabric soaked in beeswax. Such a covering could, with the warmth of the hand, be molded snugly around the top of the jar, where it would then harden in place as it cooled. Waxed fabric coverings could be easily removed to check on the seed, and then replaced and re-molded to fit tightly. They would not, however, have been rodent-proof.


Another possibility is that seed, separated by type, could have been wrapped in small fabric packets, several of which could be kept in fabric or leather bags and suspended from overhead beams above the hearth, again so that the contents wouldn’t freeze. In A History of Kitchen Gardening, Susan Campbell describes such a system, used in Victorian times: "...hanging from the ceiling were bags of threshed seed, seed heads, and capsules, out of the reach of mice.”


Medieval seed pot


Earthenware pot covered with waxed fabric

Leather bag with drawstrings


However they were stored, seed would have been carefully monitored throughout the winter for damage from mold, insects, and rodents. Damaged seed would be removed before it contaminated the rest of the seed.


The 11th century Anglo-Saxon work Be Gesceadwisan Gerefan, "About the Astute Reeve," lists some of the labors of spring:


On længtene eregian 7 impian beana sawan wingeard settan dician deorhege  heawan
7 ra
ðe  æfterðam gif hit mot gewiderian mederan settan linsed sawan wadsæd eacswa wyrtun plantian...

In springtime harrow & graft sow beans prune vines set dikes prune deer hedges & directly after that if it might be fair weather sow linen seed woad seed also plant the garden...


Before putting the first seed into the ground, our medieval gardener would gather up planting materials and small tools, perhaps loading them into a basket or onto a small barrow. They might don older clothes, an apron, or gloves.


Smithfield Decretals, British Library Royal 10 E IV, c. 1330 CE



Detail: Embroidery, from the apron shown at far right.



Vestos, mappula


Old English

Bearmcláþ – Bosom cloth, apron
Hrægl – garment, shirt



As can be seen in those in the 14th century Luttrell Psalter, aprons could be embellished with fringes, embroidery, or smocking just below the waistband.


Gloved plowman,
Macclesfield Psalter
c. 1330 CE




Chirotheca - gauntlet, glove, mitten

Digitabulum - glove


Old English



Though five-fingered gloves are seen on some farmers pictured in medieval manuscripts, others apparently favored 3-fingered gloves or "split mittens." These were more flexible than gloves, provided a better grip, were easier to make, and were less likely to chafe because they had fewer seams along the fingers.


Cathedral of St. Jean
de Maurienne, France

Luttrell Psalter BL Add
MS 42130
c. 1330 CE


This April labor of the  month shows one gardener holding cuttings while the other ties a vine to its stake. Zwiefalten monatsbilder, Zwiesel Monastery, Cod hist 2° 415, Germany, c. 1150 CE.



Old English
leácweard, lécword, leyhtunward, wyrtweard


holitor, hortulanus, olitor 

Seeds and plants


In addition to seeds, the medieval gardener (olitor, lectunward) started plants from seeds in nursery beds, used stem and root cuttings, and divided plants to increase their numbers.


They were likewise knowledgeable about grafting fruit trees and vines; the glosses mention:

  • Arbusta, iung treow, treowstede - tree plantation for young trees

  • Omne genus seminarum, æghwylc sædcyn - every kind of seed

  • Omne genus holitorum i. holerum, æghwylc wyrtcyn - all kinds of produce

  • Plante, treowest sprancan - true shoot, sprig

  • Surculus, wæterboh - live, suculent shoot

  • Plantaria, gesawena plantan, nursery beds 

  • Propago, propaginis, propaginatio, wintwiga plantung - vine twig planting

Some parts of the garden were planted in rows (Latin sulcus; Old English, furh):


Tunc quoque trita solo splendentia sarcula sumat angustos que foros adverso limite ducens, rursus in obliquum distinguat tramite parvo. Verum ubi iam puro discrimine pectita tellus deposito squalore nitens sua semina poscet...


Then take the shining hoe, polished by the soil, and trace straight, narrow rows from edge to edge, and divide with narrow paths. Now the gleaming earth, clearly marked as with a comb, free from debris, cries out for seed...

Columella, Res Rustica, I.x.90-95



Some plants were set, or seed was sown, along walls or fences; some beside trellises or tripods that the plants would climb as they grew. At times seed was simply broadcast over the ground, to be buried by raking or harrowing.


Tools and materials used in planting the garden might include:






A seed drill, an auger, a borer



Foratorium, from foro, to bore

Pastinatum, from pastinare, to dig

Rotrum - pick, shovel

Sabula - awl

Terebra - bore


Old English

Adsun pic - adze, pointed stick

Ael, byrse - awl

Boor, lynibór - borer, t-shaped tool for drilling holes

Næfebor, nafubor, navegar, nafugár, from nafu, a nave or
   socket; a

Plantsticca - plant stick


Forked tools were used for planting seeds, uprooting weeds, and for lifting  a variety of materials -- hay, plant debris, manure -- into carts or onto piles.. Hay, a crucial crop, was essential if livestock was to survive the winter; and was also used for thatching, and for animal bedding.

Chronicle of John of Worcester
c. 1130 CE



   2-pronged (bidens)

   3-pronged (tridens)

Furca ferria, ferrea - iron gardening fork, used for planting trees and vines

Furcula, forcelle, furcilla - small fork

Fécamp Psalter, Normandy,
c. 1180 CE











Anglo-Saxon Calendar
British Library Cotton Tiberius B.V. Part I; England, c. 1050


Old English

Gafal, gæfle, geafel, fork

Forcel, feorcol, pitchfork


...sedulus ...holitor ferro que bicorni pectat, et angentem sulcis exterminet herbam.

...let the careful gardener ...break the furrow with  two-pronged iron, and cast out the choking weeds.

Columella, Res Rustica

Pastinatum vocant agricolae ferramentum bifurcum
quo semina panguntur.

Cultivataor is the name farmers call a bifurcated iron tool with which plants are set out.    

                                           Columella, Res Rustica


And, of course, a fork could be used to
restrain your inner wyvern.

Luttrell Psalter BL Add MS 42130, c. 1330 CE


Speculum humanae, British Library Harley 3240, c. 1375




Hoes would have been used for planting and weeding.



Ligo - hoe or hatchet with one or two wide iron prongs

Rastrum - drag hoe, from rastra, to scrape

Rastellus - small hoe or rake

Runco - weed hook or hoe

Sarculum - smaller, lighter swan-necked hoe

Old English

Becca, fustis, palus - mattock or hedging stick or digging stick


Fécamp Psalter, Normandy, c. 1180 CE

String, cord, rope

String or cord, most often made from linen or hemp fiber, guided planting in rows, and later tied tender stems to supporting stakes.


Lorum - thin band, thong

Funiculus, funis - slender rope, string

Nodorum - knot, knotted cord

Restis - rope, cord

Rudens - rope, line, cord


Old English

Rap - rope, cord, string

Rápincel, rapincle - cord, string rope

Strenc, streng - string, lighter weight cord

Rheinisches Landesmuseum
No. 15326, c. 1300

Woman carrying water in
a large earthenware pot (hydria)
Luttrell Psalter,
BL Add MS 42130

c. 1330 CE



Watering pot

Seeds and newly planted cuttings needed to be watered in, and water could be supplied via bucket, the earthenware pot, or "thumb pot."


Among the most common medieval watering tools, a thumb pot had small holes in its base, and a narrow neck at the top. It was filled by submerging it in water. Then it was lifted from the water, with the thumb pressed tightly over the top, and held over the area to be watered. When the thumb was removed, air flowed in to fill the vacuum, and the water trickled out over the plants.



Hydria, water jar, ewer

Olla, pot, jar


Old English

Crocca, chroa, crohh, crock, earthenware pot

Fǽtels, pot, hydria, vessel

Wæterfæt, water vessel, hydria


Medieval thumb pot

Roman trowel




A trowel is really a small shovel, and may have been used in the medieval garden much as garden trowels are used today.



Trulla - Ladle, scoop, trowel


Old English

Scofl trulla - shovel trowel

Stelmelas - scoop

Trul, turl - trowel



Wooden tools rarely survive, but were no doubt in use as well, along with tools of bone and antler. Worn or broken tools and utensils from the woodshop, kitchen, and barn no doubt found a second life in the gardener's tool trove, as they do even now.



Medieval garden tools

I. Preparing

II.  Planting

III.  Cultivation

IV.  Harvest and storage


About the Astute Reeve

Medieval baskets



Medieval garden tools

I. Preparing

II.  Planting

III.  Cultivation

IV.  Harvest and storage



About the Astute Reeve

Medieval baskets



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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt


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