What happened when we stumbled upon a 400-year-old garden that was recently restored in the Medieval town of Kilkenny, Ireland? We were humbled by the realization of just how much garden history was hiding under our feet!
An archaeological excavation carried out in 2004 CE in what was then a parking lot and wasteland revealed the exact layout of a garden that had been entombed under concrete for generations.
The garden was built in about 1600 CE by John Rothe, a wealthy Kilkenny merchant and politician on what is known to historians as a Burgage plot or a long narrow strip of arable land enclosed by a wall with a house fronting the main street of a Medieval town. Using the English Renaissance and local garden styles and techniques of the time, Mr. Rothe set out designing a kitchen garden that would provide for his family in a time when growing herbs, fruits and fresh vegetables was not a hobby but a necessity. However, the existing soil had supported people long before Mr. Rothe and his family. Prior to Henry VIII giving the land to the Rothe’s in 1536 CE as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Cistercians monks had built an abbot and tended crops on the spot since about 1400 CE. Remnants of these earlier gardeners can still be found in the garden including a hand dug water well and a shoe buckle found during the excavation that may have fallen from one of the monk’s shoes while he worked the garden some 600 hundred years ago.
Amongst the other 2000 artifacts discovered, a skeleton of the family’s pet dog was unearthed in the exact spot that after dying of old age was lovingly buried in the garden. Fragments of wine bottles and a special seventeenth century German beer glass called a Stangenglas revealed the timeless connection of celebrating in gardens with alcoholic beverages. Cheers!
Today, the garden has been fully restored with the same beauty and function Mr. Rothe originally had in mind. The layout of the walled garden and orchard is made up of a series of paths, defined and separated by hedges, seating areas, lawns, trellises and grape arbors. These areas would have created the social space for conducting business transactions as well as a place for the family to gather, relax, and play.
Planted amongst these formal elements is a cornucopia of plants. Using pollen analysis, scientists were able to identify the specific species of plants that were grown in the garden four centuries ago. In the orchard, Irish heirloom apples such Blood of the Boyne, Scarlet Crofton and Irish Peach are planted amongst fig, cherry, greengage plum, pear, quince and hazelnut trees. Fruit bearing shrubs include gooseberries, medlars, damsons, mulberries and blackberries.
Culinary and medicinal plants such as foxglove, lady’s bedstraw, tamarisk, lavender, hellebores, campanula, Shasta daisy, rosemary, sage and cardoon are inter-planted throughout the herb garden.
In the vegetable garden, onion, garlic, and leek are grown alongside Irish native strawberries, carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips, runner beans, peas, cabbage and asparagus. Other plants in the garden were selected solely for their shade, fragrance and beauty. These include Holm evergreen oaks, lilac shrubs and ‘Peony’, ‘Cabbage’, ‘Old Moss’, ‘Maiden’s Blush’ roses as well as an understory of perennials, bulbs and annuals such as tulips, hollyhocks, and Sweet Williams.