Medieval gardens were divided between those that were useful and those that were for pleasure, although the latter could also be useful.
Most people had gardens in which they grew plants for the table and for medicine. At the most basic level the food for the table would be pulses, cabbages, leeks and onions plus a few herbs. Very few people didn’t eat what they grew themselves and most depended on what they could grow. If they couldn’t grow it, they couldn’t eat it. Only people who lived in towns had to buy most of what they ate.
Most records about what gardens looked like and what was grown come from monasteries. They often had both kinds of garden and, while outsiders could be allowed into the practical gardens, the pleasure gardens would be for the monks only. This would be somewhere where the monks could be private. Monasteries tended to be entirely self-sufficient and sometimes the monks would help the local community by sharing seeds and knowledge with them. This meant that the variety of crops increased as seeds were brought into England by people returning from Crusades or pilgrimages or wars in foreign lands. Many of these ended up in the monasteries where the monks had the necessary expertise to make them grow.
Men of wealth could afford to have an area of their land given over purely to pleasure. Gardens were enclosed by wooden fences, hedges or brick walls. The ground inside was levelled, a lawn planted and raised flower beds created. Care was taken to kill the weeds before planting took place. The lawn was kept short by scything and sometimes it would be planted with tiny flowers to make it even more beautiful. Trees were planted to provide shade both for the people who sat or walked in the garden and for the lawn.
Pleasure gardens were created to please the eye and the nose. They were places to walk or to sit. Usually they had benches or turfed seats. Sometimes there were brick seats. Meals could be eaten there or people could sleep. Some people even danced in their gardens. It’s also probable that gardens were also for more private pleasures.
Ideally these gardens were planned so that they were by a stream to provide water for the plants. Some men diverted streams so that one side of the garden was bordered by a stream, which pleased the eye. The streams could also provide water for ornamental fish ponds. Some plants were kept in pots so that they could be moved around the garden and taken inside during winter. Rich men had gardeners to look after their gardens.
Pleasure gardens were partly symbolic. They were an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden and the monk’s called their gardens ‘paradises’ in memory of this.