“You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m goin’ back to my plough…”

It’s a sluggish season for blogging, but here at “Quid Plura?,” we’ve been called away from things online by the ageless yawp of agriculture.

Two weeks ago, I inherited a local garden plot. Although abandoned by humanity, this desperate parody of circumcrescence was dearly beloved of weeds, roots, seashells, rotten bamboo, and countless plastic shards. The very sight, especially so late in the summer, was dispiriting; even Gerard Manley Hopkins might have let fly a guilty dream or two about the glorious symmetry of the lawnmower.

So I turned for inspiration to Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and scholar memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and remembered there by at least one gargoyle). In De Cultura Hortorum, his famous gardening poem, Walahfrid recounts the nettled disaster he faces each spring, then calmly resolves to tame it:

So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again,
I destroyed the tunnels of the moles that haunt dark places,
And back to the realms of light I summoned the worms.
(trans. Raef Payne)

And so, ten days ago, buoyed by the spirit of Walahfrid, I set about turning this…

…into this.

In his little garden, Walahfrid raised bountiful herbs alongside vegetables, flowers, and fruit. While cautioning that hard work trumps book-learning in these sorts of labors, he offers, across twelve centuries, a mote of hope:

If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

We’ll soon see if this modern hortulus can bring forth plants that a sensible human will want to smell, admire, or eat. If so, I’ll be thankful for Walahfrid, and grateful, too, for the promise of applied medievalism.

8 thoughts on ““You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m goin’ back to my plough…”

  1. Hi Jeff,

    If you’re serious about gardening mediaevally, I think I still have a copy of a now woefully-out-of-date bibliography floating around if you’d like a copy. You might also be interested in the Wyrtig web site, which has some good plant lists and growing advice.


  2. The very concept of “applied medievalism” warms me to the bones. Good luck with it, Jeff. Strangely, I have always been baffled by people’s interest in maintaining gardens when there are perfectly good supermarkets around, but, lately, I feel myself drawn to the idea. Interesting timing with this post . . .


  3. Thanks, everyone, for dropping by!

    @Leo: While I don’t intend to camp up the plot, it’s a fair prediction that I’ll find a way to personalize the space…

    @’nora: Although for right now I’m only interested in modern gardening, I would love to see that bibliography.

    @Heather: Thank you! I’m not growing anything especially interesting or unusual this autumn, but perhaps in 2012 I’ll get a bit more historical.

    @Chris: As a native suburbanite, I never had much interest in gardens, either, but in recent years I became fascinated by them. I’m finding that gardening, like cooking, is a terrific respite from books, words, writing, and computer screens. I rely on those things to pay the bills, so my little garden is a place where I can fully afford to fail.


  4. Jeff, I’ll dig it out and fling it up on The Belfry in the next couple of days.

    Chris, the reasons for gardening go far past the need to produce your own food (though the difference between a homegrown tomato and a store-bought one should be evident) and into not only the realms Jeff mentions but also to ‘but I can’t buy that at the supermarket.’ I can buy all the carrots I want, sure, and even organic ones, but I can’t buy blackcurrants at the Safeway. Or lemon balm. Or Ethiopian basil. So I grow them myself.


  5. Nora — Yeah, like Jeff, I think I am starting to “get it” about gardening in my increasing years. There must be something theraputic about digging in the dirt and making something live. My wife is quite the gourmand an would probably love a visit to your garden — all we have is a huge bush of basil.


  6. A plan for a well protected area in our back yard is developing. Among the trees there must be a spot where the sun may shine through for me to also grow a small crop of veggies!

    My upside down tomato crop was a total failure!

    It’s amazing that you turned that overgrown trash heap into a productive mini truck farm. Congratulations.


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