Medieval Herbs for the Very Small Garden

by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

So, you've found yourself with a small scrap of garden, or a patio or sunny window to put flower boxes in, and think, "Herbs?" You trot off to the library and start pulling out books, and are immediately discouraged by all the lovely garden plans that start with a 10 foot by 10 foot plot, or even bigger. The truth is, ancient, medieval and modern people have been tucking herbs into tiny gardens from time immemorial, and so can you.

Planning the Garden

I would start with only a very small plot (2' x 4' or 3' x 3') your first year, even if you do have space. This will keep you from buying everything in the garden center marked 'herb' and sticking it all in (unlike me, these days) and will give you time to study and appreciate your plants.  Most herbs adore full sun and not-so-good soil that dries out relatively quickly, but they are amazingly tolerant of abuse and mistakes in planting. They will tolerate being grown in relatively shady spots but they should get 4-6 hours of direct or indirect sun a day.

If you can plant directly in the ground, doing so will save you a lot of extra watering and worrying. Container plants dry out more quickly than the ground and you are likely to come home after a hot summer event to very flat plants. Most of the plants listed here will grow happily, if not luxuriantly, if given a space 10"-14" in diameter. I would plant your perennials (plants that are supposed to come back every year) that distance apart, and the first year, fill in the spaces with annuals (plants that die out after one year). This gives you, in a space 3' by 3', space for 8-9 perennials and at least 6-8 annuals.  You can grow from seed, but for the first time-grower, buying plants is easier; some things, like mint, should always be grown from plant cuttings.

If you like, you can follow the example of the monastery gardens imitated by the Cloisters in NY, by creating a raised bed faced with planks (Bayard). The theory is that you turn over the ground by digging down about 6-8 inches, get some 1x12 planks and set them on their sides, set 6" into the soil, and then dump in enough topsoil from the garden center to fill the box you just made, up to the top. Then you plant. The advantages are not having weed seeds there already, not having to bend down as far to work on the garden, and not having to dig so hard or so far. The disadvantages are doing it and hauling all that topsoil. (My beds are set right in the ground, and I usually simply scrabble out a hole 1 1/2 times the size of the plant's roots and stick it in.)

Medieval gardeners tended to fence in their gardens to protect them from wandering animals, children and other destructive forces. Hedging, stone walls, earthen walls, wattle fencing (vines or willow woven between upright sticks), and even fences of wooden palings or poles will protect your plants and give a medieval touch. Knotwork and parterres (arranging plants to look like embroidery) are late period and Elizabethan fashions; many gardens depicted in period art and gardening works show raised beds combined with 'flowery meads' (open lawns with a meadow-like profusion of flowers), varied by walls, trellised plants, and turf seats (a raised bed or earthwork covered with lawn, made to be sat on).

You can harvest your herbs beginning in midsummer; the books say to do it before the plants flower and after the dew has burnt off. I find that one can generally harvest herbs when in the mood-- just don't cut herbs for drying when they are wet, or cut the plant back by more than one-third at a time. You can use your herbs in cooking, in A&S projects, for strewing (nice on or under a tent floor cover, or a feast tablecloth) or make bouquets of them.

Watering: when it is very dry, I water my container herbs every 2-3 days; they don't mind used dishwater if you alternate with fresh water (in droughts put a pail in the shower). Don't let them stay so dry that the pot feels light for more than a half a day or so. Mints, lemon balm, and basil will tolerate overwatering, but everything else likes to dry out between waterings.

The herbs:



Rosemary [Rosmarinus officinalis], pine-scented, dark green woody shrub, though one of the fussier herbs, is well worth growing because it was one of the medieval favorites.  It is used in cooking, particularly pork, as well as in medicine.

Banckes' Herbal [1525] suggests it as a medieval Stridex antiseptic: "boil the leaves in white wine and wash thy face therewith, thy beard and they brows, and there shall no corns grow out, but thou shall have a fair face," and more metaphysically: "Make the box of the wood and smell to it, and it shall preserve thy youth." It was used as a fumitory-- burned to cleanse the air (Virgil cited by Clarkson)--, laid up in linens, strewed on the floors (Tusser), and put in tussy-mussy flower bunches to ward off vermin and noxious odors.  It was supposed to improve the memory, if consumed or smelled, and to sharpen the mind (Culpeper, Clarkson).  Symbolic of memory and fidelity, it was used in wreaths for marriages and funerals.

Rosemary is a perennial but it should almost always go in a pot, because it does not tolerate the cold and must be brought inside for the winter. (This is why, after being imported by the Romans, it died out in most of Northern Europe and had to be re-imported in the 11th and 12th centuries.) You can either put it in a big (8-12") clay pot which you stick in the ground in summer, or into one of those large, terra-cotta look urns or cauldrons (though I'd recommend using the plastic ones) which actually look quite a bit like those in Italian Renaissance paintings. Rosemary must have plenty of sunlight, and will die off if it is kept too wet or too dry: it likes to dry out between waterings, and then be thoroughly drenched. In Europe, it gets up to 6 feet high, but here it generally settles down at 2 or 2 1/2 feet and bushes out.  There is are prostrate varieties, as well as regular ones, and a hybrid called ARP that is supposed to be hardy as far north as north-central PA and NJ. Some rosemary flowers white, some blue, in late summer.


Sage [Salvia officinalis] is a light green, round-leaved sharp-smelling woody perennial shrub that is winter-hardy (in fact, if you grow it in a pot, you should put it someplace cold over the winter, rather than bring it inside: it needs the cold time to go dormant).

Says the proverb: "Why should a man die if sage groweth in his garden?" In cooking, sage has long been used in stuffings, in potages, and sauces. In salads, it was a spring tonic: "A man shall live for aye/ Who eats sage in May". Dioscorides, Banckes and other authors suggest it for female troubles and as a disinfectant and astringent:  "It will make a man's body clean; therefore who that useth to eat of this herb or drink it, it is marvel that any inconvenience should grieve them that use it."  Culpepper used it for coughs and sore throats ("The juice of Sage taken in warm water, helps a hoarseness and a cough"),  and "it also helps the memory, warming and quickening the senses.". Le menagier de Paris recommended water in which sage has been boiled for handwashing at table and Culpeper suggested it as a part of a bath mixture. Both Hortus Sanitatis and Dioscorides claimed that sage tea dyes the hair black. (Some people burn sage as an incense, but because it contains thujone, burning sage should not be used around pregnant women.)

Sage will flourish in a sunny situation but it willingly struggled along for me in the shade of a tree for many years. It gets to be up to 3" tall, and as big around, but if you cut back the branches a bit (no more than 1/4 of the plant) in fall, it lives longer and doesn't grow so big.  It flowers blue in late summer.

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm [Melissa officinalis] is a medium green, round leaved perennial that smells and tastes of lemon flavoring. The ancients called it Melissa because it is said to attract bees-- they even smeared the insides of beehives with it-- but it doesn't seem to bring bees to my garden. However, it's an excellent tea or sekanjibin herb when fresh.
My recipe for Sekanjabin (Based on Cariadoc's Miscellany):
Take 4 cups of sugar and 2.5 cups of water. Mix together in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil. Add 1 cup of cider vinegar. Reduce to a simmer and simmer until liquid is reduced by 1/3. Add one big handful orange bergamot mint, one big handful lemon balm, and a few sprigs of peppermint. Remove from heat, cover and let steep overnight. Strain and bottle.
To use, dilute 1 part syrup with about 8 parts water.
Another strewing herb,  it has also been used, fresh, to polish furniture. Medicinally Lemon Balm is best known as sovereign for depression, anxiety and 'melancholy:.  Culpeper said it 'causes the mind and hearth to become merry and reviveth the heart,' either eaten or 'smelled unto.' Pliny said that balm was of so 'great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound, it staunceth the blood'." (Clarkson, Magic Gardens.)

Lemon balm grows in clumps and will produce seedlings exuberantly, but it is easy to contain by normal weeding and if the patch gets too big, simply dig some out and give it away. Around midsummer, the large oval leaves will be overgrown by flower stalks with white flowers and smaller, uglier leaves, so be sure to cut it back drastically if you want to dry it. It has only a faint fragrance when dried, but is good in sleep pillows and potpourris anyway; if you want to use it in drinks and teas, you can try freezing it. It likes sun with a little moisture in the soil, but happily grows in shade in my mother's garden.


Thyme [Thymus species] is a tiny leaved, short creeping perennial that basks in full sun and has its own variety of savory fragrances.  There are many varieties, from mother of thyme (grayish, really tiny, slow growing plant), to English/garden thyme, to lemon thyme (lemon scented) and golden thyme (with yellow leaf speckles), and multiple scents. Start out with English or French thyme, but consider splurging on lemon thyme (which is not documented to period but is worth it anyway).

Thyme was loved by the Greeks and Romans, who praised the honey of Mt. Hymettus, made from its flowers, and used the oil as an after-bath rub (Garland), and burnt it to get rid of  venomous creatures and noxious odors-- medieval people followed suit.  It was also used in cooking-- for instance, caraway-scented thyme is also known as herba barona, because it was so frequently used to season 'barons' of beef. Dioscorides mentions it breathing troubles and women's complaints ando as an ointment for skin troubles. He says, "It is good instead of sauce for the use in health." Parkinson recommended it for baths, strewing, and in broths of fish or flesh (Fox). Clarkson (Green Enchantment) said "it used to be the custom for maidens to wear a nosegay of sprigs of thyme, mint and lavender to bring them sweethearts," and that medieval women embriodered thyme sprigs (complete with a bee) on favors to give their champions courage.

Garden thymes usually grow up to about 8 inches high, with long creeping stems that slowly spread the plant out. It's ideal for edgings and between stepping stones that aren't used much, but it insists on full sun (6-8 hours a day in full summer) or it will simply die over the winter. If it is pots, it must be wintered someplace cold if at all possible; but it will tolerate intermittent dry spells well. If it gets too big, dig it up, divide out some of the stems  to give away, and replant. (Caution: buying scented thymes can be addictive.)


Lavender [Lavendula vera, Lavendula spica, Lavendula stoechas] a gray-green perennial woody shrub that puts up long stems of flower buds in early summer, is primarily grown for its flowers, so if you don't have room for more than two it may or may not be worth your while. The leaves, however, have the same fragrance as the flowers, though fainter, and they make a handsome planting. Medieval people used lavender  and its cousin spike lavender (aka 'spyke', L. spica) with even more enthusiasm than modern aromatherapists devote to it. The name supposedly comes from the Latin 'lavar', since it was used in the Roman baths.

Dioscorides knew it, and mentions the decoction for 'ye griefs in ye thorax', and in antidotes. Banckes' says: "If this be sodden in water, give that water to drink to a man that hath the palsy and it will heal him." Culpeper recommends it for all head pains and brain disorders, including falling sickness (epilepsy) and faintness. Gerard recommends the distilled water of the flowers for smelling and bathing the temples as a refresher, and Turner suggests a headache-preventing cap with lavender flowers quilted in it (Clarkson, Magic Gardens). Gerard liked it for a mouth wash, too.  Lavender is a mild antiseptic, and the scent is sedative (calming). Medieval linens were scented with lavendar (either by being stored with it, or by being rinsed in water with lavender in it), and that it was used a personal perfume (Rohde).

Lavender also straggles without full sun, but if you have a border along a fence or walk, get a six-pack of lavender plants and set them in 12" apart and in a year or so they will make a nice edging. Two plants in a 18" window box (fill in with two or three heartsease plants the first year) is about right. The purple flowers are the parts used-- you pluck the long flower stalks before the buds open and hang them or set them in a small empty vase to dry. Don't expect to get more than 5 or 6 flower stalks the first year.


Mint [Mentha species] is a fast-growing, fleshy perennial with a distinctive minty scent, square stems, and pointed or oval leaves. Contrary to rumor, medieval people did recognize different varieties of mint, including garden mint, peppermint, and pennyroyal. However, as mint hybridizes at the drop of a leaf, "Walafrid Strabo wrote in the 9th century, 'Mint I grow in abundance in all its varieties. How many there are I might as well try to count the sparks from Vulcan's furnance beneath Etna.'" (Clarkson, Green Enchantment)

Mint was considered the best treatment for stomach aliments. Culpeper said, "Mint is an herb that is useful in all disorders of the stomach, as weekness, squeamishness, loss of appetite, pain, and vomiting". Banckes suggested a mouthwash of mint steeped in wine or vinegar, and rubbing the powder on the teeth for a "sweet mouth". Culpeper recommends Spear or Garden mint 'applied to the forehead and temples... eases pains of the head"; and to "help the bites of mad dogs...". Peppermint he suggests even more strongly for stomach complaints, "for which there are few remedies of greater efficacy." Parkinson suggested it "in baths with Balm and other herbs". Mint was grown in walks and alleys, and used for strewing. The recipe for sekanjibin, a medieval Arabian drink, given in Cariadoc's Miscellany, uses mint; mint leaves in tea or floating in a cool drink are SCA staples. It was used in salads, meat dishes, omlettes, and sauces.

Many people are scared away from mints by their invasiveness (as my friend Katr'yna says, "One day I threw a spring of mint into the backyard. Eventually we gave up trying to contain it and just moved away.") However, if grown in a large container, they will do perfectly well; a half-barrel is good, though a large washpan will work too-- be sure to put a 10-12 holes in the bottom before filling it with dirt. Just remember to water the container heavily, as they like their soil on the damp side. They are also good in a space between a building and a walk (where they have nowhere to grow _to_), and will choke out or camoflage weeds. Though they like sun or part shade, they will grow well in shady spots, especially peppermint, which for me will not grow well in full sun. Most mints get to be about 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall, but some, like peppermint, are smaller.


Rue [Ruta graveolens] (the herb o' grace o' Sundays) is a strongly scented, straggly periennial with deeply lobed leaves that nobody would grow if they weren't a medievalist. The scent is somewhat unpleasant when first picked, but fades as it dries. Medieval people put it in linens and in nosegays to keep away bugs and 'noxious odors', as well as using it in cooking. At one time, it was supposedly used to sprinkle holy water at Masses. It doesn't take up much space, though it grows about 36" high, and you can tuck it in the back of your plot, as long as it has enough sun.


Basil [Ocimum basilicum] is a deep green, spicy annual that comes in two varieties: the standard, with big leaves, that grows straight up to 3' tall with few branches (this is the period stuff), or globe, which has small leaves and looks like a little topiary. Basil was known in Italy and spread to the rest of Europe late in period. It's an excellent container plant and can be grown from seed.
As well as being used in cooking, it was a strewing herb (Tusser) and used in sweet waters. A pot of basil on the windowsill was supposed to keep off flies (Garland). Basil is an excellent container plant -- worth putting one in a pot and bringing inside for the winter-- and can be grown from seed, but it is definitely an annual and will generally die off, even in a pot inside, after about a year. It likes sun and rich soil.

Marjoram comes in at least two types: the annual, sweet or knotted marjoram [Origanum majorana], which is a small-leaved, low-growing annual, and the larger wild marjoram or oregano [Origanum vulgare] that is perennial but has a stronger, coarser flavor. Both were known as organum or oregany.

Sweet marjoram was the darling of herbalists and cooks, used as seasoning for food, as an antiseptic medicine and a linen dye for reddish brown (Fox). It lent its scent in sachets, tussy mussies, and washing waters (Clarkson) and as a strewing herb and furniture polish (Fox, Garland). Banckes' said it had "the virtue of comforting, of loosing, of consuming, and of cleansing" and suggests it for stomach problems; Gerard suggested it for "wambling of the stomache." Garland and Dioscordies agree that its oil will soothe and calm the nerves.

You can grow marjoram from seed, but oregano is better obtained as plant. Marjoram likes sun, but hates to dry out or get too cold, especially in a pot. Oregano is very hardy and will grow anywhere with enthusiasm.

Flat-leaved parsley [Petroselinum crispum] (not the curly type, but the one that looks like celery leaves) must have been grown massively in medieval kitchen gardens; when it is called for, it is usually in mass quantities. It was used in salads and in green pottages and sauces (Freeman). Parsley with mustard seed forms the basis for green mustard sauce. You can grow parsley from seed, but the proverb says that parsley must go to the devil and back before sprouting-- the seeds will take two weeks or more to sprout. Parsley is really a biennial, but you can treat it as an annual, or clip back its flower stalks to prolong its life. It likes sun and moist soil, and is perfectly happy in pots.

The thin grass-like Chives [Allium schoenoprasum] are a form of wild onion, well worth growing in a pot on the windowsill to use in place of scallions or green onion. Onions of all kinds were used with wild abandon in medieval and Renaissance cooking, and Markham calls for chives in salads. They like a bit of sunshine, regular watering, occasional (yearly) fertiziling and to be divided every few years. When you cut chives, take a few stalks off to about an inch tall and cut them up, rather than mowing the tips off the whole bunch. They will happily sprout back.

Borage [Borago officinalis] is a gray-green annual with large, hairy leaves and light-blue flowers, grows about 2'-3' tall but tends to flop about. You have to grow a quantity, at least 6 plants, if you want to make borage wine or cordials with the flowers. Borage leaves were also used in salads and in potages-- they taste of cucumbers (Freeman)Traditionally, borage means courage: "I Borage bring alwaies courage" goes the proverb. Gerard says, "The leaves and floures of Borage put into wine make men and women glad and merry, driving away all sadness, dulness, and melancholy". He describes it as a sort of antidepressant: "for the comfort of the heart, to drive away sorrow, and increase the joy of the mind." It likes sun with a little shade, so if your plot is sunny, tuck it in close to the larger plants, and give it extra water. If the flowers are not clipped, it will self-seed a bit (usually in odd places), but they are easy to remove or transplant.

Alecost, or Costmary, [Balsamita major] is a tall (2-3') leafy plant with a very sweet smell. It was introduced to England in the late 1400's and the garden writers of the late 16th century consistently mentioned it, especially as a strewing herb (Tusser, Clarkson). Parkinson said it was used in washing water and tied up with lavender tops and laid on the tops of beds for "the sweete sent and savour it casteth". It was also used in a wound ointment (Garland). Low-maintenance costmary likes part shade and dry-ish soil, and spreads slowly.

Roses [Rosa species] require a lot more space (several square feet) and much better soil, water and care than most herbs. However, getting fresh scented rose petals, or period roses, for recipes and A&S is often almost impossible if you don't grow them. Period rose types are the damask [Rosa damascena], Apothecaries' rose [Rosa gallica], the Alba rose [Rosa alba] and the dog or wild rose [Rosa canine] . While white roses were known, all the herbalists (Banckes', Culpeper, etc) give preference to red roses, which were made into cordials and conserves (jellies) to restore the strength. They were also scattered on foods as decorations, made into rosewater for recipes, put in salads, and smelled for health. Dried rose petals feature prominently in pomander, body care, and other medieval fragrance recipes (Rohde).

You will probably have to get your period rose types from a specialist catalog; follow their directions for care. (If a rose is not labelled in a catalog as scented, don't get it: it isn't.) However, don't use rose sprays if you intend to eat the flowers. Harvest petals for fresh use when the rose is just opened; for dried petals, I have go into the garden with a shallow basket and collect the petals from roses that are just about to fade.

Violets [Viola odorata], the small dark-blue May-blooming flowers with heart-shaped dark green leaves, were popular too. In addition to being carried in tussy-mussies, they figured in food and pharmacy. Leaves and flowers both featured in salads (Markham suggests pickling them in vinegar for winter salads). Candied violets, violet sugar, and violet syrup were popular products of the stillroom (though I've never succeeded making them myself). Easy to care for and multiplying readily, violets can simply be tucked in a spot with part shade or in a pot kept out of the sun. Violet plants are very sturdy; they like rich, dampish soil but will make do with most soils.

Johnny-jump-up [Viola Tricolor], the wild pansy or hearts'-ease, looks like tiny yellow-white-and-purple pansies. It was another popular flower grown for salads and for delight. They were used in much the same way as violets. Technically annuals, heart's-ease self-seeds so they're as good as perennial. They tolerate cold but not heat and prefer partial shade. Tuck them in among your perennials with shade on the roots, water them well, and continually snip off the dead blossoms to keep them flowering. Accoding to Clarkson, a late period writer said, "Pray god grante you but one handful of heavenly hearts'-ease".

Alecost, or Costmary, [Chrysanthemum balsamita] is a tall (2-3') leafy plant  with a very sweet smell; it was introduced to England in the late 1400's. However, the
garden writers of the late 16th century consistently mentioned it, especially as a strewing herb (Tusser). Parkinson said it was used in washing water and tied up with
lavender tops and laid on the tops of beds for "the sweete sent and savour it casteth". It was also used in a wound ointment. Very low-maintenance, costmary likes part
shade and dry-ish soil, and spreads slowly.


There are many good books on medieval herbs and herb gardening (especially Clarkson among the secondary sources, and Markham, Le menagier de Paris, and Tusser, among the period ones), and many more herbs to buy and grow, so don't worry about starting small. If you are online, you can share your experiences and ask advice on the Ansteorran herbalist lists (from or the SCA-herbalist list (from (An EK Herb Guild is forming, contact the author for information.) If you experiment with period recipes, check a modern herbal to be sure ingredients are safe.

Primary Sources:

An Herbal [1525] (Banckes' Herbal) (NY: Scholars' Facsimiles, 1941)

Culpeper, Nicholas, Culpeper's Complete Herbal.

Dioscorides. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides.(Oxford, Robert Gunther, 1933)

Gerard, John. Herbal, or General History of Plants. (NY: Dover, 1975) (The Woodward edition is abridged!)

Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife. (Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986)

Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the fourteenth century. (from Le menagier de Paris) Trans. & edited by Tania Bayard. (NY: HarperCollins, 1991)

The Medieval Health Handbook (Tacuinum Sanitatis), (NY, George Braziller, 1976).

Parkinson, John. A Garden of Pleasant Flowers [Paradisi en Sole]. (NY: Dover Publications, 1991)

Tusser, Thomas. His Good Points of Husbandry. (London: Country Life Limited, 1931)

Secondary Sources:

Bayard, Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers. (NY, Metropolitan Museum, 1985)

Clarkson, Rosetta. Green Enchantment. (NY: Macmillan, 1941)

Clarkson, Rosetta. Magic Gardens. (NY: Macmillan, 1939)

Freeman, Margaret. Herbs for the medieval household. (NY: Metropolitan Museum, 1943).

Garland, Sarah. The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1979).

Landsberg, Sylvia. The Medieval Garden. (London : British Museum Press, 1996)

A Medieval Flower Garden. (NY: Chronicle Books, 1994)

Rohde, Eleanor. The Scented Garden. (London: The Medici Society, 1931)

Note: the advice in this article is specific to USDA Hardiness zone 5 (North America). It should be suitable for zones 4-7. (To find out what US Hardiness zone you are in, check the National Arboretum web page: ) It's always a good idea to check your local library for books and other resources specific to your local area. U.S. gardeners can contact their local USDA Cooperative Extension agent for info about growing conditions in their area; people in other countries will want to contact the local office of their country's department of agriculture.
Some general remarks: in areas where the climate is very hot, sunny and dry, such as the southwest U.S., annuals will need protection from the sun, even ones that require full sun in zone 5. Herbs of Mediterranean origin, such as Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, and Basil, will do better in such climates. In the South-Eastern US and other hot humid climates, you may need to take advantage of special hybrids of Roses and other perennials; watch carefully for aphids and spore-spreading diseases such as 'rust' on annuals. (Aphids can be controlled by a soapy water spray; rust can be controlled by care in watering -- make sure plants get a chance to dry out-- and immediate removal of affected plants. If spore diseases are a problem, space your plants further apart to allow air flow-- which means digging and dividing mint, thyme, etc.) Most herbs do not like 'wet feet' so in all areas let the soil dry out between waterings if you can (but it shouldn't be dry as dust!). In climates with very cold winters, winter covering for the perennials such as straw or burlap is in order: also planting against a south-facing wall. In severe cold conditions, especially when no snow cover can be expected, you can pot up your perennials and store them in a shed or other shelter for the winter-- but be sure to heavily insulate the pots by burying them in the dirt or wrapping with straw, as potted plants are subject to frost heaves and winter kill.

Copyright Jennifer A. Heise. Contact me via email for permission to reprint:
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism (except to corporate officers and board members of the SCA, Inc.), as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used.
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