Romans were major gardeners in a time when most cultures were still hunting and gathering. But when the Roman Empire declined, much of Rome’s agricultural development vanished.
All that remained of it were ruins of villas in formerly conquered lands. The Roman home was a series of rooms that enclosed a central courtyard. Often this was divided into four equal spaces with a well or fountain at the center. Centuries later, monastic communities of the early church sought the remains of these homes to house their many members.
Self-sufficiency was vital to a monastery’s survival, so the central courtyard became the root of the monastic gardens.
The Benedictines’ St. Gall plan for monasteries featured three protected types of gardens: one for flowers to decorate the church, one for herbs and healing plants, and one for larger food crops. Smaller monasteries housed in old homes did not have the space for all of them, so a single garden would have to support all three endeavors.
In strongly Catholic France, this blended garden became known as a potager. Strictly translated, the word “potager” means “a thick and substantial soup” because all its ingredients could be grown in this single space. Most homes in the country depended on their potager in these early days of unpredictable food supplies.
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– Maureen Gilmer