Looks at his­tory and hys­ter­i­cal veg­eta­bles

Hannah Stephen­son

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - GREEN SPACES - Paint­ing Par­adise: The Art of the Gar­den is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buck­ing­ham Palace, from March 20 to Oc­to­ber 11

I’VE heard of some strange gar­den­ing prac­tices over the years, but some of the tips of­fered in a me­dieval gar­den­ing book which is said to have in­spired Henry VIII’s lost Great Gar­den at White­hall Palace take the bis­cuit.

The Ru­ralia Com­moda, writ­ten in 1304, due to go on dis­play at an ex­hi­bi­tion at Buck­ing­ham Palace in March, claims a squash will bear fruit af­ter nine days if planted in the ashes of hu­man bones and wa­tered with oil, and that cu­cum­bers shake at the sound of thun­der.

It also men­tions that let­tuce loves goat ma­nure and that com­bin­ing the seeds of let­tuce, radishes, nas­tur­tium and cole­wort will re­sult in a par­tic­u­larly tasty crop of greens.

The book, to be dis­played along­side some of the rarest sur­viv­ing records of gar­dens and plants from the Royal Col­lec­tion, en­tered Henry VIII’s li­brary af­ter the death of its owner, the King’s chap­lain Richard Raw­son, in 1543 and ex­plains the im­por­tance of a king’s gar­den to the Tu­dors.

But just how much truth is there in its hor­ti­cul­tural grow­ing tips?

Guy Barter, head of the RHS ad­vi­sory ser­vice, says: “They didn’t have squashes as we know them in those days.”

Per­haps the Latin text has been lost in trans­la­tion.

“It would have been a mar­row. Squashes come from North Amer­ica, which hadn’t been dis­cov­ered at that time. If you wa­tered oil on the ground it would have no fer­tiliser ef­fect.

“They would have used veg­etable oil as they didn’t have syn­thetic oil in those days and it would have been bro­ken down in the soil. But if an old-fash­ioned gar­dener wanted to give it a go, it wouldn’t do any harm. Just don’t use en­gine oil!”

The man­ual also sug­gests that let­tuce loves goat ma­nure; and Barter agrees.

“Gar­den­ers through­out his­tory have gath­ered sheep ma­nure which is an ex­cel­lent qual­ity and bal­anced feed, not too high in ni­tro­gen like bird ma­nure and prob­a­bly bet­ter than cow ma­nure. If you can get hold of a goat, I’m sure there’s po­ten­tial there.”

Burnt hu­man bones were ob­vi­ously val­ued for their hor­ti­cul­tural prop­er­ties in Henr VIII’s day – and they would have added nu­tri­ents to the soil, Barter agrees.

“Mix­tures of blood, fish and bones are widely sold to­day. Bones are a very good fer­tiliser. Be­fore they had good ma­chin­ery to grind up bones into bone­meal, they would have been burned and the ashes would have been rich in phos­pho­rous and in lime. Whether hu­man bones are bet­ter than any other bones, I wouldn’t like to say.”

In Tu­dor times many soils were de­fi­cient in phos­pho­rous.

“Plants don’t use much phos­pho­rous but there’s des­per­ately lit­tle of it in vir­gin soil, so it was lack­ing un­til the in­ven­tion of the fer­tiliser in­dus­try in the mid-19th cen­tury,” says Barter.

He is, how­ever, flum­moxed by the claim that cu­cum­bers shake with fear at the sound of thun­der.

“I’ve never seen a cu­cum­ber hake with fear,” he laughs. “They would have been grown in cold ames cov­ered with glass or wax. ut even so, I can’t imag­ine why a ucum­ber would shake with fear. here’s a lot of thun­der at RHS Gar­den Wis­ley and a lot of ucum­bers and they’ve al­ways emained rather stoic.”

How­ever, the 14th cen­tury man­ual was ahead of its time in some re­spects, declar­ing that com­bin­ing the seeds of let­tuce, radishes, nas­tur­tium and cole­wort will re­sult in a par­tic­u­larly tasty crop of greens.

“Isn’t that amaz­ing? They pre­dicted the in­ven­tion of bagged mixed sal­ads by hun­dreds of years. We used to grow ev­ery­thing separately and now gar­den­ers have come back to sow th­ese mixed salad packs and grow their own ver­sions of the su­per­mar­ket ones.

“Those plants would all grow hap­pily in the same soil to­gether. Radishes are a lit­tle bit hairy, but there are ver­sions of radish that haven’t got hairy leaves so per­haps the Tu­dors grew those. But they would all com­bine well to­gether.”

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