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Museum News

Importance of gardens over the centuries

By 5 July 2021No Comments
Carlotta Holt

We hope you are enjoying our monthly posts focusing on the people behind the Museum. This month, Carlotta Holt, Museum Gardener; explains how the Museum’s six historic gardens are designed to educate visitors about the importance of plants, herbs and produce which would have been used in rural households through the centuries.

My career in horticulture started later than most after qualifying and working in the dental industry for a number of years. However, I had always had an interest in gardening and in 2004 I started to study horticulture before taking the plunge to change career in 2006. I began gardening for former colleagues and soon developed a regular client base. Following a chance meeting outside Waitrose, I joined a gardening agency which led me to my current role at the Weald & Downland Living Museum.

At the time in 2007 the Head Gardener, Bob Holman was due to retire and the Museum needed to find a replacement. It was Bob who had created the six historic gardens that can still be found at the Museum today. I worked closely with Bob to learn about the Museum, the gardens and the historical significance of plants. While I knew all about gardening for aesthetics, the role of the gardens at the Museum is completely different. They are there to tell an authentic story of the past. Supported by the Museum, I went on several courses to learn more and was quickly hooked!

In November 2007 I was fortunate enough to be taken on permanently and stepped into the role of Head Gardener. Supported by a wonderful and dedicated team of volunteers, it is my job to maintain the gardens, train the volunteers and provide interpretation to help visitors understand the importance of plants, herbs and produce for rural households through the centuries.

The gardens at the Museum are set in the same period and social status as the house to which it is attached, showing the transition of gardens from the early 16th century at Bayleaf Farmhouse right through to the late 19th century at Whittaker’s Cottages.

These are the gardens of everyday people; the earliest gardens are purely utilitarian and functional to meet the needs of rural households, but as we move through the centuries and social statuses, some gardens begin to include decorative planting and displays.

Visitors might be alarmed when they see the volume of weeds in the 16th century garden at Bayleaf but actually these plants had important medicinal, culinary and domestic uses. For example, nutrient rich nettles were used for making pottage, a staple medieval food while the fibres of the plant made nettle string and thread for linen. Another common plant grown is soapwort, which creates a natural lather that would have been used for cleaning and washing.

Food staples of the time were leeks, garlic, onions, beans, peas and colewort; of those, beans and peas were not only enjoyed fresh but also dried for consumption over the winter months when there was a high risk of famine. Visitors are always surprised to learn that potatoes didn’t become a staple until the 18th century for lower status households, as they were more of a novelty and too expensive when first introduced in the mid-16th century.

All the produce and plants grown at the Museum are used just as they would have been by our ancestors. The produce goes to the Tudor Kitchen for cooking and demonstrations, natural dye from plants is used for the historical clothing and herbs are collected for flavouring the butter and cheese made on site in the dairy.

Another important part of our role is to preserve heritage varieties of plants and learn about their origins. As part of the Museum Collection we have a herbarium where plant specimens have been collected, pressed and dried. Many heritage seeds are also available in the Museum gift shop.

I feel so privileged to be here at the Museum. A great deal of horticultural knowledge was built up over the centuries and this was passed on through the generations as a necessity for survival. It is wonderful to be able to share this with visitors today.

The Museum is running a programme of Historic Life Weekends that will explore different topics and themes. Visit our What’s On page to find out about our next Historic Life Weekends and to pre-book.