The herb garden is on the south side of the cloisters. Laid out in 1990, it is enclosed by the old outer wall and offers a view of the wooded mouth of the valley. A filled-in well, the good climatic conditions and the fact that rare herbs and those more used to warm climes grow extremely well here suggest that a garden is likely to have existed on this spot long ago.
Some 260 different mediaeval herbs grow on the garden’s almost 800 m2 in accordance with the Plan of Saint Gall. Monastic herb gardens once had a very important position as a supplier of herbal remedies. The centrepiece of the garden is the raised beds of herbs, enclosed with wooden planks. They stop the heat-loving herbs from becoming waterlogged, keep the soil well aerated and make the plants easier to care for.
The herb garden is made up of areas with different themed plants: aromatic and wild herbs, plants with sympathetic associations, medicinal and flavouring herbs, herbs of the Virgin Mary, herbs for divination, magic plants and herbs for dyeing.
Since the year 2000, the vegetable garden has been located on the east side of the cloisters. This was the classic spot for monastic gardens. At Michaelstein, it appears to have been used as a cultivated garden until at least the 18th century. Today, the area is made up of long paths and planted strips, based on historical examples. The roughly 100 plant species grown here mainly illustrate the fine vegetables and spices on which the monks dined, as well as their everyday home-grown vegetables and crops. The plant-based food supply of bygone times is supplemented by crops, cereals, fruits and edible flowering plants. The monastic vegetable garden also contains example of neophytes, introduced in the 16th to 18th centuries. Everyday crops such as cabbage and lentils were probably originally grown outside the monastery walls. Inventory books have survived from other monasteries, allowing us to compare the differences from the 8th to the 16th centuries.
Permanent exhibition “Monastic Gardens. Development – Usage – Symbolism”
Mediaeval monastic gardens were mostly put to practical use, growing herbs, fruits and vegetables. Outside the cloister walls, the monks also tended hops, vines, arable land for coarse vegetables, cereals, and plants used as sources of oil and fibre. The Benedictines and Cistercians are today considered the founders of European horticulture. Until the mid-13th century, monasteries were the only cultural sites where plant and medicinal herbs were cultivated. Some of the key findings gained from their culture of gardening were used in the kitchen gardens at castles and grown by the region’s inhabitants. Over the centuries, the monastery gardens changed. The number of garden sections increased and their ornamental and representative aspect became more dominant, but the design features were retained.
Caring for the sick was a central feature of monastic life. Ointments, juices and tinctures were made from medicinal herbs according to ancient formulas. Monks used, preserved and passed on their knowledge. New textbooks on herbal medicine were written. Hildegard von Bingen is especially symbolic of monastic medicine.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” (Hippocrates). The way in which mediaeval monastic gardens were planted and used was not related to the different orders, but was instead mainly aimed at providing a supply of food. Mention is made of everyday main courses and the most important drinks.
Monastic gardens were not only used to care for physical needs: they were also places of recreation and contemplation. Symbolism played a special role, whether that meant Biblical measurements or plants with meanings. In the case of the Cistercians, devotion to Mary is especially important.