A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: Do Not Touch the Cucumbers!

Gentle reader,

May has arrived – the soil is wet with your servant’s sweat and you are ready for a more refined occupation outdoors. Look no further: Thomas Hill will teach you “howe to dresse, sowe, and sette a garden” in his “Briefe and Plesaunte Treatise” from 1558. You will be fully instructed how to set up your own kitchen garden and on top of that, you will get these two a-maze-ing garden plans for free!

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What interests me most about Hill’s treatise is an encyclopaedic catalogue of garden herbs and vegetables. Reading through all the common herbs, I was surprised to find rocket among the list. The crop appears in Palladius, the grandfather of husbandry treatises, from whom Hill borrows heavily. Still, I doubt whether the sharp leafy green was widely cultivated in early modern England – it was not even a ubiquitous salad green in the 90s.

Moving on, Hill’s most curious advice can be found in the entry concerning cucumbers. Again, some of it stems directly from “the auncient husbandmen”. First, he advises steeping cucumber seeds in sheep’s milk and honey to make them long, tender, and white. Considering that ripe cucumbers are yellow and white cultivars exist, I suppose the ambition to create long white cucumbers is plausible. Palladius also has the solution to grow seedless varieties: dipping the seeds in savin oil infused with a herb called culix. According to the author, cucumbers hate this oil so much they will curl up when they are exposed to it. Besides, cucumbers are susceptible to mood swings and display signs of terror when it thunders (I’m not making any of this up, believe me). To counteract further demasculinisation of the unfortunate cucumber, Hill arrives at the following warning:

But you must take heede that wemen [women] come as syldome [seldom] to the place (where Cucombers and Gordes [gourds] growe) as may be (for in a manner) as theyr touching of them they slacke in their growynge, and they haue their floures [period] on theim, they flea [drive out] the yong ones with their loke.

“Will you stop groping the gourds!”

I must admit I find this image exceedingly hilarious yet equally painful. First of all, “theyr touching of them” makes it sound as if women regularly engage in cucumber caressing. Nowhere do we find any concern about fennel fumbling or sorrel stroking. ‘Looks can kill’, moreover, takes on a whole new dimension in this context. Those terrified little cucumbers, unable to withstand such overwhelming femininity. I’d think twice before discarding the unwanted garnish on the side of my plate!


Hill, Thomas. A Most Briefe and Plesaunte Treatise, Teaching Howe to Dresse, Sowe, and Set a Garden… (London: John Day, 1558).

Palladius. The Fourteen Books of Palladius Rutilius Taurus Æmilianus, on Agriculture. Trans.Thomas Owen. (London: J. White, 1804).

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