Tending the area around early monastic cells, the monks of Egypt and Palestine cultivated garden plots in order to provide for their own food needs. Due to the social upheaval following the fall of the Roman Empire, it often was unsafe outside the walls, and medieval monasteries raised food within the walls of the monastery. The Rule of St. Benedict encouraged the monks to be satisfied with the food that was available in their area, and taught them to be wise custodians of their resources.
Monks became creative curators and observers of nature, learning not to plant tender plants before the soil had actually warmed to where it would encourage growth rather than stunt growth, as well as discovering how to use herbs to flavor not only cooked meals, but also their beverages as well as. They learned by trial and error that it is not good to plant most crops before the feast days of the Ice Saints, after the Gregorian calendar reform ending on the 25th of May north of the Alps (includes Minnesota). Monks became keen observers of the traits of plants and animals and taught what they learned to their students.
Monks took this knowledge of nature with them as they built new monasteries in mission lands, bringing along many of the familiar plants and animals of their original homes and learning to harvest those of their new home, e.g. the flavorful grapes of the Rhineland were paired with the hardy Concord stock of central Minnesota to become the Alpha Grape; they learned to eat the "wild rice" of northern lakes; they fished the rivers and streams for new varieties of fish—the crappie, sunfish, walleye, bass, etc.; they learned how to collect and concentrate the sap of the maple tree into maple syrup; they learned to collect and prepare the tasty wild ramps (leek) of Spring; the elusive morel, puff ball and hen of the woods became spring time treats, and the list goes on.
The Bavarian monks who founded Saint Vincent Archabbey and then ten years later sent monks to the Minnesota territory to found what has become Saint John's Abbey, also brought with them a respect and knowledge of nature and an ability to make things grow. Quickly they cleared land, planted crops in addition to collecting what was sustainable on the land over-looking Lake Sagatagan. As the population of the monastery grew, along with that of the schools, more crops were planted and more animals were cared for with the produce of the Abbey fields.
After World War II, the student population of the campus expanded beyond what was sustainable; so much of the food for the monastery and students was purchased from outside vendors. Treats were provided to the monastic table by some of the monks who knew mushrooms and other plants that are edible and local. Also a few monks grew some particular items for the monastic table—tomatoes, lettuce, and radishes to name a few. In recent years, additional crops like chili peppers, kale, broccoli, summer and winter squash, and potatoes have been prepared for the monastic table more and more. Cucumbers and zucchini have been pickled for table, along with asparagus, beets and fennel. The healthy effects of herbs, vinegar, rhubarb, etc. are gracing the monastic table more and more from the Abbey gardens.
Today only a limited amount of the Abbey land is tilled while the rest continues to serve the educational ministry through the Saint John's Arboretum. The Abbey garden and orchard continue to provide tons of food for the Abbey table each year. More than a dozen monks together till, plant, weed, and harvest the Abbey garden. Last year more than four thousand pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables made their way to the monastic table. With hard work and luck it will again happen this year and in years to come.