Years ago, I found a 1939 out-of-print book in the library by Rosetta E. Clarkson called Magic Gardens: A Modern Chronicle of Herbs and Savory Seeds. Of the hundreds of herb books I’ve explored — from antique herbals to contemporary tomes, how-tos, and folklore — Clarkson’s is one of my favorites. In the days before ABEBooks and Amazon, when old books were much harder to locate and purchase, I Xeroxed the entire volume and have it today in a three-ring binder, along with many others I copied. (Clarkson’s book was eventually reprinted in 1992.)

Magic Gardens

It was through Clarkson that I discovered a custom of bedding during the time of Henry VIII, in which bones were used as supporting boundaries. I’ve got a few (including the jawbone of an ass) decorating my garden, but nothing so elaborate as a garden border.

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In Henry’s day, sheep shanks were popular. They were boiled before being puzzled together around the area where the herbs were to be planted. What the benefit of sheep shanks might have been was probably mostly decorative — handy repurposing of rubbish that was difficult to dispose of and had lots of aesthetic potential. And over time, as the shanks very gradually decomposed — the way my jawbone has across the years — they would have provided ever-necessary calcium (bone meal).

The use of bones for all kinds of things is common throughout history. One of my favorite examples are the horse skulls found beneath the floorboards of Irish homes. The skulls gave the room acoustic resonance for step dancing.

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