Although the heart of every religious congregation is its temple, in the case of Cistercians an almost equally important role was played by their gardens. All of them were primarily functional – the monks, preferring modesty and simplicity, did not establish purely ornamental gardens. Cistercian gardens were supposed to satisfy all needs of the community, according to their basic rule – remaining self-sufficient through the work of their own hands. They formed a garden programme, which included a cloister garth with a well, a vegetable garden (kitchen garden), a herb garden (hospital garden) and a cemetery, as well as orchards, vineyards and other crops – including carp farming in artificial ponds – that extended outside the abbey but were still a part of the vegetable garden. At the same time, the profound symbolism of all these gardens and the work meant that their practical functions were always deeply connected with contemplative functions. Under the influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, they became a reflection of divine order, obediently succumbing to its laws in the alternating cycle of seasons. Another medieval mystic, St. Hildegard of Bingen, wrote: “The whole Creation is the Garden of God”. From this perspective, one can look at the gardens and the plants as a part of the divine creative process that brought the Cistercians closer to God. It favoured the application of prayer – contemplation, as one of the basic forms of observing the Rule of St. Benedict – Ora et labora – “pray and work”.
The most important of the Cistercian gardens was the cloister garth, called the Garden of the Cross. It was an internal courtyard, formed by four buildings – the church (in Poland churches were usually located on the north side, as in Pelplin) and three, originally one-storey, wings of the monastery. The four-sided buildings were connected by cloisters running around the garth, i.e. long corridors opening to the inner garden with ogee-arched windows. The garth, initially covered by grass, was the location of a well that was later replaced by a fountain. Four perpendicular paths led to the fountain, thus creating four arms of the cross – hence the name of the garden. Its symbolism is clear – the inner space enclosed and tenderly protected by walls of the abbey symbolises the sacred space of Paradise with the source of life in the centre hidden from man, and four paths symbolise the four paradise rivers flowing from its source.
The cloisters surrounding the garden were just as symbolic, and they were much more than a mere passageway. The monks' daily practices, their spiritual exercises, included circulating around the cloister garth - the Paradise. Walking among these almost identical corridors, with the same view at every corner, resembles endless wandering through the maze, intensifying the need to keep pushing forward to find the right path – spiritual and life.
A characteristic aspect is that its visitors remain “on the path” to perfection – holiness and salvation symbolised by the cloister garth. The monks felt the very essence of contemplative life and, at the same time, formed a spirit of humility. It reminded them of their entanglement in the maze of imperfections, weaknesses, and sinfulness that prevent the imperfect human beings from achieving their goal in the mortal lifetime. At the same time, the exercise that was repeated over and over again enabled them to keep pushing forward, protecting them from the two most malicious enemies – pride and discouragement.
The sheer symmetry of the garden was captivating – geometry of lawn fields crossed by paths representing cosmic order and the glory of its Creator. Over time, as the monks departed from their original spiritual hardness and the resulting aesthetic modesty, more sophisticated plant compositions were added to the garden. With the passing of centuries, the practice of daily circulation around the cloister garth was also abandoned.
The second most important garden was the vegetable garden, otherwise known as the kitchen garden. Grey monks were vegetarians and they received their basic food from this garden. It was usually located in the immediate vicinity of the kitchen and refectory (dining room) in the farthest wing from the church (in Pelplin – the southern wing). Broad beans, peas, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, onions or garlic – almost all products used for the monastic diet - were grown in symmetrical lines of beds. The vegetable garden extended to orchards and vineyards established behind the walls of the cloister that were developed over time as the Convention gained new monks, especially lay brothers. Even though they stayed in the monastery, instead of taking vows, they made a promise of obedience, purity and poverty; they served the congregation with their craftsmanship, carrying out work consistent with their profession (such as gardener, shoemaker, medic, or bricklayer). Facing the vastness of land grants received by the abbey from Pomeranian dukes, cultivation of farms and livestock breeding were based mainly on their work. The situation was similar in the case of water projects regulating the flow of the river, which enabled the creation of, among other things, artificial ponds for carp farming – like the one located in the Bishops' Gardens.
Another Cistercian garden was the herb garden, located near the hospital and hence called the hospital garden. It provided the community with herbal medicines necessary to provide basic medical care. In the Middle Ages, not only the commonly bred herbs, such as sage, wormwood, mint, tansy, or catnip, but also some vegetables such as leek, celery, radish, or fennel were considered to be herbs. The herb garden was extremely important because of the Cistercian approach to the sick, taken from the Rule of St. Benedict, who commands: “serve them, as though they were Jesus Christ Himself”. Therefore, the hospital was one of the first buildings that the grey monks constructed. The first hospital in Pelplin was arranged in the building originally used as dormitories (bedrooms) for lay brothers and a nearby church “behind the walls” (today known as the “Corpus Christi Church”) intended for them and the rest of the lay people. It is currently the oldest civilian building of Pelplin, that is nowadays used as a fireplace room for parish meetings.
The last of the original, medieval programme of Cistercian gardens was the cemetery. It was the place of reflection and meditation – on the short duration and transience of human life, and on the continuity and durability of the Cistercian monastery, its path, effort and achievements. The brothers were buried in identical modest graves, whose only decoration was a simple cross. The cross was also the central point of the cemetery garden, referring to the tree of life in the Paradise of God, and thus clearly symbolizing the mystery of sacrifice and redemption, the certainty of death and promise of resurrection. The mystery of death that brings life.