Gardens are multifarious images. As a popular image, it can be verified since the 19th century at the latest that the activity of the monks is compared to the creation of a garden. Theodor Fontane, the famous wanderer through the March of Brandenburg, wrote about the Cistercian abbey of Lehnin in the Zauche landscape, not far from Brandenburg an der Havel:
»What is now a meadow and a garden, 700 years ago was an oak-covered swamp, and it was amidst this swamp that Lehnin Abbey began to grow, possibly in accordance with that monastic law from the first strict period: that Cistercian abbeys should always be built in swamps and lowlands, that is, in unhealthy areas, so that the brothers of this order would keep death in sight at all times.« 
Flourishing landscapes could and can be easily associated with gardens. When Fontane writes about the Cistercians as creators of gardens and meadows, there is, by the way, also a culturally critical overtone regarding the March of Brandenburg: »There were few places where the merits of this order became more evident than in the March, because nowhere else could they find a better area for their activities. Where the uncultured were at home, the bringers of culture had their most natural field.« 
Such general reflections force us to be a little more specific about what a garden is. Gardens are recognisable by their enclosure, their fence. Originally, the German word for garden (Garten) was probably connected with the Gerte (branch), which was used to weave the fence. The fence marked the boundary. It is the fence that turns a piece of land into a garden. Names like the Tiergarten (animal garden) tell us that not only plants were supposed to thrive in a garden, but the fence can also enclose animals. Gardens can protect special crops amidst other fields, which names like Weingarten (vineyard) or Hopfengarten (hop garden) remind us of. In medieval paintings, paradise is depicted as a garden.
In our excursion into the world of monastery gardens, we will first look at the immediate monastery area. These gardens were in a very practical way much more suitable for combining prayer with work in contrast to work in the fields. They were close enough to the monastery church where the community gathered for prayer several times a day. In this spatial proximity, monks and also nuns could fulfil their duty to combine prayer and work in the most meaningful way. How much this strict rationality already applied in the design of the monastery complex reveals itself in the ideal plan of a monastery with its buildings and gardens, which was drawn up on the island of Reichenau in the 9th century. This plan was intended for the abbot of the monastery of St. Gall, which is why in research it is generally referred to as the »Plan of Saint Gall«.
This unique plan depicts the monastery’s church, the cloister with dormitory and refectory, and other spaces for the monks. Buildings for baking, cooking and brewing are displayed on it, and a hospital was also conceived. A number of farm buildings as well as buildings for craftsmen are carefully drawn in. On the eastern side of the plan are the gardens: a vegetable garden, a tree garden and a herb garden. It is clearly visible that they are »enclosed with walls and fences«. A distinct »sense of functional relationships« is inherent in their layout . In the vegetable garden and the herb garden there are rectangular beds, which in the case of the herb garden are somewhat smaller. The latter is assigned to a neighbouring physician’s house, whereas the vegetables are cared for by a special gardener who occupies a house built especially for him next to the garden. His responsibilities include onions, leeks, poppies, radishes, cabbage, garlic and caraway. For medicinal purposes, the herb garden holds, for example, lilies, roses, beans, mint, sage, lovage and fennel. In the tree garden there are groups of woody plants (fig, laurel, apple, plum, pear and others) and most notably graves. 14 burial plots are designated for seven monks each. Symbolic meanings may be assumed for the numbers and plants used.
The French historian Georges Duby (1919-1996) sees in this kind of symbolism a core of the art of the Cistercian Order that developed for more than two hundred years after the creation of the Plan of St. Gall. Here, too, the monastery and the garden come together:
»(…) at the centre of the enclosure, the monastery is the image of paradise recreated. A realm, in which the taming of worldly chaos is completed, where everything cosmic once again is ordered contemplation, a musical chord. The shape of the building already bears witness to this final liberation, the rediscovered plenitude. The building is square like the city of God, and this squaring reminds the meditative mind of the four streams of the Garden of Eden, the four springs that are the four Gospels (…)« 
It becomes clear that the monastic gardens and the entire monastery complex relate to numbers and forms, which in turn contain manifold references to the world behind the finite earthly things. Even in the areas that on the surface appear to be a kitchen garden for vegetables, herbs or a cemetery, there is contemplation, the devotional reference to another world. A strict distinction between kitchen garden and pleasure garden, as has been coined in recent times, can be misleading in regard to the monastic conditions of the Middle Ages. Even kitchen gardens could be spiritual places in medieval monasteries . This meaning becomes clear in De Cultura Hortorum, a didactic poem of extraordinary importance for garden history by the Benedictine monk Walahfrid Strabo (d. 849): »In the monastery garden, the monk experiences the place of asceticism and contemplation, his hortus conclusus as locus amoenus.« 
If we go to areas far outside the monastery complex, admittedly there were also fenced-in areas and thus »gardens« for special agricultural crops. Among the most important speciality crops around the monastery were fruit gardens. It is not surprising that in the archaeologically examined monastery of Seehausen near Prenzlau, numerous fruit stones were recovered from archaeological layers of the monastery period.  In recent years, research has focused a great deal on former vineyards that were kept notably north of the Rhine-Main region.  Hop gardens are also among the speciality crops worth mentioning. This plant was already used for medicinal purposes in ancient times. Since the early Middle Ages, it has been used for seasoning and to increase the keepability of beer. Today, there are preparations of this plant used in the treatment of sleep disorders. 
The most interesting field for the general public, however, becomes apparent on the horizon of all the gardens described. The nursing and care of speciality crops – from fruit trees to medicinal herbs – made it necessary to pass on the knowledge required for keeping them. Very early evidence of the monastic preoccupation with medicinal herbs is the Lorsch Pharmacopoeia from the last decade of the 8th century. Numerous other writings in the field of monastic medicine followed.  The writings of the abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), based on the ancient and medieval theory of the four humours as well as on a deeply contemplative view of worldly things, today have virtually found their way into popular culture.
In many places, monastic gardens are being reconstructed. They are small herb gardens like the one at the monastery in Jüterbog or baroque gardens like the one in Neuzelle. With their colours or even with the scents of their herbs, they provide interesting points of attraction for an attentive public.