Setting up a Roman kitchen garden

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Marking out the beds and paths

Columella (Books 10.2.6-28 and 11.3.2-13), Pliny the Elder (19.60), and Palladius (1.34) all give instructions on creating kitchen gardens. They do this in their discussions of country living. So they are talking to people creating kitchen gardens who live in the country and are also involved in large-scale agriculture production of grains, olives, or the like.

The main criteria for situating a kitchen garden are:

  1. located next to the house for ease of tending it
  2. located close to a water source
  3. not situated below a threshing floor

So how does my choice of location fare against these criteria?

1 – FAIL. My allotment plot is two miles away from my home. But I live in an apartment and the landlady is a keen gardener so digging up her lawn and plants to put in my own will only get me evicted.

2 – CHECK. There is a stream that runs at the back of my plot. Also, there’s taps all over the allotment site and I have a hose. It’s cheating a bit, but that’s modern life for you.

3 – CHECK. No grain production or threshing floor anywhere near me. Woo!

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View of the allotments

My allotment site is a series of parallel strips of land bisected by an access road. The entire site has a downward slope to the northwest where it drains into a brook. My plot is located on the west side of the access road. It is a long strip of land c. 5.4 m by 39 m.

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My allotment plot outlined in red.

My Roman kitchen garden is c. 5.4 m by 3.8 m (so about 18 by 12 and 2/3 Roman feet), which is roughly one-tenth of my plot. I chose this space, because (1) it’s probably equivalent in size to the space I would have had if I had actually had my own back garden to use for this experiment, (2) it receives the most unobstructed light on my plot (as instructed by Varro 1.23.5), and (3) it’s closest to the taps from which I water my plot.

Once you’ve chosen your location, then you need to enclose your space to protect it against thieves and vandals of both the human and animal variety. Columella and Palladius explain how to cultivate a bramble hedge. There is also mention of the use of masonry walls (clay, stone, or brick), but Columella remarks that this is too labor-intensive and expensive.

My allotment site is a feeding ground for deer, so almost all the plots have fencing of some sort around them to protect their crops from the freeloading wildlife. It makes the site look like a shanty town. I’ve situated my Roman garden near the front of my plot behind a fence I constructed last year of timbers and chicken wire. The garden is bordered by the paths I share with my allotment neighbors on the sides and, at the back, by the netted cage constructed by my industrious plot predecessor. My allotment neighbors have fenced in their plots as well with posts and netting. So in effect, their fences are my fences. I don’t worry about them stealing my produce as they’re both pensioners and I’m pretty sure I could take them in a fight.

With the area secured, now it’s time to create your planting beds. We’re told to dig over the entire area and then, using a hoe, divide the area into beds with raised edges surrounded by paths on which to walk and to channel water to irrigate the beds. Linda Farrar (2011: 169) points out that these beds are basically the same as the gardening beds used in the Mediterranean today.

Istanbul beds - cityandagriculture

Gardens in Istanbul. Photo from City and Agriculture course website.

Columella says the beds should be the width that allows the gardener to reach halfway across the bed without stepping on the soil, specifying in Book 2 (2.10.26) that they should be 10 feet by 50 feet (c. 3 m by 15 m). The width of the bed is quite large. Either I’m misunderstanding the text or else Columella had much longer arms than I do. I wouldn’t be able to hand-weed the middle of that bed without stepping on the soil. Palladius recommends long narrow beds of 12 feet by 6 feet (c. 3.6 m by 1.8 m). This is much more reasonable. In my Roman kitchen garden, I’ve laid out six beds, each c. 1.2 m by 1.2 m (4 Roman feet square) which enables me to comfortably hoe and hand-weed the beds without stepping on the soil.

But these authors were gardening in the Mediterranean with hot temperatures and limited rainfall. The climate here in Britain is temperate year round and it rains a lot. I also have clay soil which is good at retaining water. On soil types, Palladius warns against siting your garden where there is clay soil like potter’s clay. Unfortunately, my subsoil can almost by categorized as potter’s clay. Unlike the Mediterranean Romans, I need to be concerned with draining water from my garden rather than retaining it. In fact, when I was first digging over my plot a year and a half ago, I dug into a 19th or early 20th century ceramic drainage channel. Waterlogging is an issue here. Making beds with raised sides will just flood my crops. So, instead of raising the bed edges, I’ve raised the soil level in the entire bed. I put excess soil from the paths on the beds, elevating them about 7 or 8 cm above the level of the surrounding paths. Basically, I’ve made raised beds without any edging material. My clay soil dries rock-hard, so I hope that will be enough to retain the shape and height of the raised beds. We’ll find out as the year progresses.

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My Roman kitchen garden before digging commenced.

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All laid out and protected by the fence.

All right, that sums up the basic set up for the Roman kitchen garden. We’ll discuss preparing the soil for sowing your crops in the next post and then I’ll give an update on what’s been done on the plot since it was set up in March.

Introducing the Roman Kitchen Garden Project

cardoon mosaic - Bardo museum

Detail of Roman mosaic from Utica (Tunisia) showing cardoon / globe artichoke. Bardo Museum, Tunis.

Hello. I’m Christina, a Roman archaeologist and non-Brit living in southern England who has recently been bitten by the gardening bug. Over the last year and a half of learning the ins and outs of modern gardening on my allotment, I’ve become curious about how the Romans grew their vegetables and fruit. It’s something I know virtually nothing about as it’s a departure from my usual area of study of architecture.

Most books on kitchen gardening devote only a paragraph or two to the Roman contribution to the history of the field and books specifically about Roman gardening tend to focus on ornamental gardening, because that’s where the majority of the textual and archaeological evidence lies.

Most of the evidence for kitchen gardening comes from ancient literary sources, particularly Columella, Pliny the Elder, and Palladius. Translations of these texts have been compiled by John Henderson in his aptly named book, The Roman Book of Gardening. These ancient authors lay out most of the pertinent details for creating a kitchen garden – and especially what to grow, when to grow it and how to grow it.

There’s no better way to learn than by doing, so that’s what I plan to do. Over the next growing year, I’m using a portion of my allotment plot to set up and grow a Roman kitchen garden. Or, more specifically, a Roman kitchen garden in the province of Britannia. I’ll grow plant types (or their close modern equivalents) that the Romans would have cultivated and I’ll grow them in the way the Roman authors describe, with occasional modifications to avoid things like public nudity and animal sacrifice. (I don’t intend on being jailed or deported because of this project.) The textual information will be supplemented with evidence from Roman art as well as from archaeological excavations. All the books and articles I consult for this project will be listed on the Sources page.

This is my modern attempt to gain a better understanding of the practicalities of creating and maintaining a Roman kitchen garden in one of the empire’s non-Mediterranean provinces. This is not going to be an ultra-rigorous academic study of Roman gardening, more a hobby where I (and hopefully any readers) learn a bit, have a laugh, and hopefully grow some veg to eat.

I’ll be posting once or twice a week, updating you on my progress and also delving into more detail with certain topics like fertiliser, pest control, and the supposed pitfalls and benefits of the presence of a menstruating woman in the garden. (Don’t worry, there won’t be anything graphic, although you will, unfortunately, come to know when I’m menstruating. Apologies for that bit of TMI.) Work on the Roman kitchen garden began at the beginning of March, so over the next few weeks I’ll catch you up with my progress so far. Next up in the posting schedule – setting up your Roman kitchen garden.