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.

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