Gardening Inspiration from Ancient Roman Gardens and Gardeners

olive tree in large pot, old brick wall


This blog could be subtitled “When in Rome you write your weekly gardening blog in advance of your trip!”


Had I not been in Rome, I would have been at the first RHS Chatsworth Flower Show. You would have enjoyed the Plews view of a Derbyshire backdrop to show gardens and floral marquee. I’m sure you can wait till next year for that as its likely to get some TV coverage this year.

However, I‘m planning to be at both RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and RHS Tatton Park Flower Show in July, so you’ll get plenty of comments and photos next month.


It’s not only June already, but this is the second gardening blog of the month. 2017 is positively racing away and our gardens are in hot pursuit. Turn your back for a minute (or go away on holiday) and the plants shoot up a few more inches, or burst into bloom from tight buds.


Midsummer falls in June even though it’s the first of the summer months. And those long daylight hours keep flowers and vegetables growing apace, so there’s lots to do in the garden. What inspiration can we as gardeners take from Ancient Roman Gardens to ensure we have time to sit and eat the strawberries we’ve just picked?


Ancient Roman Gardens – the Gardeners

During the time of the Roman Empire, ‘topiarus’ meant gardener. That is to say, the gardener you employed rather than the wealthy gardeners who wrote some of the early books on gardening and gardening techniques.

Pliny the Elder is one of chief sources we have for Roman gardens, the flora available to gardeners and agricultural techniques in the 1st century AD. He was killed when Pompeii erupted. Pliny gets mentioned elsewhere in the Plews Potting Shed gardening blogs.

His Natural History was a compilation of material from various sources, running to 37 volumes. Pliny used the Roman, or Latin synonyms for many Greek plant names, which enabled the identification of plants from earlier Greek writings. He also recorded the introduction in to Italy of new horticultural species.

Many of Pliny the Elder’s tips on planting, irrigation, pruning and manuring are as useful to day as they were then. In fact, many of the practises he records are still carried out in potting sheds all over Italy, Britain and world-wide.

pergola with vines, roman garden chester zoo

Ancient Roman Gardens – Topiary

From being the description of a profession, topiarus became a style of pruning. Topiary – the art of shaping trees into fantastic shapes – became very popular in Roman gardens.

Whilst I’m not on a garden tour of Rome, I may spot a few examples of Italian topiary as this style of gardening became popular again during the Italian Renaissance. Although possibly not the name of the garden owner and their gardener. Which is what Pliny the Younger (nephew to the Elder Pliny) had created in the topiary hedge in his grand garden in Tuscany.

For more on topiary and how you could incorporate it into your garden, why not read Topiary – Easy Maintenance Gardening? And yes, you did read that blog title correctly!

topiary, Penshurst Place

Ancient Roman Gardens – Herbs and scented shrubs

Large gardens surrounding villas had the space to lay out ornamental gardens with terraces and shady walks beneath cypress trees.
Kitchen gardens and an orchard would lie a short distance away, growing some of the essential food for the household.

Town gardens were smaller, some only a courtyard. We have a lot of archaeological information from Pompeii, which, combined with the writings of Roman gardeners give us a good idea of their layout.

Whether in a large villa garden or a town courtyard garden, a hortus, you would recognise many of the plants. Just as small gardens today have to work hard, so too did those gardens. Edible plants which scented; evergreens for ceremonial purposes and shade were all grown.

The list below mentions a few which would be appropriate for a wide range of modern day gardens and garden styles.

Bay, Laurus nobilis
Box, Buxus sempervirens
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
Marjoram, Oregano
Mint, Mentha

As they would grow in pots and large containers, the plants are suitable for courtyard gardens and small gardens. The Rosemary, as well as the Box could be used to create topiary shapes, although perhaps not if you were using it for cooking on a regular basis. If you live in northern areas, the Myrtle may need some frost protection.

knot garden, hampton court palace garden, historic gardens, box hedging, bay tree

Ancient Roman Gardens – Fruit

The grape vine and the Olive, Olea europea, are two fruits which are very obviously Roman on origin. Peaches and citrus fruits, which will need winter protection in most of Britain are others which could give you pleasure in your summer garden. Indeed, many of the citrus trees will fill your winter conservatory with a heady scent from their flowers. And possibly a lemon for your Christmas gin and tonic.

Perennial fruit can be an excellent choice for those who would like to grow some of their own food but are short on time. Check out the Plews gardening blog Easy Maintenance Edible Gardens to see what I mean.

kitchen garden, roman garden chester zoo

For some recreated ancient Roman gardens you could, for example, visit the City of Chester and Chester ZooFishbourne Roman Palace, and the National Roman Legion Museum.

And as for those strawberries…well I’m enjoying some I picked earlier from my garden before I go off to pack. And I can most definitely inform you that this is something we have that is better than the any in ancient Roman gardens. They would have had the small wild strawberry to eat. Whereas we’re benefitting from years of breeding and cultivation to grow a larger, tasty, sweet fruit. Yum.


Some Other Gardening Blogs you may enjoy

Garden History – Garden Visits – Rievaulx Terrace
Inspiration for a Courtyard Herb Garden
Midsummer Gardens

strawberries highlighting strawberry seeds, vintage china, indian tree bone china

The following two tabs change content below.
garden designer, gardening writer, gardening teacher, garden advisor

Latest posts by Marie Shallcross (see all)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Professional Garden Consultants Association Chartered Institute of Horticulture  Landscape Juice Network