By Dr Jessica Venner, Antiquarian Bookseller at Jonkers Rare Books in Henley-on-Thames

In AD 62/3, some seventeen years before the eruption of Vesuvius, a major earthquake shook the town of Pompeii and the surrounding area. The effects were so dramatic that many of the town’s buildings were destroyed, and the major water supply from the aqueduct was cut off. Yet, despite the destruction and lack of funds for repair, Pompeii’s residents responded with resilience and ingenuity, giving rise to a phenomenon of thirty-three new agricultural gardens within the walls of the town.

Pompeii’s ancestry was rooted in agriculture: for generations, many vineyards, olive groves, orchards, vegetable plots, and flower gardens had been cultivated in its hinterland and the surrounding Campanian countryside. This established agricultural knowledge proved crucial when new challenges, such as local food shortages, and opportunities, in the shape of open demolition sites, became apparent following the earthquake.

The gardening developments taken by the Pompeiians in the mid-first century AD can provide inspiration for modern-day urban populations faced with food shortages, reductions in food quality, and challenges to income. These can be replicated in three simple steps.

Location, location, location

Roman writers agreed on several key features for cultivating a successful garden, the majority of which had to do with location: fertile soil, good topography, orientation appropriate to the plants within (i.e. south-facing), adjacent to a water source (preferably natural), and enclosed by a wall or hedge for security. The majority of productive gardens discovered in the town were located on a southerly slope in the south-eastern corner, said by ancient Roman farmers to be perfect for the sun and irrigation required in agricultural gardens. The exceptionally fertile soil in Campania also lent itself to productivity, with the region known as Campania Felix in the Roman period (meaning “lucky/fertile countryside”).

The location of gardens within the city was also key. Revenue could be increased if one was able to cultivate a garden on key thoroughfares within the town. For example, the House of the Garden of Hercules, a working perfume garden, was located just one hundred metres from the town’s necropolis – perfect for selling to passing mourners. Similarly, many gardeners appear to have exploited the demand for outdoor dining, with vine-shaded dining areas in commercial gardens strategically located opposite doorways on busy streets to attract new customers. A high proportion of these can be found in the ‘entertainment district’, ready to attract amphitheatre-goers in good spirits.

Use all available space wisely

Excavators uncovering gardens in Pompeii have discovered the root cavities, seeds, and carbonised remains of multiple different food types in single sites, suggesting that inter-cultivation was commonplace. In one of Pompeii’s largest commercial gardens, the House of the Ship Europa, excavators discovered hundreds of vines, multiple fruit and nut trees, two large vegetable plots, and the bones of a cow and sheep occupying just half an acre of space. In other gardens, the grapes and olives grown on site were pressed and bottled there too, often being sold in adjoining shops.

Gardens could also be found in unexpected spaces, such as on rooftops in pots, in window boxes, in indoor and outdoor raised beds, in small light wells, and even in cemeteries. In Pompeii’s necropolis just outside the walls of the town, many gardens attached to tombs were used to grow vegetables, vines, fruit, nuts and flowers, the produce being used for honouring the dead in ritual ceremonies, for ceremonial or social feasts, and as an additional revenue stream for the family.

Waste not, want not

The Pompeiians had many ingenious ways of storing water in their hot climate. This was even more crucial in gardens not served by the town’s water supply, where manual water collection from public fountains was necessary. In the perfume garden mentioned above, excavators uncovered a complex water system of channels, funnels, and cisterns. The channels ran through the waterbeds, irrigating the circular dips, or ‘sombreros’, around the plants before flowing into further channels and pots (dolia). Rainwater was also collected from the roof into large embedded dolia and pools. Additional water was introduced to the garden via an opening with a funnel in the garden’s wall from the street on the other side.

In the same garden, it appears that every product was used to good effect; oil from the olive trees grown on-site was likely used for making perfume, which would then be stored and sold in the small glass bottles found by excavators. Elsewhere, the branches of trees were used as supports for growing vines and young trees, while broken pots were embedded in the tops of garden walls to keep out fruit thieves, or as guard dog kennels. There was little room for waste in the Pompeian garden.

Sometimes it is important to look back to move forward, particularly in times of great change and crisis, and the many lessons which may be learnt from the innovative gardeners in Pompeii should certainly not remain in the past.