As a prototype for a pleasure garden, the Pompeian garden is close to perfect: a peaceful space of trickling fountains, trellised vines, flowering shrubs and shady arbours. For the citizens of Pompeii, as for us, the garden was a refuge from urban life, a place of tranquillity for relaxing, dining and entertaining.
Their outdoor room, however, was set inside the house, as an open courtyard surrounded by covered walkways. They painted frescoes on the walls of these peristyle gardens, not just to augment the flowers and foliage, but to make their small gardens appear larger. And if they didn't have a garden, they'd paint one — on the living room wall — with everything magically flowering all at once.
We can learn much from these romantic retreats for our own town gardens. Statues, busts or urns on stone plinths were important features that would make vertical points of interest in our flat, single-plane plots. Mosaic was the flooring of choice and though tiling your terrace might take several slaves a lifetime to complete, a handful of coloured glass tesserae set among paving stones or cladding containers will add valuable shots of colour and light to our less sunny outdoor rooms.
It was the Romans who first artfully framed borders with low-clipped box hedging, though instead of the straight-lined style we've embraced, they were likely to be wavy, a clever notion that made the eye travel more slowly down the length of the space.
In their fertile volcanic soil, two thousand years ago the Pompeians were growing plants that for the most part are familiar to us today. Figs, olives and pomegranates were widely grown along with vines: these will all thrive in sheltered, sunny corners of our town gardens, ideally given a warm wall. The Romans were also mad for roses and grew them for wreaths, for strewing and for perfume, along with violet, jasmine and lavender. Their roses were mainly the highly perfumed Rosa gallica and damascena: for extra spark, grow raspberry-rippled Rosa gallica Versicolor, while Ispahan and Rose de Rescht are worthy damask descendants. Rose-mary, brought to Britain by the Roman armies along with all our Mediterranean herbs, was planted in gardens to protect against evil spirits.
It's worth planting for different reasons: for its fragrance and culinary use, but mostly for its graceful growth. Bypass the more usual, well-behaved Miss Jessop's Upright and look for the prostrate varieties that will tumble charmingly, Roman-style, from terracotta containers, making a fine centre-point.
Myrtle, a pretty, white-flowered shrub that deserves to be more widely grown — container gardeners, seek out compact variety tarentina — was used in wedding rituals, while clove pinks —seek out our improved dianthus cultivars — were woven into garlands. The leaves of Acanthus mollis were copied for architectural embellishment, but the plant itself, a winner for shade, makes the ultimate architectural statement. Urns of houseleeks were grown to protect houses from lightning and fire; we should revere them in the same way, but as the ultimate no-maintenance container plant.
Oleander features in many of the wall paintings of Pompeii, growing en masse as a backdrop. It makes a great container plant for urban plots — sturdy, evergreen and with gorgeous flowers, especially in apricot variety Soleil Levant — but in a sheltered site it can also be grown in the ground. Be aware, though, that all parts are poisonous. Lilium candidum, the Madonna lily, is more benign, grown by the ancient Romans as a symbol of grace and purity. Plant it close to the surface of the soil; this is one lily not suited to containers, but it is worth growing in the front of the border for its pure white trumpet flower and spectacular perfume.
Photographs by Clive Nichols