Enthralled by Russia’s self-sustaining dacha tradition, where country summer houses and their productive land are passed down through generations, horticulturist Hannah Gardner travels beyond the formal gardens of Moscow in search of a particular historic
Horticulturist Hannah Gardner goes in search of Chekhov’s cherry (and apple) orchard to learn about Russia’s dacha tradition
Russia’s public gardens tend to date from the early 18th century, developed during the reign of Peter the Great, who recruited European landscape designers to create gardens in the formal ‘English’ style. Clustered around Moscow or St Petersburg, they are easily visited independently. But to my mind, the richer horticultural narrative lies outside the cities in the dachas – small, country summer houses situated in their own parcel of land. They were traditionally of huge importance as family retreats, used for growing medicinal plants and food to preserve and pickle for the long winters. Dating from the time of the tsars, dachas were largely state owned during the Soviet period but have returned to private hands in post-Soviet Russia. The 2003 Private Garden Plot Act gave citizens the right to a free plot on which to grow food.
Inspiration for the trip
I have been intrigued by dachas since visiting the country estate of the writer and doctor Anton Chekhov, where I worked with a colleague on a design project. Writing at the end of the 19th century, Chekhov described the everyday affairs of ordinary people, and dachas were a recurring theme. During his time at Melikhovo, his modest family estate near Moscow, he wrote from a small cottage in the grounds.
When to go
Russia’s gardening climate varies hugely. Balmy, warm temperate zones in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions fall dramatically as you head north and east into Siberia. Harsh winters and baking continental summers typify the Moscow region. Winter is atmospheric and snowy, but if it’s flowering plants you are after, visit between April and September.
Where to go
The opulent train stations of Moscow are a destination in their own right. Less impressive, but punctual, is the commuter train with its hard bench seats that takes you to the town of Chekhov 30 miles south of Moscow. A window seat offers a slide show of shabby suburbs, wide rivers and a neverending expanse of dense conifer forest.
A local bus takes you to the Melikhovo Museum. The restored Chekhov estate is surrounded by a phalanx of slender birch trees ( Betula pendula), a dark curtain of spruce, pine, juniper and larch forming the forest beyond. Elegant stands of magentaflowered Epilobium angustifolium and creamy Filipendula ulmaria flourish at the forest margins. Both have medicinal properties, the leaves of the rosebay willowherb used for a popular stimulant tea, the meadowsweet containing salicin, the primary ingredient of aspirin.
Chekhov’s elder brother Alexander was a keen photographer. His images, displayed around the estate, give hints as to what the family grew. An orchard is the very essence of a Russian garden, apple and cherry trees intermingling with edible currant bushes and Rosa rugosa. Medicinal plants such as Angelica archangelica, Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) and Thymus serpyllum grow alongside ornamentals such as Phlox paniculata and Iris. These productive dacha gardens so often transcend fashion, and offer a glimpse into the rich peasant and folk traditions of Russia.
Plants to grow at home
Many of our familiar and favourite hardy ornamental plants have originated in Russia – the species name often providing a clue, as with Iris sibirica (native to Siberia). Others are strongly associated with Russia because of their huge popularity in the country – Syringa vulgaris (lilac), Phlox paniculata and P. maculata are good examples. There are hundreds of glorious Russian phlox cultivars, in a palette of strong crimson, cerise, mauve and dreamy pastels. The painterly bi-colour cultivars P. paniculata ‘Uzpekh’ and P. maculata ‘Natascha’ are distinctive and pretty, associating well with grasses, Sanguisorba, Perovskia and Daucus carota in a naturalistic scheme.
P. paniculata loves moist, rich soil and sun, but will tolerate partial shade. This tall perennial rarely requires staking. Divide and replant clumps every four years or so to retain vigour. It is invaluable in high summer, flowering from July to September. If you want to plant something Russian right now, opt for Malus domestica. November to March is bare-root tree season, when you have the widest choice of cultivars. After all, the humble apple tree originated in the central Asian regions of the former USSR, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, is still found today.
Melikhovo Museum Melikhovo Village, Chekhov District, Moscow, Russia 142326. Tel +7 496 727 6256, chekhovmuseum.com
Gardens to visit in Moscow
Aptekarsky Ogorod Prospekt Mira 26, Moscow, Russia 129090. Tel +7 495 680 6765, hortus.ru Russia’s oldest botanical garden, founded in 1706 to grow medicinal plants. Kremlin (Alexander and Tainitsky Gardens) Kremlin, Moscow, Russia 103132. kreml.ru Kuskovo Park and Estate Ulitsa Yunosti 2, Moscow, Russia 111402. kuskovo.ru Restored neo-classical garden around an aristocratic estate near Moscow. Tchaikovsky State House Museum Ulitsa Chaykovskogo 48, Klin, Moscow Region, Russia 141600. Tel +7 496 245 8196, tchaikovsky.house Last home of the great composer and keen gardener, 50 miles northwest of Moscow.
Where to stay
Golden Apple Malaya Dmitrovka 1, Moscow, Russia 127006. Tel +7 495 980 7000, goldenapple.ru Central, modern hotel with a good sauna. Hotel National Ulitsa Mokhovaya 15/1 , bld 1, Moscow, Russia 125009. Tel +7 495 258 7000, national.ru Traditional architectural grandeur.