The Out­sider

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

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS HAN­NAH GARD­NER IL­LUS­TRA­TION ALICE PATTULLO

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.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion

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.

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