Muscovites could Teach Us a Thing or Two


The annual convention of the American Public Garden Association was held in D.C. this year for the firstMoscow2 time ever – for some reason I can’t imagine – and I dropped in to see what was happening.  Passing on the sessions about fund-raising, recruiting volunteers, and innovations in signage, I popped in on the talk about "An International Perspective" to see what’s up with that.  Turns out it was about the state of botanical gardens in the former Soviet Union, the very existence of which had never crossed my mind.  (Well, they hadn’t exactly graced the glossy pages of Garden Design
Magazine, now had they?)  I was intrigued.

A speaker from the Minnesota Arboretum talked about working on a Kew Gardens-sponsored plant conservation project along the Amazon River and then asking himself, "Now what northern gardens might need our help?" and found plenty of them in the former USSR.  Places like Kazakstan, probably forever in my mind now the home of Borat.  Or the Estonian Botanical Garden, which had no greenhouse and now has one, thanks to a modest $5,000 contribution from the Minnesota Arb.  Turns out the annual operating budgets for public gardens in Russia are as low as $35,000, even the unimaginable $6,000.  So Minnesotans donated a used van for one financially strapped Russian garden, and helped another develop a fund-raising strategy.  Learning that Russia’s few wealthy citizens do not constitute a thriving philanthrophic community, they recommended making and selling dried flower arrangements, a scheme that is starting to pay off.  The Minnesota Arb’s own fund-raising must be going pretty well if they can send staff all over the world to help other gardens.  Nice!

Next wMoscow20bot20grdn201807e heard from the director of Moscow’s Apothecary Garden.  (It has no webite, but I found that reference to it on the web.) It was founded in 1706 by Peter the Great for the purpose of teaching doctors and growing medicinal plants, and some of the trees planted by Peter the Great are still standing.  Despite its location at the center of a large, polluted city, the director will have you know it’s the most biodiverse spot in Russia.

In 1805 it became the Moscow State University Botanic Garden and since the fall of the Soviet Union, change is everywhere.  They’re hell bent on modernizing, becoming sustainable and more relevant.  They "still do lawns and intensive horticultural things," but now have "areas of indecision", which are managed differently.  Differently, but their management actually requires more hort knowledge than the traditional gardens did.  They’re using more drought-tolerant plants, paying more attention to soils.  Boardwalks have been constructed to prevent disruption and compaction of soils.  Trees that have fallen victim to Dutch elm disease have been recycled as pavers, very good-looking ones.  These natural-looking areas were described as having "alternative beauty," rather than "exciting plants".  The lake is kept "wild-looking" and cityfolk seem to appreciate
it.  Labels and instructional signs are everywhere, and new programs are in the works to make the garden-visiting experience more active.  We saw a slide of moms pushing baby carriages in the snow through the gardens and were informed that Russians consider it healthy for children to be outdoors, even in the dead of winter.  Funny, Americans are just now noticing how far away from that basic truth we’ve strayed and thinking about the consequences of having no connection with nature.

Tradition hasn’t been sacked altogether, however.  They still have their spring flower festivals and ornamental displays, and mixed borders of perennials are still grown.  But the people now in charge of this historic garden see their mission as making the public environmentally literate and giving city-dwellers an opportunity to go back to nature.  They urge Russians to use alternatives to gas-powered garden equipmentBrent300.  They sponsor a competition for apartment-dwellers who’ve landscaped around their buildings.  They partner with the Young Environmentalist Club to create "ecological trails."  And get this: there’s actually a "Department for Sustainable Use of Nature
and Environmental Protection" in Moscow City.  All of which brings on this min-rant:  Why aren’t these things going on in our own capital city?  Just asking.

Here’s a PDF about environmental programs at Moscow’s Apothecary Garden and  here’s a short piece about the Importance of Botanical Gardens.

Bonus: Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, selling his wares to the botanic gardens of America.  Long, long ago Brent’s family and mine rented adjacent cottages in Nags Head, NC, so I got a kiss.


  1. Russian vegetable gardeners can teach us a thing or two, as well. One of these days (probably some chilly winter night), I’m going to blog about a favorite author whose main premise is that the Soviet states were so much better prepared for economic collapse than we are due, in part, to their superior vegetable gardening skills. Soviet vegetable production and marketing was so bad that the only reliable way to get good vegetables was to grow your own. The full story will have to wait.

  2. Wow! (I wish Blithewold could have sent one of us to that conference – or to Russia!) I wonder if the Apothecary Garden has had a good response rate with their mission so far? Our educational/inspirational programs have been foundering a bit – it’s tough to fill a room or a garden these days no matter how topical the topic or gorgeous the garden. I hope they are having boundless success and that the wealthy of Russia start forking over – it’s tough to garden and get the word out when there’s so little money in the pot!

  3. I was a volunteer at the APGA meeting, but we weren’t allowed (nor had time) to go to any of the sessions. I was curious about the Russian presentation – thanks for this post!

  4. First, thanks for this site – I have read so much useful articles here!
    I was quite suprised finding this article here saying some lines about Estonian Botanical Garden. There are actually 2 of these in Estonia – in Tallinn (founded in 1963, ) and in Tartu (founded in 1803, This is true that these institutions are somewhat financially trapped – there is a huge amount of plants fitted into small space – so there is no any layout or design – several layers of plants are on shelves closely to each other. But, both gardens have greenhouses (more than one) and had since very first year. Last years Tartu Bot Garden built one new greenhouse for tropic plants. I think that this Garden has close friendship with Minnesota’s, because as I was reading from development strategy they intend to create the Minnesota’s Grove as a new project in Tartu Botanical Garden.

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