The annual convention of the American Public Garden Association was held in D.C. this year for the first 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 we 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 equipment. 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.
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.