Great gardeners of history #2

And so we must leave the Dark Ages, and with them St. Fiacre, crosiers, and the fragrance of unwashed monks, this month’s Great Historical Gardener is already waiting for us some 1200 years away. And he’s sickening fast.

Quickly then! Onwards and Eastwards! Let us hasten through the centuries and across the continent to the Crimean town of Yalta and the year of 1897. O.K? Good, Now lets just pause here by the sea for a moment, to catch our breath and exchange cassocks for waistcoats, before we meander up the hill to meet the second of our gardening greats; a consumptive doctor called Anton Chekhov.


Chekhov moved to Yalta from Moscow in 1897, in the hope that the milder air of the Russian Riviera would help combat his tuberculosis. He built himself a house and then settled down to write and to garden; the two activities that would occupy him until his death seven years later at the age of only 44. It was here that he created what some argue are his greatest works The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and The Lady With The Dog. Almost no-one argues that his garden was one of his greatest works, good enough to eclipse even The Seagull, but this is just because you can’t withdraw gardens from the library and scribble all over them in green highlighter (to the Putney Library user with the green highlighter – you selfish bastard). Chekhov’s garden is the living growing expression of the horticultural philosophy outlined in his works of literature, a philosophy that is unconsciously shared by all great gardeners; and therefore worth examining in great and mind numbing detail, you lucky readers.

As a Russian Chekhov’s writing is heavily infused with descriptions of the natural world. I think because there is so much nature in Russia that it is impossible for it not to encroach on an author, and to enter all his works. It’s the same principle that drives Irvine Walsh as a Scotsman to write about drugs and Jeffery Archer as a politician to write about horse dung. Chekhov’s writing about nature displays none of the melancholy of Turganev or the swamping grandeur of Tolstoy. In Chekhov’s work nature is not necessarily the saviour of man, but man the guardian of nature. This is a gardener writing before he came to gardening, a man who recognises that humanity and nature are entwined and inseparable. He knows that man can irreversibly and casually ruin a garden (or lake or forest or steppe), but also than man working in close harmony with the earth can create something far more beautiful than the sum of its parts.

Chekhov and Tolstoy chat compost

In A Letter, an unfinished work Chekhov was composing when he died, the author writes ‘the most beautiful and the most rational, powerful, invincible part of nature is the part created by the genius of man, independently from nature’s will’ Quite right Anton! This is not the writing of a Russian disillusioned by mans cruelty and looking to nature for redemption, this is the work of an ambitious and questing garden designer. Chekhov was no smallholding, cabbage growing, good life fantasist. He recognised that in his garden man did not need ‘a small plot’ in which to vegetate, he needs ‘the entire terrestrial globe, the entire nature, unhampered, then he would be able to display all traits and features of his free spirit’

Chekhov in the garden

This is the spirit that drives Chekhov to be ambitious in both his horticultural literature and his garden: a play about an orchard becomes a melodrama set in a 2,500 acre cherry orchard, and a steeply sloping batch of bare Yalta earth becomes a heavenly paradise of native and exotic plants. Chekov gardened with abandon, he planted: 57 types of rose, 159 types of arboreal shrub, he planted 11 camellias and wrote ‘It was a miracle: camellia has blossomed in the ground in my garden- this phenomenon seems to be unknown in Yalta’. He planted 12 types of cherry trees; he planted pears, currents, gooseberries, peach trees, almond trees, apricots, quinces, watermelons, artichokes, asparagus and sunflowers. He planted Irises by the thousand, chrysanthemums and lilies, delighting in each bloom and eagerly anticipating the next. In the last years of his existence Chekov’s garden was his life. It seems a shame that this most noble gardening legacy has been eclipsed by something so tawdry as a literary reputation.

So my gardening pilgrims, give Sissinghurst a miss this year, Versailles can wait. To neon Yalta on the Black Sea – there lies the greatest small garden by the greatest small storywriter the world has ever seen.

Garden pilgrims visiting Yalta

7 thoughts on “Great gardeners of history #2

  1. Dear Ben, I found this of interest and highly entertaining although at times I wondered to what extent you had strayed from the narrative to confuse fact, fiction and fantasy. Could this possibly reflect your own life? Not in, or near Yalta, for your reference to Putney library suggests to me that you are most likely firmly rooted in London. As for the defacing of library books…….that is indeed to be discouraged if we are not all to face Council Tax rises.

    It is, of course, of interest what you write about the plants grown by Chekhov since Russia I learn from my Russian friends has no tradition, in the British sense, of gardening. The same, alas, is true of Hungary where I spend a great deal of my time.

    I shall look forward to reading the next of your ripping yarns whilst rereading ‘The Cherry Orchard’ which is one of my all time favourites.

    1. Dear Ben, dear Edith,

      Ben, another wonderful post, and a most facinating insight into the gardening life of Chekov.

      However, I would like to chellenge Edith’s assertion that “Russia has no tradition, in the British sense, of gardening.”

      My first comment would be that, while you criticise Ben for using Putney library for his resources, the alternative of “I learn from my Russian friends” is hardly better. Indeed, surely anyone would favour the peer-reviewed texts, and highly researched tomes of Putney library to hearsay?

      Secondly, on one hand, your assertion is true. Russia does not have a tradition of gardening in the British sense. Indeed, it is firmly in the Russian sense, much as French gardening styles fall firmly within the French sense, and Indian garden traditions are distinctly Indian.

      However, to claim that Russian gardening is somehow less developed is an untruth. While, looking upon the towerblocks of Moscow, you may weep for the lack of a shrubbery or rosebush we should not forget the culture of the dacha. In terms of scale, 1 in 4 urban Russians have a dacha where they retreat for the summer to look after their plants. Much of this may be for producing vegetables (which is still gardening), but – as noted by another reliable source, wikipedia – “they are frequently used for gardening and planting exotic plants.”

      This does not sound like a culture lacking gardening to me, in any sense.

  2. Nope dear Edith, I decide the narrative and this narrative had not even the tiniest vowel astray. Also, my body may be London bound – but each night I dream of Yalta.

    I recently went to Budapest and stayed with my girlfriend’s work mate’s mother (no word of fiction or fantasy). She had the most sumptuous collection of indoor plants I have ever seen. Perhaps all the gardens are hiding away inside.

    Do you have a garden in Hungary? I would love to hear what horticultural feats are possible on the banks of the Danube.


  3. Dear Ben, I was most intrigued to learn that you had recently visited Budapest staying with your girlfriend’s, workmate’s mother [clearly a close relative] and very much hope that you enjoyed the city.

    My apartment, where I spend increasing amounts of time, is in Pest [as opposed to Buda] but does not have any garden at all. Two white flowered agapanthus in pots are all I am able to muster. Unfortunately, there is no tradition, as we know it in Great Britain, of gardening in Hungary. The Botanic Gardens in the city are, I regret to say, a disgrace. I thought a future posting could be along the lines of ‘Who will save me?’

    I was disappointed to see that you were unable, for whatever reason, to reply to my comment about Lord Berners on your previous posting. I had rather hoped you would have been able to extend your witticisms to comment on my own site – light relief is always welcome, particularly from the young!

    I have a regular on going dialogue with Teza who I see you have as a ‘Favourite’. He is one of mine too.

    What exactly DO you DO at your college?

    Best wishes.

  4. Russia does have a tradition of gardening, using different plants and shapes and being oriented by different ideals of taste and beauty doesn’t mean no tradition of such thing!

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