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.
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’
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.