I am more of a stay-at-home person than a world traveller, yet I am fascinated by the different ways people garden around the world. Lately I've been studying Russia, where growing wholesome food is a summer priority for over half of the population. Food gardening is generously laced into the fabric of Russian society. Millions of Russians commute to rural dacha gardens from May to September. While some Russians do have a garden by their primary home (ogoro), many more commute an hour or more to reach the family's dacha garden.
Working with an average space of 6 sotkas (600 square metres, or about 6458 square feet) and a growing seasons of less than 120 days north of Moscow, Russian dacha gardeners (dachniks) provide half of Russia's food supply by working hard, making the most of what they have, and generously sharing the bounty with one another. According to Leonid Sharashkin, the leading published authority on the Russian food gardening, "self-provisioning culture permeates all aspects of contemporary Russian life."
What Russian Gardeners Grow
The minds of English-speaking gardeners tend to separate the vegetable plot from the fruit orchard, but Russian gardeners fuse them together, permaculture-style. Russian dacha gardens typically include an abundance of perennial crops, especially berries and other small fruits. It is not unusual for Russian gardens to include six or more fruits, including currants, apples, raspberries, gooseberries, plums, strawberries and pears. Those of us who are adding fruits to our gardens are adopting a Russian style of gardening without knowing it. This is especially true if the boundaries of your garden have been transformed into edible fences with fruit-bearing bushes and trees.
Potatoes are so important in Russia that they are often regarded as a special staple crop, distinct from other vegetables. Businesses frequently offer unused space to employees for growing potatoes, and people who can't grow potatoes themselves may receive good supplies from relatives or friends, or even as part of their retirement pension. But rather than grow potatoes on big farms, it has been estimated that 90 percent of Russia's potatoes are grown in dacha gardens or on small farms. In a Russian gardener's mind, potatoes are simply too important and precious to be entrusted to someone else.
Beyond potatoes, Russian gardeners take pride in their carrots, onions, cucumbers, garlic, beetroots, tomatoes, squash and radishes. In the herb department, no garden is complete without dill, and most gardens include a clump of horseradish, too.
Russians also grow their children in dacha communities, where open spaces and long-term relationships among dacha neighbours create a safe environment where kids can roam and play as country kids do, while the adults work in the garden. Spending time in harmony with nature has long been a priority in Russia, and its importance to one's physical, mental and spiritual health has been brought into new focus by the visionary "Ringing Cedars of Russia" books by Vladimir Megre. Now more than ever, Russian parents use their gardens to teach children earth stewardship, Russian style.
Gardening By Hand
The majority of Russian gardeners use only hand tools, and though the only word I can understand is "compost," I enjoyed this video of a Russian gardener explaining the use of his various hoes to control weeds, several of which look very similar to the hoes in my tool shed. According to extensive surveys done by Sharashkin in the Vladimir region, 190 km (118 miles) east of Moscow, most dacha gardeners save at least some of their seeds, and more and more Russian gardeners are using plastic tunnels to bring on spring a few weeks earlier. Small walk-in greenhouses are often used to grow warm-natured tomatoes.
The similarities go on, but a striking difference emerges as each crop is ready to harvest. Yes, Russian gardeners pickle, can, dry and otherwise store their harvest, but they also share what they grow with friends and relatives. As the owner of a three mature apple trees, I envy the Russian gardener in my shoes, who would easily place their excess apples through a network of sharing relationships.
And then there is dill, which I sow at least twice each season so I will have a steady supply of leaves and flowers for pickling all summer long. After hours of studying books, photos and videos of Russian gardens, it is clear that every gardener grows dill, and plenty of it. Cucumbers are huge in Russia, too, and cabbage is an essential crop. Oh, dear, I'm back to listing similarities again, which is one way of saying that we are all gardening like Russians, albeit with a little less heart.
By Barbara Pleasant