Street Life: Samotechny Lane - Moscow axeman proves method in his madness

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The Independent Online
SAMOTECHNY LANE is in a network of backstreets behind the Garden Ring Road, a green area you might have thought, judging from the name. But the Garden Ring is, in fact, an eight-lane highway and there is precious little green here apart from the scum on the pond called Andropov's Puddle.

Relief is in sight, however, for the residents of this urban jungle. "Have you heard about the English gardener who is working up the road?" my neighbours kept asking. It is true. A young Cornishman called Harvey Stephens is restoring to its former glory a neglected botanical garden in the inner city. Soon we will have a smaller version of Kew Gardens on our doorstep.

Harvey, 25, who trained at Kew, is renovating a garden originally made by another Englishman, Robert Erskin, for Peter the Great. The Tsar may have allowed his drunken retainers to ruin the hedge of the diarist John Evelyn, in whose home they stayed during their visit to London, but as part of his Westernising policy, he was keen to develop European-style gardens in Russia.

"Erskin made a herb garden for Peter the Great," said Harvey. "He wanted medicinal plants for his army."

Later, the Apothecaries' Garden, as it was first called, acquired more exotic collections. The 120-year-old palm house still has a few specimens from an earlier period when the head gardener was a German, Georg Hofman. Unfortunately, most of his trees were destroyed when the French entered Moscow in 1812.

In this century, botanists from Moscow State University tended the garden, but, lately, as with many Russian treasures, it has fallen into decline for lack of funds.

When Harvey arrived a year ago, he found local children playing football among the weeds. The panes of the palm house were broken and shards of glass hung down from the roof like swords of Damocles, waiting to drop on visitors' heads. The palms themselves had not been repotted for years and were choking each other in a desperate struggle for light.

The palm house is now closed for renovation. This summer, Harvey and his team have planted some cheap and cheerful bedding plants outside to attract the public until new ornamental gardens are completed. Babushki (grandmothers), who previously had nowhere to sit except in their back yards, can relax on benches among the petunias while children have been given sandpits to compensate them for the fact that football is no longer encouraged.

A firm of Russian developers called MCD is financing the project to restore the garden, in part using the original layout plans. Follies being built along one side will be rented out as commercial offices to raise further income. Eventually, it is planned that Moscow's first garden centre will open here, and British Petroleum is sponsoring an ecology club on the site.

Harvey denies that he is creating an "English garden" for the Russians, although many Russians do hanker after clipped lawns and neat flower-beds while, ironically, the fashion in England is now for wilder gardens with meadow flowers.

"I am making a garden for Muscovites in the 21st century," he said. "I want to help the Russians develop their own gardening tradition."

Harvey said he was impressed by Russians' "strong respect and love for plants and gardening". Their tradition is, of course, largely determined by the severe climate. "It is possible to get a frost here as late as 10 June. Last winter, the lime trees split open from the cold. I could put my hands inside the cracks."

The economic situation was also a factor. When food was hard to come by in the shops, Russians grew their own fruit and vegetables in what Harvey called "fantastically productive dacha gardens". Improved living conditions, for some at least, mean there is now more interest in decorative plants and flowers.

Russian television wrongly reported that Harvey was employing homeless people in his garden. Certainly many poor Russians would love to come and work for him. "Sadly, much as I am in favour of community gardening, I don't have the funds for that," he said. Instead, he works with about a dozen poorly- paid university staff.

Russian botanists with years of experience earn about $200 (pounds 125) a month while their counterparts at Kew would expect to be on pounds 15,000 to pounds 18,000 a year.

The Russian botanists, experts in their own right, have struggled with the absurdities of the Soviet system. It was hardly their fault that the greenhouses, heated from the central system, were at the mercy of bureaucrats who decided that if it was May, then it must be warm - and switched off the heating. Soon the glasshouses will have their own heating system for tropical plants that like extra warmth, even in August.

Neither could the Russians be blamed for lack of money to buy pots and compost, which Harvey brought in from Holland. But he believes he has perhaps taught them one thing.

"They were horrified when they first saw me, a young Englishman who spoke barely a word of Russian, wielding secateurs and cutting at everything in sight. They were very reluctant to cut. They thought the plants should be left to their own devices. But pruning is the key to good gardening. I think I have convinced them of that and they no longer see me as the mad axeman."