For a Ukrainian gardener, flowers offer a way forward

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The clematis that most delight Alla Olkhovska among the approximately 120 species she grows are not the familiar large-flowered hybrids, extravagant as they are. It’s the smaller, less frequently cultivated species—those whose common names often include the phrase “leatherflower,” many of which are native to the southeastern United States—that have stolen his heart.

Their charm makes them ethereal subjects for photography, another passion of Ms. Olkhovska. But what really impresses him is how the small, bell-shaped flowers and their thick petals are holding up to the increasingly hot, dry summers his garden is experiencing.

The white-leaved leatherflower (C. glaucophylla) and scarlet leatherflower (C. texensis), for example, can really handle the heat and continue to flower and bloom, adapting to harsh environmental conditions.

Two years ago this month, a more sudden call for adaptation was made – this one addressed to the gardener herself, as well as to her fellow Ukrainians. In Kharkiv, where she lives, and throughout the country, the war had arrived.

Ms. Olkhovska, now 38, had been building her plant collection with a view to starting a small rare plant nursery. But with the war came a new mission: to find a way, in the face of war, to provide for his family.

There were already challenges. Ms. Olkhovska’s mother-in-law and grandmother rely on her to care for them. And her husband, Vitalii Olkhovskyi, who suffered lung and heart damage from a severe Covid infection, was early in his ongoing rehabilitation when the war broke out.

The family was rooted in place, unable to afford to move, as they saw so many neighbors do, following a series of missile and drone attacks that ravaged the city and its infrastructure.

While Ukrainians “don’t know what will happen next and living standards are in a very, very sharp decline,” Ms. Olkhovska said, she knew that creating a local day care center was no longer feasible; all customers should come from elsewhere.

Buying plants, she added, simply isn’t a priority “when you’re scared and you don’t know what’s going to happen to the land – whether you’ll be able to stay there or whether you’ll survive.” winter “. .”

However, it was his garden, and especially his clematis, which showed him the way forward.

Olkhovska started by doing the only thing she could think of: selling more seeds online.

After all, she started learning about plants on the Internet when she got her first computer at age 20. Then, as now, amateurs and experts came together on foreign forums and, later, on social networks to exchange horticultural knowledge and seeds. Perhaps, she thought, some of these connections could help her expand her small clientele.

“Selling seeds was like my last resort, my last attempt,” she said. And she was far from sure her plan would work.

But it turned out that Ms. Olkhovska’s taste for plants, honed on these foreign forums, had made the seeds from her clematis collection particularly marketable. Different sales.

“I love everything unusual, everything rare, everything difficult and challenging to grow,” she said, although the difficulties and challenges have been taken to the extreme these two recent years, through no fault of the plants.

His affection for plant species rather than hybrids has also been helpful, because many non-hybrid types can be grown more reliably from seed than the offspring of large-flowered hybrids, which bear no resemblance to the parent plant. .

But she had turned to them for another reason, beyond their potential as mail-order seed packet material. “These species are the start of all the hybrids we have in the garden,” she said. “My idea was to introduce a nice collection of species plants into my garden in order to try to create hybrids myself, in the future.”

In the meantime, his energy was focused on growing, harvesting, packing and selling. As she accelerated her efforts, new foreign orders arrived, including one last spring from Erin Benzakein of It bloomsa flower farm and seed company located in the Skagit Valley of Northwest Washington.

Clematis vines make a distinctive filler for floral arrangements, and Ms. Benzakein was searching the Web for unusual varieties to expand the farm’s selection. She had read something about Ms. Olkhovska’s Seed List and I wanted to see for herself.

It was the photographs that attracted Ms. Benzakein. With more than a million Instagram followers and several books to her credit, including a New York Times bestseller, she has a highly cultivated eye not only for flowers, but also for effective media.

“I was stopped thinking, ‘Wait, what’s going on here?’ These are so beautiful. How have I not seen this before?’ “, remembers Ms. Benzakein. “I was surprised by the varieties she presented, and then the way she showed them in the photos completely stopped me in my tracks.”

In his basket, there were seeds and more seeds. Soon, messages began circulating between the two women.

An idea was born. Could Ms. Benzakein interview Ms. Olkhovska for the popular Floret website? And then another plan quickly emerged: a documentary for the company’s YouTube channel.

The 33-minute film “Gardening in a War Zone” debuted in December, with Rob Finch, who leads Floret’s video storytelling efforts, as director and producer. The film combines footage shot by Oleh Halaidych, a local videographer; Mr Olkhovskyi, Mrs Olkhovska’s husband; and Ms. Olkhovska herself.

Like his daily life, it is a work in chiaroscuro, a portrait of extremes: roses and guns.

We see her at the kitchen table in her hooded fleece dress, working by candlelight, during yet another power outage. To the sound of air alert sirens, she counts the seeds to be packed in small envelopes for shipping.

One by one, each precious seed is harvested from the garden surrounding her grandmother’s house, where Ms. Olkhovska regularly visits from the apartment 30 minutes away where she lives with her husband.

This isn’t the first time Granny’s plot has come to the family’s rescue. The house once belonged to Ms. Olkhovska’s great-grandfather, who planted an orchard in the post-World War II Soviet era, hoping to provide her with income and food.

Today, her great-granddaughter grows seeds there, and not just clematis which climb the shrubs, adorning their branches with little bells and colorful stars and, later, the moss from all those flower heads. seeds. There are also species of peonies and other treasures.

In another scene from the documentary, she holds out a hand filled with the last of the clematis gleanings, each seed still attached to her brown, feathery tail. “It’s amazing how many lives – future lives – I have in my hands right now,” she says.

But it was another, spontaneous moment that struck Mr Finch the most in the documentary, as he watched footage of Ms Olkhovska filming herself cutting flowers to take home. “It’s very important to me to have fresh flowers, and I do it anyway,” she said as she searched for the flowers. “Even when it’s really difficult, because it helps, it helps to cope with problems.”

The influence of nature as a restorative agent and connecting force is almost taken as a given by those who engage with the outdoors. “But here it’s been put to the test,” Mr. Finch said during a recent Zoom call. “Put to the test in a war situation, among other things. »

If there was any doubt about the power of the natural world, this was irrefutable proof.

“Does beauty still really matter if you’re trying to find food or shelter, get heat or electricity, or avoid missile or drone attacks?” he said. “Yes, it’s still important.”

Like any gardener in a cold, dark winter, Ms Olkhovska dreams of warmer times to come – of new flower beds she will create and of “my biggest dream, to start my own nursery”.

But unlike the equinox, the end of the war is not pre-printed on any calendar. There is no date.

“But let’s hope that tomorrow will be a better day for all of us!” she wrote in a recent Instagram history. “I want to write about flowers, not war.”

Plants, she says, motivate her “to work and stay alive.”

Motivation seems to be something he doesn’t lack. In addition to growing her wartime seed business and fulfilling family responsibilities, Ms. Olkhovska wrote a 124-page e-book on clematis, a mini-encyclopedia that she published last summer and which Floret helped promote and sell.

On page 101 begins the step-by-step instruction on how to grow clematis from seed, a section that may be of particular interest to Ms. Benzakein after this shopping frenzy. During our Zoom call, she confessed that she ordered extra packets of each variety — along with backups of the backups — just in case.

“No, you will not fail,” Ms. Olkhovska quickly replied, as if to free her friend from the weight of any worry. “If you fail, I will send you more seeds. We will do this until you succeed.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way of gardeningand a book of the same name.

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