Friday, January 28, 2022

Russian Dacha Farming

A house painted blue in front to the left with a garden on the right that has sunflowers in front.
This is the time of year when gardeners pour over seed catalogs and haunt home and landscape websites as they decide what their 2022 gardens will look like. If you’re still unsure of what you want to do, I’d like to suggest you take some inspiration from Russian dacha farms.

 For thousands of years Russians have been providing food for their tables from small, carefully tended gardens. The immense vastness of Russia both creates and solves the problem of getting fresh food to people. Remote settlements have never been able to depend on food deliveries, but they do have plenty of land. So, they plant. This long tradition of hard work and self-reliance has created a strong tie to the land, a peasant culture, that continues today amongst both rural and urban Russians. 

A drone view of a dacha community
The model for these garden plots is called dacha gardening. Dachas have been a  part of Russian life for centuries. At one time, they were mostly rural estates of nobleman and political elites looking to escape city summers. But, after the after the traumas of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, there were serious food shortages and the people turned back to what they knew – tending the land. The idea of a dacha changed from an elitist retreat to a small plot of land for growing a garden, with living structures that were initially very basic. Millions of city-dwelling Russians began commuting back and forth to their dacha gardens in the spring and summer. The whole custom has worked so well that it continues to this day. 

A drawing of the guidelines of a plot. (Source: Revue Jardins aupres des Oussas’bas, Moscow, April 1959, p.13)
The rise of dacha gardens in the early part of the 20th century was initially an informal and organic response to food insecurity, but the state soon stepped in to regulate the allotments. It was not just the land that was regulated, but also what was planted and how it was laid out. This may seem a bit over-reaching regulation-wise (something the Soviets were well known for), but in this case the model they presented was essentially what had been working for centuries. A traditionally laid out Dacha garden perfectly encapsulates not just Russian food culture but includes crops that can work within the short growing season to provide exactly what is needed and desired.

A shirtless Russian man leaning on a shovel by a smoking fire. He is surrounded by gardens and there is a blue house in the background.
Classic dacha gardens are an average of 600 square meters (or around 6458 square feet) in size and will contain cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, radishes, carrots, garlic, dill, horseradish and potatoes. Potatoes are especially important for a couple of reasons; they are undeniably nutritious, but they are also what old-fashioned vodka comes from (to this day, it is estimated that more than 90% of Russia’s potatoes come from small farms). Berries are also grown, with currants, gooseberries and strawberries being popular. Another essential ingredient in a dacha garden are the fruit trees, often placed around the plot to form growing fences. A wide variety of fruit trees are cultivated, including apple, pear, cherry and plum. And don’t forget the flowers – particularly those like the sunflower that offer more than just beauty. These crops create a beautiful garden that promises a well-rounded, nutritious and flavorful harvest. And, of course, it is all organic.

A bald man kneeling with a shovel by a wheelbarrow. There are a variety of fruits and vegetables around him.
There are two additional elements that define a traditional dacha garden but may not play well here in the US (for reasons I don’t believe I need to elaborate on) – the bounty of the harvest is shared with others and all the work is done by hand with tools (no animals or machinery). Throughout the Soviet period, how much people grew and how much they shared was highly regulated, but the mindset to share has long been a part of that cultural attachment to community and the land. Likewise, the practice of only using hand tools began in the past but continues today. It may have started out of the necessity of poverty or lack of access to resources, but nowadays people seek out the physicality of it all and there is pride in producing just what you and your handful of tools can coax from the earth. Again, this reflects that the ancient peasant culture is alive and well today.

A greenhouse shaped like a Russian submarine in a garden plot. There is a satellite dish in the background.
Dacha gardens are a uniquely Russian creation that are like mini snapshots of their rich culture. After all, where else would you find a greenhouse shaped like a Russian submarine? If this blog has stirred your interest, there is a lot of information out there about them. You can research them as a food cultivation subject, or from a socio-political or historical viewpoint. There are probably other angles as well, but you get the idea. And if you are interested in what's  happening currently, here is a nice little video that shows what a dacha garden looks like for a family today, and this article is a first-person account of a dacha community that was written last summer.

To fingers pointing at a map of Russia.

Submitted by Pam

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