Home Fashion For a Ukrainian Gardener, Flowers Offer a Way Forward

For a Ukrainian Gardener, Flowers Offer a Way Forward

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The Clematis that delight Alla Olkhovska the most among the 120 or so types she grows are not the familiar, large-flowered hybrids, as extravagantly beautiful as they are. It’s the small, less frequently grown species — the ones whose common names often include the phrase “leather flower,” many of them native to the Southeastern United States — that have stolen her heart.

Their scaled-down charm makes them ethereal subjects for photography, another passion of Ms. Olkhovska’s. But what really impresses her is how well the tiny, bell-shaped blooms with their thick petals stand up to the increasingly hot, dry summers her garden is experiencing.

The whiteleaf leather flower (C. glaucophylla) and scarlet leather flower (C. texensis), for example, can really take the heat, and just keep blooming and blooming, adapting to challenging environmental circumstances.

Two years ago this month, a more sudden call to adapt was sounded — this one to the gardener herself, along with her fellow Ukrainian citizens. In Kharkiv, where she lives, and around the nation, war had arrived.

Ms. Olkhovska, who is now 38, had been building up her plant collection in preparation for starting a small rare-plants nursery. But with war came a new assignment: to find a way, in the face of it, to support her family.

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

The family was rooted in place, unable to afford relocating, as they watched so many neighbors do, following round after round of missile and drone attacks that ravaged the city and its infrastructure.

With Ukrainians “not knowing what will happen next, and a very, very big decline in the standard of living,” Ms. Olkhovska said, she knew that starting a local nursery was no longer feasible; any customers would have to come from elsewhere.

Shopping for plants, she added, is just not front of mind “when you’re afraid, and you don’t know what will happen with the territory — whether you’ll be able to stay there, or if you will survive the winter.”

Nevertheless, it was her garden, and especially her Clematis, that provided, showing her the way forward.

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

The internet, after all, was where she had started learning about plants when she got her first computer at 20. Then, as now, hobbyists and experts would gather on foreign forums and, later, social media to swap horticultural knowledge and seed. Perhaps, she thought, some of those connections might help her expand her small customer base.

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

As it turned out, however, Ms. Olkhovska’s taste in plants, honed on those foreign forums, had made the seeds from her Clematis collection especially marketable. Different sells.

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

Her affection for species plants over hybrids has helped, too, because many non-hybrid types can be grown more reliably from seed than the offspring of the large-flowered hybrids, which don’t resemble the parent plant.

But she had gravitated toward them for another reason beyond their potential as mail-order seed-packet material. “The species are the beginning of any hybrids we have in the garden,” she said. “My idea was to introduce a nice collection of species plants to my garden in order to try making hybrids myself, in some future time.”

In the meantime, though, her energy was focused on growing, harvesting, packaging and selling. As she accelerated her efforts, more foreign orders arrived, including one last spring from Erin Benzakein of Floret, a flower farm and seed company in the Skagit Valley of northwestern Washington.

Clematis vines make distinctive filler for flower arrangements, and Ms. Benzakein was searching the web for unusual varieties to expand the farm’s selection. She had read about Ms. Olkhovska’s seed list and wanted to see for herself.

It was the photographs that pulled Ms. Benzakein in. With more than a million Instagram followers and multiple books to her credit, including a New York Times best seller, she has a highly cultivated eye not just for flowers, but for effective media.

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

Into her shopping cart went seeds and more seeds. Soon messages started going back and forth between the two women.

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

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

Like her day-to-day life, it is a work of chiaroscuro, a portrait of extremes — roses and guns.

We see her at the kitchen table in her hooded fleece robe, working by candlelight, during yet another power outage. To a soundtrack of air-raid sirens, she is counting seeds to pack into little envelopes for shipping.

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

It’s not the first time that the plot at Granny’s has come to the family’s rescue. The house once belonged to Ms. Olkhovska’s great-grandfather, who planted an orchard in post-World War II Soviet times, hoping to provide income and food.

Now his great-granddaughter is cultivating seed there, and not just from the Clematis that scramble over shrubs, festooning their branches with colorful little bells and stars and, later, the froth of all those seed heads. There are species peonies, too, and other treasures.

In another scene in the documentary, she holds out one hand piled with the latest Clematis gleanings, each seed still attached to its feathery brown tail. “It’s incredible how many lives — future lives — I have in my hand right now,” she says.

But it was another moment, a spontaneous one, that struck Mr. Finch most of all in the documentary, as he watched footage of Ms. Olkhovska filming herself cutting flowers to bring home. “It’s very important for me to have some fresh flowers, and I do it despite everything,” she says as she scouts for blooms. “Even when it’s really hard, because it helps — it helps to cope with the problems.”

Nature’s influence as a restorative agent and a force of connection is almost regarded as a given by those who engage with the outdoors. “But here it was put to the test,” Mr. Finch said in a recent Zoom call. “Put to the test in a wartime situation, of all places.”

If there was ever 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, or have heat or electricity, or avoid missile attacks or drone attacks?” he said. “Yes, it still matters.”

Like any gardener in a cold, dark winter, Ms. Olkhovska dreams of gentler times ahead — of new flower beds she will make, and of “my biggest dream, making my own nursery.”

But unlike the equinox, the end of the war isn’t preprinted on any calendar. There is no date.

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

The plants, she said, motivate her “to work — and to stay alive.”

Motivation seems to be something she is not short on. Besides building her seed business in wartime and fulfilling her family responsibilities, Ms. Olkhovska has written a 124-page e-book about Clematis, a mini-encyclopedia that she published last summer and that Floret has helped to 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 that shopping binge. On our Zoom call, she confessed that she had ordered extra packets of each variety — and backups of the backups, too — just in case.

“No, you won’t fail,” Ms. Olkhovska quickly interjected, as if to release her friend from the weight of any worry. “If you fail, I will send you more seeds. We’ll do it till you succeed.”


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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