We woke early, after what felt like the best night’s sleep I’d had in years. Evenings in Vlad are on the cool side, perfect for sleeping. After a rather strange breakfast of buttery succotash pasta, a fried chicken leg, and fried egg, we headed over to the botanical garden to have a look around and tag along on a series of tours lined up in honor of “Environmental Education Week”.
1st impressions: The main building looms behind a large metal gate with a turnstile (yes, unlike us, they have a gate and fence and charge admission). The 4-story tan brick building topped with an assortment of HVAC equipment and antenna resembles a TV station or hospital, and is more than just a little intimidating. But outside waiting for us was a familiar face, Valya, one of the three women who had visited Seattle last Sept., and with her she had her newborn son, Vladislav (did I mention we are in Russia?). Any apprehension I felt dissolved at once. We were taken inside and greeted by their young and charismatic director, Pavol Krestov. He studied in BC, and speaks very good English. After some brief niceties, it was time to get to work. There were 3 tours scheduled, and the first one was to start momentarily. It should be noted that these tours did not exist before Albina, Valya, and Nadya’s visit to Seattle last fall.
The first group was composed of about 40 kids ranging in age from 6 – 16. They were part of a program that aims to help children deal with abusive home lives. This was not just some softball group lofted over the plate to make their program look good to us visiting Americans, this was a challenging population by any standard. Shockingly, Pavol himself welcomed the group and kicked off the tour by jumping right into a discussion about the sun as the source of all energy and plants’ ability to photosynthesize. No introductions, no ice-breakers, none of it – straight into lecture. It was clear from the get go that they do things a little differently around here. After the intro, the group was divided into 2 smaller groups (one younger, one older) and the lecture continued. Tony and I went with the older group. Olga led the first part that took place in the greenhouse, short Katya picked it up from there with a tour of the display gardens, and Valya wrapped things up with a few games. If it sounds like this program was all over the place, that’s because it was. And while my overall impression was “information overload”, it did give us a good chance to see the garden!
The layout is very different from UWBG. The place is jam packed full of plants, organized by genus with a focus on pretty annuals. The plants themselves are arranged in rows giving it the feel of a nursery or even a farm. Indeed, there is even a small chicken coup housing some spectacularly colored varieties that lends to this feeling of being on a farm. Not all of the garden is arranged in this way, there are some very well designed beds that feature a wide variety of plants, perennials and annuals alike, but we spent much of our time during 2 of the 3 tours in the ornamental section. The 3rd tour was in the wooded area that makes up about 80% of Vlad BG’s grounds. It’s a beautiful mixed forest populated by birch, oak, fir and pine. The understory features a handful of fern species, several deciduous shrubs (Ribes among them), a few berry bushes and various ground huggers.
The tours were well recieved by the public and it was great to see so many people show up despite the enormously inhibitive road construction going on outside the gates. It was also great to see so many different guides leading these tours, speaking to the strong sense of teamwork the education program promotes. They may not have much in terms of resources to work with or financial support, but what they do have going for them is their people…in this way, our two organizations are very much alike. The tours ended around 5pm. We dined at a nearby Armenian restaurant and spent the rest of the evening/night prepping for tomorrow’s big event – a regional EE Conference organized by Vlad BG to be held at the Institute of Marine Biology. It was a pretty big deal, and we were the main event. The look of anxiety Nadya wore on her face said it all – don’t blow it.