Remembering Sasha

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Although not a charter member of PVC, Sasha was one of the early members; he joined in 1965 when he and Vera were living in Kensington, Maryland. That's where he built his first Maryland rock garden. In 1973 they moved to a small house on a wooded hillside in Wheaton, Maryland. The house is on Kemp Mill Road which forms one of the boundaries of Wheaton Regional Park. Part of this hillside was once the site of a mica mine. Sasha once told me about the tons of gravel he had brought in to make the rock garden on this hillside site. It's hard to imagine heavily laden gravel trucks making their way up the narrow winding driveway. The hillside continues to rise a bit behind the house, and it was on this gentle rise that he built the main part of the rock garden. There is a bit of patio just outside the house, then a small (but deep - six feet!) pond. From there the rock garden proper rises gently into the distance.  The rock garden was designed as a stroll garden: one walked up into it and wandered off onto numerous interconnecting side trails.  Above and behind the rock garden are massive trees with a very high canopy; this high canopy allows in plenty of light and helps shade the rock garden from afternoon sun and heat. The rock garden occupies the center of the site; it is surrounded with a mixture of woody and herbaceous undergrowth.  You can make out many of these features in the images below.

 

Sasha was a regular contributor to the bulletins of both the (as it was known back then) American Rock Garden Society and to the chapter newsletter, then called Patowmack Papers. In the near future scanned versions of many of these will appear on our chapter website.

Sasha was a regular contributor to our plant exchanges. Over the years, the membership of the PVC shifted gradually away from people whose primary interest was traditional rock gardening to those whose interests were broader and more diffuse. I often wondered what he thought of us in our recent incarnations: very few of our current membership even have rock gardens.  Contrast that with the situation which prevailed back when Sasha joined: membership was open only to those who actually had a rock garden! The strongly Eurocentric focus of Sasha's  interest in plants - he was one of the few members of the chapter who grew a representative selection of traditional rock garden plants -ensured that the famous rock garden plants were never lacking at our plant exchanges.  At each exchange he would show up with a box lid of plants such as Androsace, Gentiana, Cyclamen, Polygala, Dianthus, Hypericum, Draba and other crucifers, Saxifraga, Campanula and other odds and ends. The plants were often in styrofoam cups which contained a medium with a generous addition of the local bluestone gravel. I've often wondered if his use of that bluestone (serpentine with asbestos I've heard) was not part of the reason for his success with so many gentians. Here's a link to many images of Sasha's Gentiana scabra:

http://www.pvcnargs.org/sashas_gentians_et_al..htm

He pronounced plant names with a strong Czech accent. Among other things, that meant a "hard g" for Gentiana and Geranium. Once, as the two of us walked through his garden, I pointed to a geranium and asked him which Geranium (with a hard g) it was. He flashed a startled look: was I mocking his pronunciation? I saw the look and reassured him that I was using the text-book Latin pronunciations.

On another occasion he pointed to a local weed which he was encouraging in his rock garden. He asked me if I knew what it was. Yes, I did: it was Ascyrum hypericoides, a charming little subshrub found on sterile soils in local woodlands. I've always regarded it highly, but most people seem unaware of its existence. He had a big patch of it at the verge of the shrubbery in one part of the garden.

The plants were not the only notable feature of the garden. Sasha was renowned for his ":newspaper walls". These are low retaining walls made by stacking folded newspapers. The paper quickly acquires a stain from the soil and turns brown. One such wall greets visitors prominently as you enter the fenced rock garden. Another parallels a wall of the house on the other side of the garden. A self-sown plant of Kalmia latifolia has appeared in this wall.  Here are two views of one of these walls:

Alice Nicolson tells this story: "I remember that several years ago I had the pleasure of an excursion into the Czech Republic, and in the Pannonian Alps there I photographed the tall, magnificently colored Gentiana pannonica. I sent him the picture; he was not familiar with the species but told me that he had fled through those mountains during his escape from soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia so many years ago. I think we both ordered seeds of the gentian the following year; mine never germinated, and I don’t know if his did."

In late May he called me to see if I could pick up some plants for the exchange. It was a sad day, and one all gardeners eventually have to face. We started to slowly walk up the rock garden path to the cold frame. I could see that even this small effort left him fatigued. We returned to the patio, and Sasha sat down facing his rock garden. We were both quiet. And then, as he gazed out over his rock garden, he began to say over and over to no one in particular  "I won't be able to do it any more", "I won't be able to care for my garden".  It was so heartfelt and  so touching, and little did I realize how soon those words would come true.

After a brief hospitalization in early June, Sasha was brought home to die. A bed was set up for him in his library so that he might be with his rock garden in his final hours. He died a day later.  Here's the view from his library:

 

Sasha was held in high regard in the local Czech community, a community which he served throughout his life in this country. One indication of that was the presence of the Czech Ambassador Kolář  at the viewing and then later at Sasha's funeral. 

Vera selected the photo at the top of the page: she said that this is the way she wants to remember him. I'm not sure what he's playing there, but he did mention to me once that he used to play in a jazz ensemble.

Jim McKenney

 

 

Some PVC members sent in these remembrances of Sasha; check back later to see if more have arrived:

 

 

Alexej (Sasha) Borkovec was already a long-time member of the Potomac Valley Chapter of NARGS when we joined 20 years ago.  What I noticed even then were the unusual plants that he regularly brought to plant exchanges.  From time to time he would happily share his experience and give short talks at chapter meetings about plants of certain genera that he had grown in his suburban Maryland rock garden.  I specifically remember talks on gentians and androsaces, for example.  I always came away with the feeling, “Oh that was just Sasha; no one else can grow those plants,” which was largely true.  Because of his outstanding success in rock gardening he was invited to speak about growing alpines in the Washington, DC area at the 2002 Eastern Winter Study Weekend.

 

The first time we visited Sasha’s garden in Wheaton, MD what I recall best were the shale-like walls which were in fact derived from weathered piles of newspapers.  There were of course also the plants that no one else could grow: true alpine gentians, Lewisia tweedyi, which seeded around for him, and many others. 

 

I asked Sasha what his secret was and I was impressed by two points: very deep soil preparation and keeping trees on the west side of the garden to provide some shade at the hottest time of the day.  Sasha and Vera had lived in another house before, so when they had to move, he already had surmised the only conditions that would allow him to grow alpines in our region. 

 

Like many of us, Sasha was always trying to add new plants to his garden.  He once joked that over the years he had obtained many different species from seed labeled as Silene hookeri in the NARGS Seed Exchange.   Some of them were quite nice plants too, he added, but none were the true S. hookeri

 

Sasha’s success in growing alpines in our most unsuitable climate was summed up very succinctly by a friend of his after the recent memorial service:  “Many of us try to grow difficult plants,” he said, “but Sasha grew impossible ones!”

 Bob Faden

 

 

What sticks in my mind about Sasha is that he always provided a suite of new kinds of plants to our plant exchange, and he seemed to know quite a bit about every species he grew. I think he got seeds from a number of exchanges, not just NARGS. The seedlings he provided were always high on everyone’s choice list, and many of us have quite a number of plants that he introduced us to. I think of his assorted gentians, Scutellaria laeteviolacea, and of course the variable Ruellia that he called “Black Beauty” and its sister “Green Beauty”. Endless species of his little crucifers came and went in my garden, alas. 

I remember that several years ago I had the pleasure of an excursion into the Czech Republic, and in the Pannonian Alps there I photographed the tall, magnificently colored Gentiana pannonica. I sent him the picture; he was not familiar with the species but told me that he had fled through those mountains during his escape from soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia so many years ago. I think we both ordered seeds of the gentian the following year; mine never germinated, and I don’t know if his did.

Like every gardener among us, Sasha had several other lives which we were never very aware of. He and Vera were stalwarts of the expatriate Czech community and as a leader he was active in renewing relations with his home country when that became possible. In recent years they made regular visits to Prague every fall and kept close contact with his brothers in the Czech Republic. Although he and Vera had no children of their own, they were very close to their nieces and nephews in this country. Born a Catholic, he was not particularly religious but did sing in the choir for 30 years at services for the local Czech community which were held in a local Lutheran church. Sasha also played the guitar!

Alice Nicolson