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Creating and developing the SETO FARM GARDEN at the Estonian Open Air Museum 

Compiled by Anneli Banner 

Translated by Maret Tamjärv

The Estonian Open Air Museum, established in 1957, is located in the capital of Estonia,  Tallinn. It holds a good collection of rural architecture. Farm buildings from different times  and different areas of Estonia as well as public buildings (mills, a chapel, a schoolhouse, a  village shop, etc.) are displayed here on 70 hectares. Each farm or a single dwelling has an  authentic garden with vegetables, fruit trees, and ornamental plants. There are about 80  historical buildings and, together with corresponding gardens, they represent rural life from  the 19th century to the present day.  


Picture 1. View of the Estonian Open Air Museum. Photo by T. Tuul.

The Estonian Open Air Museum started to work with heritage plants more than ten years ago  and has developed some basic principles to be applied in this field. First of all, we search for  old varieties. We prefer not to buy plants and seeds from garden centres, but rather get them  from people who still grow them in their gardens. We have organised field trips and visits to  gardens, carried out interviews with gardeners, and collected plants and seeds. 

We also document all collected plants and write down as much information about a particular  plant as we can get from an informant. This way a plant gets its history and starts telling its  own story. 

After being brought to the museum a plant becomes an exhibit and an essential part of the  exposition. As museums teach people to appreciate cultural heritage, they also serve as ideal  places for cultivating heritage plants. Together with farm buildings, historical garden tools,  agricultural machinery, and kitchen utensils, plants cultivated and used in old days can be  exhibited as well. Heritage plants naturally belong to the environment displayed at the open air museum; they complement and enliven the museum exposition.


Picture 2. Investigating plants in a home garden during a field trip. Allase farm, Litvina village, Seto region. Photo by M. Tamjärv.

Heritage plants are cultivated varieties that have been grown in a certain location for a long  time; they are adapted to different conditions and in this way create a rich genetic diversity.  This diversity is significant for future sustainability and food security. Heritage cultivars are  not suitable for industrial agriculture and, therefore, nowadays they are often not grown in  gardens and farms anymore. Seeds of some heritage cultivars are preserved in gene banks,  but many of them are forgotten and even extinct. By growing heritage plants in museums, we help to preserve them for future generations. Preserving perennials is easy, as they live  for many years. Yet, to preserve annuals and biennials, we need to constantly grow and  collect their seeds. Thus, seed saving knowledge is essential for preserving heirloom garden  plants. 

Seto farm garden 

The Setos are an indigenous ethnic group in Southeast Estonia with a distinctive culture and  way of living. Their life has been strongly influenced by the Russian culture due to the  region’s location next to the Russian border. Farm buildings brought to the museum from  the Seto region were built at the turn of the 19th-20th century. The Seto farmstead was opened to visitors in 2015 and it represents the time from the end of the 19th century to the  beginning of the 1960s. Along with erecting the farm at the museum, an investigation of the  Seto gardening traditions and heritage garden plants was carried out. 


Picture 3. Erecting buildings of the Seto farm at the Estonian Open Air Museum in 2014. Photo  by A. Banner.

History of gardening in the Seto region

In studying the gardening traditions in the Seto region, different sources were used which  included both published materials (monographs, articles, print journalism) and archival data. In addition, several interviews were carried out and analysed, several gardens were visited  and documented. The collected data and materials are preserved at the Estonian Open Air  Museum.  

For the Setos, vegetable growing is a long tradition and a garden has been a necessity of life.  As farmland plots were small and often not fertile in this region, traditional grain growing  and stock raising were more complicated. To feed their families, the Seto farmers had to find  additional occupations. Men often earned their living outside the farm, while women stayed  home and took up gardening, as little land was needed for growing vegetables. The entire  plot was turned into beds and furrows. Garden crops were eaten by the growers themselves  but they were also sold to earn additional income. Over time, this region developed its  characteristic selling items. The Seto gardeners were (and still are) especially famous for  their fresh and pickled cucumbers as well as onions and strawberries.  


Picture 4:  Yard plan of Vaariku farmstead in the Seto region, dating from about 1917. Archive of  the Estonian National Museum.

Sometimes the vegetable garden and the orchard were separated whereas sometimes they  were combined, yet they were always enclosed by a fence. In the first half of the 20th century, the Setos cultivated plenty of white cabbages, onions, cucumbers, and radishes in  their gardens, as well as beetroots, swedes, turnips, carrots, pumpkins, peas, and broad  beans. There were usually a few apple trees in the orchard and often pear and cherry trees  were grown there as well. Garden berries were of no particular importance in the Seto region – usually, there were one or two black currant bushes in the garden, as their leaves  were essential for pickling cucumbers. Starting from the 1930s, growing strawberries  became profitable. Compared to the rest of Estonia the growing season starts about two weeks earlier in the Seto region, as it is situated in the southern part of the country. For this reason, strawberries ripen there earlier and give the advantage of a good sale to the Seto gardeners. 

Ornamental gardens did not get much attention on Seto farms. Simple flowerbeds were  made under the living room window and were usually surrounded by a dense high fence. Sometimes ornamental gardens with several flowerbeds and a bench, surrounded by a fence  with a gate, were laid out at the side or front wall of the dwelling house. Typical flowers grown in these gardens were monkhoods, fire lilies, bleeding hearts, cutleaf coneflowers, and dahlias.

Creating the Seto farm garden  

The design and content of the museum´s Seto farm garden are based on historical research and represent the period from 1950 to 1960. It does not duplicate a specific garden, but  rather gives a generalized picture of a typical garden from that period. Between the dwelling  house and the storehouse, there is a yard where usually nothing was cultivated. A small  fenced flowerbed is situated under the living room window. A combined vegetable garden  and orchard are located on one side of the yard, surrounded by a dense and high picket  fence. 


Picture 5:  The fruit and kitchen garden of Seto farm in spring 2015. Photo by A. Banner.

Along with studying history, expeditions for finding and collecting old garden plants were  organised. The aim was to bring to the museum as many plants from the authentic Seto farm  gardens as possible. Perennials (ornamentals and vegetables) and old cultivars of fruit trees  and garden berries were relatively easy to find, as they live for many years and are often  preserved in gardens. Annual and biennial garden plants need constant propagation from  seeds. Instead of doing this, today gardeners prefer to buy new seeds each year and heritage  cultivars tend to disappear from gardens. For this reason, we have also obtained some  vegetable seeds from trade, but even then we have preferred older or local cultivars. Some  specific fruit cultivars were propagated for us in the Polli Horticultural Research Centre. All  plants brought to and planted in the garden are well documented and described. 

Seto farm garden was established in the spring of 2015. After building fences, the garden  plot was covered with a thick layer of planting soil and the surface was smoothed. One part  of it was reserved for an orchard, and grass seeds were sown there, whereas several vegetable beds were made in the other part. Flowerbeds were made in the same spring.  


Picture 6. First vegetable beds in the Seto farm garden in spring 2015. Photo by A. Banner.

Managing and developing the garden

Seto farm garden complements the permanent exhibition and serves as a place to introduce the Seto way of living. Although we have collected several plants from the gardens in the Seto region, our collection is still incomplete and needs further replenishment. We have good contacts with some research institutions and other organizations who help us by  providing necessary plant material. The Polli Horticultural Research Centre has already been  mentioned, but we have got seeds and support also from the Estonian Crop Research  Institute and a seed saving organization, NGO Maadjas. 

There is one full-time and one part-time gardener at the Estonian Open Air Museum, taking  care of all our gardens, including the Seto farm garden. They are helped by volunteers and  trainees. The Estonian Open Air Museum has a well-functioning partnership with the Kopli  Vocational School of Tallinn. Their horticulture students take part in preparing the vegetable  plot of the Seto farm garden each spring and learn about Seto gardening traditions and  traditional garden plants.  

Museums are well-known informal educational institutions. Thus, museum gardens serve as  good starting points for spreading knowledge about agrobiodiversity, heritage plants, and  sustainable gardening. For this purpose, we have introduced heritage plants and gardening issues on public events, arranged guided garden tours, programs for children, workshops, and seminars. 

We intend to label the most important and characteristic heritage plants in the Seto farm  garden and to lead visitors to our homepage where they can find more information about  these plants. In addition, a bigger information board about plants and the history of  gardening is going to be set up next to the garden. 

 In conclusion 

Latest changes in the field of economy, environment, and health care have reminded us of  the importance of subsistence activities. The popularity of gardening activities and home grown food has risen and people are looking for forgotten and new knowledge. We have  also seen the growing interest of museum visitors in gardening issues and local food crops. 

The Seto farm garden mediates the gardening traditions and historical garden plants characteristic of the Seto region. Plants have become an essential part of the museum´s  permanent exhibition. At the same time, the museum has become a place for introducing garden heritage and agrobiodiversity. This is important, as the more people know and grow  heritage cultivars the better they are saved for the future.

List of plants  

You can find a list of plants originating from farms and households in the Seto region or other  areas in Southeast Estonia HERE.

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