“I’ve only ever been here for photoshoots,” my guide, Natia, admits as we round the top of Khudadovi hill and pull up at the front gate of Gardenia Shevardnadze.
Located on the east side of Tbilisi, this is one of the city’s original ‘Instagram destinations’—a fact that’s admittedly dissuaded me from visiting until now. On any given afternoon you’ll find the garden buzzing with trios of friends, all dressed in their finest straw hats and frou-frou dresses, posing for photos with parasols or tea cups. On a rainy Sunday morning in June, by contrast, the grounds are quiet and tranquil.
As with most things in Georgia, there’s much more to Gardenia than meets the eye. There’s a fascinating story—and more than a couple of charismatic characters—behind Tbilisi’s first nursery.
Zurab Shevardnadze’s green thumb
Stepping into the grounds of Gardenia Shevardnadze is like setting foot inside the Garden of Eden. A labyrinth of gravel paths winds through manicured beds popping with blooms and round clay vessels planted with succulents and aloes. At the back of the garden, there’s a small lake replete with a pair of squawking geese. Beyond that, fields of flowers and herbs are laid like a patchwork quilt at the foot of a row of stunning houses, each with stained glass windows and wooden balconies. It’s a stark contrast to the other houses and empty lots on the street.
The complex is named after project founder, Zurab Shevardnadze, a buoyant chap who appears amongst the foliage dressed in his signature getup: plaid shirt, red scarf, dapper hat. He proudly introduces himself to us as ‘Georgia’s first gardener’. That can’t be right, I think to myself. Almost every city I’ve visited in Georgia has a botanical garden, a dendrological park or some kind of landscaped green space. But Zurab is indeed a vanguard: he was the first to take on decorative gardening as a profession in post-Soviet Georgia.
My visit to his botanical empire is part of a program organized by The Levan Mikeladze Diplomatic Training Center, which so far has taken me to see the Sukhishvili National Ballet and a range of museums. A plant nursery seems like a strange addition to our itinerary—but this speaks to Zurab’s status in Tbilisi as a protector of native flora and a role model to Georgia’s next generation of horticulturalists.
With Natia interpreting, Zurab explains that his love of plants is lifelong, but that gardening was not considered a respectful profession when he was growing up in Soviet Georgia. It wasn’t until the early 2000s after his country was freed from the yoke of communism that Zurab could finally pursue his passion.
One day he was pottering around at the Tbilisi Botanical Garden when a chance encounter with a group of plant scientists from Munich changed everything. Zurab moved to Germany and after five years at the University of Bonn, returned home with a doctoral degree in botany and biology, and a big idea.
Having secured a sizable grant and a blessing from the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, Zurab set about opening the first public college in Georgia dedicated to ornamental gardening. The Institute of Decorative Horticulture and Ecology was established on the grounds of Tbilisi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral in 2006 with Zurab as its director, a position he still holds today.
‘A garden for everyone’
It wasn’t long before the first budding green thumbs started enrolling at the college to train in a newly built horticultural laboratory and floral design workshop. But there was a problem: there was no place where students could apply their theoretical knowledge on a larger scale. That’s when Zurab decided to invest his savings (earned through a side gig as a landscape designer) to purchase a parcel of abandoned land on the east side of Tbilisi. In doing so, he awakened another dream: to create a place where plants and humans could coexist in harmony, ‘a garden for everyone’.
Zurab and his students worked the land every day for three years, slowly transforming the forsaken plot into an arcadia. When it opened to the public, Gardenia Shevardnadze was an instant hit—so much so that they had to erect a fence and front gate for crowd control. Zurab started charging a small entry fee to cover maintenance costs and hired his first full-time staff member (she’s still around today—you’ll meet her later).
15 years on, Gardenia has more than tripled in size to cover one sprawling hectare (10000 square meters). A cafe, The Little Cafe, was added on the proviso that ‘there should be a cafe in the garden and not a garden around the cafe’. Georgian tea from Guria, cakes and meals flavored with garden herbs are served. Indoor function spaces for weddings and parties are every bit as opulent as the garden, outfitted with antique kilims, sepia photos and lounges upholstered in rich fabrics, all draped in the leaves of overgrown monstera plants. Some of the fixtures inside the six-room guesthouse, Villa Gardenia, were reborn right here at the onsite furniture restoration workshop.
For all this, Gardenia employs a team of 40 people. Some tend the grounds and cultivate seedlings – Zurab needs the help, as his onsite nursery sells thousands of plants to the public every week. He still lectures at the college every Thursday, where many of his first pupils have gone on to become teachers. Proceeds from the nursery help fund scholarships for young Georgians who want to pursue a career in decorative gardening, while ‘Green Lessons’ for kids and intensive horticultural courses for adults are held at Gardenia every spring and fall.
How does your garden grow?
After our introduction, Zurab leads us through a back gate marked with a ‘no entry’ sign where a couple of makeshift greenhouses are hidden from view. This part of Gardenia does not have the same Instagram-worthy appeal as the front garden, but as Zurab explains, “this is where everything happens.”
As we follow him inside one of the greenhouses, he traces the periphery of a large table, examining the rows of tiny potted seedlings with a discerning eye. These ones are ready to be sold, he declares, then motions to a smaller table where a cluster of less-mature seedlings are waiting to be rotated in. Gardenia cultivates around 50 species of plant every year—just a small sample of the thousands of varieties that live on the grounds. And 90% of what we see in the greenhouses, Zurab says, is not grown anywhere else in Georgia.
While the plants do look pretty, there’s a more consequential side to Gardenia. Reviving rare flora is an essential component of Zurab’s work. Georgia is part of the so-called ‘Caucasus Hotspot’, home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,200-6,400 species of plants, up to a quarter of which are exclusive to this territory. (In the early 20th century, this was a favorite spot among plant hunters searching for exotic specimens to take back to Europe.) Zurab makes the most of this incredible botanical smorgasbord by focusing on indigenous plants as well as flowers from Iran, the Indian Subcontinent and elsewhere.
Everything sold at the nursery and much of what grows in the gardens has been reared onsite from seeds in these very greenhouses. “It’s the main secret of our success,” Zurab says, emphasizing that everything is done from scratch in the simplest and most cost-effective way possible. This keeps prices low, which helps him stay true to his goal of making plants accessible to everyone. Seedlings are priced at 5 GEL (roughly 1.60 USD) each.
Maro Bebo, grandmother to all plants
Leaving the bright greenhouse behind, Zurab explains that our next stop on the tour is by far the most important. He may be the face of Gardenia, but the real hero of the operation is out in the back shed.
As we enter the dark and cool concrete-floored room, I spot a fireplace in the corner still full of charred debris from last winter. It’s obvious that someone spends a lot of time here. Along another wall, a wooden bench labors under a small mountain of rich, dark soil. Lit by a single industrial lamp, a woman takes a scoop of earth from the ever-depleting pile and gently presses a bright green sprig inside.
This is Gardenia’s first employee, Maro Bebo (‘Grandma Maro’). Now 90 years old, she has had dirt under her fingernails for her entire life, starting with her days as an agricultural worker in Soviet Georgia. An irreplaceable member of the Gardenia team, Maro Bebo is the one who speaks the language of plants. “We’ve learned so many things from her,” Zurab says. Just as she has been nurturing seedlings for decades, now the Gardenia team takes care of Maro Bebo.
The substrate she so tenderly handles, Zurab continues, is Gardenia’s own ‘recipe’: A blend of soil and minerals that’s free from chemical additives. Once complete, the seedlings in little plastic cups (another cost-saving technique) are placed in fruit crates salvaged from the Dezerter Bazaar, Tbilisi’s wholesale market. Zurab explains everything with such intimate knowledge—right down to the fact that the crates were used to transport Turkish oranges in a previous life, as if the remnants of fruit peel might imbue his plants with something special. Maro Bebo just smiles and nods, never pausing to raise her hands from the dirt.
Gardenia Shevardnadze is a place like no other in Tbilisi—and there’s certainly more to the story than what the Instagram selfies would have you believe. Looking for more Tbilisi inspiration? Check out our Local’s Guide to Tbilisi.