Urban gardening takes root in Prague

Photo: archive of Prazelenina

Three years after the opening of the first community garden in Prague, the idea of growing plants in the city seems to have put down firm roots and is quickly spreading all over the country, with an increasing number of Czechs taking to urban gardening.

Photo: archive of Prazelenina
The country’s first community urban garden, Prazelenina, opened in the Prague district of Holešovice in the year 2011. The little island of greenery, hidden among apartment buildings and bustling streets, became a favorite meeting point for the local community. Indeed, its founder Matěj Petránek says that Prazelenina is not about cultivating plants but rather good relations. I visited the community garden to talk to one of its managers, Marcela Straková, and to ask her how exactly it works:

“Once we open the season, which is usually in mid April, you either enroll via the internet or you just come here, you pay the deposit and the fee for gardening that we charge, and then you just start. Which means that you fill your bag with soil and establish your own allotment that you take care of. We provide all the gardening equipment that you need and we also offer some additional activities, so you can use the garden on a daily basis from mid-April until the end of October.”

Prazelenina is open every day from three to ten. Apart from allotments, which at this part of the year feature all kinds of vegetables from tomatoes and courgettes to squashes and potatoes, there is also a café, which offers drinks and refreshments. Various events also take place in the garden. When I visit, a painting course for kids is just under way and the place is swarming with people. Unlike in the first year of its existence, when people were paid to work in the garden, Prazelenina is now run entirely by a team of volunteers, something Marcela Straková is very proud of:

“My ambition was to establish a team that would be motivated enough besides their jobs and other duties to stay with the project and devote their time to it. There is a great team of 29 people. They come here on a regular basis, they take shift, they help each other and I think it is kind of a miracle, to have people motivated and do things without being paid, with sheer enthusiasm behind it. I think there is nothing more than that.”

In the late sunny afternoon, people are standing on their miniature fields, having a drink and chatting. I ask one of the growers, Pavel, to show me his patch of land:

Photo: archive of Prazelenina
“So this is our one square meter.”

What are you growing here?

“We have got some strawberries, tomatoes, salads and peas, but this year we have had a bad result. I guess we take it more seriously than we should.”

How often do you come here?

“Twice a week, roughly. Sometimes daily, sometimes once in three days. Just to meet friends and water the plants.”

So do you live somewhere close?

“Next door, I would say. We started three years ago, so this is our third season.”

Why do you come here? What do you like about this place?

“We are a community garden. Initially it was just a place to meet our friends. We loved the idea so we decided to join. And now we are actually in the association running the garden. We pay for the soil and make the decisions together with our friends, so for us it is more about socializing rather than about growing.”

With Prazelenina clearly becoming very successful, I wonder whether they have thought about extending their project. But Marcela Straková says it is not their ambition to make it very public:

“This is a community project designed for local community of people. The place has become very popular so a lot of people want to visit the place. But we still want to keep it on a community basis. It is not a public spot. It is open to public and everybody is welcome to join us, but we make sure that everybody knows what the project is about. “

Photo: archive of Prazelenina
So what would you say is the main idea behind Prazelenina?

“To grow vegetables and to be together. Sometimes growing vegetables is not the main activity which brings the people here, they just want to do something together. Gardening is the main activity but community and gardening goes hand in hand.”

Photo: www.kokoza.cz
Unlike Prazelenina, another community garden in Prague called Kokoza has more ambitions. Its founders, Lucie Lankašová and Kristina Regalová, were looking for something they could do together to earn a living and do something meaningful at the same time. They decided to combine their experience with social work and ecology and established a community garden which employs disabled people. They are currently running two gardens and plan to launch a composting device by the end of this year. I asked Kristina Regalova to tell me more about their plans:

“Composting is a big theme for us. We want to offer people the possibility to sort waste. We will use bio waste from their kitchens and turn it into compost that will be used in the city garden or sold to people. Our employees will gather the waste using bicycles, so they can reach even the densely populated housing estates. Some forty percent of household waste consists of bio waste, and the issue has never really been addressed. It is a serious problem and we want to do something about it.”

Apart from their current projects, Kokoza also organizes seminars and workshops for people who want to start gardening or to establish a community garden of their own. Their website also provides a map of all existing community gardens in the country. Although the beginnings were not easy and the project still hardly makes profit, Kristina Regalová says that the attitude of politicians is turning in their favor:

“It is much easier nowadays than it was three years ago, when we started the project of community garden along with Prazelenina. It was something new and politicians were afraid because they didn’t understand it and didn’t know what to expect. But their attitude has changed completely, from suspicion to interest. Nowadays they actually address us themselves.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
But what if you don’t live round the corner from a community garden or you don’t have the time to look after a patch of land, but you would still like to do some gardening? Anita Blahušová offers a solution in her book, which has just recently been published. It is called “Zahrádka v květináči” or “Garden in a Pot”.

“You can call it pot gardening or container gardening or sometimes people call it window-sill gardening, which I think expresses best the idea behind it. Even if you don’t have a balcony, or terrace or a roof where you could grow vegetables or flowers, you always have a window and that means you also have a window sill. And there you can place even small pots, fill them with soil and start gardening. With a little bit of creativity or enthusiasm everything is possible.”

How did you start with window sill gardening?

“I grew up in a small town and then I moved to Prague to study. After the university, where I studied economics, the Czech Republic joined the EU. So I moved to Brussels and worked for various EU institutions. But I was not in touch with nature. I realized that there were days when I was outside only for fifteen minutes. I needed some kind of touch with nature, with something living. Also, Belgium and Great Britain have a very different climate, because it’s rainy and it’s better for the plants because they grow faster. So almost everyone was gardening there. Here in the Czech Republic, gardening is still seen as something for elderly people and not as something challenging or creative. But in fact it is.”

Do you think it is changing?

“Yes it is. Indeed. You see all these young moms trying to grow healthy vegetables for their kids. There is a great boom of cooking, cooking shows and so on. And if you cook, you also start to grow.”

What would you tell people who have never gardened before and they want to start? What is the best way to start?

Photo: www.kokoza.cz
“I would say start with herbs, because they can survive almost everything. You can also use them in cooking, the smell is beautiful, sometimes they even flower and they are resistant against dryness. Even if you forget to water them for two three days or even a week, they survive. So I would say start with herbs.”

What is the best thing about gardening?

“You can get in touch with the changing of the seasons and with things connected with nature that we are detached from. It’s calming, it’s reassuring, it takes your stress away, and it is really rewarding.”