Welcoming spring weather & garden season Czech-style
In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. – Margaret Atwood
Despite my strong attraction for being outside (in any season), I am at my least-best when asked to work in my garden. I feel particularly conflicted about my lack of gardening enthusiasm because many friends who live in apartments in the center of Prague or high-rises on the city’s outskirts would long to get their hands dirty in the green space that causes me to wake up on otherwise beautiful spring Saturday mornings in a cold sweat.
Although over 50% of Czechs live in flats, this does not mean Czechs are not gardeners. On the contrary, my Czech friends, neighbors, and students use their country’s green space to the fullest. Either by harvesting tomatoes, peppers, and beans in balcony pots, tending vegetable gardens and fruit orchards at their cottage, or co-owning small plots of land (where often there is no cottage, just a garden). Our home is situated on the outskirts of Prague and observing these co-owned garden plots with their tiny sheds or day cottages is a highlight of my trails bike rides and forest runs.
But, in this culture of avid planters, ambitious gardeners, and seasoned cottage-owners (where one of the traditions that marks spring’s arrival is airing out the cottage and moving seedlings from makeshift greenhouses and kitchen counters to the soil), I am lost.
How can words like weeding, planting, pruning, hedging, clipping, mowing, cutting, and trimming awaken dread in a person who runs forested trails, hikes mountain passes, and thinks a stroll through manicured castle grounds is a grand treat?
Respect for nature, garden appreciation, and even sous-gardening (i.e. following explicit instructions from an experienced gardener – pull those weeds from the marigolds, dig up this patch of potatoes, do NOT over water the geraniums), are all within my skill set.
What is it about cultivating my own green space that so freaks me out?
When the morning air is still crisp, and the crocuses are just peeping their delicate sprouts from the soil, my husband and I launch what has now become a seasonal ritual.
(CONVERSATION RECREATED FROM MY MEMORY)
Radek: It’s time to work in the garden. Can’t you see, everything is starting to wake up.”
Me: Yes, it’s beautiful.
Radek: I need to rake and cut the grass, trim all the bushes, and even-up the hedge. Can you handle the rest? You know, the weeding and the flowers? By the way, when is the last time you watered the flowers in the terrace pots? They don’t look good.
Me: Umm, okay, well, the house needs some spring cleaning, too. What about the windows? Who’s going to wash those?
Radek: Let’s do the garden first. Get the kids to help you.
Me: Now, what exactly do you want me to do?
Radek: You know, waken it up. Get it ready for the season.
Radek: Do you care how the garden looks?
Me: I do care. It’s just…
Radek: So, what’re you waiting for?
While that’s the end (at least of what’s fit to be printed) of our conversation, my husband has learned how to get under my skin. Presenting gardening like a challenge I’m not interested in, forces the competitive part of me to prove him wrong.
NOTE: The word “zahrada” in Czech means literally “garden” and a Czech who is speaking English can use the word “garden” to describe a yard or a fruit or vegetable garden. (We have what I would call a yard with flowers, berries, and the occasional vegetable.)
Unlike many of my Czech contemporaries who were raised in city apartments, I grew up rural and have some (minor) experience working the land. As a child, on Saturday afternoons I remember helping in the tobacco fields and digging new potatoes and carrots in my father’s garden. On a more urban gardening level, I dead-headed geraniums, petunias, and begonias that my mother and maternal grandmother kept in pristine condition in their flower beds.
It isn’t a lack of experience that prevents me from getting excited about getting my hands dirty. I think it has something to do with the pressure I put on myself to make my garden look good.
In the Czech Republic, we live on a rocky cliff. Our soil is hard, rocky, and nutrient-poor. It’s hard to make plants thrive (at least that’s what the neighbors say). Somehow, their gardens still bear more bounty than ours.
In our neighborhood, there is also a lively local garden center called TREES. One of the ways I know spring has arrived is when there is congestion off the main road at the entrance to the garden center. In this sense, too, I have absolutely no excuse not to garden. I can walk to buy whatever I need to plant.
Over the past decade, I have tried to absorb the teachings of my Czech friends. One neighbor, a former Czech Olympian has a picture-book garden. It has rows of berry bushes and bordered-off sections of vegetables. It is not large, but everything is neat and tidy. She tells me, “Working in the garden is relaxing.”
I smile and say, “I would rather go for a run and look at other people’s plants.”
When a neighbor offers a raspberry plant, I thank him graciously. We plant it right beside my spindly three blueberry bushes. The next season we have a few raspberries, the following season a few more. The children enjoy plucking them straight from the bush into their mouths. We have more raspberries than blueberries (we don’t have any blueberries), so I assume my gardening is a success.
After a few years, Radek remarks, “Have you looked at the raspberries? They’re strangling the blueberries.” When I go to check, I realize he’s right. The roots of our single raspberry plant have sprawled through the three blueberry bushes. I had no idea raspberries spread like weeds.
I do what I always do when faced with a garden dilemma. I march down the hill to the garden center. Using my best Czech and lots of hand gestures, I ask why our blueberries might not be flourishing. I come up the hill with two more blueberry plants, two enormous bags of rašelina (acidic soil), instructions to uproot the raspberries, replant the blueberries, and the vague feeling that I have possibly missed something in translation.
It happens every year. With the challenge to “wake up the garden” fresh in my mind, off I troop to the garden center (usually with my children in tow) to buy plants. I bring pictures from our yard, ask (what I think are) the right questions, and come home with an armload of new plants and not a clue in the world whether they’re going to flourish.
I’ve replanted strawberries, uprooted azaleas, and watched Radek replace the dead Thuja bushes that form a green wall on one side of our property, all the time the question lingering in my head – is this going to last? Am I going to have to do it all again next year?
For me, gardening is scarier than learning to speak Czech, training for a half-marathon, or designing a new web page. There is no Strava (a fitness application) for gardening, nor can I count my kilometers traveled, sentences typed, or vocabulary learned while kneeling in a muddy patch of soil and trying to replant a blueberry bush.
Gardening goes against my need for perfection, my desire to control the variables. Even if I do my research, an unexpected frost might kill the blooms on our magnolias. Children’s balls might land in the boxwood bushes, and the birds (for years) have been stealing the few cherries our tree yields.
However, because I believe that children (and adults) should get their hands dirty. I garden. Each spring, I corral my children, and we walk down to the garden center. I ask for advice on which plants to put where, and I puzzle over the descriptions on each plant’s plastic card. How much sunlight it needs, how much rain, what kind of soil. It is a huge joke, because I know that when I arrive home, I will put arrange the plants as I find them visually pleasing.
I will not worry about the soil (more than to ask the children to bring a scoop of sand from the sandbox to line the bottom of a pot to make it airy). By the time we are finished, we are dirty and wet. The boys traipse mud into the front room before I chastise them to remove their shoes. Their dirty hands press against the glass of the windows I have cleaned.
Outside, absorbed in my work, the sun beating on my shoulders and the wind blowing dirt into my eyes, hair, and nostrils, I can see gardening is a good thing. I must force myself to start. To dig, to trim, and to prune. But once I do, I realize I am making something. It is not going to be perfect. And that is okay.
Where to See Beautiful Gardens in the Czech Republic (websites in English)
Garden Visit – This site has pictures and links to gardens (and garden tours) throughout the Czech Republic
The Culture Trip – Descriptions and pictures of 5 gardens in Prague
Hello Czech Republic – Links to a 3-part series on parks and gardens in Prague, Moravia, and Bohemia