Urban Gardens Sprout Vegetables and Green Thumbs

Community Patches Provide Locals With a Lot More Than Lettuce

By Valerio Farris

Though Prague’s traditional cuisine can be characterized by its lack of vegetables, the city is seeing an influx of community gardens that could reverse this stereotype. Fourteen of these green spaces, nestled into neighborhoods or busy urban areas, provide a space for community interaction and engagement.

A corrugated metal wall adorned with paintings of smiling vegetables lines a busy corner in the neighborhood of Holesovice. The sight, both confusing and comical, used to house one of Prague’s first urban gardens, Prazelenina. As its popularity increased, the garden eventually moved to a larger plot down the block.

Prazelenina has been a pioneer of Prague’s urban gardening movement since 2012. Its location in the up-and-coming and diverse neighborhood of Holesovice makes the garden a haven for families and gardening enthusiasts alike. Members pay 850 koruna ($35) for individual meter squared plots that they use to harvest whatever produce they wish, with the exception of cannabis. Prazelenina is a family-friendly place with an estimate of over 100 families registered as members.

“We had an idea to do something which would feed us but also have higher meaning.”

“Prazelenina is a place to grow your own vegetables, a place to meet your neighbors, a place to let your children play. A place of freedom,” said Petr Stepanek, who helps with the garden’s administration. During warmer months, the raised bed gardens overflow with lettuce varieties, tomatoes, radishes, and flowers of the gardeners’ choice.

Community gardeners grow a variety of flowers, herbs and shrubs. Photo Courtesy of Prazelenina.CZ Blog.

Community gardeners grow a variety of flowers, herbs and shrubs. Photo Courtesy of Prazelenina.CZ Blog.

Czech winters can be unforgiving when it comes to the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, thus most urban gardens enter into a hiatus from November to mid March. Prazelenina, however, continues to rally behind its community focus during colder times. Working in partnership with DOX, the neighboring contemporary arts gallery, Prazelenina’s administrators created a bread-baking workshop to continue their programming even when the seeds refuse to sprout.

Stepanek, an architect by trade, was one of the five builders who helped construct the brick oven for the workshop. On Saturday mornings, children climb up and play around the formidable brick structure as workshop participants learn to mix, knead, and bake their own dough. The workshop recreates that intimate and communal space that the Prazelenina gardens provide in the warmer months.

“The garden is hardly ever empty,” said Marcela Strakova, an administrator at Prazelenina. “People grow everything, from vegetables to flowers, tomatoes are frequently grown. Experiments are also part of the hobby.”

Like the tomatoes that grow in the garden’s soil, Prazelenina’s expansion has been organic. Their community outreach is minimal. Prazelenina is a niche community of friends who can commune to garden, converse and play, regardless of season or setting. Those who are active in Prazelenina do so because they want to be; the garden is completely run by volunteers.

Allotment gardening was a popular practice during the communist era. These government-subsidized individual gardens allowed people to indulge their green thumbs.

“In allotment gardens, people had their own house and garden and did not share any space within the community. Prazelenina is rather the opposite,” said Strakova.

While these spaces may be primarily understood as land for the cultivation of produce, they are also points of reference for community interaction and relationship building.

Some community gardens have a mission beyond lettuce or cucumbers; they aim to improve their community’s overall environment.

Kokoza, a community garden in Prague 11, builds on the idea of community engagement through gardening by inviting people with mental illness to participate in the garden’s activities. In 2012, Lucie Lankasova along with her high school classmate, Kristina, launched the community garden initiative.

“We had an idea to do something which would feed us but also have higher meaning,” said Lankasova. “By origin I am a social worker and I was always searching for ways to incorporate people with handicaps into normal life and normal society. So, for me, composting and growing is the way to integrate people with mental illness into society.” Lankasova said her favorite plant to grow is the vibrant orange nasturtium.

The act of gardening functions as a form of therapy that allows people suffering from mental illnesses the opportunity to engage with their community through the benefits of planting and harvesting their own produce. Kokoza offers workshops that teach about building one’s own balcony garden or how to preserve vegetables during winter months. While some workshops cater specifically to those with mental illness, others offer help to all members of the community.

“There is a higher potential for integration when you do workshops with a mixed group than with only people with schizophrenia, for example. So we are changing the mindset and we want to connect these people with normal society, in the garden, in the workshops, everywhere,” said Lankasova on the power of gardening as a tool for societal integration and inclusion. “Most people don’t realize that there is someone with schizophrenia working on the garden together with them.”

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Prague inhabitants of all ages enjoy spending their weekend at community gardens. Photo Courtesy of Prazelenina.CZ Blog.

Kokoza, like Prazelenina and most community gardens in Prague, is closed during the winter months but will reopen come April. Regardless of weather, however, Kokoza continues to hold workshops and meetups for passionate gardeners and community members. During the spring and summer the garden receives attention and support mainly from those who live nearby.

“People who are in the garden are the local people. These are like young families and seniors, in our case mostly. And some hipsters! It would not be the right community garden if we don’t have hipsters,” said Lankasova.

Looking to get involved in the nearest garden? Kokoza’s website features an interactive map of all the community gardens and composting centers, along with other public agricultural ventures, across the Czech Republic.

Valerio Farris is in the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. His hometown is Houston, Texas.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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