What I didn't know about community gardens in Prague
The community garden at Kotlaska, with member allotments in the foreground.
Before I moved to Prague, my work colleagues told me community gardening was “becoming a thing here” and “you’ll find lots of people to connect with.”
They were correct in theory—as I found out later, there are now about 60 community gardens in the city, a number that has tripled in just eight years—but the realities of arriving in 2020 made it challenging to actually connect with one.
I landed in Prague in January, which meant I had only a few weeks to settle in before lockdown closed everything from restaurants to museums and even outdoor spaces: botanical gardens and community gardens included.
The language barrier and a different cultural concept of volunteering presented other obstacles.
My messages in English to the community gardens I could find online were all answered politely. In several cases I was invited to visit. (These visits were real highlights of lockdown for me: a brief glimpse into another world, plus conversations with other people in person!) But upon turning up, I was told—always regretfully— there was not really anything I could do.
I could not help with the gardening because community gardens in the Czech Republic are based on the allotment model. In the current generation of community gardens, members usually rent 1 m x 1 m plots within the communal space. At the gardens I visited, there were also play areas for kids and a few shared beds where members can jointly grow and harvest “fun food” like strawberries.
But the communal areas also belong to the members, who are required to spend a certain number of hours each year helping to maintain them. The idea of non-member volunteers coming into the garden to help is, quite literally, a foreign one. There is not really a culture of volunteering in the Czech Republic the way there is in the US or UK, especially in the sense of working for free for some kind of civic cause.
Which brought up the next dimension of the problem: not only would it be unusual for a volunteer to help out with a garden’s admin or organisational work, it would also be pretty much impossible without speaking Czech.
Had I known all this beforehand, I would have moved to a neighbourhood that had a community garden and become a member myself. But by this time I was already living in a flat that had its own garden on the terrace... yet no community gardens nearby.
The community garden that I did join in a tentative way, because the project itself was tentative, was called the Digital Garden Lab (DGL). It was the brainchild of artist Paul Chaney, whose work focuses on end-time questions like, if all of our supply chains broke down and a city the size of Prague had to feed itself, how much land would it need and how many people could it actually sustain?
DGL had initially been part of a community-and-urban-regeneration consortium aimed at rehabilitating Invalidovna, a former military hospital with extensive grounds in Prague 8. But things didn’t quite pan out with the other partners at the site, and DGL became a garden project without any land to grow on. Some friends of Paul then offered their allotment, which was sizable, home to an orchard of mature fruit trees, and rarely used. It seemed the best option, at least in the short term, and so for a few months between lockdown 1 and 2, we gardened there.
Our “meanwhile” allotment was not part of the new wave of community gardens in Prague, but rather belonged to an earlier era when allotments functioned more like dachas in the former Communist states.
These sites are large: as much “yard” as the houses in the suburban development where I grew up in Maryland, but with vegetables or fruit trees instead of lawn. Most of them have little cottages without indoor plumbing or heating but which are otherwise perfectly habitable when it is warm enough outdoors (and some people apparently do live in them year-round).
These allotments represented a territory of abundance, liveliness and enjoyment in contrast to the grey rationings of the state under Communism. Here, food was so plentiful and easy to come by that people shared their jams and baskets of berries, their sauerkraut and pumpkins with each other. On weekends they would come to work in the gardens for leisure and pleasure, not because they had to.
Maybe I am projecting on to the situation but it seems to me this longing for a ‘territory of freedom’, i.e. free of paid work, away from the city, is a consistent feature of industrial societies, whatever their economic model.
How does that fit into community gardening now? To me it seems there is still a longing to be free of work, especially now that work has come to increasingly encroach on the physical, mental and emotional territories that used to be occupied by other things. (Remember hobbies?)
Maybe the difference in our time, and the reason that the community gardens of Prague that are springing up now have a different layout and concept from the older allotment models, is that the need for escape is different. Rather than cultivating a territory of abundance to feed their eyes and bellies, people are hungry for connection.
Perhaps for the Czech Republic, it is also coming full circle in a sense. One of the things Paul told me during our discussions of the history of community gardening was that in the 1920s, there was a strong movement of Czech farmers for collective action in politics rather than the collectivisation of agriculture that came later. In his telling, this was a movement that fostered mutual support among farmers, as well as between the agricultural land itself and the hedgerows and other wild spaces on its borders.
Much like today, I imagine that people were longing for ways to connect with the living world (and each other) in an open, playful and spontaneous way that is an antidote to the monoculture that requires all interactions to either be about producing or consuming something.
Community gardens are havens from any kind of totalitarian system not only because they are about gathering people together across cultural and social boundaries, but also because they offer the space and time for a human being to cultivate a personal relationship with the Earth itself.