April 17, 2013 0 By Michaela Freeman

Gardening for me is part dream and part reality. I’ve lived in five homes, always starting or maintaining a garden that was never mine. After we moved back to Prague, my focus shifted back to my parents’ cottage garden.

The Garden of Bohemia

When I was five year old, my parents bought a small lot on a hillside near the city of Litoměřice, the city that annually hosts the Garden of Bohemia trade fair. The area is indeed a center of Czech farming and gardening. The flat lands around the Labe River, with their rich soil, have traditionally been a source of grains, fruits and vegetables. But the region is also warm enough to grow grapes for local wines and hops, the green gold of the Czech Republic, famous for Czech beers.

Our Hill

The lot my parents bought was an old vineyard, a south-facing hill overlooking flat farmland, a busy railroad track, the Labe River and hills in the distance. One of them is Říp, the legendary mountain upon which our Forefather Czech stood when he (supposedly) said “I see the land full of milk and honey…” and thus decided to hang around here with his tribe. Well, what he saw was very different from what we see today, as back then there was no farmland, just woods.

But our old vineyard was in a similar 9th century condition and likely resembled what Forefather Czech saw when he looked at our hill in those times – scrub bushes. Actually, not just any scrub, a few very old fruitless apricot and pear trees, blackthorn, some mulberry and a lot of rosehip. For those of you unfamiliar with Central European flora – rosehip has lots of thorns and when you chop it out, it merrily sprouts back. Briefly, the lot had no electricity and no water. Our ‘garden plan’ began with machetes and took 25 years to execute.

What I remember from my early gardening days is playing with the clay, sculpting bowls and other fancy objects, letting them dry in the scorching sun, coloring them with watercolors. It happens that the entire hill is clay (not a scrap of that fluffy, airy soil needed for gardening) and plaener-stone, used for local construction. Plaener weathers to crumbles within a few years and we found the crumbled remnants of old vineyard walls on and near the property. Some contained prehistoric fossil shells.

My Early Gardening Days

What was great fun for a five year old, was definitely not fun for my parents – and it stopped being cool for me as soon as I’d grown to an age when I could ‘help.’ I made the nearby bushes, fields, orchards and woods my playground and tried to stay away from our garden. ‘Gardening’ I mostly remember as hauling carts of water canisters from the nearest village, loads of weeds to the compost or burning pile or harvesting onions, braiding them together to dry them under the eaves of our small tar-paper covered ‘cottage.’

By the time my parents built their present A-frame cottage, finally having water from the river for the garden and drinking-water from the village, electricity and plumbing, they’d already spent fifteen years making a garden from a rock-hard clay hill. To my complete amazement, they accomplished it. The clay is so rich in nutrients, when kept somewhat aerated and watered, plants grow like crazy. So I also remember the fruits, vegetables and wide array of flowers, lush and green.

All it took was hard work – a quarter century of hard work. There never was a garden plan. The only plan was to keep the hill weedless and grow whatever thrived. By the time I grew up, all I knew about gardening was hauling weeds and I pretty much hated it, but I did love flowers. I also loved homemade pickles and Mommy’s apricot jam. Despite all the hard work, I was hooked on gardening. I now live in the city and have begun to miss nature, miss our garden. I had to move to the country to realize that.

My Own Landscape Artichoke

Then I married Jim, a former landscape architect, and it became apparent the he had a plan for my parents’ property. He and Dad teamed up to build wooden retaining walls and our garden, finally, has a degree of order to it. My Mom and I finally have the time to visit the Garden of Bohemia trade fairs and pick up the latest varieties of dahlias or irises. The need for growing and canning our own food vanished with the fall of the Iron Curtain, so our garden is now reduced to lawn and flower beds.

When my Father died, I realized how important this place (however impractical and disorganized) was to our family. Dreams came true after nearly thirty years of hard work and my parents finally got to enjoy the results of their hard labor. I’m ready to pick up on that legacy and continue the improvement. Having my own “landscape artichoke” will certainly help.