Changing tastes in Czech gardens

22-07-2008

At this time of year, Czech gardens are a hive of activity. Driving through any Czech town you’ll spot at least a couple of barbecues smouldering away, and a handful of odd types digging and sweating in the midday sun. Certain garden chores - the weeding, the watering, the pruning - remain the same, year-in year-out, but are Czechs using their gardens in a different way now than say, ten years ago?

For a start, it seems that more Czechs than ever are hiring someone else to do the job for them. For landscaper Aleš Korčak, business is booming. I met him in a satellite town just outside Prague, on what seemed to be a flattened patch of dirt:

“I employ about ten people, and my firm has been going for about ten years. Our specialty is small gardens like this one we are in right now – small gardens around family houses. But sometimes we do larger jobs too, like for example, we recently designed the park around a castle.”

Aleš demonstrates his digger-handling skills. In the last ten years, his firm has grown, both in terms of the number of people employed, and the equipment it can call its own. But what about his customers’ tastes? Have they changed in the time Aleš has been in the business?

“The basics are the same. A garden is a garden. But the difference is in the kind of architecture that people want in their gardens. For example, now in modern gardens, you are using more plants, like herbs, and not only bushes.”

According to Aleš Korčak, Czech gardens used to play much more functional a role. His view is supported by all the old cherry trees, plum trees and tomato plants still found in villages all over the country. But, our landscaper says, Czechs are moving away from function, and towards form, with design playing an increasingly large role in people’s backyards:

“Now we very often use materials like stone, we make some stone walls in the garden, terraces too, and we combine stone with materials like wood. Very often, my customers want some sort of water feature - some water with fish and with plants, so quite natural looking.”

And where do you think people are getting these ideas from?

“I don’t know, maybe from the TV, but I think they just see it in their neighbour’s garden. There are some exhibitions about gardening too, but I think that a lot of people get their ideas in foreign countries. For example, at the moment, it is very modern to have a Mediterranean-styled garden, it is really modern. This means using plants embedded in lots of stones etc.”

The theme tune for ‘Zahrada je hra’ – a massively popular Czech TV programme which gives people tips on how to revamp their gardens. In this particular episode, the host Jiří Sedláček suggests ways of bringing your summer holidays, and the interesting ideas you have seen abroad, back onto your own patch of Czech soil.

According to the gardeners’ association in this country, more and more Czech landscapers are themselves considering going abroad, and not coming back. Has Aleš Korčak ever thought of moving elsewhere in the European Union in a bid to earn more money?

“I have thought about it, but in the end I said ‘no’, because I wanted to try my luck here. For me it is important to be here, because I have a lot of friends here and I like this country. Maybe sometimes I go abroad, but even then, when I do, it isn’t really in Europe, it is in Asia or Central America.”

But what about elsewhere? Pavel Mika has been maintaining one of Prague’s biggest public gardens – Petřín – for the last thirty years. I took a ride up the park’s unusual funicular railway to meet him and ask whether he was having trouble at the top:

“I think that we are really lacking the sort of ‘middle-management’ here right now. People who know the trade, who can lead groups of gardeners as well as doing the work themselves. I am always seeing adverts in the papers, asking for people with such expertise. I never see adverts for top managers, I think there are quite enough of them. But for these skilled employees and part-timers who know both how to use a computer and plant a tree – I think there is more demand than supply.”

Czechs tastes in their own gardens may be changing, but what about in their parks? Has Petřín changed in all of the years that Mr Mika has been in charge?

“It has changed, of course it doesn’t look all that different. But the weather has changed a bit, the people have changed a bit, the conditions are a little bit different. So it has changed a bit, but really it is still an everyday struggle to keep things in order here.”

Mr Mika points out that being a gardener in a public park is very different a job from being a landscape gardener. But what is it that his job consists of?

“If we start with winter, then our job then is mainly to clear the snow from all the paths. But apart from that, there isn’t much to do, so it is a quieter time for us. And then spring comes, all at once, and we have to come out of hibernation, because the grass starts growing, and with that comes weeds, and pests start to attack the roses. Then in summer, it is about mowing the lawn, tending to the roses and the other plants, and finally in autumn, our main job is raking up the leaves, and clearing them.”

It seems that Pavel Mika and Aleš Korčak both have their fair share of repetitive, back-breaking, and seemingly thankless tasks to do. Doesn’t it all get a bit frustrating?

“My wife sometimes tells me how difficult housework is, and how she gets no recognition for it, and I say to her ‘tell me about it!’ It’s just the same here. This work is repetitive, you clean up and the next day the mess is back. This work never comes to an end, no one cuts a ribbon, no one holds a party. It really bothers me when you do something and someone comes along and vandalises it – this is Prague, a relatively big city, where things like that happen from time to time. But it really makes me happy when the roses come into bloom and Japanese tourists, who are used to really impressive public gardens, come along and photograph them.”

So it seems that some things are the same everywhere, but within Czechs’ gardens - both public and private - the changing of the seasons brings with it new trends, new foreign influences, new decking, you name it…

22-07-2008