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Secret Gardeners

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It’s as though seeds are falling from the sky and sprouting into beautiful flowers and plants throughout the city. Yet it’s not by magic that Prague’s abandoned corners are being transformed into colour, its neglected patches of earth replaced by lush growth in the middle of the night and sometimes during the day. It’s through the hands of a small group of people who are part of a growing movement happening not just in the Czech capital, but also in cities around the world. It’s called guerrilla gardening, and the guerrillas of Prague are on their way to bringing light to the city’s grey hue, one flower at a time.

Guerrilla gardening, defined in its simplest form, is the tending of unused public space, or space that it not necessarily one’s own. Among the movements hundreds of “troops” across the globe, however, the definitions and explanations are varied, most often indicative of the particular group’s aims. For some it’s political, seen as a fight to reclaim or question ownership of the land, or to create a more sustainable food system through the planting of crops in community gardens. Others see it as a means to establish a greater sense of community or just to meet new friends. For many it’s simply a way to beautify their city.

A group in Manhattan’s Lower East Side is responsible for having coined the term. Led by a young artist named Liz Cristy in the early 1970’s, the Green Guerrillas took over a vacant private lot and turned it into the flourishing community garden that bears Cristy’s name and is still in use today. Although this group is most often cited as being the originator of the movement, in 1649 an organization called The Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, planted vegetables on common land in St George’s Hill in England’s Surrey.

The Zahradkators strike
Members of the Prague-based group say that, to the best of their knowledge, the first guerrilla gardening “act” took place locally about five years ago, when Martin Kuciel planted 15 trees in Dejvice. Kuciel came out as perhaps Prague’s first public planter in 2008, when he responded to a mass email sent out by Marek Uhlíř and his wife, Pavla Uhlířová, in 2008. The couple had decided to begin guerrilla gardening and sent the dispatch to about 15 of their friends, telling all those who were interested to join them for a discussion about the idea at the Vyšehrad beer garden, Na Hradbách. The email was forwarded so many times that about 30 people showed up, several of whom Uhlíř and Uhlířová didn’t even know. Among those extended recipients was Kuciel, who replied that he didn’t even know that what he had done was called guerrilla gardening. (Many independent urban greeners are unaware that they are part of an international movement with a semiofficial name.)

Darek Šmíd, another attendee at that first plotting session, made the suggestion to create a Facebook account for the group. Providing a place where members can connect, share tips and experiences, and upload pictures of their guerrilla gardening acts, Šmíd founded the group not long after the meeting and remains its main administrator. Uhlíř describes the Facebook launch as the moment when people who do things of this nature started to know about each other.

Although the meeting and the establishment of the Facebook group gave the Prague guerrilla gardeners somewhat of a more organised status, the troop does not plant collectively, but rather is made up of smaller bands that have planted their roots in the movement in a variety of forms. Tereza Kučerová is one member of a group of six friends (including a dog) who call themselves The Zahradkators. In what the group refers to as Volume 1 – The Zahradkators, members set out at night and did several plantings, some at Národní Třída and Hlavní nadraží, or what Kučerová describes as the most ugly parts of Prague.

From grey to green
Uhlíř, whom I appropriately met with at Na Hradbách, is one of Guerrilla Gardening Prague group’s most prolific members. Since beginning last year, he has done about 10 plantings, or about one per month in season. Sticking to his original plan of sharing the guerrilla gardening experience with friends and family, his partners in planting are most often Uhlířová and their 5-year-old daughter, Máša. Uhlíř sees guerrilla gardening as a grassroots way to make a grey city greener. It is this individual action – improving the common spaces of Prague with his own hands and the good feeling that comes with the work – that motivates him.

The family’s first act took place in June of last year at Palackého náměstí, on Uhlířová’s name day. The trio actually did two separate plantings in this location, one inside a squared piece of concrete and the other inside a crack in the wall. Uhlíř describes the tale of the planting in the wall, which occurred in broad daylight: “The first time I brought my daughter that was at Palackého náměstí, which is quite a busy place. I brought my daughter to not have a chat with the policeman, in case they came and asked ‘what are you doing here?’ So they see I am not someone who is trying to steal something or whatever.”

Uhlíř first made the planter with loose rock he found on the street, sealing it with plaster. He then put the soil inside, followed by the flower. The process took about 30 minutes. “About 200 people passed,” he says. “I was really curious to see what their reaction would be. Some people were laughing. Some people were looking on the other side of the street to not have problems.” They were not approached by any police that day, or during any of their other plantings. Uhlíř has also not heard of any incidents of guerrilla gardeners in Prague being confronted by police.

“Now [through his experience] I think [the police] will not make any problems with it,” he says. “It’s not spraying [graffiti]; it’s not destroying something. It’s the opposite of destroying. It’s bringing nice things to the city.”

There have, however, been two incidences of “repression” as Uhlíř calls it. In Holešovice, after one guerrilla gardener planted some small plants in a vacant rectangular plot of earth along a main street, he found a sign posted some days after asking him to remove them. But they were quite kind about it. “The town hall of Prague 7 paid them to plant trees in our street, so they didn’t want to destroy ‘our treasure’ and that’s why they made the sign: to let us know,” Uhlíř says. “We are now negotiating with Prague 7 to see if we maybe can leave our stuff there or not. … We’ll see.”

The other incident involved Kuciel, who planted those 15 trees in Dejvice. His plantings were removed after about one month by the technical services of the municipality.

The environmental department of Prague City Hall is unaware of any groups of this nature and, when I asked if planting in Prague’s public spaces would be considered an illegal activity, the response was the following: “In the case [of] any spontaneous activities on that public spaces, [it] is recommended to contact [the] appropriate holder of such a place and to arrange some kind of agreement with him.”
Around the world, there have been some confrontations with the authorities, but there don’t seem to have been any major incidents. Richard Reynolds, a London-based guerrilla gardener who is the founder of – the main hub through which guerrilla gardeners across the globe can connect – relayed a few experiences in which the police showed up and asked him to stop. Reynolds obliged, but returned only hours later to the finish the job. In both Toronto and Los Angeles, authorities have actually shown support by hauling away trash, saying thanks and even participating.

Support is something Uhlíř has experienced with several of his plantings. Through the Guerrilla Gardening Prague Facebook group, one woman informed him that she had been watering one of his plantings. On the day that we met, he was quite pleased to have discovered earlier that afternoon that after the flower that he and Máša had placed on Palackého náměstí last year died over the winter, someone recently replaced it. “My wish is to see more flowers being grown by people I don’t know,” he says. “That’s why I’m so happy with the flower at Palackého náměstí. It’s like getting a gift.”

On the lookout for ugly places
Along with having learnt that the police probably won’t show up to make a fuss, Uhlíř has learnt a few lessons that he relayed to me when I expressed my desire to do some guerrilla gardening. He told me not to plant anything too colourful, because it will be gone in a few days, and that I should select the place before selecting what to plant. He explained that the place has to be somewhere that doesn’t get too much sun and not too much shade, somewhere that you frequently go because you have to water it, and somewhere ugly – because there is no sense in putting a flower somewhere already beautiful. “Almost every green thing is good in ugly places,” he says.

He added that it is not about one person calling an action and the others coming along but the key is that members make their own efforts.

So that’s what I did. Following his advice, I first selected a convenient location – the street where I live, which is quite busy, so I was happy to have the opportunity to possibly be confronted by passersby. The spot itself was an empty dirt square around a small tree that provides some shade when the sun makes its route. I then asked a friend to join and selected some hardy-looking but attractive green plants, and we set off around 9 at night with a few tools and a bag with which to dispose of any debris. I must admit I was glad it was dark because I was a bit self-conscious about people watching me planting something in the middle of the city. The people that passed did stare; most seemed not care, some smiled. The only passerby who made contact was a drunk who asked what we were doing and then eventually stumbled off. The whole process – digging holes for our eight tiny plants, mixing new soil with the existing dirt and giving them their first drink to settle them into their new home – took about 30 minutes.

Much as I hadn’t either, Uhlíř had never really cultivated the land before he began guerrilla gardening in Prague. But since they began doing it, he and his family have rented a plot of land close to their home, which they will partially use to grow some of the flowers for their guerrilla gardening activities in the city. He talked about what he thinks is the experience many Czechs have had with gardening: being forced to do it at their grandparents’ house when on holiday as children, so it felt like some kind of forced work to them. But, through guerrilla gardening, they are discovering it can be something else.

“You can really enjoy it and don’t have to plant 100 potato plants,” he says, “but can plant something that can be edible in one month, something that can bring some shining to life.”

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