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Petr Cech hoists a watermelon

Life in a Fruit Garden

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Inside Petr Cech and Alexandra Cechova’s Spellbinding Garden and a Dream to Give the World Fruit Trees

Imagine being haunted by a dream. Again and again. Waking up and wondering if it was just a dream or distant experience hidden deep in your memory. You are restless, being in doubt about whether it was reality or just a dream. Regarding my dream, I am sure of only one thing: It is a pleasant one, not a nightmare. The story goes like this … .

I am walking down a big garden full of gorgeous fruit trees. I kind of know this garden, but this time it feels different. Like if there was a wizard with a magic wand. Suddenly, I see that these trees have big exotic fruits I have never seen or heard about before. In some dreams, I even taste the fruits and always wonder how I did not notice them before.

I am aware of the fact that I have all those dreams because I have a vision. I imagine a garden full of wonderful fruits and beautiful flowers, with butterflies, bees and birds. Peaceful and uplifting for the spirit, healing for the body and satisfying for any hungry soul.

The garden of Petr and Alexandra Cech
Photographed is part of the garden of Petr Cech and Alexandra Cechova. Petr dreams of a full-fledged fruit forest and is working on this glorious land to make his vision come true. All story photographs provided by Petr.

What would you like to leave behind you after your life is over? One of the things I want to do for coming generations is to plant at least 10 new fruit trees and some berries every single year. This was just a dream of mine for many years, but after I moved back to my home country, the Czech Republic, with my wife, Alexandra, it started to become a reality. We moved to a place nearby a river, surrounded by forest, where my ancestors lived for hundreds of years. One of them, my great-grandfather, built here in 1911 one of the first hydropower plants in middle Europe. And about 10 years ago, my father also opened here a skanzen—a museum of electrical history—with a unique collection of items from the beginning of electrification.

The animal life around this place is breathtaking. Besides many birds, butterflies, rabbits, ducks and swans, we are fortunate to watch eagles, buzzards, king fishers, does, minks, beavers, salamanders and big stag beetles.

In this place, I started realizing my dream. Actually, I continue in the footsteps of my grandfather, who planted many apple trees on the property and grew berries and vegetables in his garden. In his time, he built an underground greenhouse and used the surplus electricity from the water plant during the night to heat it up. This way, he could produce cucumbers and sell them to a few restaurants when others could not deliver them. The greenhouse still stands and, last year, we had a continuing supply of cucumbers and lettuce from it for many months.

Strawberries in vivid detail growing in Petr and Alexandra Cech's garden
Grown in Petr and Alexandra’s garden, these mouthwatering strawberries, captured in stunning photographic color and detail, look positively divine.

The Czech Republic has a temperate continental climate with typical cold winters and warm summers. The place where we live is in USDA Zone 6a, and this makes it possible to grow fruit trees such as apricots, peaches, paw paws and figs. We started planting fruit trees straight away and, during the first two years, we planted about 50 fruit trees. We chose different varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines and also planted mulberries, figs, grapes, kiwi and paw paws. To this mix of fruit trees, we added bushes such as blueberries, amelanchiers, josta, gooseberries, goji, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and black currant.

In the beginning, I was afraid of the cold winters, but the first two winters were very mild. What seems to be of more concern to me is the high humidity. Of course, this can be a good thing or a curse, depending on the plants. But in the case of peaches or tomatoes, it makes them very vulnerable to fungal diseases. It is always more challenging if you try to grow plants that are not native to your country.

Even if I am still a beginner in gardening, I have learned a few things that could be helpful if you want to start growing fruits in a temperate climate. First of all, a good idea before you plant anything is to find out what you can actually plant in your area. The questions to ask are:

  • What is the plant hardiness zone for the area where you want to grow fruits and vegetables? Even if this information is only informative, it can help you to decide which plants can tolerate the lowest temperatures in your area.
  • How much space can you use for planting? If you have a small garden, you probably do not want to plant only a few big trees. It might be a good idea to find some smaller varieties and grow many different fruits.
  • Is there someone living nearby already growing fruits, and, if so, what is their experience?
  • What is the soil type, drainage and humidity in your area?
  • Is your garden protected from winds? Are there any places suitable for growing less-hardy plants?
  • Do you have a greenhouse or do you plan to have one? A greenhouse can let you grow fruits not suitable for your climate, and you have more control over pests and humidity.
Alexandra Cech eating a watermelon with her and Petr Cech's baby
Petr Cech’s wife, Alexandra, enjoys a watermelon with their baby.

Now you should have an idea of what can successfully be grown in your area, and the next step is to find out what you actually want to grow in your garden. I would definitely give this a serious consideration if you do not have a big garden. Planting something you do not enjoy to eat can be a big disappointment, and planting anything that takes more than 10 years before it starts producing any fruits can be recommended for only very patient people or if you plan your garden for your children.

In the first year after we moved here, we planted nectarines and peaches, but, unfortunately, the varieties we planted were not very resistant to peach curl. I have learned from that and, instead of peaches, prefer to plant apricot trees or look for resistant varieties of peaches. One spring, we also experienced frost during the flowering of the peaches and apricots, resulting in the loss of all flowers. It seems I should favor more-resistant and late-flowering varieties to enjoy fruits on those types of trees more frequently.

Planting fruit trees is a joy, but it always comes with some work and responsibility. You have to care for baby trees during the first years, watering them, mulching around their trunks and protecting them from different kinds of animals that sometimes enjoy snacking on their roots or branches. If your fruit trees survive the first years after being planted, however, they establish themselves pretty well, and there is usually much less time needed for caring for them and much more time spending picking their fruits.

Already, during the first year here on our property, we were fortunate to taste the first apricots from one of our trees, and the taste was so good that I almost had to rewrite my list of favourite fruits. The following year, I planted more apricot trees.

Butterflies are photographed in Petr Cech's garden
Butterflies are perched on buddleia in Petr and Alexandra’s garden.

Fruit trees are, of course, not the only thing we plant in our garden. I am very fond of Buddleia. I believe I could almost live off their scent only and spend endless hours observing myriad butterflies circling around them. They are a valuable addition to our fruit garden, just as sunflowers, peas or different flowers.

One of my favourite fruits is, without any doubt, melons and what can be better than to pick your own home-grown melons from the field during late summer? Already, during the first year, we succeeded in growing watermelons and different varieties of sweet melons. We could harvest fully ripe cantaloupes, Early Hanover, Charentais, Galia, honeydew and even Piel de Sapo melons from the field to enjoy their fresh taste. It takes longer for winter melons such as oneydew and Piel de Sapo to become fully ripe, but if you grow them on black mulch textile, you will optimize your chances for them to ripen in time before it gets too cold. Of course, in temperate climates, it is necessary to start melons in April in a greenhouse and plant them outside at the end of May. They should not stay in small pots for longer than six weeks or their roots can have problems establishing out in the field.

View a Gallery of Photographs from the Garden

For an inexperienced gardener such as myself, it is much more satisfying to choose plants that are quite easy to grow in this specific climate and that will deliver plenty of nice fruits. One of the most satisfying plants to grow is zucchini. Zucchini need only some mulch around them and will produce many big flowers and fruits continually during the whole summer. Other easy-to-grow plants are green peas and tomatoes. It is more difficult to grow cruciferous or root vegetables. If you have a greenhouse, however, most plants will thrive there, if you supply enough water. Arugula, lettuce, celery and other greens grow really fast in the greenhouse and also are protected from some types of insects in there. The same can be said of tomatoes, cucumbers andsweet bell peppers.

I can only recommend new gardeners grow high-yielding plants, which are easy to grow, and, especially, those you really enjoy eating. One of the most delicious annual plants we grow here are incan berries, or physalis peruviana. The fruits we get here are the biggest physalis I have ever seen, and they have a delicate exotic taste. If grown outside, they need to be started quite early in a greenhouse or at home and planted outside in late May. Otherwise, the fruits won’t have enough time to ripen before it gets cold in October.

What would you like to leave behind you after your life is over? One of the things I want to do for coming generations is to plant at least 10 new fruit trees and some berries every single year.

How many plants you need depends on your needs. Are you a big fruitarian family? Do you want to give some fruits to your friends? Do you want to sell some of your fruits? For a family like ours, it is enough growing about 15 zucchini plants, 15 cucumber plants and about 40 tomato plants with some greens and celery to make up the summer supply of nonsweet fruits and vegetables with some surplus to share with friends. To become self-sustainable with melons, though, I believe we would need about 50 plants.

Gardening does not have to cost a lot of money or be hard work. Many of the plants we grow in our garden are from the seeds we have saved from the fruits we have eaten. Of course, in the case of hybrid F1 plants, it is a gamble to save and plant seeds from their fruits; it is better to stick with heirloom or self-pollinated plants, because you know what you get.

Watch Louise Koch Interview Petr Cech and Alexandra Cechova

If we can provide acceptable soil conditions, a place in the sun, enough water and make sure they do not get strangled by other plants (some call them weeds), then we can just sit back and enjoy looking at our plants grow big, flowering and then bearing fruits. To accomplish this in our garden, we compost directly on the field and use mulch from wild growing plants around here such as nettles, borage and others. This mulch is really good because it provides nutrition, retains moisture and also keeps the soil around the plants free from weeds. It does not cost any money mulching, only time and energy. And, in addition, you will get a workout for free, spending few hours in the sun mowing with a scythe.

Gardening is an amazing and wonderful way of living. It is an undeniable part of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. It makes us happy, content, strong and suntanned and surrounds us with beauty and love. We can change the world, just by planting some seeds and sharing the fruits with others. And you can start today, too.

Petr Cech reaches for a watermelon in his garden

Petr Cech hoists a durian in Koh Lanta

Check out Petr Cech’s transformation profile!

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