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15,000 on Warsaw Waiting List : Urban Poles Cultivating Refuge in Garden Plots

Times Staff Writer

A soft breeze ruffled the gray hair of Janina Wojcik as she sat the other evening in her garden plot, at the corner of Smile Alley and Winnie the Pooh Way, resting on a footstool and almost hidden by the dazzle of lilies and zinnias that grew up around her.

In her lap was a folded newspaper, a worn brochure advertising seeds for sale, and a letter from her daughter, now living in distant Nigeria. A blunt finger kept her place on the column of newsprint as she looked up through the profusion of her garden, her eyes fixed on some faraway thought. Sitting so still in the glow of sunset and blossoms, she seemed as clear a portrait of Polish contentment as one is likely to find.

And, indeed, Janina Wojcik can count herself among the luckier people in Warsaw, for her daily place of rest, recreation and refuge--her garden plot--represents one of the most sought-after treasures in the country.

Her garden is 20 yards wide and 60 yards deep, one of 290 set in a tract of land called an employee gardening plot; the tract is named Defenders of the Peace. There are 270 such gardens in the city now, but Defenders is the oldest, established 82 years ago on what was then the southern fringe of Warsaw. It may be the only place in the city where the walkways are named for flowers, birds and characters from children’s books. A sign by the gate reads: “Smile in Our Garden. You Will Find Peace and Rest.”

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A visitor will also find urban Poles in a special private bliss here, amid patches of lettuce and beds of flowers, digging in the dirt on a scrap of land that they can--almost--call their own. A government official says 15,000 applicants have signed up, waiting for this dream to come true for them.

Wojcik, her reverie broken, greeted her visitors with a rush of words. She lives alone, she said, and the chance to talk was welcome.

Yes, she said, her family had held this plot in this garden for, oh, as far back as the war, and, yes, she remembered coming here as a child, to this very plot, with her mother. That was when she was very young, long before she was married and had children and was widowed--33 years ago now--long ago . . . very long ago.

And her own father had built this little house on the plot himself, but it was hard to keep up now, repairs were needed and the bushes needed pruning and the flowers grew wild as weeds and everything took a lot of work. She thought of selling it sometimes, but then what would she do with her time?

And her daughter, who would be coming back to Poland, would never hear of her selling it, because it passed, you understand, down through the family, and these days such plots were hard to come by, almost impossible, in fact.

Militantly Individual

A smell of fallen apples and fresh-turned soil rose from the ground, mingling with perfume from the lilies, as Wojcik paused for breath and looked about her, a gentle smile on her lips and the tint of the sun on her cheeks. For all her complaining, it was plain, she loved her garden just the way it was, in all its confusion and growth. She sighed happily.

“I come here,” she said, “from early morning to late at night.”

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All the plots in Defenders garden have some kind of small structure built on them, some richly decorated, others simple boxes. Most, though modestly appointed, are neatly kept, brightly painted and militantly individual. In their almost elfin scale, the houses give a toy-land effect to the garden. They are a conscious contrast to the sameness of the gray apartment buildings where most Warsaw residents live, lucky to have a window box for their geraniums.

The garden is loosely managed by a plot owners’ committee, which four times a year passes through and grades them individually, giving marks ranging from 2 to 5 for the attractiveness of the garden, the house and the overall appearance. A plot owner who receives an overall grade of 2 for three or four judgings in a row might begin to feel pressure to do a little weeding or painting--or could be asked to sell, to accommodate the long list of applicants who now wait five years or more to be allocated a plot.

Technically, the plots are not the private property of the occupants, since the land has been ceded by the state to the plot owners’ associations. But, in fact, the plots are never confiscated and are passed down generation to generation. If a plot holder wants to get rid of his plot, an assessment is made of the value of the plantings and of the structure, then the new plot holder pays this amount to the association, which takes a percentage and passes on the rest to the departing occupant.

But, as is common in Polish financial dealings, there is often more going on than meets the eye, and sometimes a plot owner can be induced to sell out if the price is right. Nowadays, plots in Defenders sell anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000. To most Poles, including those with plots in Defenders garden, this is a small fortune. Few, however, consider moving out.

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Stanislaw and Cecilia Dabrowski got their plot in 1972, from a family that had held it since before World War II, and today it is the center of their lives.

Dabrowski, 72, a retired carpenter, is a member of the garden’s management committee. He keeps white pigeons in a coop at the rear of the little house on his plot. He and his wife grow a few vegetables and many flowers and like to sit in the shade in the afternoons, and watch the people stroll by.

“I worked 40 years sweeping,” Cecilia Dabrowski said. “I was a housekeeper, and I worked in an army installation. Everyday I sweep, and every day I dream of this. I saved all our money. We hardly ate. All I wanted is this garden. Even in winter, I come here, I go to the clubhouse with the other women. We drink tea and play cards and gossip. It is everything to me, this garden.”

Some plot holders use their bit of earth to supplement their incomes, selling vegetables to the market or flowers to dealers. For large families, a garden plot can mean a substantial reduction in food bills. But there is no indication, at least in Defenders garden, of any dedicated commercial activity. When the tomatoes all come ripe at once, a woman may sell those she cannot eat to a neighbor, or occasionally flowers will be sold to passers-by.

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But on the whole, the garden plots are labors of love, pursuits of pure pleasure in a faltering socialist society where rewards for work are rare and life is often difficult.

Zygmunt Jamroz, a retired secondary school teacher, said: “I think there must be half a million people waiting for garden plots, not just in Warsaw, but in cities all over the country. We need more of them. You know, we have many troubles here. I look at a British gardening catalogue, and half of it is given over to tools.” Jamroz paused a moment, then said, just barely raising his voice, “We have no such tools here.”

Jamroz is 75 years old, although he looks 10 to 15 years younger. His garden was filled with lilies, a dozen different varieties and colors, in perfectly ordered rows. He has had his plot for 20 years and has developed two strains of lilies himself--"lilies you won’t see anywhere else.”

He went to his shed and came back with a catalogue from the De Graaff bulb farms of Gresham, Ore. It was limp from many readings.

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“Officially, these can be ordered,” he said, “but practically, it is impossible. A minimum order is $150, and the shipping alone is $90. So. . . .” He watched, smiling, as the bright, familiar pages turned.

Along the central walk of the Defenders garden, the one called Smile Alley, the evening strollers passed. There were young couples and pensioners and women pushing baby carriages. Often they would pause and look for a moment at Zygmunt Jamroz’s lilies, while he sat, behind the rows of trumpet-shaped blossoms, saying he had studied philosophy as a young man but had taught children in many subjects, and that his wife had died two years ago, leaving him alone, so that he spends all day at his garden plot, leaving only to do errands and then quickly return.

He was asked if a value could be placed on his garden plot, some equivalent for the value it had in his life. He looked back at his questioner. For a moment, his eyes welled with tears.

“No price,” he said. “No price.”

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