Private Polish garden plots - with tight rules. Family parcels more productive than state farms, economist says

Poland has been described as ``cities of country people.'' On a warm day in summer, buses leaving Polish cities are filled with passengers carrying spades, rakes - and even bags of fertilizer. They're leaving high-rise apartments for garden plots, which line the countryside around every major Polish city.

The small parcels of land are fenced off and often have a wooden shack or even a tent, giving the appearance of some kind of squatters' village.

Poles have to work for the government to be eligible for a garden. Either they can apply through their place of work, or they can make an individual application to the Polish Society of Gardeners (PSG), an organization that administers gardens throughout the country. After an application is approved, the gardeners have to pay for their plots.

Organized gardens are not new. They have been around since the turn of the century. According to PSG, their popularity has increased in recent years. In 1980, there were 600,000 plots. Today there are 913,000, with a waiting list of 700,000.

Even though the Poles own their gardens, they are subject to restrictions from the garden society. The gardener is told where to plant the vegetables, flowers, and trees, and is given the location and dimensions for the toolshed. Some garden areas also permit chickens, rabbits, and bees. If the gardener breaks the rules, he is fined. If he persists, the garden plot can be taken away.

The society's main function, however, is to help the gardener. It publishes a garden magazine, sponsors a Saturday morning TV program with gardening tips, organizes book and seed exchanges, and runs a shop that sells garden tools. Each garden area elects a president, who attends meetings of the local PSG and helps share information with the gardeners in his or her area.

Most Polish gardens involve the whole family. A Lublin teen-ager said she spends the entire summer in the garden, sleeping in a tent at the garden's edge. She spends her day weeding and harvesting while her mother works on preserving the garden bounty for the winter ahead. The only time she goes into the city, she said, is when she wants a bath.

When it's time to harvest, most gardeners have one family member sleep on the site, since theft of choice produce is not unknown.

The gardens are highly productive - far more productive than the state farms, according to one economist. Although the government does not publish state farm figures, the gardening society has measured productivity from the garden plots.

According to their figures, the average plot produces 992 pounds of vegetables, 396 pounds of fruit, 8.8 pounds of chicken or rabbit meat, and 97 eggs. Much of this food is preserved to feed the family through the winter months. If the garden produces more food than the family can use, the surplus will be sold in the cities. Although official government policy is that the garden cannot be used as a commercial venture, no one interferes with the small-scale gardener's selling his extra cucumbers and tomatoes.

Most Poles agree that the most satisfying aspect of the garden is working and seeing concrete results. An economist explained that for workers, who have little control or say on the work they do in factories, the garden is an important form of satisfaction. This is the one time, he said, ``when people can see the aims of their work.''

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