When gardeners go to war

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK'S Chelsea Flower Show will be all high style and glamour. But 100 miles north, toilers on the nation's largest allotment site are experiencing the more traditional face of gardening - the seething rivalry between factions, the old guard taking up their hoes against the new. At Chelsea, we shall be told endlessly that gardening is the new sex; at Handsworth, it is the old open warfare.

Last autumn in this Birmingham suburb, the 400 gardeners of Uplands, the largest allotment site in Britain, celebrated the 50th anniversary of their association. This newspaper's Review section stressed the association's role in bridging divisions in a multi-racial community.

Under the headline "Digging for unity", it drew an idyllic picture of gardeners of Asian, Caribbean and English origin labouring side by side, their coriander and Jamaican red peas growing cheek by jowl with true Brit cabbage and runner beans. All seemed in harmony, an example to the world.

Not quite, as it happens. At this month's rancorous annual general meeting, members voted out the association's chair and secretary, at which the president and treasurer resigned in protest. The outgoing officials were charged with placing too much stress on reaching out into the community, organising politically correct events and encouraging media coverage. Their opponents just wanted to be left in peace with their marrows and muck heaps.

"It was the old men who ganged up and threw me out," says a bitter Mario Rozanski, secretary since 1993. "They accused me of being rude to the gardeners and of swanning around the country at the association's expense. They said I spent too much time on building links with other organisations.

"We've had visiting delegations from Russia and South Africa and we've been on Gardeners' World. Ainsley Harriott came and cooked a barbecue here for television. They didn't all like that."

So different from Chelsea, where at tomorrow's press preview exhibitors will arrange absurd stunts and hire celebrities in the hope that reporters and photographers can be enticed to their stands. The Handsworth sod-turners want none of it. They are suffering from media fatigue and the Review article, which Mr Rozanski helped to instigate, formed part of the dossier against him.

"Gardeners don't like publicity," says one of the new officials, who insists on staying anonymous. "Mario's a great bloke, but people thought he should spend more time on things like trying to stop vandalism on the allotments."

The first sign of dissent came last September, when a petition was organised to force Mr Rozanski to stand down. The chairman, Rose Phipps, ruled that nothing could be done before this month's AGM. About 50 members came to the meeting - double the usual number. Mr Rozanski was voted out by 26 votes to 18, and Ms Phipps by a similar margin.

The two had worked hard to bring cultural and community events to the allotment meeting hall. Last year, to celebrate its anniversary, the association received grants for a live contemporary art project, Bloom 98. A women's self-help group meets there once a week and a girls' school was given a plot.

"They [his opponents] complained about the cost of the anniversary celebrations, even though we made a surplus of pounds 3,600 on the year and have a healthy balance," says Mr Rozanski. They disapproved of his running up a phone bill of pounds 850, getting through pounds 1,000 worth of stationery and spending pounds 440 on travel.

Some resented his turning a blind eye to Asian members who technically break the association's rules by using plots commercially, growing crops to sell in ethnic food shops. "They aren't doing any harm," he reasons. "And it's better to have all the plots taken up."

Ironically, Mr Rozanski was appointed secretary six years ago to try to heal rivalries and factionalism that were splitting the association apart. Now the new officials are seeking to damp down the passions that this dispute has provoked.

Last autumn Mr Rozanski told The Independent on Sunday that 14 nationalities were represented on the site. "It's a veritable Yugoslavia," he said - an unfortunate metaphor, and so it has proved. Now the ground troops have been sent in and the regime ousted. But it is not necessarily the end of the story.

"There's another AGM next year," says Mr Rozanski, who still has his plot and remains a local official of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners. "It will be my turn to throw stones in from the outside."

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