Gardening at work is sprouting up all over

April 11, 2011: 11:05 AM ET

Corporate-backed employee gardens are growing like weeds, and for good reason, as they offer benefits to employee health and morale.

By Vickie Elmer, contributor

FORTUNE -- The employee gardens at Timberland's Stratham, N.H., headquarters are eating up the lawns and sprouting new sections. Fruit trees were planted in a roundabout in front last fall, and a big arbor for native grape varieties will go in sometime this year. Next year, the shady patch behind Timberland's leased offices could become a blueberry patch.

Timberland's Victory Garden in Stratham, N.H.

"We're going to run out of space pretty quickly," says Betsy Blaisdell, senior manager of environmental stewardship at Timberland (TBL), maker of boots, shoes and other outdoor gear.

Space may be sparse, but enthusiasm runs high for Timberland's Victory Garden, and for the overall concept. Corporate-backed employee gardens are growing like weeds, experts say, with small firms and Fortune 500 companies both buying topsoil and seeds.

"Anecdotally, there's a lot of indicators that it is increasing," says Steve Bates, manager of online editorial content at the Society of Human Resource Managers.

While no one has a good count on the number of gardens planted next to employer parking lots and in corners of office parks in the last couple of years, growth has been fueled largely by growing interest in employee wellness and an effort to give workers a low-cost benefit.

"It hits a lot of themes," says Bates, an avid gardener and author of a gardening book. "Companies pay tons of money for off-site team-building things, or bring in high-paid, high-powered consultants. They accomplish the same things with seeds and a strip of land."

Among the companies growing vegetables are Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Baxter International (BAX), Google (GOOG), Southwest Airlines (LUV) and Chesapeake Energy (CHK), where more than 300 employees tend a full block of gardens near its Oklahoma City headquarters.

Gardening in general is on a growth path. An estimated 40 million American households planned to grew fruits, vegetables or herbs in 2010, an increase of more than 10% from just two years ago, according to the National Gardening Association.

For some, having a plot just a stone's throw away from their conference room may give them a reason to stay late and finish a project after watering their pea patch. Some even bring their family with them to garden on the weekends; others learn to garden at employer-sponsored classes.

A number of Hewlett Packard's (HPQ) Vancouver-based employees live in apartments, so the company's plot is one of the few venues where they can dig into the earth. The company's gardens, established 28 years ago, have doubled in size in the last few years, according to an HP spokesperson.

Working in the garden can offer lessons about teamwork and persistence that are highly applicable to the office.

At Chesapeake Energy, hundreds of employees signed up to volunteer in the new employee gardens this year, enough to tend 65 raised garden beds spread over two acres. The garden project got off to a late start last year, and they were hit by "a huge hailstorm, softball-size hail," recalls Kathryn J. Goodwin, employee garden coordinator at the natural gas company. "We had to replant. Then we had a major flood, it drowned our garden. So we replanted a second time."

The lesson: Pick yourself up and go at it again. The major harvest came in during the fall, with plentiful okra and enough sweet potatoes to donate 300 pounds to the food pantry.

The enthusiasm for gardening with coworkers can be contagious. This year, at Chesapeake Energy, staffers will begin to plant earlier in the season, and they have already planted onions, peas and potatoes.

"They're chomping at the bit to get their tomatoes in the garden. We're excited. We're ready," Goodwin says.

The gardens help employees achieve a semblance of work-life balance. They can offset the "go, go, work, work" ethic with a "get outside in the sunshine" and dig in the earth approach, Goodwin says.

In staff surveys, Chesapeake employees say they appreciate the friendships and workplace relationships they have built on their gardening teams. That sense of camaraderie and connection permeates at other corporate gardens too.

"This definitely brings together a diverse group of people," says Timberland's Blaisdell.

With 700 people working at Timberland's headquarters, many employees didn't know each other before picking up watering cans together. Or they may meet at the farm stand in the cafeteria at around 9 a.m. in search of the perfect posies or basil or vegetables.

"They hover," waiting for the produce, she says. "Cut flowers are always gone in an instant. It lights up the office."

Altruism is another big draw to the company garden. Timberland staff buy produce at a little farm stand in their cafeteria, and proceeds support a food bank in New Hampshire -- a fairly common approach for employee gardens.

Minnesota-based media and marketing firm Haberman uses its garden as a business development and recruiting tool

Timberland employees may use some of their 40 hours of paid community service time to tend the flowers and vegetables. At other companies, employees go to the gardens on their own time -- lunch hours, before or after work.

Along with cultivating teamwork and problem-solving, Haberman, a Minnesota-based media and marketing firm, uses its garden as a business development and recruiting tool. The company does business with a number of organic food related organizations, and current and potential clients receive some of the bounty. Haberman even developed a website called employergardens.com.

"We get a lot of people who read about the garden and say 'I want to work here.' They're great people…. You're going to draw the people that you want on your team," says Liz Morris Otto, a partner and chief garden officer at Haberman.

Otto says she "knew we were really onto something" after receiving thank-you notes from clients, and after a new employee, while tending the garden with her, said, "It's great that we have a 401(k), but I love our vegetable garden. You're putting food on my table -- and that's really important to me."

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