Grow Where You Work
Written onMay 25 , 2016
Anyone who gardens—and there are lots of us in Vermont—knows that gardening provides exercise, fresh air, stress reduction, healthy food, and quietude. Unfortunately, though, too many of us have little time, or space, to garden where we live. We spend more time at work than at home. With busy family lives, adding gardening to the “to do” list can feel overwhelming.
That’s where employee gardens come in.
Across the country, employees are realizing the benefits of gardening where they work. And as company wellness programs proliferate, employers are looking for creative ways to engage their staff.
It’s not just altruistic. Stress and absenteeism due to sick days translate into lost employee hours that impact the bottom line. Research has shown that more than 1 million employees miss work each day in the U.S., resulting in $225 billion in losses annually. Companies have found that creating wellness programs is money well spent. While offering exercise classes and healthy cafeteria/vending machine options usually tops the list of wellness activities, interest in gardening is growing.
And why not? Gardeners tend to be healthier people. The University of Colorado, Denver found that 20 minutes a day in the garden leads to better physical and mental health. So it’s no surprise that major corporations such as Toyota, Google, Boston Scientific, Aveda, and Pepsi have created employee gardens at their sites. In Vermont, employers such as Burton Snowboards, National Life, Gardener’s Supply Company, and Vermont Teddy Bear Factory offer employees the opportunity to garden.
Employers have also found that gardens are a great equalizer. No matter what the employee’s role or title, everyone plants, weeds, waters, and harvests together. It’s a way for staff who normally would not interact during the workday to get to know each other.
Vermont Employee Gardens
While employee gardens at big companies are gaining in popularity, there are many small employers in Vermont that can’t afford to start a garden program. Three years ago the Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Community Garden Network, Gardener’s Supply Company, and myself started working together to create a way for small employers (50 employees or less) to initiate a garden at their worksite.
The Green Thumbs at Work Program offers cash grants to companies and nonprofit organizations through a competitive application process. The grants must be matched by the employer. Grantees also receive a gift certificate from Gardener’s Supply Company and technical assistance from the Vermont Community Garden Network and myself. In 2016, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont provided more grant money to expand the program. To date, 26 employers in the state have started Green Thumbs at Work gardens.
Here are stories from some beneficiaries of the Green Thumbs at Work Program:
Trudell Consulting Engineers – Williston
“Having a garden at our worksite has increased employees’ sense of community.”
Trudell has a wellness team and tried an employee garden before, but didn’t have good participation. So, with better support, they started anew. The garden is now a success because everyone, even non-gardeners, are invited to benefit from the garden activities. For example, there are now Salad Fridays, when staff eat lunch in the garden. Not only do garden team members come and enjoy the produce grown, but all staff are invited to bring veggies from their home gardens to eat.
Open Tempo – Williston
“We wanted people to have a reason to get away from their desks and enjoy the sunshine. We also wanted people to bond across teams, as we often only work with our own small group of teammates. It was a huge success on both counts! I think it was the camaraderie it brought, even to those on staff who did not participate in tending the garden.”
This software company has a unique take on garden maintenance. Many times summer garden care ends up falling on the shoulders of only a few people. To avoid this, we often recommend that staff work in teams that have certain weeks to be in charge of the beds. Open Tempo used their own expertise to create a software program that showed staff what garden tasks had to be done when, and how to do them, and assigned people throughout the summer.
Mad River Ambulance – Waitsfield
“Having a garden at our worksite increased our ability to work together as a team.”
Mad River Ambulance has 60 volunteers working all hours of the day and night. Their challenge is how to communicate with each other about who’s in charge of the garden when, and what needs to be done. Their solution was to post a schedule, with duties, on a white board by the office entrance. They paired experienced and inexperienced gardeners for one- or two-week intervals. New gardeners got to learn gardening skills from experienced ones and started new friendships.
Northeast Kingdom Community Action – Barton
“Planning is important; allowing time for the employees to work in the garden; start small; grow what you like to eat; try one or two new things.”
This nonprofit has a small but tight-knit staff. The garden became an extension of their office. One of the biggest issues they faced was rabbits and woodchucks. Their solution was to go online and find an elevated garden-bed design. They built a 3-foot-tall raised bed garden that not only kept out the animals, but made gardening easier for those with physical limitations.
TJ Molding – St. Johnsbury
“The biggest success of the summer was having fresh veggies that the employees could use at lunch during the day or take some home.”
This small manufacturing firm had a unique challenge. The best location to garden was a paved area that needed to stay open
for snow removal in winter. They decided to create a portable container garden consisting of cut-in-half, food-grade barrels and wooden raised beds. In the fall, they use the shop forklift to move the barrels and beds off site.
It’s been inspiring for me to watch the enthusiasm for gardening at more and more worksites across the state. Not only are the gardens a source of fresh, healthy produce in summer, they also become a focal point and topic of conversation for employees, and a means for employees to create stronger bonds with each other.
To find out more about the Green Thumbs at Work Employee Garden Program and how to apply for next year’s grants, go to VCGN.org.
Over these three years we’ve found some keys to a successful employee garden:
- Grassroots works best. Make sure you have the interest of a solid group of employees and engage them from the start in decision making.
- Get the backing of management and landowner before you start. Understand any limitations with the land and employees’ time.
- Create a wellness/garden team with clear lines of communication, decision-making processes, and policies.
- Start small and build your garden team as you grow your garden.
- Refer back to your wellness mission. Use the mission as a touchstone when deciding about plot-based or communal gardens, work days, and what to do with the produce grown.
- Celebrate! Group lunches in the garden, sharing produce with other staff, and reaching out to the greater community are all ways to celebrate the success of growing a garden together.