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Tending the Garden at the Workplace

Posted: 4:17PM June 23rd, 2011 | Comments

On Monday, we attended the official opening of American Family’s Employee Garden at their corporate headquarters here in Madison. Two of the main organizers of the garden, Angela and LeeAnn,  are in my cohort for the Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program at Edgewood College and during the past year I’ve witnessed the garden go from an idea on paper into 56 ten-by-ten plots growing tomatoes, herbs, onions, squash, lettuce, and more. Watch it take shape on this time-lapse video Josh, the plot monitor, put together one spring afternoon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXeKODJB-xg.

The Madison-area is home to over 50 community gardens. They are places that encourage self-sufficiency, a sense of place, empowerment, and friendships, not to mention the financial savings of growing your own food and the donations of fresh, local produce made to area food pantries. The fact that employers are recognizing the benefits of community gardens is, for me, unexpected and inspiring. We often spend more waking hours at work than we do at home, which can lead to feelings of disconnection and dissatisfaction. When work can do more than provide us with a living, when it can support our values and help us to be who we want to be in the world, we are inevitably more connected and fulfilled.

From an employer’s point of view, it makes a lot of sense to support activities such as employee gardens. There’s the inexpensive team-building aspects, the increase in overall wellness of employees, the incentive for new employees, and the recognition from clients. According to Fortune, gardens at work are popping up all over the country. In a recent article, they list Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Google, Southwest Airlines, Hewlett Packard, and Timberland as companies that have provided the space and support for their employees to grow food. Winning Workplaces, a not-for-profit dedicated to helping small and mid-sized organizations create great workspaces, reports that leaders from firms sponsoring employee gardens at the workplace all point to positive outcomes such as: an increased level of employee engagement, camaraderie and healthy behavior that impacts their bottom line (in the form of better performing and more highly satisfied staff), and lower employee turnover and absenteeism.

Having an employee garden also just a nice thing to do. At Father’s Day breakfast I told my Dad about American Family’s garden and how inspiring I thought it was. His response? Your grandpa had that at Seybold’s. My grandpa was a salesman for Seybold’s, a local carpet store back in the day. Apparently, the owner took it upon himself to make space for a garden on the side of the building for the employees, who probably numbered no more than ten. When my dad told me that, I was immediately filled with a sense of gratitude for that Seybold’s owner who helped my family literally bring food to the table, never mind the fact I hadn’t been born at the time. That simple action seems to me to be filled with generosity and true sense of loyalty and care for the people who worked at the store.

Fifty years or more since that little garden was put in at Seybold’s Carpets, American Family has started their own employee garden, already with 56 gardeners for 2011 and slated to grow for next year’s gardening season. Fortune and the Wall Street Journal are reporting on the benefits of employee gardens, and blogs, such as Heirloom Gardener and Compostmania, have tips on how to start a garden at your workplace. There’s even a whole website dedicated to employee gardens, Employer Gardens. As I see it, this is all evidence that we are in the beginning stages of a larger movement, one in which companies look beyond the bottom line to the Triple Bottom Line: people, planet, profit.

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