May 30, 2012

Natural Foodie: Employee gardens encourage dirty hands, warm hearts

Employee-managed corporate gardens – such as those at Idexx and Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare – are in increasing numbers joining the army fighting the war on hunger.

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Idexx employee Jim Cortis tends a bed at the Westbrook facility.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Loni Brown checks on young pole bean plants.

Additional Photos Below


Employer Sponsored Gardens:

Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare:

Harvest for Hunger:

"We were growing some really cool squash plants and they were big, but powdery mildew attacked the plants, and they stopped growing. The year before, with just two beds, we donated 72½ pounds."

Because gardening is much more of an art than a science subject to the ever-changing whims of nature, the Harvard Pilgrim gardens face a new challenge this year: Seagulls.

The weekend before the employees were to begin planting, a pair of seagulls decided that the soft soil in one of the raised beds made a perfect nesting site. Now the nest has two speckled eggs and two very protective parents.

That particular bed will have to lie fallow until the seagulls clear out. "We've learned to live with them," Fournier said.

Twenty-five employees work at Harvard Pilgrim's Market Street office, and five of them are helping with the garden.

"The good thing about these beds is you can use them year round if you create a canopy over them," Fournier said. "We're planning on growing spinach throughout the winter."

The third business growing food for the Harvest for Hunger program is the Oxford County Federal Credit Union. Its employees will be tending gardens at the branches in Norway and Mexico and donating all the produce to Harvest for Hunger.


Around the country, an increasing number of companies are providing space and time for employees to garden. Corporations including Google, Kohl's and PepsiCo have started workplace gardens in recent years.

"By our count, there are certainly hundreds of companies across the United States that are doing it," said Fred Haberman, who runs a marketing firm in Minneapolis and maintains the Employer Sponsored Gardens website ( as a resource hub for other companies looking to start gardens.

"There's been an increase in companies that have started gardens in the last few years. I think you're going to see a dramatic increase in the next 20 years of not just corporate gardens but rooftop gardens."

Haberman said corporations gain a number of benefits from offering gardening programs. These include promoting healthy eating, helping the community and building better working relationships among employees.

"It's a great engagement tool," Haberman said. "It's a great get-to-know you tool. You're creating something together. How can you not at some level create a deeper relationship with your fellow worker when you do that?"

Harvard Pilgrim first planted gardens at its offices in Quincy and Wellesley, Mass., in 2009, and now advocates that other companies do the same as a way to support better employee health, reduce workplace stress and encourage collaboration with fellow employees.

Back at Idexx, where the gardens were planted two weeks ago, Loni Brown, who works in information technology, said being involved in the effort helps get her and other employees on their feet and in the fresh air more often.

"It's also nice to meet other people from other departments," Brown said. "Idexx is so large, our paths don't often cross."

Brown and the other employees on her team are growing pole beans, summer squash, carrots, onions, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes and beets.

"It's a great feeling for the community," Brown said. "It's easy to do, and you can see something positive coming out of it."


Each year, all Idexx employees receive 16 hours of paid time to volunteer at nonprofits, and many of the gardeners use that time to tend to the plants. Others head out to the garden during breaks, lunch or whenever they can fit in a visit.

"We're starting our first garden at home, and this has been crucial in learning about gardening," said Ryan Root, who is volunteering in the Idexx garden for the first time this year.

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Additional Photos

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Jim Cortis and Peter Dale are working several beds in the Idexx garden this summer, raising peppers, onions and squash.

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A rooftop garden outside of Harvard Pilgrim HealthCare’s Portland offices overflows with vegetables last summer. This year’s planting has been delayed by nesting seagulls.

Contributed photo


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