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Companies Embrace Corporate Gardens

What are you doing at 3 in the afternoon on a typical day at the office? Sifting through email? Attending a meeting? Maybe taking a coffee break? You’re probably not doing what Marie Duprey was recently immersed in at 3 p.m. at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where she’s a graphic designer.

“The peas are shooting up because it’s happy pea time and they’ll grab onto anything with these little tendrils,” Duprey explains as she crouches in the grass, using string to make a trellis for climbing vines. “So we’re just trying to steer the peas out of the way and up the back of the bed.”

“The bed” is an organic raised vegetable bed on the lawn outside Harvard Pilgrim’s headquarters in Wellesley. You may know the building; it’s near the intersection of Routes 9 and 128, where tens of thousands of cars and trucks roll by each day.
A Harvard Pilgrim employee shows off a ripe radish in the company’s organic garden. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
“Right here we’ve got carrots,” Duprey says, pointing to an abundance of young crops. “This is kale. The red over there is beets. Those are radishes up at the front. I don’t see any onions in this bed, but we also have lots of onions and lettuce.”

Harvard Pilgrim has vegetable beds at its Quincy location, too. About 70 employees volunteer to plant and weed and harvest, and about half of them had no previous gardening experience. Different teams are responsible for different beds, so each volunteer only has to dedicate about 15 minutes a week, grabbing a few moments before or after work, at lunchtime, and between meetings to dig in the dirt.

But Duprey says even in that small amount of time, and even at the trafficky cloverleaf of 128, she gets nicely lost in this little patch of green.

“It’s a different feeling than touching my keyboard all day, and it’s nice to get out and see something green and growing and to battle some bugs instead of some corporate problem for a little while,” she says. “It gives you perspective.”

Judith Frampton, a vice president at Harvard Pilgrim, says the company tries to promote healthy eating, and the garden helps do that.

“The main reason we did it was because we are totally serious about trying to figure out how to get people to be healthier before they get sick,” she says.

“It’s a different feeling than touching my keyboard all day, and it’s nice to get out and see something green and growing and to battle some bugs instead of some corporate problem for a little while.” – Marie Duprey, Harvard Pilgrim
It’s also a community service, since all the food raised is donated to local charities. And the garden encourages camaraderie because it gets workers out of their cubicles and mingling with folks from other departments, Framptom adds.

“People are talking about stuff at work that they haven’t talked about before,” she says. “‘How do you cook quinoa? What is that? How do you wilt spinach? What’s the difference between chard and kale?’ ”

She’s not exaggerating; some Harvard Pilgrim employees really are having water cooler conversations about leafy greens. One of them is Arthur Ensroth, a data analyst who’s so enthusiastic about the garden that he came to work over Memorial Day weekend to water the crops.

“We talk a lot over in my department about kale,” Ensroth good-naturedly admits. “I’ve never really dealt with kale. Who has ideas for kale? No one ever would have talked about kale before we had this activity!”

Several companies in sunny Silicon Valley have corporate gardens, including Google and Yahoo. But so do a handful of employers in less temperate climates. The Milwaukee headquarters for Kohl’s department stores has a garden. So does the cosmetics company Aveda in Minneapolis and PepsiCo, near White Plains, N.Y.

“This is something that has a minimal cost that could have a decent benefit,” says Bob Eubank, executive director of the New England Human Resources Association, a nonprofit group in Waltham whose members include employee benefits specialists.

Eubank says at a time when many employers are slashing benefits, gardens are a small perk that can boost morale and let companies trumpet corporate values like teamwork, wellness and sustainability. He also says they could be a recruiting tool. But is a garden really enough to lure somebody to a new job?

“You never know,” Eubank concedes. “But let’s put it this way: if everything were equal, why wouldn’t it be? It certainly can’t hurt.”

And a garden doesn’t make much of a dent in a company’s bottom line. Harvard Pilgrim says it’s spent about $10,000 so far on its gardens. That includes everything from construction costs to an order of ladybugs to fight off invading aphids.

A garden could be coming to your employer, too: Harvard Pilgrim planted its gardens in part as a test run because it wants to persuade companies that offer Health Pilgrim health insurance to plant gardens of their own.

And it hopes they’ll have as much fun with their vegetable beds as Duprey and Ensroth do.

“We had to know what are you going to call the leaders of each group, and so we’re bedheads!” Enroth says.

“You try not to say, ‘This is my bedmate!’ ” Duprey adds.

Harvard Pilgrim’s gardens have already inspired a company cookbook. And — although Boston’s recent summery weather might make it hard to think about winter eating — if this year’s crop is big enough, the company wants to keep some of it and teach employees how to can tomatoes and pickle cucumbers.