Companies Give Organic Gardens A Try

07/12/10 7:34AM Sacha Pfeiffer
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Harvard Pilgrim Health Care employees Marie Duprey and Arthur Ensroth help maintain vegetable beds at the company's Wellesley, Mass., headquarters.

(Host) These days, companies are more likely to be cutting employee benefits than adding any perks.

But even in this down economy, some businesses are offering an unusual new benefit that doesn't cost a lot, but that some employees are really "digging".

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, Sacha Pfeiffer of WBUR reports.

(Pfeiffer) It's 3 in the afternoon on a recent work day, and Marie Duprey is at her job at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where she's a graphic designer. But she isn't anywhere near her desk.

(Duprey) "Well, the peas are shooting up because it's happy pea time and they'll grab onto anything with these little tendrils. So we're trying to get them to grab on to strings and lead them up the back of the bed."

(Pfeiffer) The bed is an organic raised vegetable bed on the lawn outside Harvard Pilgrim's headquarters in Wellesley, Massachusetts, just west of Boston. The building is right off Interstate 95. Tens of thousands of cars and trucks roll by here each day. Not exactly a spot where you'd think of planting a garden.

(Duprey) "Right here we've got carrots. This is kale. The red over there is beets. Those are radishes."

(Pfeiffer) Harvard Pilgrim also has vegetable beds at another Massachusetts location and wants to install them at its Portland, Maine, office, too. Employees volunteer to do the planting and weeding whenever they can grab a few spare minutes. And Duprey said even with all the tractor-trailers barreling by, she gets nicely lost in this little patch of green.

(Duprey) "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. It gives you perspective."

(Pfeiffer) Harvard Pilgrim Vice President Judith Frampton says the company tries to promote healthy eating, and the garden helps do that.

(Frampton) "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."

(Pfeiffer) She says it's also a community service, since the food that's raised is donated to local charities. And she says gardens encourage camaraderie and even teamwork by getting employees mingling with folks they don't normally work with. For all those reasons, a handful of companies around the country are deciding that, in addition to medical and dental benefits, a garden is a nice perk, too.

(DeCecco) "Maybe it might not show up in the ledger as an official employee benefit, but I guess you'd call it an intangible benefit or an unquantifiable benefit."

(Pfeiffer) Dave DeCecco is a spokesman for PepsiCo, which has a big organic garden at its headquarters in Purchase, New York, outside White Plains. Some employees decorate their plots with little garden gnomes, or with pinwheels and streamers to keep away crows. Others compete for who grows the best tomatoes. DeCecco said PepsiCo views the garden as an employee amenity, just like the volley ball courts and softball field on the company campus.

(DeCecco) "This company does understand that sometimes you need to give people a little bit of a break during the day. And even if it's just a trip out to the organic garden, it's something you can do that is a small thing that doesn't cost much that can go a long way."

(Pfeiffer) PepsiCo says it's spent about $40,000 on its garden. That's covered shovels, a wheelbarrow and a ten-foot-high fence to keep out deer. Harvard Pilgrim's smaller gardens have cost about $10,000. That includes purchasing ladybugs to fight off invading aphids.

Now, no one -- not companies or their employees -- are saying a garden makes up for slashing benefits. But some human resource specialists say it can be a tiny perk that allows companies to trumpet corporate values like wellness and sustainability.

At Harvard Pilgrim, the garden really has helped some employees focus on healthy eating. Arthur Ensroth is a data analyst who said his water cooler conversations lately center on how to cook leafy greens.

(Ensroth) "We talk a lot over in my department about kale. 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."

(Pfeiffer) Gardens could be coming to other employers, too. Harvard Pilgrim, which sells insurance in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, wants to persuade other companies to plant gardens of their own.

For VPR News, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.

(Host Outro) Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative. The reporting is supported, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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