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company-sponsored plots

At the ‘giving garden’ in Cambridge, Ont., workers at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada plant display their all-natural vegetable harvest. Paul Plato, left, Pam Hawkins and David Romero volunteered their time on company property. The harvest came to 270 kilograms last year and has been donated to two local women’s shelters.

For many people, one of summer's pleasures is a trip to the backyard vegetable patch to pluck ripe peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers for the dinner table.

That same delight is shared by employees at Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan Inc., except their garden is on the grounds of the company's headquarters.

Over the summer, half a dozen employee volunteers tended four vegetable plots, three metres by three metres each, with the bounty (90 kilograms as of mid-September) donated to a local food bank.

Though still rare, company-sponsored gardens are catching on, sometimes to earn points on a sustainable "green building" rating system known as LEED (for Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) or to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. Not least, gardens provide a fun outlet for employees, with a potential to boost productivity.

"If you have these gardens in the workplace and you provide employees with the tools and the space, this will likely reduce their stress and create a more enjoyable and attractive environment," said Chani Joseph, LEED specialist in sustainable communities for the Canada Green Building Council.

For the past three years, 27 employees at the Cambridge plant of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada have volunteered their time, at lunch or after work, to tend an all-natural vegetable garden, 18 metres by 10 metres, on company property. The harvest, which came to 270 kilograms last year, is donated to two local women's shelters.

This year, in addition to the usual garden vegetables, employees planted turnip, quinoa and kale.

"It's driven by what people are interested in doing," said information systems manager Paul Plato, a garden team member from the beginning. "If they are interested, they will help keep it weeded."

Toyota spokeswoman Pat Clement added, "For people with busy lives, this is one small way we can give some of our team members an opportunity to volunteer."

This year, employees at Toyota's Woodstock plant started a garden while other employees helped the two women's shelters, recipients of Toyota's "Giving Garden" in Cambridge, to put in their own plots to promote healthy eating. Ms. Clement said employees report the garden is also a way to connect with those they would not typically meet at Toyota during the workday.

Eleven kilometres away, at the headquarters of Farm Mutual, which serves 57 rural insurance firms in Canada, the impetus for the garden came from facilities manager Marie Byrne, whose company won LEED gold certification for its new 13-acre headquarters in 2011.

"We had grounds and wanted to keep them sustainable, but we didn't want to get into having manicured gardens," Ms. Byrne said. Of particular concern was a weedy patch outside a glass-walled boardroom lounge that looks out on the property.

Inspired by vegetable gardens at nearby Langdon Hall, an upscale country hotel, Ms. Byrne thought "why not put in something decorative and useful?"

This summer, employees on the Farm Mutual "green team" volunteered about half-an-hour a week to care for the vegetables and herbs.

"I believe in the whole idea of sustainability and the garden was a nice extension of that," said green-team member Chris Serran, a medical rehab specialist. "The best part," he added, "is contributing to the food bank."

On a recent visit, volunteers inspected the first harvest: fat peppers, giant zucchini and wildly crooked carrots that, though healthy, bore no resemblance to the perfect specimens in the grocery store.

With Farm Mutual's rural links, the garden proved an easy sell to senior managers, said Ms. Byrne, who estimates the company spent about $700 on soil, seeds and tools.

But as every gardener knows, idyllic conditions don't always rule in the vegetable patch.

In Kitchener, Ont., employees at Enermodal Engineering lost a battle this summer with groundhogs that chomped their way through the leafy offerings of peas, lettuce and beans in the company garden.

"They invaded right away as soon as everything popped up," sighed Donald Reaburn, a project manager in the company's green building division, one of 15 employee volunteers who operate the garden for their own use. With some fencing added, Mr. Raeburn and his co-workers salvaged peppers, radishes and a bit of corn.

Still, Mr. Reaburn said the 10-metre by six-metre garden has therapeutic value for employees whose flexible work schedules allow them to choose when to work in the garden.

"You take a break and go out for a little time in the garden and you do some nice meditative work picking weeds or watering," he says. "Then you come back and everything comes together."

Enermodal's garden was built into the landscape design that contributed to the environmental consulting company winning LEED Platinum, the top rating, for its new headquarters in 2009.

"As a green building consultant we want to be able to attract people who are interested in the outdoors and the green lifestyle, healthy eating and local organic things," said company spokeswoman Caitlin Carpenter, citing company discounts for environmentally friendly activities by employees. "If you want to attract innovative people, you have to have innovative HR [human resources] policies."

Companies with no land for an outdoor garden can still help green-thumbed employees.

In mid-town Toronto, CS&P Architects has a second-storey office with access to a rooftop, with a portion now set aside for outdoor furniture along with five planter boxes (1.2 metres by 0.6 metres) and six circular pots (0.7 metres in diameter) for herbs and vegetables.

"We are on a small scale but it has been a really positive experience," associate Joanne Frisch said. She and five other employees take turns watering and weeding the containers filled with peppers, chives, tomatoes and basil. An experiment with fruit plants this year was unsuccessful, in part because a squirrel dug up the strawberries.

The rooftop garden has added to camaraderie at the office. This year, a dozen employees signed up for a "salad club" that meets every Thursday to eat a salad made, in part, from produce from the garden.

"On the Thursdays when we have the salad club, everyone ends up being in a great mood," she said.

Back at Farm Mutual, green-team member Deb Field said other employees comment favourably on the garden's success. "Maybe next year we will have more volunteers," she said.

How-to tips

Here are tips for a successful garden on company property:

– Start small, with the effort led by employee volunteers.

– Supply materials, with the company picking up the tab for plants, soil and tools.

– Organize a schedule for employee volunteers to share weeding, watering and harvesting.

– Nominate a champion, preferably someone with gardening experience.

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