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Vegetable Gardens Help Morale Grow

Some small companies seeking an extra benefit for their employees are turning to their backyard for inspiration: a vegetable garden.


Fred Haberman with his son, Clayton, at his company's vegetable garden in Minneapolis.

After laying off an employee, cutting hours and discontinuing raises, Sheryl Woodhouse-Keese, owner of Twisted Limb Paperworks LLC in Bloomington, Ind., invested $600 last fall to create a 1,500-square-foot garden outside the recycled paper-products company's office. Now, her four employees can take home their pick of 10 herbs and 22 vegetables.

"The garden really is a nice benefit, saving them on their food bills," said Ms. Woodhouse-Keese, who estimates the garden has meted out $2,400 in produce this season, from tomatoes to potatoes.

Employer-sponsored gardens can be a cheap and easy way to boost workers' morale, relate better to certain customers and expand a company's health and wellness program. It is unclear how many businesses have them, although the National Gardening Association projects a 19% increase in food gardening this year, as the recession motivates households to trim grocery lists.

For a small employer, a garden can encourage camaraderie among co-workers and become "a valuable asset the organization is offering," said Paul Teslak, a professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business. It requires relatively few resources, can help in recruiting and differentiate a small business from its competitors, he said.

That has been the case for Haberman, a public relations and branding company in Minneapolis, which invested about $10,000 this year to set up a garden for its 30 employees. The company hires part-time help to tend the garden but its employees can work the soil and reap the benefits of beans and beets.

"It's creating that water-cooler effect," said Fred Haberman, the company's co-founder and chief executive. "People have a greater excitement [about] working at Haberman." The company has numerous clients in the organic-food industry, so time at the ranch also helps employees connect with them, he said.

For Lundberg Family Farms, a producer of rice products in Richvale, Calif., the two-year-old employee garden is part of the company's wellness program, which also includes health screenings, daily morning stretches and free flu shots. "We think that it's incumbent upon us to make our employees as healthy as we can," said Rhonda Turner, a human resources manager. "Employees that are healthier use their insurance less."

But it takes time and broad support from employees to make a garden live up to its potential.

Autumn Blum, chief executive of Organix-South Inc., of Bowling Green, Fla., learned that first-hand when an employee who took charge of the garden left the natural health-products company.

Weeds have sprouted. Her employees miscalculated planting time this summer season and had to pull rotting squash and tomatoes after three weeks of rain.

Ms. Blum has already invested about $1,000, and wants to continue the project, which started a year and a half ago. She's sought help from local gardening clubs. "We have to catch up and learn a little bit more," Ms. Blum said.  
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