At the world headquarters of PepsiCo in New York, the masterminds behind $60 billion (Rs2.71 trillion) worth of Mountain Dew, Cheetos and Rice-A-Roni roam polished hallways.

Edible perks: Employees of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Wellesley, Massachusetts, harvest veggies. NYT

As companies have less to spend on raises, health benefits and passes to the water park, a fashionable new perk is emerging: All the carrots and zucchini employees can grow.

Carved from rolling green office park turf or tucked into containers on rooftops and converted smoking areas, these corporate plots spring from growing attention to sustainability and a rising interest in gardening. But they also reflect an economy that calls for creative ways to build worker morale and health.

“It’s almost as if they are saying, ‘Yeah, we couldn’t give you a pay increase and yeah, times are tough, but this is something we can do to help improve the quality of your life’," says Bruce Butterfield, the research director for the non-profit National Gardening Association.

In corporate language, there is very little benchmarking on the numbers of gardens. But dozens of companies in several parts of the country have recently installed them or are digging them this spring.

That Google, Yahoo and Sunset magazine have started organic gardens is not a surprise. Those enterprises are, after all, based in Silicon Valley, where the workforce is almost as comfortable composting as it is programming.

But the trend has caught on at more traditional companies too. At the headquarters for the Kohl’s department stores near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the organic gardens provide vegetables for a local food bank and a place for children at the company childcare centre to play. Abundant crops of pumpkins and tomatoes grow at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky.

Weeding out

Still, what seems like a good idea in the conference room doesn’t always translate to the field. People don’t always follow through. It’s the same dynamic that fills the office refrigerator with old yogurt containers and mouldy lunches.

At PepsiCo, most of the plots are still weedy and empty. The weather has been cool and so, gardeners say, has enthusiasm. Last year, when the company first turned over a plot the size of two tennis courts to peppers and tomatoes, 200 of the 1,450 employees here signed up, mailroom workers and mid-level administrators alike. This year, the volunteers dwindled to about 75, and many of them have yet to get their plots ready.

Recently, Anu Malhotra from the food services division pulled on her gardening gloves and yanked weeds from small squares of land that weren’t even her own.

At Aveda, which offers on-site massage and organic cafeteria food at its headquarters near Minneapolis, Minnesota, the garden is a chance for its 700 employees to take a break from their desks and take home fresh produce. Workers pay $10 for the season and in return, get a share of the bounty. Picking up a hoe is optional, but encouraged.

“It does seem like work, but it’s a different kind of work from our regular workday," says Peggy Skinner, an employee who pushed to have the garden installed. This year, Skinner has devised a chore calendar and suggests twice-a-week gardening sessions. Reminder email messages will be sent, cajoling employees to take their turn at the weeds.

For, and suggested by, the people

In many cases, employee groups asked for the gardens. Sometimes, managers suggested these to them to help supply a food bank or as a team-building activity. It turns out that building tomato trellises together can help erase office hierarchies.

“It takes the politics out of the job," says Sheila Golden, a senior manager at PepsiCo, whose team grew what everyone agrees were the best tomatoes in the corporate garden last year. “Everybody is on the same level in the garden."

Another beneficiary can be the company cafeteria. Best Buy planted a garden at its headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota, to help improve the food it serves to 4,600 employees. “I really looked at it as what difference does a little bit less shrubbery make to my employees? Not much," says Ian Ellis, director of corporate facilities. “But having fresh herbs and fresh tomatoes would make a big difference."

A small plot or a few containers can cost a company less than $1,000 to install.


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