The benefits of growing your own vegetables in a garden or allotment are well documented, but now many private and public employers are helping staff to connect with horticulture during their lunch hour
At one time it was enough to offer staff a kettle, a comfy sofa and table football in order to be seen as a ‘progressive’ employer. But increasingly, it’s vegetable patches and living walls that mark you out as an on-trend working environment.
Corporations such as Google, accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers, and property experts Lend Lease have all invested thousands in creating green spaces for staff to grow plants and produce.
It would appear the trend is growing not just with private but also public and charitable organisations. The National Trust has exceeded the number of vegetable plots it hoped to create at its properties for staff and community use. When it launched the scheme it aimed for 1,000 within three years, but, such was the demand, it took less than two to hit the target.
However, it’s the development of new technology and products that is helping to expand the ‘grow your own’ movement from gardens and allotments into workspaces.
Andrew Halksworth, managing director of landscaping business Tendercare, says the ‘eat your own landscape’ trend has gained in popularity, especially for ready-made orchards. Now with the continued developments in vertical gardening, produce can be grown in the most unlikely places.
“Vertical gardening with pocket planting means a tapestry of herbs, small fruiting plants such as alpine strawberries, cherry tomatoes, chillies can be planted in small areas such as roof terraces to enhance the space and offer edible crops too,” he explains.
“Buying a ready-made orchard saves years of nurturing small plants for the non-gardener without the knowledge to train and nurture plants to ‘picking’ age. The skills are available from the grower, and in particular from producers of mature plants who follow time-honoured methods to create many interesting trained forms of top fruit, varieties of apples, pears, cherries and plums.”
Landscaping business Scotscape, which has just been awarded the contract to create the annual living wall of strawberries for the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, agrees demand will grow as it becomes more affordable to create living walls.
That said, business development manager Anna Roochove says that due to the amount of soil needed to grow root crops, living walls are restricted in terms of what produce they can grow. Therefore, it tends to only be seasonal salads, fruits and herbs.
“It’s very viable for an organisation to have an area that grows salads, and herbs that staff can tend, and then pick to add something natural and fresh to their plates at lunchtime,” she says.
“The only barrier has been an issue of the costs involved, but there are now more affordable options.”
Indeed, Scotscape is due to start selling starter kits for living walls, and is hosting training days so that potential gardeners can learn how to plant and care for such projects.
Roochove says that the concept of companies or organisations offering employees the opportunity to get involved in gardening, and to grow their own food, is gaining traction with Scotscape seeing a rise in enquiries for such projects.
The National Trust says it has had incredible feedback from the staff and communities involved with the vegetable plots that have been created over the last six years, all of which are still thriving, including the allotment at its London office in Queen Anne’s Gate, which gardener and television presenter Monty Don says is an inspirational example.
He noted: “If every organisation and company did the same then it would transform the health and wellbeing of the nation as well as significantly contribute to our national food supply.”
Property firm Lend Lease is one of those organisations that have heeded the call, creating gardening areas on a roof terrace at its Triton Street offices in 2011 that are still maintained by staff today.
“There is an emerging trend that employees are looking for leadership and values in their workplace,” says a Lend Lease spokeswoman.
“The roof terrace provides multiple opportunities for employees to either relax and enjoy the outside space, grow some vegetables or learn more about biodiversity. It not only helps the environment, but engages on a deeper level with employees.”
Lend Lease has even launched an employee gardening group called The Green Fingers group, headed up this year by Paul Oldfield, head of risk at the company.
The group meet routinely to maintain, water and replant the garden, with a range of produce grown and harvested including herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, beetroot, peppers, and spinach.
“When crops were harvested they were typically placed in the communal refresh areas and the wider staff were encouraged to take these home,” continued the spokesman.
At Google’s Central St. Giles Building in Covent Garden, the allotments are located on the ninth floor. The produce is grown in mini tubs, and staff put their names onto a waiting list to be allocated one such is the popularity. If someone doesn’t maintain their allotment, they’re removed and the next person on the waiting list gets their chance.
With the UK facing a skills shortage, and companies increasingly looking for ways to attract and retain talented staff, potentially offering them their own growing space is a perk that might just have them signing on the dotted line.
Maybe the fresh produce industry in all its guises is in as good a place as any to take advantage of this opportunity.