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At eBay’s corporate headquarters in San Jose, CA, Silicon Valley employees can take a break from their computer screens and get their hands dirty by working at the campus vegetable garden.
The program started in 2013 as an initiative of the local eBay Green Team, a group of eBay employees committed to making their worldwide operations, campuses, and communities more sustainable. The Green Team partnered with StartOrganic, a Bay-area vegetable garden services company, to install the garden’s raised beds and organize educational programming for employees. According to StartOrganic Cofounder Troy Smothermon, the program’s mission is to make “garden education possible for people with 9-5 jobs.”
The garden is divided into six 4-by-8-foot demonstration beds that are maintained by StartOrganic and another handful of raised beds for individual employee or team use. Troy says about 40 employees are involved at a given time and “rent” the raised beds for the season for a small fee. In return, they receive seeds and plant starts, and get to keep all of the produce they grow. In addition, StartOrganic offers monthly hands-on workshops during lunch hours to demonstrate what employees can plant or harvest in the weeks ahead.
At Plantronics Inc. headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA, thousands of pounds of leafy greens are growing in an unlikely location — a paved lot just yards away from their employees’ offices.
In 2014, Plantronics partnered with Santa Cruz-based Cityblooms to build a microfarm on their corporate campus. The computer-automated hydroponic tables supply biweekly harvests of crops such as lettuce, basil, cilantro, parsley, and bok choi to the on-site cafés operated by Bon Appétit Management Company. Cityblooms estimates that the micro-farm will deliver 6,000 pounds of produce annually.
How does it work? Cityblooms founder Nick Halmos says that the microfarm modules, each about the size of a table, “use the power of cloud computing [and] a mobile user interface [to give] the farmer remote command and control power while also keeping track of important crop data and operational records.” With the automated system, the microfarm requires a fraction of the labor and inputs such as water and nutrients as compared to a traditional urban farm. As an added bonus, Plantronics’ existing solar array is able to supply all of the farm’s energy needs.
When asked about the best thing he’s tasted from the microfarm, Nick says, “All the crops grown at the Plantronics micro-farm have been delicious. However, the creations the Bon Appétit team has made with our harvests are what really makes our work shine. For example, the pestos that Chef/Manager Cheyenne Diaz has made with our freshly picked basil have been simply amazing!”
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- Cornell University — Dilmun Hill Student Farm
- Goucher College — Goucher College Agriculture Co-operative
- Gallaudet University — G-Row Garden
- Hamilton College — Hamilton College Community Garden
- Hampshire College— Hampshire College Farm and the Growing Farmers Collective
- Johns Hopkins University — The Blue Jays Perch
- Lafayette College — La Farm
- Lesley University — Lesley Urban Garden
- St. Mary’s College of Maryland — Campus Community Farm
- Stonehill College—The Farm at Stonehill
- Gettysburg College –The Painted Turtle Farm
- Wesleyan University—Long Lane Farm
- Wilson College—Fulton Farm
- Berea College — Berea College Farm
- Eckerd College—EC Sol Food Grow-Op
- Duke University—Duke Campus Farm
- University of South Carolina—Carolina Community Farm & Garden
- Albion College—Albion College Farm
- Andrews University—Andrews University Campus Farm
- Beloit College—BUG Garden
- Carleton College—Carleton College Farm
- Case Western Reserve University—The University Farm
- Cornell College Garden—Cornell College Garden
- DePauw University—DePauw University Campus Farm
- Indiana University—Indiana University Campus Garden Initiative
- Oberlin College—Johnson House Garden
- Lawrence University—SLUG Garden
- Macalester College—MULCH Garden
- St. Olaf College—STOGROW
- University of Michigan—UM Sustainable Food Program
- University of Minnesota—Cornercopia
- Triton College—Triton College Sustainable Horticulture
- Washington University in St. Louis—The Burning Kumquat
- Colorado College—CC Farm
- Concordia University—The Heritage Garden
- Deep Springs College—Deep Springs Community Garden
- Occidental College — FEAST Organic Garden
- Otis College of Art and Design — Dirty Deeds Garden Club
- Portland Community College — Rock Creek Learning Garden
- Santa Clara University—The Forge Garden
- St. Edward’s University—St. Edward’s University Garden
- Texas A&M University—Howdy! Farm
- University of California-Davis — The Student Farm
- University of Redlands—Sustainable University of Redlands Farm
- University of Portland—Student Led Unity Garden
- University of the Pacific—The Ted and Chris Robb Garden
- Whitman College—Student Agriculture at Whitman
- Willamette University—Zena Farm
Walking through Oracle’s Broomfield, CO office, a visitor may never run into the building’s hydroponic herb garden. Tucked away in the café’s empty 10×10 ft. store room, it has an almost secret garden feel. But just ask Bon Appétit Executive Chef Evan Symmes about the garden and he will gladly show guests what’s growing.
Evan and the Bon Appétit team first started the Oracle Hydroponic Herb Garden in 2012 when he purchased a small ebb and flow hydroponic system from a local garden shop, Mile Hydro. The system is composed of two, 2×4 ft. trays that hold the plants, two grow lights, a water reservoir, timers, and a few pumps. Plants are positioned in the trays, which the pumps flood with water and nutrients a few times each day. From seed to harvest, many culinary herbs are ready to pick in three to four weeks.
Over the years the team has experimented with a variety of herbs to determine which plants best suit their needs. They discovered that by focusing on solely basil and dill—the two herbs they utilize most—they can produce enough for the café (which serves about 1000 guests each day). Evan approximates that in high-producing times, their small garden can produce six pounds of basil a week. Since the garden began there was only one time that in-house production did not meet their menu’s needs for basil.
The compact hydroponic garden not only produces a lot of fresh product, but it also does so without a lot of time or energy from the chefs. Weekly maintenance takes between one and two hours in total, and the reward is vibrant, just-picked flavor in every meal.
Nestled in a small outdoor space at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, a raised-bed garden grows produce for Café Modern, the onsite café managed by Bon Appétit Management Company.
Executive Chef Dena Peterson began the 20 ft. x 8ft. garden a few years ago with the goal of growing fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, lemongrass and mint to feature in the café’s drinks and seasonal dishes. Dena and her team share responsibility for harvesting the produce and they have also hired a part-time gardener to help with watering and basic maintenance a few times each week.
The Cafe Modern Garden demonstrates that a productive garden doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to install. The team salvaged scrap wood to create the raised bed’s frame and uses thin PVC pipe and other creative materials to build their homemade garden trellises.
Kohl’s corporate headquarters is located in Menomonee Falls, WI, nearby the world-renown urban farming organization, Growing Power. Over the years, Kohl’s associates regularly volunteered with Growing Power and Kohl’s management provided grants and donations to support its mission. In 2009, Kohl’s decided to bring some of this growing magic to campus and partnered with Growing Power to install their very own Kohl’s Garden.
The garden, which is approximately 45 ft. x 90 ft., includes eight raised beds and is located just off a parking lot on a narrow strip of land. Growing Power installed the garden beds and brought in compost, soil, and seedlings. Each year thereafter, the organization has provided soil and seedlings to refresh the garden. Because of the garden’s location near pavement and street debris, the soil needs to be replaced each year.
During the first few years of the garden’s operation, Kohl’s sustainability team and other associates harvested the fresh produce and donated it to the Local Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee. They put up flyers around campus asking associates to volunteer for fifteen-minute watering and harvest shifts. When Sous Chef John Raymond arrived on campus and brought along his passion for gardening and Farm to Fork ingredients, the Kohl’s team decided to change courses and feature the produce in the Bon Appétit managed campus café.
Over the years, the garden has blossomed into a lasting partnership between Kohl’s, the Bon Appétit cafés on campus, and Growing Power. The fruits of the collaborative effort are the garden-fresh tomatoes, melons, peppers, and edible flowers featured in the cafés during the growing season.
In 2009, Bon Appétit Executive Chef Shaun Holtgreve started a garden at Target in Minneapolis, MN by tilling a 100 ft. x 60 ft. plot on its campus. When the company claimed that land for expansion, Shaun shifted his focus to establishing a specialized container herb garden on a balcony where Target associates frequently eat lunch.
The A-frame, stainless steel Mobile Edible Wall Unit (MEWU) at Café Target is a self-watering system by Green Living Technologies International. The MEWU has 48 square feet of growing space, separated into hundreds of “cells” for seedlings. The garden provides dozens of varieties of herbs to the café including basil, mint, thyme, lemongrass, oregano, sage, and cilantro. In the Minnesota climate, the MEWU can be used from May (after last frost) to October (before the fall frost). After that it is stored inside for the winter.
At the beginning of each growing season, Shaun sends the café’s wish list of plants to Tommy Carver’s, a local landscape and florist company. The company starts the transplants in their off-site greenhouse and when ready, they will place the plants in the system’s empty cells.
Through trial and error, the team has learned that some plants do better than others in the MEWU. For example, even small tomato plants had a rough time supporting themselves and growing horizontally. However, most herbs, lettuces, and compact plants worked well, which could also be used more broadly in café. According to Shaun during the summer of 2013 the MEWU was planted entirely of herbs and yielded approximately 30 pounds throughout the season—the largest harvest of usable product yet.
The SAP Kitchen Garden began in 2012 after Bon Appétit Executive Chef Melissa Miller approached SAP management with the idea for an educational garden. They hired a part-time gardener, built twelve raised beds approximately 6 ft. x 3 ft. x 2 ft. in size, and constructed a couple of beehives, too. While not directly in sight of the campus café, the garden is located only a short walk away behind one of the SAP buildings.
The garden’s mission is to increase awareness and appreciation for the seasonal and local produce prepared in the café. Melissa says she knew the idea was a win-win for the café and the company: the garden would not only provide local produce and herbs for the café, but also provide a workplace amenity not available at all Silicon Valley employers.
The garden’s limited size means the amount it produces can’t really make a dent in the café’s purchasing needs. But Melissa says they make the most of the space by growing produce that may be unfamiliar to guests. Growing crops such as kohlrabi and chicory allows SAP associates to experience new flavor profiles while keeping menus fresh and exciting.
Melissa encourages those dreaming of starting a campus garden to be upfront about annual funding needs. Maintaining the beds, buying seeds, and hiring a part-time gardener all come with a price tag. In the case of the SAP Kitchen Garden, the operational costs are higher than the value of the ingredients that comes out of it. Still, with a few growing seasons under their belt, the team is confident the garden’s benefits to the SAP community far outweigh its relatively small financial cost.
There are many ways to grow food on corporate campuses. Popular methods include:
- Container Gardens: These gardens may include windowsill boxes, hanging baskets, and stand-alone planters with soil.
- Raised Bed Gardens: Raised beds are higher than ground level, with the soil mounded or surrounded by a frame to keep it in place.
- In-Ground Garden: The “typical” garden—a plot is dug or tilled to remove plant matter and amendments are added to the soil.
- Hydroponic Gardens: Hydroponic gardens use water and nutrient-rich solutions as a growing medium instead of soil. Leafy greens and herbs grow especially well in these environments.
The available space on campus, your desired crops, and staff capacity will inform what kind of garden to grow. For example, if a small indoor space is available, consider a hydroponic system or growing containers of herbs. If your dream is to harvest hundreds of pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers to feature in the onsite café, try a raised bed garden or an in-ground garden managed by an outside grower. And if the vision is to have a community garden where associates tend their own crops, consider a collection of small raised beds.
Whichever type of garden you choose, it is easiest to start out with a small growing space and then add additional components as time allows. Consider starting with a pilot project and then taking a step back to assess its time and energy requirements. Scaling up is always easier than scaling down.
The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible by Edward C. Smith
Hydroponics for the Home Gardener by Stewart Kenyon
Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew