Corporate Urban Gardening, No Greenwashing Allowed


 We all know there's a lot of greenwashing going on these days, with companies making empty gestures to suggest they're doing great things, often to cover up the not-great things they're doing.  But let's look at what they could be doing instead – real greening.

The Whole Foods Garden-for-Every-Store Strategy

Now this may just apply to the Mid-Atlantic Region – Whole Foods is a very regionally-directed company – but at least around here the company's urban gardening effort is deep, widespread, and having an impact.  Though it didn't look that way at first.

A few of IMG_6961us garden writers attended a press release announcing WF's $25,000 contribution to start gardens and beehives at 56 community centers in DC.  The mayor and other politicians were there holding the big fake check and grinning, along with WF's regional president Ken Meyer (the shockingly young guy second from the right).  But you know how gardeners think:  How far can $446 per garden go?  And supplies are nice but who's doing the labor, especially the on-going maintenance?  Oh, and who's teaching the neighbors to garden?

Sure, we're kind of jaded about press conferences, but that's where follow-up phone calls come in handy – to city Parks and Recs folks and to WFs' gardening coach Mark Smallwood.

Turns out they have an ambitious goal – to have gardens near every WF store in this region – something that's already under way in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to much acclaim.  (In Pittsburgh they turned a vacant lot into a 4,000-square-foot community garden, with rain barrels and all. WF staff oversee the garden on company time.)  So when a Parks and Rec organizer approached the company to hit them up for money, they were a really soft target. 

The goal of each community-center garden is to teach kids about the environment and healthy eating – primarily by getting them to grow food. Ancillary programs include teaching cooking and preserving, with teaching taking place in stores, schools and other community buildings.   They think of these as agricultural learning centers.

But back to who does the work.  Americorps volunteers will do the installation of raised beds and what-not, and the Parks and Rec's "queen of greening" will be traveling the circuit to oversee the gardens, but we all know that's not enough.  When I read in the press release that WF is "encouraging area store employees  to participate in all aspects of the program, such as constructing and tending to gardens, providing scraps for composting, hosting workshops, and hosting cooking demonstrations" I was skeptical.  Sounded to me like project death, but if WF employees are actually doing this in other cities, especially on company time, then okay, I'm a believer.

But bottom line, community gardens have got to be gardened by people in the community, and it turns out there's a whole slew of groups committed to helping, though not the group they need the most – D.C.'s Master Gardeners.  (Instead, they're still getting "community service" credit for pulling weeds at the British Embassy and other private gardens…it's a long story.)

All in all, my skepticism remains on standby but I'm pretty encouraged by WF's commitment and the organizing abilities of the DC Parks and Rec folks.  Just one last dubious moment from the press conference was when Mayor Fenty called the $25,000 donation "the largest donation of its kind in the country".  Hmm, wonder what "'its kind" means – keep reading.

Fiskars' Garden Make-Overs and Grants

So what about companies who don't have retail stores embedded throughout the city?  What if, in fact, you're a Finnish tool manufacturer?  Fiskars's Project Orange Thumb is their answer.

This is a combo plan, starting with small grants of $2,000 to 22 existing worthy projects every year. (Applications are now open, and the deadline is 2/19/10.)

But what's more exciting – because they're dramatic one-day events and I actually visited one in the making – are the large garden make-overs in select cities.  Recipient cities so far include Chicago, San Francisco, Orlando, Toronto, Atlanta and Baltimore, whose Oliver Street neighborhood saw the instant transformation of a vacant lot into a garden.  Information about the Oliver Street Project is here, and others are in the sidebar.

It all starts with Fiskars's Nicole Mayasich's hunt for cities with great partnership potential, and in Baltimore she found a serious partner in the city's Cleaner Greener initiative.  Then Joe Lamp'l was brought in to meet with the community and based on what they want, planned their garden.  Then for the BIG DAY Joe returned, along with in this case about 15 Fiskars employees from their headquarters in Wisconsin (including their national prez). Other volunteers came from the state transportation agency, plus the local and national offices of the EPA – about 100 volunteers in all.  The nearby Home Depot coughed up some donated goods, but the largest financial contributor was Fiskars, which spent "well over $100,000 on the Baltimore project," according to Nicole.  That included a good-looking wrought-iron fence around the entire property.

The result is a place to grow fresh vegetables and flowers, which will be distributed in the neighborhood, and a place for people to learn.  Several schools and community groups will have access to the garden.

And then there's Scotts

I'd intended to compare these approaches side by side but after talking to folks, I nixed that idea – the companies are just too different.  I say hey, as long as there's serious commitment and attention paid beyond the big photo op, great.  As long as there's lots of community buy-in and attention to the long term, great. As long as it's not companies just BS'ing us about how environmentally responsible they are.

Speaking of which, a little Googling of the word "greenwashing" yields more than one mention of the gardening world's very own Top Gun – Scotts – and they managed to make it to this list of Top Ten Greenwashers.  It's no wonder there's so much squirming among garden writers over Scotts's support of the Garden Writers Association.  Scotts even does some of their own squirming – like donating big-time to our national symposium but declining to show up with a booth on the trade show floor to talk to us face to face.

Full disclosure: Fiskars is a sponsor of my website and blog.  No, there's no quid pro quo about covering their
good deeds but because I know them and Joe Lamp'l, I dropped in on the big event and cite it as an example.  Good things
happen when
good companies partner with garden writers.


  1. When clients ask for a vegetable patch for their kids they always, always, have a proposed site.

    I’ve yet to use a ‘proposed’ site. Why? Too far from the house, not easily visible from the main living areas, not easily traversed to get there.

    Make it easy, fun, pretty and something of continuing interest. What happens when it starts big then fizzles before harvest? What will kids take away?

    If the sun is right I place childrens vegetable gardens in huge pots on deck/patio. Visible from house, easy to maintain, fun to watch plants/food develop, easy to harvest, with pots/potting soil no onerous soil prep.

    Most parents work and a vegetable garden, out of site/mind, is easily ‘let go’.

    For parents who are interested in vegetable gardening, not just making a statement for their kids, (which of course kids pick up on) I do the full blown potager, mixing herbs/flowers with crops.

    Great article, the depth is amazing and appreciated.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I take the same tack as Tara on veg garden placement because ‘out of sight’ = out of mind = out of control and a fast downward spiral.

    Front and center (or deck and center) makes it a lot easier to keep up with.


  3. 1. I love my project orange thumb shirt.

    2. That is pretty cool, what Whole Foods is doing, and it sounds promising. Thank you for sharing!

    3. I need to “tweet” at my local community gardener and finally sign myself up to volunteer.

    4. Someday, I want to start doing even more with community gardens. I’ve noticed, while riding my bike around the surrounding neighborhoods, that there are lots of circular cul-de-sacs with center beds filled with weeds or marginally healthy plants. Those would make GREAT places for community vegetable gardens! Full sun! Soil! Common area! Right in front of the houses!

  4. Great article, but not exactly what I expected. I thought this was going to be about how corporations could change their boring corporate landscaping in to something that can sustain local wildlife and/or provide food for humans.

    I am in suburban Baltimore, and there seems to be tons of opportunity for companies to green their landscaping. But getting facilities managers (and landscape maintenance companies) on board seems like an uphill battle.

    My company has made some small steps with using some native plants, but I am hoping we will do more, including planting a vegetable garden; the proceeds of which would be donated to a local food bank.

  5. Thanks Susan!

    The mention of Fiskars’ program reminds me to ask the community here: Can anyone find replacement parts for Fiskars tools? I have a hard time recommending or buying them (anymore; I do have an old pair of shears) because I haven’t been able to find replacement blades, locks, etc…like I can for other brands like Bahco, Felco and Stihl.

    Just because I can’t find an easy way to get replacement parts doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. But, if these tools are built to hit the trash when a blade gets nicked or a lock breaks, then how green are they? Here’s hoping someone has the supply answer!

  6. Scotts is also squirming in their efforts to win back the independent garden centers. They, along with other manufacturers, whored themselves to the box store invasion. Very shortly afterwards the boxes cherry picked the top drive items, Turf Builder, Round Up etc, and dropped a lot other products.

    Now Scotts is telling the independents what a wonderful job they can do for us!

  7. Your piece was very informative and it is nice to read about the efforts of these large corporations. It is too bad that they are not putting more dollars and time towards these very worthwhile projects but as they say, every little bit helps. I have been trying to figure out ways to get communities excited and involved in gardens for the long term and the best resources I have found are master gardeners who are required to donate much of their time to these types of projects. We are heading in the right direction and hopefully more companies will take a hint from the small stimulus provided by WF, Fiskars, and Scotts.

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