‘Fellowship Garden’ at Orange warehouse growing like a weed
Watson Inc. on Prindle Hill Road offers a unique employee benefit that’s sprouting good health, community connectedness and help for the needy.
It’s a “Fellowship Garden,” where employees can farm a plot and grow vegetables for their families, as well as the needy, and where some plots are exclusively dedicated to grow for West Haven Emergency Assistance Task Force,Connecticut Food Bank, Milestones Behavioral Services, a special education school and others. Students from Milestones pick produce for WHEAT and take some with them.
“We really care about enhancing health and nutrition and access to healthy food,” said Moira Watson, who owns the company with her three siblings. “It (the garden) improves overall employee engagement.”
The company also cares about helping the less fortunate.
Rose Majestic, executive director of WHEAT Inc., which has a food pantry, said those served by the agency — many working poor and disabled — are grateful for the produce, which can be difficult to afford.
“It’s incredible that a business thought to tear up their yard and grow produce” for others in need, she said. “You just wouldn’t believe how appreciative people are to get fresh produce.”
Majestic said Watson is one of their biggest donors and although they get produce from the food bank, those are mostly root vegetables, rather than leafy greens, tomatoes and other varieties.
Watson Inc., headquartered in West Haven, is a nutritional research and development company.
The sprawling garden, which has more than doubled in size since its inception four years ago, jumps out at motorists along mainly industrial Prindle Hill Road. The garden sits on the front lawn of Watson’s warehouse.
Watson said her brother read about a company offering a similar concept in another state and they decided to give it a try, as they have a big piece of land with no trees and lots of sun.
Watson said that aside from the health aspect, the garden has been great for community-building between towns and agencies, as well as among employees who come on weekends with their families to garden.
She loves being able to provide produce for those in need, noting seniors no longer receive vouchers for produce because of program cuts.
Watson said the company is trying to recruit other businesses and manufacturers in the Prindle Hill Road area to follow the lead and create gardens. She said, “Imagine if 10 companies” grew produce for those in need. They hosted a garden party Saturday to promote that notion.
The company gave employees a top-notch gardening canvas to begin with: weed-blocking material, a slow-drip irrigation system and hundreds of leafcutting bees for ultimate pollination. The bees carry pollen on their stomachs and one bee can pollinate as well as 15 honeybees, Watson said.
The company also provided seeds and bought more than 4,000 plants.
“We wanted to make it as easy as possible so employees would have a good experience,” Watson said.
Pu Sie Lo, a food technologist at the company, volunteers to run the garden — and also has a chunk to farm for herself.
“We’re feeding many families with this garden; we do it so it will help them economically,” Lo said. “It’s been a really amazing experience.”
The company has a diverse work force, a company spokeswoman said, and so the crop varieties are diverse as well.
Some of the vegetables growing include: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, jalapeno, bok choy, radishes, Asian watermelon, cilantro, basil, Chinese yams, tomatillos, Chinese spinach or amaranth; winter melon and African vegetables that don’t translate well into English.
Not only have the gardeners more than doubled the size of garden space, but they’ve added a pumpkin patch for employees’ children and others and a corn maze.
Employee Iboki Bolelembe, who lives in Stratford and grew up in the Congo growing vegetables — and put himself through university that way, has six plots at Watson where he grows African vegetables that are impossible to find in the grocery store.
Planting is so important to him that when he worked in Zambia as an ambassador, he rented a big plot to grow on.
Bolelembe, a solutions operator at the company, said he eats the leafy vegetables with dried fish and keeps them in the freezer for a year.
Matt Couture, an analytical chemist, and his wife, Stephanie, a regulatory affairs specialist at the company, each has a plot to garden. Their house in Naugatuck has too many trees for gardening.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I like having a company that gives you land to grow crops on,” he said, noting they grow extra produce for WHEAT.
Amit Sinha, of West Haven, who works in the research and development department, and wore an “I love gardening” T-shirt, said he’s growing food he’ll use and loves donating to WHEAT.
“It’s always nice when you take it over there; they get excited,” he said, noting there are many canned goods.
Chemist Tom Chen, of East Haven, who loves gardening and did it in China, is growing Asian watermelon and very long beans.
Delyan Ivanov, who is from Greece, always wanted to try gardening, but lived in urban areas, so never got the chance.
So far, he loves it and is growing ingredients for Greek salad — the feta is home ready to go, he said.