The Machinist Garden

The lettuce is growing great. But can this team of precision machining specialists get watermelon to grow in Connecticut?


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Back when I visited East Coast Precision Manufacturing, one of the details I noted was the green wall. Company co-owner Nancy Rohlfs recently wrote me to describe another kind of green the company is experiencing—the staff’s green thumb. The shop now has a company-funded and employee-maintained vegetable garden on site. Here is Ms. Rohlf’s report:

Now in its second year, the garden has proved to be a great way for all who work at our shop to enjoy fresh produce during their lunch break, and to take some of the veggies they grow with them at the end of the work day to enjoy at home. “Two of our employees, Heather Temple and John Wright, have taken the lead on this initiative,” says East Coast President Mark Rohlfs. “I appreciate what they’re doing, and I was glad to encourage this healthy project when it first came together and to continue to support it at our shop.”

In 2013, several employees noted that the hillside behind the shop was covered in raspberry bushes, and they got permission from Mark to pick a bunch of berries. “We picked several quarts,” says Heather Temple. The next day, another colleague brought in home-baked angel food cake, which the staff shared and enjoyed with the fresh raspberries and engaged in a conversation about fresh fruits and veggies and gardening tips. The on-site gardening idea was born.

The first garden at the shop, tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash, was planted in 2014 on three raised beds and a flat growing area on a plot of land next to the shop. Mark, John Wright and a few others installed soaker hoses and established a timer system to regulate watering. John and Heather are paid for the time they put in, planting, weeding and making sure the crops are pest-free. “Our approach is as close to being organic as possible,” Heather explains. “Most of the seeds we use are organic, and we use fish emulsion as fertilizer.”

This year, in the early spring, Heather brought in seed catalogs, which she put on the conference table in the shop. “People read through them and cast their votes for what they’d like to have.” The result was a diverse selection for the 2015 East Coast Precision garden:  spinach; lettuce; tomatoes; kale; Brussels sprouts; squash; cucumbers; string beans; red peppers; basil; carrots; beets; and cantaloupe. “We are also trying watermelon,” says John Wright. “While Connecticut isn’t an ideal watermelon-growing climate, it can do OK here, under the right conditions.” The most popular crop? “It’s definitely the lettuce, which everyone likes to put on their sandwiches at lunch time,” says Wright. As the produce is picked, it is placed on a window shelf.

Though Wright is a long-time gardener and Heather Temple comes from a family of Pennsylvania farmers, other employees have also offered helpful insights on good-growing and garden-management approaches. “The garden has proved to be a great conversation builder,” says Mark Rohlfs. “It’s good for the folks who work here, and is proving to be a positive initiative for the company to keep doing, each growing season, moving forward.”

Read about East Coast Precision Manufacturing’s approach to micromachining in this article.