By Geert De Clercq
PARIS (Reuters) - Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie, two landmark Paris luxury stores have turned their joint rooftops into an urban garden for staff who can grow their own crops in their free time.
In the past months, the LVMH-owned adjoining stores on Paris's residential left bank have built planter boxes on a 700 square meter (7,500 square feet) roof area, where the store's employees grow 60 or so kinds of fruit, vegetables and herbs such as strawberries, zucchinis, mint and lavender.
The stunning views over Paris and the chance to learn about gardening have attracted 200 of the stores' 1,500 employees, selected by lottery, and put the stores at the forefront of the city's urban gardening drive.
By 2020, the Paris city government wants to have 100 hectares (1 square km) of green roofs, sidewalks and walls, with one third dedicated to the production of fruits and vegetables.
"In the beginning we spent more time looking at the amazing view than at the planter boxes, but this is a great place to grow vegetables and meet colleagues," said Charlotte Arnoux, recruitment officer and first-time gardener.
Arnoux and seven colleagues take turns taking care of three one square meter (11 square feet) planter boxes in which they grow sorrel, basil and different varieties of tomatoes, all without the use of pesticides.
The stores' customers are not aware of the garden over their heads and cannot visit it, but the initiative has drawn visitors from other companies in France and abroad who want to set up similar rooftop gardens for staff.
"Given the impact this has on staff morale, the cost of investment was minimal," said technical director Hubert Genet.
The stores' own technical staff built the planters and converted the narrow rooftop into an urban garden.
Crops are sown in one-meter high planters which takes the back-breaking out of the gardening, but the plants will grow in just 15 cms of soil to limit the extra weight on the roof.
Nicolas Bel, founder of urban gardening pioneer Topager, said micro-drip irrigation and a pebbles-and-membrane water retention system simulate the moist, deep soil that plants need to grow.
Head of alterations at Le Bon Marche clothing department Veronique Roussin said she had made a rhubarb tart with stems grown on the roof and brought it in to share with colleagues.
"We often come up here to have breakfast or lunch together and take care of our plants," she said. "And it gives us something to talk about other than alterations".
(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Balmforth)