Friend of NOOBs Ben Zimmer points out a line in a New York Times article about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s retirement: “His post-Vanity Fair plans involve a six-month “garden leave” (Mr. Carter is fond of Britishisms) and a rented home in Provence.” The link goes to a Wikipedia article saying the expression “describes the practice whereby an employee leaving a job – having resigned or otherwise had their employment terminated – is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, while still remaining on the payroll.”
The original form was “gardening leave.” The OED gives a 1981 citation from The Times (the British newspaper), the inverted commas indicating it was a recent coinage: “There are too many senior officers on permanent ‘gardening leave’.” The Wikipedia article says that the expression gained popularity through its use in a 1986 episode of the TV series “Yes, Prime Minister.” The OED’s first citation for the shortened “garden leave” is a 1990 Financial Times article. For more background on both variants, see this 2010 post by Nancy Friedman.
All OED citations for both versions come from U.K. sources, but they show up now and again in the New York Times, for example in a 2011 article about a Goldman Sachs executive who had “to take a paid 60-day leave before he could start at Dealbreaker [a satirical blog], a common industry waiting period referred to as a ”garden leave.”’
I was interested to learn about this expression because I’m currently undergoing it myself. I’ve retired from the University of Delaware, which allows prospective retirees to take a sabbatical at reduced pay before walking out the door. UD’s slightly morbid name for this period: “terminal leave.”