Once relegated to commercial or closet cultivators, hydroponics has blossomed into a booming local industry with a global reach.
Hydroponics is one of those things most of us have heard of but not many can explain. It’s both high-tech and ancient, mainstream and fringe. It’s used to grow grocery store tomatoes and your neighbor’s medical marijuana. So what is hydroponics? One thing’s for sure: In Northern California, it’s big business.
Hydroponics, by definition, is a method of growing plants in a medium other than soil and feeding them through nutrient-enriched water. It’s been used for thousands of years all over the world, especially in areas where water is scarce or the land difficult to cultivate. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, are thought to have been a hydroponic design.
There are many methods of hydroponic gardening and even more ways to combine them to suit individual needs. At its simplest, it’s one plant potted in perlite (a type of volcanic rock) that’s watered on a liquid fertilizer regimen. At its most complex, thousands of plants can be grown in vertical rows in a climate-controlled greenhouse, with their bare roots receiving a time-released drip of nutrients around the clock.
Of course, most home gardeners fall somewhere in between. Basic hydroponic systems usually include trays to hold the plants and any growing medium, such as sand, perlite or coconut fiber; a reservoir underneath for water; a submersible pump; a timer; and an air pump and air stone to oxygenate the nutrient solution. Basic equipment for testing the water’s pH is also important to be sure plants are getting specifically what they need, and indoor growers need to purchase grow lights.
The list of hydroponics’ potential benefits runs long. In a well-regulated system, plants are given only as much water as they need, with the runoff reused for one to two weeks, cutting water use by 70 to 90 percent over traditional watering methods. Because it doesn’t rely on fertile soil, it can be used in areas where the land is unsuitable for farming or has been overfarmed. Plants can be grown vertically, letting more grow in less space.
Hydroponic gardens can be good solutions in spots where deer or gophers are a recurring problem and can save growers' time, as timers can be used to mechanize watering and feeding. Indoor gardeners can use hydroponics to grow year-round, no matter the weather outside.
Many have argued that growing hydroponically also results in higher yields and more vigorous plant growth. One University of Arizona study showed that one hectare in a hydroponic greenhouse can produce 550 metric tons of tomatoes per year, versus 100 metric tons grown in the same size open field, probably because plants grown hydroponically indoors can be grown year round and are given precisely the nutrients and water they need to thrive.
The largest downsides to hydroponics are often cited as the higher upfront costs in time and money than in traditional soil gardening. To give plants precisely what they need, gardeners need to invest time in learning about their crops. Also, growers need to stay on top of whether the power has gone out or a part has broken unexpectedly, as plants may be more susceptible to sudden changes in their conditions.
Hydroponics may have been around for thousands of years, but it didn’t earn a reputation as a money-making industry in the United States until Lawrence Brooke started General Hydroponics (GH) out of his Berkeley garage in 1976. GH was the first American manufacturer to create liquid fertilizers specifically for the hydroponic market.
The company soon expanded to a facility in Sebastopol and now has manufacturing facilities in Santa Rosa, West Virginia and France. In April 2015, GH and its sister company, Bio-Organic Solutions, were sold to Hawthorne Gardening Co., a subsidiary of fertilizer giant Scotts Miracle-Gro, in a deal reportedly worth $130 million.
Another local success story, Petaluma-based Hydrofarm, Inc., was started in 1977. Hydrofarm is now the largest manufacturer of high-intensity grow lighting in the United States. It also produces timers, climate control equipment and water filtration systems, among other equipment. Its products are all sold wholesale to retailers around the world from seven nationwide distribution centers, with an 110,000 square foot facility in Petaluma now serving as its home office and base for manufacturing and distribution.
The success of these two companies has done a great deal to fuel the growth of a hydroponics industry here in the North Bay on a scale that hasn’t existed anywhere else in the country. Deep Roots Hydroponics, with stores in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, is one local retailer that’s found a home here, selling many local products to a customer base that’s, perhaps not surprisingly, often well-educated about hydroponics and eager to embrace environmentally responsible practices.
Owners Dylan Marzullo and Jesse Narvaez started the business in 2007. Marzullo was an employee of General Hydroponics starting in 1999, when he was still a teenager, and it’s where he became interested in hydroponics and sharing it with others. Deep Roots stocks a wide selection of products for both the hydroponic and soil gardener, including edible plant starts, lights, irrigation supplies and fertilizers, along with plenty of expert advice on how to use them.
Hydroponics is often accused of being overly complex compared to traditional gardening methods. After seeing all the options available in the store for the first time, it’s easy to wonder if you need to be a chemist to grow hydroponically.
“Not at all,” promises Marzullo.”If you’re mixing up liquid plant food in water, that’s hydroponics.”
Marzullo starts by asking people about the size of their gardening space, the type of lighting available and how much they’re hoping to grow. Do they have 10 minutes per day to spend on their gardens, or are 30 minutes once per week more likely? He sees hydroponics as great for the home gardener who wants to maximize yields, particularly with crops that grow fast and bear lots of fruit, and for restaurants that need a steady supply of produce.
“Every type of gardener can benefit from hydroponics,” says Marzullo.
Monster Gardens of Rohnert Park is another local business that’s found great success bringing products, services and information to its customers, though on a larger scale. Monster Gardens is a retail hydroponics store and web retailer, with 80 to 90 percent of sales generated online. It was founded by Ryan Bonelli, who, at 34 years old, is now the CEO of SPW, Inc., the umbrella company of Monster Gardens and its commercial arm, Cultivation Suppliers.
Bonelli was working in the banking industry and tinkering with hydroponics as a hobby when the recession hit hard in 2008. He decided to try to make some money by opening an eBay store, creating a niche by bringing local or little-known hydroponic supplies to a wider market.
After limited initial success, Bonelli went back to the drawing board and realized what people really needed was information on how to use these products—and why. He started a YouTube channel and began creating videos, at first just of him talking people through different steps of hydroponics. Later, when he started bringing in other experts and products, he began to see sales steadily increase. In 2010, he moved sales to a dedicated website and opened the Rohnert Park store. Monster Gardens now employs 28 full-time and another four part-time employees to handle demand.
Bonelli has seen growth in the triple digits, with sales up 360 percent last year, and the company is on track to do at least as well this year. The YouTube channel, now with 450 videos, has become so popular that there are 9.5 Monster Gardens videos playing somewhere in the world every second of every day, according to the company’s web analytics.
“That’s what our company has done that’s been different from the others,” says Bonelli. “We haven’t just supplied free education to the industry and helped get manufacturers, locally and around the United States, out to the world market by showing off their products. We’ve also been able to create a culture and let people know that we’re not just retailers. We’re people who truly care about the progression of the industry and the progression of the hobbyist education. We’re really proud of that.”
Monster Gardens has just signed an agreement with an undisclosed European agriculture company to create Monster Gardens Europe, which will be launched in early 2016. The deal will create a retail entity that operates out of three countries and services 57 others with its online store.
“We’re creating a partnership and will have an interest in the company, as well,” explains Bonelli. “We’ll be supplying our products and they’re going to create a multi-language educational channel that will piggyback off ours. We should see exponential growth next year and are really excited.”
Bonelli’s other company, Cultivation Suppliers, is working in the commercial segment to offer everything needed to build or retrofit warehouses and greenhouses for commercial hydroponic growers, from the architectural design to construction to supplying the growing infrastructure. That company based partly out of Washington, split down the middle with one group strictly focused on commercial marijuana cultivation projects and the other on food crop projects. Bonelli sees greenhouse production as the backbone of where the hydroponics industry is headed.
“Right now, with our commercial company, we’re building some of the largest projects in the world,” he says. “They just wrapped up a 100,000-square-foot project in Quebec and are doing multiple 20,000- to 40,000-square-foot warehouse projects, even in California.”
Hydroponics is sometimes referred to as a “complementary” industry to marijuana cultivation, not because it’s the only thing it’s used for, but because it is the preferred method for many such growers, thanks to high yields and the ability to grow in relative privacy. After the legalization of medical marijuana in California in 1996 and the more recent legalization of recreational use in states like Colorado and Washington, many are expecting the legalization of recreational marijuana to appear on the 2016 ballot here in California.
Whether or not it will is unsure, but the tide toward large-scale commercial cultivation, much of it using hydroponic methods, may have already turned. Bonelli feels a critical mass was reached about a year ago, with many larger corporations finally feeling comfortable enough to start jumping into the commercial cultivation market. Some analysts are predicting a “green boom” as more states legalize recreational marijuana and the industry expands to fit the demand.
One big local industry—winegrapes—already uses hydroponics for some aspects of propagating and cloning plants. Few expect it will take over traditional agricultural methods in the vineyards due to the growing requirements of grapes, though Bonelli predicts that, before long, savvy vineyard owners will find ways to get in on the action, much as nursery owners and farmers in other states are doing.
“I do think we’ll see some small vineyards decide to do a hybridization and put up some commercial greenhouses,” he says. “Then we’ll start seeing them produce more than one recreational product.”
We’re now beginning to see other hydroponics businesses relocate to the area, eager to be part of our native hydroponics community. One such business is SuperCloset, one of the leading manufacturers of hydroponic grow systems in the global market.
SuperCloset CEO Kip Andersen was a hydroponics hobbyist when he started the company in 2002. He was frustrated by the limited quantity and low quality of products on the market and set out to design an all-in-one system that would make hydroponics easy and accessible for the home grower. The company now makes turn-key hydroponic grow closets and grow rooms that can suit any growers’ needs and markets grow lights and other hydroponic supplies.
In 2014, the company outgrew its headquarters in San Francisco and decided to move its operations to Sonoma County. It now operates out of a 22,000-square-foot facility in Santa Rosa and has more than 20 employees.
“We had an opportunity to purchase up here, and now we’re sitting on a 2.5-acre lot that offers plenty of room for growth,” says Rory Kagan, chief operating officer. “That’s not something you’re going to find in San Francisco. Plus, the North Bay has long been a home to prominent indoor gardening companies, so we’re in good company up here.”
A SuperCloset grow closet looks much like a simple storage cabinet from the outside, while a grow room is housed in a type of tent used as an indoor greenhouse. Both come equipped with all the basic supplies growers need to get started, with a range of customizable options, including systems designed for those choosing to grow in soil and a choice of high intensity discharge (HID) lighting or the newer LED technology. Price tags for many of the systems run into the thousands of dollars.
Kagan says customers range from the beginning home gardener to the greater commercial agricultural industry, which is particularly drawn to the state-of-the-art LED lighting technology that SuperCloset offers.
“We see healthy demand from all 50 states, elsewhere in North America and abroad,” he says. “We’re always quite surprised to see the random world locations that have heard of us or are interested in our products.”
Asked whether the possible legalization of recreational marijuana will have a positive impact on business, Kagan is cautiously optimistic.
“I like the industry where it is now, and any drastic changes that might affect things make me nervous,” he laughs. “I know that if something like that were to happen, interest level would increase, but you’d also find new entrants into the marketplace. That being said, we’ve been actively doing this for a very long time, have a very dedicated customer base and are very well-known, so I think we’ll be well-equipped to keep our foothold in the industry and to take advantage of something like that.”
For now, exponential growth in the business and the industry show no signs of slowing down. By the third quarter of 2015, SuperCloset has already exceeded its total annual income in 2014.
“This is a growing industry–pun intended,” says Kagan. “People are collectively starting to be more mindful of what they consume, so we’re seeing lots of people who want to grow their own fruits and veggies and be somewhat independent in that regard. And all the technological advancements, both in hydroponics and lighting technology, are offering great incentives to farmers by cutting their costs. By reducing their resource consumption, they’re assisting the environment and their businesses.”
3715 Santa Rosa Ave., Ste. A2
2661 Gravenstein Hwy. South #E
235 Classic Ct.
Santa Rosa Hydroponics & Growing Supplies
4880 Sonoma Hwy.
4180 S. Moorland Ave.
19618 8th St. E
Funny Farms Hydroponics
963 Transport Way #12
Jolly Rancher Hydroponics
399 Business Park Ct., Ste. 205
For further hydroponics instruction
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