Spokane Journal of Business

Cultivating hydroponics

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Suzan Mihara loves plants and is drawing on her passion for gardening to help her and her sons sprouting organic and hydroponic plant business blossom, even as the economy wilts.

Mihara and her son, Paul, opened Spokane Organic & Hydroponic Supply here in January 2007. After weathering a rocky start, theyve seen demand rise in recent months, Mihara says. She attributes much of that growth to skyrocketing food prices and consumers increasing interest in organic products.

More people are growing their own food and wanting to be in control of and know what theyre eating, Mihara asserts. As the economy has gotten worse, our business has picked up, because people need to eat and are finding that with gardening, all you need are seeds and the means to do it.

Spokane Organic & Hydroponic Supply is located at 4823 E. Sprague, where fertilizer, equipment, and plants such as irises and banana trees fill every nook and cranny in a 2,500-square-foot leased space. Eventually, Mihara says shed like to find a larger building, or build a new structure, for the business.

At the rate were growing, were going to need something the size of a grocery store, where I can fit banana trees, citrus trees, and lots of other plants and products, Mihara says.

The business has three employees, including the Miharas and a friend who works there part time. Mihara says the company was $6,000 in the red last year, but sales already are higher this year than they were for all of 2007. She says she picks up about 10 new customers a week, and now has to order supplies every week, while in the past she ordered supplies every six weeks. Her suppliers are located mainly in Western Washington, Oregon, and California, and the business has customers in Eastern and Central Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

During the summer, about 75 percent of the companys business comes from sales of organic products, which include seeds, fertilizer, soil, and gardening equipment, among other items, she says. Sales of hydroponic products pick up in the winter, both because indoor gardening is more popular in the winter and because temperatures above 72 degrees can stunt the growth of hydroponic plants and cause root rot, she says.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. Plants can be grown with their roots in a solution or in an inert medium such as gravel, coconut fiber, or vermiculite. When plants are grown in a solution, a container holds them in place. Almost any plant can be cultivated via hydroponics, and Mihara says customers have used the method to grow flowers, herbs, vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, short corn, and squash, and fruits such as strawberries. She also has grown bananas and pineapples, among other plants, indoors.

You can grow just about anything in a pot, she says. Everything just needs the right trigger, and that could be light, fertilizer, or just time.

The temperature, humidity, carbon-dioxide levels, lighting, and air circulation in a room need to be carefully controlled in indoor gardening, she says. Initially, hydroponic gardening tends to be more expensive than conventional gardening, because it requires special nutrients and equipment, such as special lights, water pumps, and meters that closely monitor the pH level of the nutrient solution, which must be customized for each plant, Mihara says.

One of the advantages of hydroponics is that plants can be grown year-round, she says. Another is that hydroponic plants tend to take up less space because their roots dont need to grow to seek out nutrients, as they do in soil, she says. In addition, indoor gardening can help with a homes energy efficiency because the heat required to grow plants also can heat the rest of the house, she says.

Customers have told me that theyve found they can save money by growing their own food, using the same amount of electricity theyd use to heat their house, Mihara says.

Also, gardeners can control the speed of a plants growth better using hydroponics, since they can adjust the nutrients it receives more precisely. For instance, Mihara says she recently grew lettuce in about 21 days, compared with the 60 days usually required to grow lettuce in soil.

Spokane Organic & Hydroponic Supply sells certified organic seeds for hydroponic gardening, as well as fertilizer and equipment. Its prices for hydroponic systems range from $50 for whats called a single-bucket system that can grow a single giant tomato to $1,400 for nutrient solution and an electronic system that controls lighting, meters, and other features, and can grow between 80 and 120 plants. That type of system is for the serious greenhouse person, she says.

Mihara also shows customers how to do vegetative propagation, which involves cloning plants instead of planting seeds. The cloning is accomplished by stimulating plant cuttings with plant hormones, which cause them to grow into new plants that are genetically identical to the original plant from which the cuttings were taken, she says.Landscaping background

Prior to opening the store, Mihara, who says she always has had a green thumb, did landscaping with her husband through their Spokane-based business, Paul Mihara Co., which has done such work at the Remington Hill subdivision in Spokane Valley and the Spokane Valley Good Samaritan Village.

Miharas son, Paul, who previously worked in masonry, landscaping, and custom stereo equipment installation, originally pitched the idea to her of opening an organic and hydroponic store together.

They both prefer organic products and have experience with plants, and Paul has been able to translate some of his experience with stereo electronics to the more technical aspects of hydroponic gardening, she says.

Were flying by the seat of our pants here, and were having a lot of fun doing it, she says.

The mother-son team also decided to open the store because they saw a niche to be filled here, she says. One other store in Spokane, called River City Hydroponics, at 1614 E. Francis, focuses on selling hydroponic supplies. Discount Garden Supply, at 10309 E. Trent, also sold hydroponic equipment, but it closed last month, she says.

Mihara says another reason she decided to open a gardening store is that she enjoys helping people with their plant problems.

I just like helping customers figure out what theyre doing wrong and answer any questions they have, even if that means referring them somewhere else, she says. I tell people, Bring me a picture, a leaf, anything, and Ill figure out whats wrong.

Contact Emily Proffitt at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at emilyp@spokanejournal.com.

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