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Growing Ideas' potting mix aims for better gardeners, no carbon footprint

Growing Ideas' potting mix aims for better gardeners, no carbon footprint
Mildred Rodman makes bags of potting soil in her Mount Airy home. Rodman's environmentally conscious potting mix business, Growing Ideas Sustainable Gardening, is a 2018 finalist in the Carroll Biz Challenge. (Ken Koons/Carroll County Times)

It was 2016 and Mildred Rodman’s daughter was moving into a new apartment. The daughter, a vegetarian and graphic designer, wanted to decorate with some house plants.

“House plants, right now, are the big craze,” said Rodman, a master gardener and environmentalist from Mount Airy.

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House plants help rid homes, apartments and offices of volatile organic compounds that can exacerbate conditions like asthma. The plants are great, Rodman explained, but “people aren’t noticing what’s in the potting soil they’re putting these air-cleaning plants in.”

Rodman instructed her daughter to find “good quality soil” for her indoor plants. The daughter struck out, with most potting soils ingredients including peat moss and its accompanying chemical wetting agent, meat meal, feather meal, “all kinds of things,” Rodman said. “So we looked around to try not to get chemicals or meat products.

“And it was impossible.”

Fueled by frustration, the college math teacher and certified master gardener took matters into her own hands. She started making “smart potting soil” for herself and daughter, before her son, a chemical engineer, suggested Rodman start a business.

Enter Growing Ideas Sustainable Gardening, Rodman’s renewable and upcycled potting mix business. She’s sold 223 bags of potting mix — via Etsy and local vendor events — since the inception of the prototype two years ago.

Growing Ideas is one of five finalists in the 2018 Carroll Biz Challenge that will compete in the Live Finale on Thursday, Aug. 9.

The annual challenge, sponsored by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, showcases Carroll entrepreneurs during a show similar to TV’s “Shark Tank” for local startups at the Carroll Arts Center. The winner will receive a $5,000 cash grand prize for their business.

Rodman runs her side-business operation from her Mount Airy basement, which is like a warehouse for recycled material and plant food. She uses plastic organic spinach containers to start her plant seeds. Cardboard boxes are spread across tables in the biggest basement room. On top of the boxes are the makings of Rodman’s products.

It looks like piles of dirt to the untrained eye, but it’s carefully mixed ingredients. Her sustainable mixes primarily contain coconut coir, rice hulls and worm castings, but also small amounts of kelp meal, soybean meal, endo-mycorrhizae and natural rock dusts — all of which are OMRI listed, meaning they adhere to organic standards.

Coconut is perhaps the magic secret. Peat moss repels water and sometimes a chemical agent is added to it, when it’s used in potting soil, to help it absorb water, Rodman claims. Coconut coir — made from discarded coconut husks — doesn’t need chemicals to help it suck in water.

Peat moss for potting soil sold in America comes from peat bogs in the northern United States and Canada. The peatlands, created by decay of vegetation over long periods of time, sequester carbon efficiently. The known peat bogs in the world store twice as much carbon as all the standing forest on earth.

As peatlands wither away because of wildfires or exacerbation of the resource for things like gardening and agriculture, carbon is released, flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses.

It’s unclear what the opportunity cost in carbon storage is for each peat-rich bag of potting soil, but Rodman’s mix quashes the need to do that math.

“We’re digging up our peat bogs, that needs to stop,” Rodman said. “We just need to do something else with waste products.”

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Her products are completely free of the carbon rich wetland material. She has at least six different potting mixes, some simple and some made for specific types of plant. She sells African Violet Mix, Succulent Mix, Houseplant Mix, Cactus Mix, Orchid and Air Plant Food, Vegetable Mix and more.

“The hottest thing we sell is the succulent soil,” Rodman said. “It’s just better than anything you can get, and it’s price comparable.”

Rodman’s line of products is “a win-win situation,” said Cheryl Magil, a retired Eldersburg resident, “you get to be successful as a gardener and help the environment.”

Magil tests Rodman’s products for her. “I’m kind of her test victim,” she said. She also helps the certified master planter at vendor events, like the Mount Airy Farmers Market.

She loves Rodman’s mixes, Magil said, everything in her garden looks “healthier and happier” since she’s started using Growing Ideas potting soils. Magil’s planted little blue flowers in her garden for the past few years, but she’s had to throw them away after a month.

“Once [Rodman’s mix] grew my little blue flowers that I’ve never had success with,” Magil said, “I was hooked.”

And she’s not the only one, Rodman said she gets repeat customers from New York, Georgia and even Oklahoma that buy her soil on Etsy.

Her products are available in a variety of sizes ranging from tea bags to 4-gallon bags. And the bags she uses are made from post consumer, recycled material. The bagging process is arduous and tricky, Rodman explained, she has to dry out materials before she bags and ships them because otherwise they’ll eat through her recycled bags.

That’s a big reason Rodman wants to win the Carroll Biz Challenge. “I need a bigger bagger,” she said. Also, if the business is to grow, it must move from her basement, she added.

Rodman’s basement is packed. She mixes her environmentally conscious soils in an unfinished bathroom, and her main room is overflowing with recycled boxes and materials. She barely has room inside for the plants she’ll have to bring in from her extravagant outdoor garden come first frost.

She also wants to start buying coconut wholesale — it’ll boost her profit margins. She’ll need a place to put it. “I’m pretty full up,” Rodman said, gesturing to her jam-packed basement.

Rodman is a unique business woman. She’s not protective of her wealth of gardening knowledge — including the ingredients of her magic mix.

“[She] loves talking about the product,” Magil said, having accompanied Rodman to various farmers markets. “She shares her knowledge with her customers far more than any gardener you’ll ever meet.

“She’s very committed to you being successful as a gardener.”

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And sometimes, that doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. Her mixes make gardening easier for the inexperienced grower.

“If you plant in [Rodman’s] soil, you’re gonna have that plant for a long time,” Magil said. “Her soil contains all the stuff that plant is going to need.”

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