By Robert Downes
If Paul Watson has a pair of green thumbs, its because he spent 31 years as a commercial indoor grower, raising basil under artificial lights in Benzie County for local restaurants.
Indoor growing is a lot of fun, he says. My passion for this started out with plugging in my first light bulb in 1980.
Today, Pauls thumbs are getting even greener from a crop of dollars provided by customers at The Grow Store he owns with his wife Kim. At times, as many as 20-30 customers pack the store near Chums Corners, south of Traverse City, seeking high-quality equipment for indoor growing, as well as the Watsons advice.
We are as surprised as anyone by our success, he says of the business which got its start in April of 2009. Weve got a huge amount of inventory as well as the knowledge to share about indoor growing.
In fact, things are going so well that the Watsons plan to open a new 10,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse in mid December a half-mile down the road. In addition to a wealth of organic gardening materials and lighting equipment (which are literally stacked to the ceiling in the present store), the new location will offer displays of growing plants, with both hydroponic and soil-based systems for the enlightenment of customers.
The Watsons are riding the crest of a boom of interest in indoor growing. In addition to the medical marijuana movement, their customers include people who are fired up about growing their own organic food. They also have customers who are members of the local bonsai and orchid-growing clubs, and even some who are interested in indoor growing as a therapy for seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Im all about organic growing, Watson says. I have Krohns disease, so I try to eat organic as much as possible. Chemical fertilizers contain heavy metals that create diseases, since they dont pass out of the body. So I advise my customers on better, organic options.
Watson, 56, has pursued an organic diet for the past 25 years. He also ran a large, indoor basil-growing operation at the top of the hill in Benzonia for many years. Since his powerful lights could be seen shining down on the county jail and sheriffs department at the bottom of the hill, he took care back then to invite the local prosecutor and cops in for a visit to check out his operation.
With that kind of background, hes a powerhouse of knowledge. Im able to advise customers ranging from individuals who are starting indoor gardens, to businesses which have greenhouse issues, he notes.
A lot of people are confused about whats involved in indoor growing, he adds. They dont know how to set their rooms up, or how to handle ventilation. Were all about education here.
As an example, he recently worked with a couple of women who had started a business growing cherry tomatoes. When their agri-savvy partners abruptly left the business, the women found themselves with 700 tomato plants, but not the expertise to save their crop. Watson was able to steer them to a solution.
One thing that he and The Grow Store staff cant discuss, however, is how to grow marijuana.
Im a medical marijuana patient myself and have my card, but we cant offer seminars or give advice on anything thats specifically about growing marijuana because thats a violation of federal laws involving conspiracy and complicity issues, he says. Thats something for members of the compassion clubs to discuss, but here we talk tomatoes.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other indoor growing topics to discuss. Peppers, for instance. You wouldnt believe how competitive pepper growers are, Watson says.
There are also many organic growers in the region interested in producing their own fresh, chemical-free veggies and herbs. Were the only source for 100% organic nutrients north of Grand Rapids, Watson says. We feel good about it because I know personally that what goes into the body makes or breaks you.
Theres also a technical aspect to indoor growing, which can involve either soil or hydroponic gardens. Weve got all of the equipment you could possibly think of, from hydroponic kits right out of the box to equipment for people with the McGyver mentality who want to do it their own way.
The success of the store has meant a mini-boom for local plumbers, electricians and contractors who are working to help set up indoor gardeners. Local businesses such as Home Depot, Menards and Lautners Irrigation have also benefited by supplying hardware needs.
The Watsons see every kind of customer imaginable: doctors, accountants, little old ladies interested in organic gardening, and of course, medical marijuana patients seeking to grow their own medicine.
One interesting development is the sale of indoor kits for people trying to alleviate the effects of seasonal affective disorder caused by Northern Michigans long, dark winter.
Our lighting systems resupply natural light and vitamin D, Watson says. When people who have SAD spend a couple of hours in their grow rooms tending plants and loving them, it has a really positive effect. They come in here in January with the biggest smiles on their faces.
Needless to say, the Watsons are thrilled with the prospect of their new showroom/warehouse, opening in mid-December, to be located at 90 N. US 31 South, next to Great Escapes.