Foam may not come to mind when the average household gardener looks for the best growing medium for their ornamental flowers and vegetables.
But foam is exactly what the plants at Smithers-Oasis’ new greenhouse on Marvin Street are growing in—and they’re growing faster and bigger in it.
The firm finished construction earlier this year on the new greenhouse, where employees like Vijay Rapaka, manager of grower research, conduct Smithers-Oasis’ research and development projects on new, better ways to grow commercial plants and vegetables.
“This is not your backyard greenhouse,” Rapaka said.
The new, 3,000 square-foot greenhouse includes three bays where members of Rapaka’s team conduct carefully controlled experiments on the company’s floral foam.
Smithers-Oasis started in Kent in 1954 when V.L. Smithers created a water-absorbant foam for florists to use in creating floral arrangements. The business has since blossomed into a global manufacturer of floral foam, floral accessory products, cellular growing media and post-harvest products for plants.
Over the years, the foam has evolved as changes are made to its consistency, porosity and other facets with the goal of creating a bigger, better plant.
Nathan Keil, product and marketing manager for Smithers-Oasis, said in the past the firm’s products have focused on ornamental flowers and plants.
But the new greenhouse will include a hydroponics bay that will allow the firm to expand its research—and presence—in vegetable products.
Employees joke that soon Rapaka will be able to eat lunch with the lettuce, tomatoes and other common salad ingredients that will be growing in the expanded greenhouse.
The new foam plant media Rapaka and his team develop in Kent has cutting edge potential, Keil said.
The methods developed by Smithers-Oasis allow commercial growers to see plants thrive in non-traditional environments. Plants and vegetables that might have needed dozens of acres of land to grow can now be harvested from foam and plastic media stacked in shelves in a greenhouse atop a skyscraper.
The new hydroponics methods—which allow for similar compact growing techniques—developed by Smithers-Oasis can allow people with limited land and water access in places such as Africa or Japan to grow vegetables easily via the artificial setting, which can often yield a larger, faster-growing plant.
“We’re going to play a huge role in that,” Rapaka said.
Larry White, vice president for corporate technology, said the new greenhouse on Marvin Street represents a bright future for the company, which recently announced plans to relocate its corporate offices to downtown Kent.“We cannot overstate our excitement about what’s going on here,” White said.