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Tom Alexander and Growing Edge

Growing Edge, the original industry magazine, ceased printing at the beginning of 2009, much to its readers dismay. But print media is on the way out, the internet is filling the space, and it seems to be an unavoidable sign of the times. Thus, Growing Edge is being reincarnated into, featuring ecology, gardening, hydroponics, aeroponics, food, organics, and much more. 

Tom Alexander, the pioneering publisher, has created an entirely new website with new content and a new perspective. I personally, am relieved. To have lost his insights entirely would have been a terrible shame. His experiences are valuable to everyone who loves to grow. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about his life in the industry for us. 

TigerLilly: Hydroponics has become more and more mainstream through the years, but when you began Growing Edge, what obstacles did you have to overcome?

Tom Alexander: Many people don’t know that I had one of the first pioneering indoor gardening  retail superstores in the country, Full Moon Farm Products, here in Corvallis from 1980 until 1990. It was a 6,000 square foot store right in the middle of downtown. At the time, no hydroponic stores had living plants growing in operating hydroponic systems.

Many stores at the time would just have the equipment strewn about the store with no display plan, usually a pit bull dog would greet you as you entered the store and sniff your crotch. Some of the stores in Portland actually had their salespeople carry sidearms because of robberies. It was like the wild west.

So when I opened my store I tailored it after a stereo store. I had six different sizes of rooms with operating systems growing huge, healthy tomato, cucumber, pepper and basil plants in rooms with floor to ceiling ten foot high windows facing out on Main Street USA.

Then in 1989, Operation Green Merchant changed everything. Not only did the government steal 42 stores from their owners, the media would continuously run stories saying the ONLY thing that could grow hydroponically was the magic M crop. So I had the obstacle of showing real people, growing real plants that were not illegal using the high tech equipment. It was a long road to hoe changing people’s attitude.

Surprisingly, I found many, many people growing veggies, flowers, herbs and even raspberries. People were trying everything in hydroponic systems and that became my mission—to show real people growing legal crops with hydroponics.

TLilly: 20 years in publishing is quite an accomplishment. Can you share some of your milestones and most proud achievements?

Tom: I actually published 30 years if you count the other magazine I started and published from 1980 until 1991. But I started The Growing Edge in 1989 when I saw they were going to go after the retail hydro stores and then they did with Green Merchant.

So about eight months before they did Green Merchant I came out with the first issue of Growing Edge. It had an immediate following because of my other magazine which also had hydroponic content. But The Growing Edge showed the legitimate use of the technology.

I think the thing I am most proud of are the many, many people who told me a specific article in The Growing Edge inspired them to try hydroponics. One of the best stories was the United Airlines pilot who bought a copy of the magazine at the airport newsstand and when he retired a few months later started up a small commercial greenhouse growing basil and tomatoes for the local market. He is still doing it.

I can’t even count the number of stories that were like that. Some we reported on in the articles in the magazine. Some of those unpublished stories we will continue to report about on our web site.

TLilly: As the publication grew, the internet also grew. What inspired you to move to the web?

Tom: What specifically did in The Growing Edge was a combination of factors. The print publishing industry in general is getting hit on all fronts from declining ad revenue, to ever increasing printing costs and every publisher is looking seriously at going web only. Just last month, the editor of The New York times said he doesn’t think there will be a print edition of the NYT within five years. The current Time Magazine has a cover story on the future of print publishing. Printing ink on paper will be considered like the stone tablet and chisel sometime in the future, in our lifetimes.

I couldn’t keep the quality of the publication up to the standards that it had been published for 20 years and I wasn’t going to downgrade to lesser quality paper and less content. I wasn’t going to make it an advertorial informercial. 

So I threw in the towel. I pulled the plug. It felt like I had committed assisted suicide on my child. I was sad and bummed out for a couple of weeks but now I am excited about the new direction the web site is taking. It won’t just be about hydroponics; instead everything on the cutting edge of gardening. And it is also a relief. I feel free from the confines of ink on paper. With web only publishing, I can do longer stories with more pictures and videos.

The hydroponic industry is segmented into two groups; the old guard and the new guard.

The old guard, companies that have been around for 15-20 years and went through Green Merchant, understood that The Growing Edge was not only an advertising vehicle but a public relations/image re-making vehicle too.

The young bucks and does making up the new guard really don’t care about pr or image making. They only care about making a profit doing whatever they have to do to get it. They don’t care if the image of hydroponics is a wink and a nod. In fact, they like wink and a nod. They have no respect of the past.

Companies like General Hydroponics are at the forefront of promoting a positive image of hydroponics. Larry Brooke supported The Growing Edge for so many years and I thank him so much for that.

It is ironic that what I published in the period of 1980-1990 and helped build up the other industry with that magazine was part of the reason of the downfall of what I built from 1989-2009. What goes around, comes around.

TLilly: I know that you have been a longtime participant at the GardenWriters conference, and a presence at tradeshows. Tell me about your favorite event.

Tom: Well, what used to be the best, was the Book Expo America trade show in the 1980s when it was called the American Booksellers Association Book Show. Every night there would be dozens of parties to go to with politicians, celebrities and musicians who had a book out on the market promoting the book with the party. They were the best parties.

Nowadays, the Garden Writers symposium is a good one. Lots of giveaways of products and plants. I usually go home with lots of stuff to add to my gardens. Plus you get to meet a lot of garden communicators that can get the message out to the public about what you are doing. 

TLilly: Let’s go back in time to when Growing Edge was born. What was the wackiest, most out there hydro system at the time? What do you think will go down in hydro history as the biggest gimmick? 

Tom: The Phototron from Pyraponic Industries. It has been around for almost 30 years. They keep “upgrading” it and it is amazing it is still around…

TLilly: And what do you think will be remembered as the best advancement in hydroponics?

Tom: Aeroponics. General Hydroponics was the first to promote it. It took off shortly thereafter. Not having to deal with a medium is both a time saver and good for the environment. Disposing of growing mediums is becoming a problem in countries with large hydroponic vegetable production facilities. Nutrient Film Technique was a big one too. The less medium the better for the environment.

TLilly: Your new website has expanded content. You are no longer focusing on just hydro, aeroponics and indoor gardening. Were your readers generally pleased to see that you diversified?

Tom: I had been thinking of ceasing printing the magazine for some time. At a New Years Eve party, in a drunken stupor, I decided to not print it anymore. When I sobered up I still thought it was a good decision. It actually is a relief not to pay the huge printing bill and to not have employees. A huge relief.

The reaction from readers was a lot of condolence emails and letters like a personal friend had died. The human interest angle of the stories is what connected the magazine to our readers. The felt connected. I think some of them will be disappointed that we diversified. But we will pick up new followers with our new direction.

The Growing Edge has had a website with content and selling books since 1993. It is a robust site with a loyal following and I am going to make it even better.

TLilly: I know that you are very close with the organic gardening world, and have collaborated with some of the best names. Who do you think is on the bleeding edge right now?

Tom: Jeff Lowenfels is the organic guru and an entertainer. His presentations are a cross between a comedy show and a light hearted college lecture. He also is a great magician/illusionist. He travels the country giving his presentation based on his best selling book, “Teaming with Microbes.”

Some of the small farmers across the country are doing new things that would be considered on the edge. I hope to show some of them on our web site.

TLilly: In your opinion, will hydroponics and organics find a balance in the industry? 

Tom: Hard to say if there will be a balance. Both sides are definitely opinionated as to which is better. Organics is definitely gaining in popularity. The big thing is to attach a compost tea brewer right into the nutrient holding tank. Dissolved solid meters don’t work with organics so it is a guessing game with that. Since proper compost tea is made by injecting oxygen into the brewer; it gives the nutrient an oxygen rich level that the plants love. Several growers are experimenting with this concept and I hope to publish on our web site results from their work.

I have four acres of soil that I organically garden on. I have 110 blueberry bushes, 90 fruit trees, thousands of flowers and vegetables. It is a hobby and living art. With the print magazine I couldn’t document and show what I was doing. Now with the web I can. So I will document stuff I do on our site.

Change is good. It may not seem like it at the time you are going through it but in the long run it is. It is just another bump in the road of life.


Comment from Red Icculus
Time February 14, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Talking with him, he is a stand up guy. I am glad someone with such experience in the industry is willing to chat with hobbyists like me.

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