Growing a New Brand
Today’s fastest-growing organic gardening company began with a simple question posed to two students by their college professor: Did you know mushrooms can grow on coffee grounds?
Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, then seniors at the University of California, Berkeley, hadn’t known. But with that question, their curiosity was piqued. What they also didn’t know at the time: What started as a $5,000 college grant to pursue urban mushroom farming would, just over a decade later, have blossomed into a brand that families have spent $100M+ with over the past few years to start organic garden, and a brand that’s upended the home gardening industry — changing who gardens and where and how they do it.
The products created by Back to the Roots, the largest and fastest growing millennial garden brand, stand out on garden center shelves. In more ways than one, the company is carving out a new path for the industry, making organic gardening and its benefits accessible to anyone, anywhere — no matter where or how they live.
“We’re building a brand not just for today’s gardeners, but for tomorrow’s as well,” Velez says. The pair brings that conviction — that the ability to build and maintain a connection to the land and to our food shouldn’t be a privilege, but a right that’s vital to the health of future generations — to every aspect of Back to the Roots’ work.
That work began back in 2009, when Arora and Velez gave up post-college corporate job offers to become full-time mushroom farmers. They spent the following few years collecting used coffee grounds, farming and selling their produce.
“More importantly, we spent those years falling in love with the magic of growing our own food and sharing that with our community,” Arora says.
Their work caught the attention and interest of some aspiring fellow mushroom growers, who asked the duo for help farming their own mushrooms at home. Realizing that there was a market for an at-home mushroom grow kit, Velez and Arora created one, allowing any person to grow their own mushrooms in just 10 days.
The kits were a hit. And with their success, Arora and Velez understood that they’d stumbled on something much bigger than mushrooms.
Growing Future Gardeners
“We asked ourselves, ‘What if every kid and every family were able to experience that same joy of growing their own food?’” Velez says. “From that point on, we had a new mission: Helping the upcoming generation get into the garden.”
On a practical level, that meant creating a range of indoor and outdoor products that could be used by virtually any child, adult, or family — no backyard or green thumb needed. But building a garden brand for the next generation has also meant “obsessing” over the values and priorities of millennials and Generation Z, as Arora put it, with a focus on sustainability, giving back to the community, and educating society’s youngest gardeners.
That obsession has made Back to the Roots what it is today: a robust garden brand building an inter-connected gardening solution for the next generation — with a wide range of product offerings, from indoor grow kits to raised beds to organic, 100% U.S.-grown seeds to (no pun intended) groundbreaking peat-free soils — and an active commitment to acting as a force for social good. The company’s products can be found in more than 10,000 retail stores across the country, including several big boxes. In 2020 alone, Back to the Roots helped families and kids grow more than 2 million new gardens.
“Building a brand that will have a positive impact on the future of our society and our Earth means applying a long-term outlook, and considering all involved, when making every decision,” Arora says.
Beyond Grow Kits
The pair’s long-term outlook has led to the launch of multiple first-of-their-kind products beyond the indoor grow kits, including the first 100%-U.S. grown seed packet program in the country and, most recently, a line of peat-free soil that’s the first nationally available premium potting mix of its kind.
The pilot seed program hit stores in the spring of 2020, with 92 varieties of organic vegetables, herbs and flowers available in major retail stores across the country. Ensuring that all of their seeds came from U.S. farmers, who are often overlooked in favor of foreign farmers when it comes to commercial seed sourcing, was important to Arora and Velez.
“If we can make organic seeds more accessible to all while helping out our farmer neighbors in our own backyard, that’s a win for everybody,” Velez says.
Back to the Roots’ peat-free soil, which launched in May 2021, came as a natural progression for the brand. Arora and Velez were inspired to create the soil line after experimenting with soil blends for their indoor grow kits, having spent years perfecting their soil recipe. Like the mushrooms that began it all, their soil caught the attention of customers who wanted to know how they could buy the potting mix in bulk for their own gardening needs.
The peat-free mixture is rooted in the pair’s prioritizing of sustainability: globally, mined peatlands contribute to over one billion metric tons of CO2 emissions per year — nearly equivalent to the annual emissions of all the cars in the U.S. combined. Peat is a central ingredient in most widely available potting soils.
Appealing to New Gardeners
“The up-and-coming generation of gardeners, and potential gardeners, have made it very clear that sustainability is a priority for them — and it’s a priority for us, too,” Arora says. “We can’t truly reconnect with the environment if we’re gardening with inputs that are destroying it.”
“Young people want to grow,” Velez adds, noting that 10 million+ new millennial gardeners entered the category last year. “We need to adapt and evolve as an industry to meet them where they are.”
One way of bringing new youth gardeners into the fold: literally meeting them where they are, by donating organic grow kits and gardening curriculums to underserved students. Back to the Roots’ #GiveOneGrowOne campaign, which aims to make gardening a part of every school’s curriculum, was on track to bring organic gardening curriculums to 130,000 underserved students by December 2021. When customers share a photo of their Back to the Roots garden on social media and tag #GrowOneGiveOne, the company will donate an organic grow kit and STEM curriculum to a classroom of their choice.
“Producing sustainable and eco-friendly products doesn’t do much if future generations aren’t educated on their environmental importance and health benefits,” Arora says. “When we as a society break down geographic and socioeconomic barriers to a healthful lifestyle, we pave the way for a healthier, happier, and more sustainable tomorrow.”
To Velez and Arora, “there’s nothing more important than reconnecting with our food,” Velez says. “It’s at the center of our nation’s health, economy, environment, and so much more, yet our generation is so disconnected from it.”
Back to the Roots’ solution: giving every child a chance to reconnect with their food, and to experience the magic of growing, as early and as often as possible. The duo recognizes that they can’t do it alone — igniting industry- and society-wide change requires collaboration and conversation, and they welcome both from industry partners.
“Growing makes you look at everything differently: You realize the interconnectedness and awe in all of nature and our natural world, and it makes you want to be more conscious of it all,” Arora says.
“We didn’t experience that magic of growing until we were 21,” Velez adds. “It’s our hope that the new generation will experience it by the time they’re 10.”