Three local men who are childhood buddies and have been business partners for several years are bringing their successful venture to their hometown.

Owned and operated by Houston High School Class of 2000 members Luke Arthur, Dustin Douglas and Brandon Kell, Simple Grow is a company that specializes in the sales of worm castings for gardening purposes. The trio founded the firm in 2016 and has since had a 6,000 square foot location on North Patterson Avenue in Springfield.

But in large part due to demand for their product, the partners (who ran a solar power company in the past) have moved Simple Grow’s headquarters and production plant to a space in Houston that’s about 10 times larger: The former GAMO Building on U.S. 63, which covers about 66,000 square feet.

Simple Grow’s trio of co-owners stand in front of boxes full of black peat, worms and worm castings. From left, Dustin Douglas, Luke Arthur and Brandon Kell.

“Things are going well,” said Arthur, the company’s CEO. “We’ve pretty much doubled our sales every year since we started, and it just keeps getting better.”

The worm of choice for Simple Grow is the African nightcrawler, which can live up to about two years and is well-suited to be the source of marketable castings.

“It has a lot of benefits,” Arthur said. “The main thing is the way microbes from the worms’ digestive tracts get into the castings. That has a really positive impact on the growth of plants; they respond to it really well. But it also contains nitrogen and a lot of minerals, and it aerates the soil as well, because you can’t really pack it down like regular dirt.”

The castings – that resemble coffee grounds – also help regulate moisture in soil.

“It absorbs water and then releases it later when it needs to,” Arthur said. “That means you can use less water when gardening.”

A pile of worm castings is flanked by bags containing one ton of the product inside the Simple Grow plant in Houston.

Thanks to the prolific reproduction of the worms, they repopulate themselves with regularity.

“We bought some initially,” Arthur said, “and they’ve kept multiplying from there.”

The worms are kept in large wooden boxes (about four-feet square and two-feet deep) filled with black peat from Iowa.

“We’ve killed a bunch of worms trying different soil,” Douglas said. “This is the best stuff we’ve found.”

Attempts were made to use Missouri soil, but it didn’t have the right makeup.

“It has too much clay and dries out,” Kell said. “The worms need to stay moist.”

Simple Grow co-owner Brandon Kell holds some of the black peat from Iowa that is home to the worms that produce the castings product.

“The black peat provides a better end product,” Arthur said. “With the other soils we’ve tried, the castings aren’t as pure and don’t contain the same nutrients.”

“It’s night and day, really,” Douglas said.

The peat provides almost all of the worms’ food, with a small percentage coming from a grain mixture that’s sprinkled on top of the soil (or bedding) in the boxes.

Every couple of weeks, the contents of given boxes is emptied into a machine called a trommel that uses a rotating cylindrical screen to separate the castings from the worms and soil. Some of the castings are then packaged in small bags for retail purposes, while one-ton lots are placed in large shipping bags commonly used for grain or animal feed.

“The worms and the debris they haven’t eaten go back in the boxes,” Kell said, “and we top them off with fresh bedding.”

SMALL BEGINNINGS

Simple Grow’s roots can be traced back to a rudimentary setup inside Douglas’ garage in Raymondville.

“It was a 12-by-12-foot area,” Douglas said. “We built walls to keep the worms warm.”

The concept was born when Douglas saw an ad in “Mother Earth” magazine.

This photo taken in 2016 in Dustin Douglas’ garage in Raymondville depicts some of the first African nightcrawlers obtained by Simple Grow.

“I like gardening,” he said, “so I had been experimenting with it a little, and then I took it to the other guys. We thought about it and it seemed pretty profitable.

“But Luke did say at first that ‘if it’s such a great idea then why isn’t everybody doing it?’”

“It took some convincing for me,” Arthur said. “But I did some research and found that there are a lot of people looking for it and not enough supplies. It looked like a viable option at that point.”

In Simple Grow’s formative days, the trio worked hard to prepare their product for the public. They had to separate the castings from the soil and worms by hand.

“It was very labor-intensive,” Kell said. “There were a lot of times when we worked all night to get a shipment ready for the next day.”

“When we started in Springfield,” Douglas said, “we filled 22 boxes by hand with a shovel. It was terrible.”

Now the company is one of only a handful in the United States that produces worm castings on a large-scale basis.

“There are a lot of people who make it in small quantities and sell it at farmers markets or locally,” Arthur said, “but there are only five or 10 companies around the country that I know of that do it on a large scale, and we’re the only ones doing it in the Midwest.”

Simple Grow “chief bagger” Greg Kell prepares worm castings for retail sale.

Acquiring the building that now houses Simple Grow held a special meaning to Arthur, Douglas and Kell, because all three had either parents or grandparents who worked there many years ago when it was the Brown Shoe factory.

“Now we own it,” Douglas said. “That’s pretty cool.”

In addition to worm castings, Simple Grow currently produces a soil specifically for cactus and succulents, and will soon offer a general potting soil and other items. The company is also a distributor for grow lights from the Green Sunshine Company.

Simple Grow products are certified organic by the USDA and are available locally at the company’s location in Houston and at the CHC Do It Center. They can also be purchased online at Simple Grow’s website and at Amazon.com.

“If you haven’t tried worm castings before you’ll be amazed at the results,” Arthur said.

THE GRAND OPENING IN HOUSTON

Simple Grow will host a grand opening event from 3 to 6 p.m. this Friday (March 25). The event will kick off with a ribbon-cutting, and free custard will be available from Custard by C-Sue. Specials will be offered on Simple Grow and other gardening products, and attendees can enter to win one ton of worm castings.

Detailed information about Simple Grow can be found online.

Boxes containing worms arrive at the new Simple Grow location in Houston.
Both trays of tomato starts were planted at the same time. The tray at right has been treated with a leading soil enhancer while the tray at left has been treated with Simple Grow worm castings.
Worm castings are separated from soil and worms by a machine called a trommel.
The African nightcrawlers that produce Simple Grow worm castings are housed in large boxes of black peat from Iowa.
Shortly after closing on the building, Simple Grow owners and family members stand in front of the business’ new location in Houston.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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