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An App To Help Your Garden, With Some Uncomfortable Corporate Sponsorship Thrown In

Sprout It offers helpful tips about the best time to grow and how to care for your plants. But the budding organic farmer might be a little put off by who is fronting the money (and paying for ads): Miracle-Gro.

Matt Armstead wants his new web app Sprout It to be the go-to gardening resource for the next generation of gardeners—"foodies, young professionals and aspiring mixologists," in his words. To monetize the app, he has convinced a company that’s not exactly beloved by Michael Pollan readers or organic kale eaters to become the sole sponsor: Miracle-Gro.

Sprout It lets fledgling gardeners make a zipcode-specific garden plan, complete with a planting schedule, tips for different veggies, and estimated harvest dates. As they peruse gardening content, the Scotts Miracle-Gro company, known for its chemical-based plant feeds, serves up banner ads for its signature brand.

Sprout It President Brooke Paul says the concept went into development 15 months ago, when Sarah Bush, an Ohio State University design student, approached Paul’s Columbus-based startup accelerator Founders Factory with a concept for a gardening app. "The original idea was to develop the app and sell it in the App Store for $2.99," Paul says, but they decided that finding a sponsor would be a more compelling business model. Armstead (who’s also part of Founders Factory) reached out to local corporation, Scotts Miracle-Gro, and the collaboration began.

For the most part, the brand integration is tastefully done. Instructions on how to grow broccoli, for example, don’t implore the user to "add three capfuls of Miracle-Gro."

But the effort to rebrand Miracle-Gro—a company which just last year admitted to knowingly manufacturing and selling poisoned birdseed for years—as relevant to hip, young gardeners may feel tone deaf to some. Didn’t those "foodies, young professionals, and aspiring mixologists" whom Sprout It is courting get interested in eating local food and gardening because they were fed up with the environmental damage wreaked by a food system controlled by chemical companies and other corporate agribusiness?

While it goes without saying that "green-washing" is at play, it seems like a new term could be useful here: "startup-washing" (or "app-washing"), the idea that a company somehow becomes cool or good through association with entrepreneurship, with tech, with new ideas. Keep in mind that Sprout It is not an ad campaign, but the first product of a new design firm called Vaxa Design Group, who Paul says might partner Sprout It with other brands in the future and is considering releasing similar online guides for pet care or craft brewing.

Paul sees things differently of course, calling it a "misconception" that Miracle-Gro isn’t the most environmentally aware company. "They do have a whole line of organic products," he says. "I think that’s part of what we’re trying to accomplish, is education and awareness around that."

He adds that the interests of Sprout It and Miracle-Gro align around creating "successful gardeners" and "tak[ing] the guess-work out of gardening." Indeed, the platform seems like it would accomplish that goal. Much of what I like about gardening books is present on Sprout it: detailed information about each plant that demystifies gardening, but with the added element of personalization. But even if you’re not some environmental purist, it should feel hard to take their information without a grain of salt (or pesticide).

In Paul’s words, "Whether one wants to [garden] in an organic fashion, or whether one wants to do that in a chemical fashion, we accommodate all of that as part of our system." And if one wants to garden with Miracle-Gro, well, that’s cool too.