Amazon’s growth on full display in greenhouse where exotic plants are raised for its Spheres


Amazon horticulturalist Ron Gagliardo discusses plant species in a smaller greenhouse meant to mock the temperature and humidity conditions of the Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

It’s no secret that Amazon knows how to grow a business, based on what the company has achieved over its almost 23-year history. But how does the tech giant do when it comes to the business of growing? As in plants and stuff.

A tour of Amazon’s misty, muggy, exotic greenhouse in Redmond, Wash., on Thursday proved that, once again, Amazon is putting down roots for success.

The 40,000-square-foot facility and the people in charge of running it are gearing up for the mass planting of The Spheres, located on Amazon’s evolving Denny Triangle campus in downtown Seattle, and slated to open to employees in early 2018.

Amazon’s desire to rethink what an office workspace could be and how it could link back to nature has led to the ongoing construction of the eye-catching, glass-enclosed domes between Sixth and Seventh Avenues at Lenora Street. And it’s led to this location about 15 miles east, at a University of Washington greenhouse in the suburbs next to Woodinville wine country.

On Thursday, Ron Gagliardo, the senior manager of horticultural services for The Spheres, and three members of his team, showed off the collection of trees, plants and flowers that they have amassed over the past three years from around the world. Sporting green “Amazon Horticulture” polo shirts, the four men played host to students from the Environmental and Adventure School (EAS) that is part of the Lake Washington School District.

Gagliardo also gave GeekWire a tour of a separate building next to the greenhouse, where conditions have been set explicitly to mimic what plants will encounter when they are transferred to The Spheres. The temperature (low to mid-70s in the daytime, mid 50s at night) and humidity (60 percent during the day, 85 percent at night) are what would be experienced in a tropical, altitudinal zone such as Costa Rica or Indonesia.

“We started creating a plant list of species that were from that zone,” Gagliardo said. “Then we started looking … where do we find these things? Fortunately we’ve been super lucky with collaborations with botanical gardens, universities, private growers.”

Inside the mock Spheres setting, Gagliardo said the glazing on the glass is the same as what will be on the domes. Designers and builders on the project have had to pay specific attention to making sure excess heat didn’t accumulate in the structures.

“The challenge is creating this place that’s comfortable for people but able to support this diverse plant collection,” he said of the Spheres, which will be home to more than 400 plant species at any given time. Gagliardo said he’s been “very impressed” by the test glass and how plants have thrived beneath it.

Amazon is growing and caring for plants for its Spheres project at a greenhouse in Redmond, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Spheres program manager Justin Schroeder. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The Amazon greenhouse is home to 3,000 plants species from more than 30 countries. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Speaking to the dozen students — a mix of sixth thru eighth grades — Gagliardo described how he and his team are growing the plants to go into the “amazing glass Spheres. Half joking before the group headed into the greenhouse, he said, “Please don’t eat the plants. We want them to look nice with all their leaves on them and we don’t want anybody to get sick or anything.”

The students then broke into small groups and proceeded to visit each of four stations manned by Gagliardo, program manager Justin Schroeder, greenhouse manager Mike Fong, and Spheres Living Wall manager Ben Eiben.

At Eiben’s Living Wall station, visitors got a look at the structural components of what will be a five-story, 4,000-square-foot wall of plant life. Students took turns positioning small plants into the pockets of 3-foot-by-3-foot panels of material that will serve as the vertical “ground” for the wall inside The Spheres. Gagliardo offered Eiben the highest praise in these circles by saying, “If anybody’s got a green thumb, it’s him.”

Students place plants in the Living Wall. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Living Wall manager Ben Eiben discusses soil composition with the students. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Gagliardo offers students a bean from the seed of a cocao tree. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Schroeder discusses plant diversity and unique aspects of some species. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Gagliardo positioned himself at a cocao, or cocoa, tree, where he cut open a large seed and let the students get a taste of the sweet beans inside.

Schroeder discussed plant diversity and unique facts about plants, showing off a particular species which, as he described it, resembled a toilet and attracted a specific forest animal which used it as just that, thus helping to fertilize the plant.

And Fong had the job of discussing conifers and orchids with the kids, which was notable for the fact that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ favorite plants are orchids and they will definitely have a home in The Spheres.

Greenhouse manager Mike Fong talks conifers and orchids. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Brian Healy, lead teacher and science instructor at EAS, said the greenhouse at his school raises mainly Northwest-native plants for restoration efforts in the region. He said Thursday’s visit offered a great chance for the kids to see a high-end operation and talk with scientists and horticulturalists who are experts. He praised the “systems thinking” of both science and social aspects that The Spheres would incorporate.

“It’s innovative in so many ways, the architectural aspect of it, just what they’re doing there,” Healy said. “The idea of using plants to soften a workspace, make it a more inviting workspace.”

Austin Picinich, 12, was holding a Venus flytrap that all the children were given at the end of the visit. He looked closely at a small bug on his plant, hoping his plant would eat it. Gagliardo made sure to point out that the flytrap is native to North and South Carolina, not the planet Venus.

Austin Picinich examines his Venus flytrap plant. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“I liked the exotic station, with the world’s ugliest plant and the sensitivity plant, where you touch it and all the leaves close up. That was really cool,” Picinich said. “I helped plant some of the plants in the Living Wall, so that’s cool that I’m part of helping The Spheres. And I’ll come and I’ll say, ‘Hey, I planted one of those somewhere around there.”

Ankita Kumar said the trip may have further inspired her future career choice. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Ankita Kumar said she thinks it’s possible she could end up pursuing a career similar to what she experienced at the greenhouse.

“Botany sounds really fun and biology is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” the 12-year-old said. She said that she was surprised to learn that orchids are such a huge family of plants — some big, some small, some with flowers and some without. She added that she will definitely want to go check out The Spheres.

Gagliardo, who became a consultant on the Spheres project in 2013 and Amazon’s first horticulturalist in January 2014, seems ready to talk about plants for as long as anyone is willing to listen. He can’t help but be enthused by what he’s put together with his team.

“Once The Spheres are open and people are in there, the thing that I’m looking forward to the most, that for me is success, is when you have somebody come in and they do this,” he said, bending over to put his face close to a plant. “It gives them an opportunity to learn and discover and be curious in a way that they couldn’t do back at their desk.”

Gagliardo and the students with their Venus flytrap plants. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

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