Feb. 16, 2008 -- When Florida plant nursery owner Luis Naranjo was trying to find something natural to his plants grow, he never thought to look on top of his head.
Naranjo, owner of Octavio Nurseries, one of the largest plant nurseries in central Florida, grows more than 125 varieties of plants for landscaping, and wanted to cut down on the use of chemicals.
"We tried coconut fibers, we tried plastics," Naranjo said.
Everything changed, he said, when he started using a new product called "Smart Grow," which is made from human hair.
"Human hair -- when I saw this I couldn't believe my eyes, " he said.
The hair is pressed into mats that are used to keep the soil moist and prevent weeds. Naranjo says it works so well to stop weeds from growing he has ordered 300 more pounds of it for the spring.
The hair mats saved him $45,000 in herbicides last year, and $200,000 in labor costs, because he did not have to hire so many people to pull out weeds.
"Without the hairs, I would probably be out of business or have to close down," Naranjo said.
The hair comes from a warehouse in Homestead, Fla., headquarters for Smart Grow. The company imports the hair from a factory in China, whose owner claims it gets discarded hair from barber shops.
"We take recycled hair from wig industry and beauty shops, clean it and weave it together," factory owner Blair Blacker said. "We've had the factory inspected to make sure we're getting hair from the proper sources."
Blacker admits it's tough at first getting growers to think of it as fertilizer.
"From the first time new buyers it's anything from 'you guys are crazy' to 'there's no way that will work,'" Blacker said. "There is a small yuck factor, but most people get over it very quickly."
If you're thinking these people sounds nuts, there are actually some scientists who back up their claims. Researchers at the University of Florida are testing the hair mats on tomato plants
"The hair is providing a favorable environment for beneficial microorganisms to the plant," University of Florida associate professor of plant pathology Aaron Palmateer said. He conducted tests on the SmartGrow product at the university's Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead.
"We were seeing the tomatoes with the hair showing increased yield," he said. "We were really amazed. It's really promising."