After six years of living in houses, I’ve had to adjust to apartment life. One of the toughest bits has been the lack of a garden. I’m not claiming to be an expert soil-tiller, but I did have pear trees, pumpkins, and pea pods – apparently my skills were limited to foods with the letter “P.”
A few months back the folks at Miracle-Gro were at a tech show. What, I asked, was a pesticide/plant food company doing there? Turns out they’d partnered with a company called Aerogrow to create a line of hydroponic gardens. For the unfamiliar, hydroponics is a way of growing plants without soil via water and chemical nutrients (the latter being where Miracle-Gro comes in). Hydroponics are a staple in science fiction stories as a source of fresh food and oxygen for space travellers… but is it something I would want in my house?
Miracle-Gro was gracious enough to send me their top model, the Aerogrow Ultra (which was initially exclusive to Costco). An impressive bit of kit, it comes with a slots for seven “seed pods“. These are pre-selected sets of seeds you use with the garden. You don’t have to specifically use their seeds – there are two different “grow anything” kits – but you do have to use the pods. I chose a lettuce medley for my review (and later purchased a set of mixed herbs).
Setting up the AeroGarden turned out to be fairly easy. First you install the grow lamp (see above photo caption), plug it in, and start tapping at the front panel. It will let you select your type of garden, hours of illumination, and other key details. You then add the pods, the water via a water inlet, and then the plant food. That’s basically it. The front panel will then be your interface to the device, showing you how many days you’ve been germinating, what stage the growth should be at, when to add more food or water, etc.
I had one immediate quibble about the AeroGarden – the light. The LED grow lamp is very bright. I don’t recommend setting this up in a studio apartment. My wife actually came to love the light, and would leave the fan light on and then use that as the room’s primary light source.
But what about the actual food? Does it offset the costs of the unit/seeds? I was shocked at how quickly the lettuce started growing. And once it sprouted, it quickly matured and I was able to start harvesting after a month. Indeed, I got in the habbit of snagging a few spare leaves to munch on whenever I walked past the little garden; something I used to do with my peas when gardening outdoors. That, to me, was a good indicator. It also facinated my four year-old, who loved seeing the lettuce growing – but not enough to eat it. We are firmly in the “Is dere salad in dat? I don’ wan no salads!” stage. Still, both the lettuce and herb gardens gave a decent yeild that lasted many weeks. In fact, we had to start freezing and drying the herbs early on as we’d generated so many.
How about taste? The lettuce tasted exactly like fresh lettuce and the herbs tasted and smelled perfect. You do want to measure your plant food out perfectly though; we overdid one drop and it added a chemical tinge to the lettuce that was so bad that we “turned over” the garden.
Which leads to one big caveat – cleaning between gardens is nasty. Unlike a soul garden, where all the roots and stuff stay in the ground and decompose, you’re left with them in a box. Yup, you get to manually clean out a big box of decomposing plant matter. How fun is that? The outside of the box is clean and shiney, but the inside is a lovecraftian horror.
Another thing I learned was that mint is just as much of an opportunistic grower in a hydroponic garden as it is in a real one; my one mint pod “jumped” to my basil pod, and I ended up with an interesting mint/basil hybrid.Which was good in lemonade, not so good on pizza.
The 8 hours of light that the garden needs scared me – would they hurt my electric bill? Thanks to the LED lights, there was barely any difference on my bill. It also helped my grocery bill a bit. Our fridge tends to kill lettuce so if we do not use ASAP, we would end up throwing it out. Now we had our own, and we were eating more because it was in our faces.
So yeah, I loved this. But I also got this as a free review unit, so it’s important to keep that in mind. Would I buy one myself? I can’t be sure that I’d have bought the Ultra, which has 7 seed slots. I probably would have purchased a smaller one… and then regretted not getting the Ultra for a bit more. I love this thing. I eat a little better because of it, and am strongly considering buying things like the Light Boosters to improve the health of the plants and keeping an eye out for a sale on replacement LED lights so we don’t have to worry about them going while we’re mid-garden. I’m even considering getting a second one so I can grow more.