Indoor automated garden kit: 2020 edition
December 9, 2020 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to give my partner an Aerogarden-type thing for Christmas. He'd like to grow herbs and small plants such as green onions. Ideally, the setup would allow him to grow not just proprietary seed capsules or whatever, but also let him transplant a couple of things he's currently got growing in jars.

The plants he currently has aren't doing super well at the moment because there's no consistently sunny spot in this house--and maybe also because we keep things fairly cool in winter (?). I'm looking for a simple-to-use system that will be hard for us to screw up, which I realize may negate the ability to grow our own stuff in it. Neither of us have any experience with grow lights, we're usually guessing about how often/how much to water plants, etc.

We're renting this house and will probably move within a year, so anything too permanent (in terms of installation) or that's likely to leak is out. I don't have a particular budget in mind yet because I'm not sure what the options are. We wouldn't be expecting to cancel our produce box delivery, just to have occasional fresh things to add to our meals.

I searched Metafilter and could only find Asks from 10+ years ago. I also looked at this article on indoor gardens, but would really like to hear from people with experience. What would you recommend? And, more specifically, how easy is it to use/maintain? (How long does a plant stay alive in the system? He gets bummed out when plants die, so if certain things need to die off and be replaced regularly, it'd be useful to know in advance. I'm sorry if this is a dumb question!)

If there's other information you need to answer the question, please let me know. I'm too clueless to know what I should be asking or telling. Thank you!
posted by wintersweet to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Are you talking about houseplants or mostly herbs? In winter in the northern hemisphere, it can be a challenge to keep herbs happy indoors without some space right next to a south- or west-facing window. My houseplants are right next to various windows unless they're very low-light tolerant, but herbs and such will need a bit more light. I have sprouted microgreens in a south-facing window in the winter.

So the aerogarden looks great, but the options are pretty small and/or a bit pricey. You could also get a grow light like Darryl from Houseplant Journal talks about here (he has attached it to the underside of a bar cart). This is $150 for a two-foot long grow light, but you'd have to hang it up somewhere it's just above the plants and herbs you are growing. And that's assuming you already have pots and dirt and so on.

If you want a complete system and you have the money (and there's a sale now), the aerogarden seems fine.

Many herbs and fruiting plants will live as annuals. But how quickly are things dying? If you have good potting soil and enough light, and you are watering as needed, these things should last months.

(Your question isn't stupid at all; it's hard to understand all this kind of stuff til you start doing it!)
posted by bluedaisy at 10:44 AM on December 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm not knowledgeable about all systems, but I do have some experience with an Aerogarden. Despite the fact that it's marketed as an easy-grow, pod-based system, it's actually something you can control and customize a lot if you want to get more intense about it.

You can definitely grow your own plants in there, as long as they physically fit (which means probably growing from seed or something with a small root system, and nothing that's too tall when mature - you can look to the seed pods they sell as a guideline for what's likely to be successful). The diagram here shows an aerogarden pod - all you really need is a plastic holder (which can be taken from the set of seed pods that comes with any aerogarden, or you can buy more yourself), a sponge to hold the seed (you could probably skip that if transplanting an existing plant, but they're easy to buy more of), and something to cover the pod and ensure that light doesn't reach the water below (you don't want algae growth). They're cheap to DIY and you really don't need to use the proprietary ones if you don't want to.

I find it very easy to use/maintain - but again, it depends how intense you want to get. I'm lazy, so I pretty much just add water and fertilizer when the garden tells me to and I prune the leaves as needed to ensure that they don't get in the way of others or touch the light source. I occasionally give the water a full change and/or prune the roots. Some people are super careful about careful pruning, trimming roots, regularly cleaning the tank, etc., and all of those things probably do keep your plants much healthier, but you can also slack on it if you're not trying to get your plants to live forever.

Speaking of living forever - eventually most plants do outgrow the aerogarden (unless you're trying to bonsai them or something) but they can often be transplanted to soil after that. I'll note that it is much better to start all the plants at the same time (you want to keep the light down close to growing plants) so if you want to start new ones, you often need to reset the full garden, but again, there are workarounds (like extra lights) if you want to be more intense about it.

Anyways, I think it's a lot of fun! The plants grow amazingly fast and they're fun to watch and mess with, but it's also hard to screw up. It's a great way to have fresh herbs.
posted by mosst at 10:48 AM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yes, the Aerogarden (or similar) will take the guesswork out of watering, lights, and feeding. The lights have a timer, and the water level and nutrients buttons will light up when they need attention. It is very bright, so I actually keep mine in the bathroom so it doesn't bother me. And because of the liquid nutrients, the plants do grow much faster than they would in soil.

I've successfully grown basil and lettuce and cilantro with it, but not enough to replace buying those things. It depends how much of something you need. If you filled all 7 spaces with lettuce, you'd have enough for a weekly salad for two people, but you wouldn't be growing anything else. So it's more of a "oh, cool, I can put some basil on my sandwich today!" thing.

I don't think any of them can support growing bulbed items like green onions, but I could be wrong. What I do is arrange a few other potted plants around the Aerogarden and they catch some of the extra light.

I am a tinkerer type and I love using my Aerogarden. I experiment with re-using the grow-pods for other seeds and to root cuttings. But I ended up getting a bunch of LED lights and using a whole bathtub as a grow area with the lights suspended above in order to grow enough indoors to keep up with demand.
posted by xo at 10:48 AM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

We have two AeroGardens and they’re great. So far we’ve been using their pre-packages seed pod things but they and third parties sell the little baskets and the coir or whatever liners required. Honestly I’d expect you can make your own (and you’ll have extra baskets once you raise a couple of crops).

We grow herbs currently but had peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce previously. Herbs are very happy, as was the lettuce. I’ve had better tomatoes and peppers, but they grew.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:52 AM on December 9, 2020

And yes, herbs and lettuce plants will need to be replaced when they go to seed, just like in any garden. They do reach that point quicker because of the liquid nutrients. Other plants will sometimes get too big and unwieldy for the space. For that reason, I don't use it for tomatoes and peppers.
posted by xo at 10:56 AM on December 9, 2020

There are plenty of non-Aerogarden-brand hydroponics kits out there and hundreds of youtube channels for varying levels of experience and commitments.

The kinds of things you can grow in an aerogarden are not going to be houseplants, they are going to be meant to die. Herbs and microgreens are your best low-investment indoor hydroponic crops, and while some hardy herbs do live long lives (I have an 8 year old sage plant, but that's a *shrub* more than a plant and it lives in 2 square feet of soil) most of them are meant to grow fast and go to seed quickly to propagate themselves, and microgreens need to be harvested between ~12-20 days depending on type. Ideally in a system like this you're staggering your plantings, like every 3-4 weeks you start new cilantro/parsley/basil/chives, expecting the old ones to age out.

You can grow some stunted tomatoes and peppers (peppers want to be kept extremely warm though, you'd need a heated room), but it's not the best use of the resources. You really want a "grow tent" rig for that, which even at entry level are not super cheap.

I already had lights for seed starting and microgreens, but just bought one of these kits to learn hydro. It doesn't include nutrients, though.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you did go with one of the lights-included rigs, which are for sure easier as entry-level and often nicer-looking too, there are plenty of youtube videos on making your own plant cup thingies, as mentioned above. Once you see one of their proprietary pods at work, you'll see they're a pretty simple construction.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:37 PM on December 9, 2020

Don't get the aerogarden or any of the crappy pod based systems. Just get an IKEA vaxer or one of the similar systems (Aldi or aliexpress).
posted by turkeyphant at 6:53 PM on December 9, 2020

Response by poster: (Sorry I vanished--dental emergency.)

Unfortunately IKEA doesn't sell any of those kits in the US, for some reason. I'll check out the other suggestions, thanks!
posted by wintersweet at 6:47 PM on December 12, 2020

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