The Aerogarden. How noisy? How hackable? Alternatives?
February 15, 2007 5:27 PM   Subscribe

The Aerogarden. How noisy? How hackable? Any alternatives that are also "easy" enough for my non-specialist friends?

I've found a lot of opinions, pro and con. For me, the biggest con is all the proprietary parts you're supposed to keep buying -- from the overpriced seed "pods" to the fact that they've reportedly designed their product so it uses standard fluorescent bulbs but non-standard sockets (so you have to buy expensive bulbs from them, rather than cheap ones from your local hardware store).

One partial solution would be trying to reuse their "pods" with one's own seeds, but the product is new enough that I'm not finding any firsthand accounts of doing this beyond a few vague reports in the "sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't" vein. There are different settings and cycles (for feeding/drip lengths) to match each of the company's seed pods, but I'm not finding info on whether these settings are totally user-configurable or just limited to the factory-programmed settings that fit the company's offerings.

I'm also seeing plenty of reports that it's "noisy" and "very bright," but no specifics. I'd be ultra-grateful for any firsthand descriptions especially of the noise (how frequent, and what type of noise -- pump noise, drip noise, buzz from the fluorescent bulbs...?) And it's marketed as "energy-efficient," but without any info on its power consumption.

I'm good with both plants & gadgets myself, but I need hydroponics systems that can be cared for by non-experts (the various people who'll be subletting my apartment short-term). Other self-contained systems are easy to find by googling hydroponics (the best-looking I've found is the EcoGrower), but none are so foolproof that they include "water me" & "feed me" indicator lights like the Aerogarden, and none include a hood / light source.

My apt. gets full sun from the south (through windows; no way to put pots outdoors) and I'm in the northeast (NYC). I mostly want to grow fruiting plants, esp. cherry tomatoes.
posted by allterrainbrain to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have an Aerogrow, but I just set it up on January 1, so I haven't finished my first cycle of plants yet and haven't rebought seeds or anything.

Brightness: near the unit it's as bright as 3 pm on a summer day or so. Light fall off is then sharp -- 6 feet away from the unit it would be hard to read small type, but still, one could not sleep in the same room as the unit. But in a closet it would be fine. It gives that blue cold flourescent light: not very attractive.

Sound: a low-pitched hum at all times, occasional zen dripping sounds at other times.

The seed pods are basically synthetic sponges with a fine grain, set into a plastic skeleton. The seeds were inserted into a slit in the middle of the sponge and emerged from there. If you wanted to reuse the pods, you'd have to get fresh sponge material, since the roots infiltrate the whole sponge.

Hacking it: basically you set one button to match the seed packet you purchased, and that determines how long the lights and water run. The only other buttons are one for lights on/off and a reset button, which helps you set which hours it's on and off for.

I have herbs, which is 17 hours lights on and 7 hours lights off, but I haven't made note of the drip schedule, so I don't know how complex it is. The nutrients are also mysterious unlabeled packets that you add according to your seed group's schedule. The manual says it won't work to mix seed groups because of the light/nutrient requirements being different.

The indicator that tells me when to add nutrients and water is actually screwed up -- I think because when I set the lights to go off at 1 am, I cycled it through a few hours using the "reset" button and now it doesn't know how much time has passed. My nutrient schedule is every two weeks, so I just note it in my regular calendar and I check the water manually, since the plants grow fast and need to be pinched all the time anyway.

Despite it's unattractiveness and QVC-ness, I get a kick out of it... and it's a delight to be able to use the herbs without even rinsing them because it's all organic and there are no bugs. My place has really bad light overall, so a few of my plants are also thriving just by being near the unit.
posted by xo at 6:29 PM on February 15, 2007

I was just looking online, and found what I think are the specs for the bulbs ... I'd be interested in having someone with an Aerogarden confirm this:

# Light output in Lumens: 1450
# Energy used in Watts: 26
# Estimated life in hours: 6000
# Grow bulbs should be replaced after 6 months

I've been thinking for a while of doing some indoor gardening, although probably not with the Aerogarden (bit too pricey for my taste; I can buy a lot of potting soil for that). Not sure how hard it is to find similar bulbs, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:48 PM on February 15, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, both really useful responses so far! Kadin, the $$-premium you pay for this or any hydro/aero system is mostly for speed & volume of plant growth relative to growing the same plant in soil.

Aerogrow has a very dramatic (and totally mesmerizing to watch) comparison video with results they claim are reproducible. Even if the reslts aren't exactly at this ratio for all crops, you're paying to get substantially more food across the same amount of time & electricity cost.
posted by allterrainbrain at 7:22 PM on February 15, 2007

Best answer: I have had no problems with mine thus far. It does what it advertises very well. My results match what you see on the web site's videos. The first planting of herbs was a success, trim what you need without any cleaning fuss what so ever. The noise is basically non-existent except when the unit turns on, at that moment you will hear the pump start up and the lights come on- other than that the unit is silent. The light is bright and to tell you the truth I rather like it. I have not replaced any parts thus far so I can't testify to that process. I would have to say that in a years' time, maybe more, the unit will have paid for itself. I have not come across any part of the unit that I find unacceptable.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:34 PM on February 15, 2007

So is the point of the thing to rapidly grow the plants and then pot them once they've developed, or do they stay in the AeroGarden permanently?
posted by ZoomX2 at 7:47 PM on February 15, 2007

Response by poster: You grow plants that naturally reach a max height of 18", so they can stay in the AeroGarden, and you either pick their leaves (lettuce, herbs) or harvest their fruit crops (cherry tomatoes, hot peppers).

The lettuce doesn't make sense to me economically (seems more like a novelty/pleasure crop more than a route to obvious cash savings)... whereas the more-expensive crops like the herbs and the cherry tomatoes appear to easily pay for themselves several times over, compared to the same volume of organic equivalents in a store. With herbs or tomatoes, it makes sense to me that the entire system would pay for itself in a year (especially if the electricity usage is in the 30W neighborhood) -- even faster if you use your own seeds.
posted by allterrainbrain at 10:58 PM on February 15, 2007

Depending on your level of adventure, google for diy hydroponics. If you want something that small you can build it yourself but not for a whole lot less.

Pop down to your local hydroponics store. They probably have one on display and can answer all your questions. And help you determine if that's what you want or if something else is more your speed.
posted by jdfan at 6:48 AM on February 16, 2007

I hadn't heard of the Aerogarden and it looks awesome...but my father hacked together two hydroponics systems for lettuce in our basement after going to EPCOT in the 80s. It was mostly PVC piping and some tubing. I believe it was a standard light controller hooked up to a pump in order to cycle the nutrients, but it could have been an X10. There were some DIY books he used to start it, although he is an electrical engineer and has broader knowledge (and random pieces of PVC piping lying around) than some people on these things. Costwise, maybe not more efficient, but no proprietary seed stuff.

We still had spiders in the lettuce.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:09 AM on February 16, 2007

Best answer: Kadin, I can confirm that the labeling on the Aerogrow bulb says:
115 Vac
60 Hz
26 watts

The manual has no additional information.

If the life of the bulb is 6000 hours, at my current rate of 17hrs on, 7hrs off, they should last almost exactly a year. But the manual does say to replace them after 6 months, though it doesn't say why.
posted by xo at 7:42 AM on February 16, 2007

Best answer: I got my Aerogarden for Christmas and it's been great. I am growing lettuce, and within 4 weeks I was able to snip enough leaves for salads, sandwiches for 2, almost daily.
When I first turned on the system the lightbulbs were so bright I had to move the system further away from the bedroom. The light is still bright, but not nearly as much as when I first turned the system on.

There are absolutely possibilities to tweak the system, by supplying your own sponge and seeds, but since it has limited automatic cycles, I think it will take some experimentating to figure what cycle is right for the crop that you choose.

I love my Aeorgarden, and I think it's totally worth it, and fun. No problems to report, no fungus, no bugs, it's so darn simple- light tuens on add nutrients, light tuens on add water. I am looking forward to trying herbs next, My lettuce keeps producing at a ridiculous rate though, I am definitely getting my iron into my diet.

oh, one more thing, keep your potatoes and garlic clovesaway from the system. I noticed that the extra UV light was making them sprout very quickly. Now I surround the system with my house plants to suck in the additional rays.
posted by brinkzilla at 8:28 AM on February 16, 2007

Xo and Kadin, the light needs to be replaced after six months because its performance gets worse over time.

How To Hydroponics is good if you want to know all the various details and a good book on building your own.

I've built a hydro garden using the vinyl fence post design (they're about 5" square and 10' long). If you were to roll-your-own aerogarden, my off-the-top-of-my-head price guesstimate is about $200 (the various parts, timers, light, pump, etc).
posted by jdfan at 8:29 AM on February 16, 2007

Best answer: About the hackability... it's really not that complicated. Most hydro books recommend something like 18 hours on, 6 off for maximum vegetative growth.
posted by jdfan at 10:00 AM on February 16, 2007

I received an Aerogarden for Christmas as well, and it works exactly as advertised. My herb plants are huge---the cilantro and green basil in particular have produced lots of growth.

It is not noisy, especially if you keep the water level full enough to minimize the dripping sound. I probably wouldn't want to have it right next to my bed or anything, but it's not loud. It is definitely bright though; I'd set it up in a room (ideally with a door you can close) where no one is likely to ever sleep.

Thumbs up in general, five stars for ease-of-use. I'm horrible with plants and killed multiple soil pots of basil before trying the Aerogarden.

Sorry, I can't answer your questions about the hacking, as I haven't tried that. It does seem like it should be possible though.

Final note: I'm a technical writer and I must say I found the Aerogarden user guides among the best I've ever seen. Very well designed. It should be extremely easy for your short-term tenants to care for your system if you do decide to go with the Aerogarden.
posted by slenderloris at 10:14 AM on February 16, 2007

Response by poster: This is all such great feedback. In my case (one-room studio apt.) I would have to make an enclosure or thick curtain for it -- or isolate it in the bathroom overnight.

I think I was initially turned off by the "As Seen On TV!" commercial onslaught of the Aerogarden site, and by all the proprietary parts (what xo succinctly calls "QVC-ness"). But I'm also really grateful somebody finally released a mass-market, 100% self-contained hydro setup, because thousands more people growing fresh food at home can't be a bad thing.
posted by allterrainbrain at 10:57 AM on February 16, 2007

Ah, a studio apartment. I think you could put a biggish cardboard box or maybe one of those Rubbermaid Roughneck tubs over it at night to block out the light. Or you can just set it to have the lights off during your normal sleep hours, but the light might still interfere if you want to sleep late or take a nap during the day.

It is kind of a pain to move once it is set up and full of water, so I don't think moving it to the bathroom every night would be the best option.
posted by slenderloris at 2:05 PM on February 16, 2007

There is a big hydroponics store in Flushing, Queens, but it looks like it's not reachable by public transportation (their site only has driving directions). But in Manhattan, the Soho location of Sur la Table has a working Aerogarden on display. They're on Spring St (a block west of the 6 stop).
posted by lorimer at 12:56 PM on February 19, 2007

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