Thursday 6 April 2023

AeroGarden Review


After an aggressive trimming
I have been wanting an AeroGarden for years, since I first saw them in Canadian Tire. But the price was rather dear and the purchase would have to wait. Finally, last year, when they were on sale, I bought myself one for Christmas. I set it up on January 10, 2023. 
I have the AeroGarden Harvest Elite in stainless steel. It doesn't take up a whole lot of space, about 11" by 6½", but you still need enough space to put it near an outlet. In my case, I chose to put it on top of a filing cabinet in my office (my smallest bedroom). I also read somewhere that they should not be near a window. I'm not really sure why, but I assume to keep them growing with the LED light and not the sun coming  in the window. Sorry, my office has a south-facing window and the AeroGarden is right below it and I haven't found another space to put it.

Sprouts appear by January 15
The AeroGarden came with 6 pods, pre-planted with herb seeds: Genovese basil, Thai basil, dill, mint, curly parsley and thyme. The light only extends to 12" above the grow deck, so I found their choice of herbs rather laughable. Dill and mint, as any herb gardener knows, are rather aggressive in their growth and spread, and definitely reach heights above 12". I also considered the idea that I could grow tomatoes or peppers in this particular model extremely optimistic. Even lettuce, because it has both vertical and horizontal growth, would be very crowded in the AeroGarden, unless I only planted 3 pods and harvested them young.
January 20
One of the first things I noticed about my AeroGarden is how difficult it is to adjust the settings. While the on/off button for the lights works very readily (I accidentally turned the light off a couple of times while repositioning the AeroGarden after the last cleaning), the settings buttons do not. I was either advancing too fast or not at all. I found it rather frustrating. Fortunately, once you get it set, you don't have to reset it unless you switch from herbs to vegetables, or when the time changes. 😒 I do appreciate the fact that the main settings button - a green leaf - turns red when I need to add fertilizer or water, and the viewing screen tells me what I need to do: add fertilizer or water. Otherwise, I would likely forget and would end up with dehydrated/underfertilized plants. 
January 24
The next thing I noticed was how bright the light is. Very bright! So bright that I find it annoying and distracting, even during the day. And since the "herb" setting is for 17 hours of light, it doesn't turn off until after I go to bed. I have never liked sleeping with my door fully shut, but I now have to shut it almost completely since the office is right next to my bedroom. I will have to re-evaluate that for the next growing cycle. It also confuses my cat. When it comes on in the morning, he figures that I have to have turned the light on, so I must be up, but where am I? I suppose the ideal option would be to have it on a kitchen counter. But I keep a number of my small appliances on my counters and there is no room for an AeroGarden. I might have to look for space in the basement. 
February 8
The instructions say to exchange the water and clean out the tank monthly (every second time that you need to add fertilizer), but it doesn't really explain how to go about doing this. I googled and one man said that he uses a container from the dollar store. The entire grow deck with the plants has to be removed, trying not to damage any roots in the process, and I have to put it somewhere. So that's where the container, filled with water to keep the plants hydrated, comes in. I now have a container that I have to store somewhere when not in use. For lack of a better place, I put it behind the toilet. The pump filter needs to be extracted from the roots, the filter cleaned, the tank cleaned (using bleach or vinegar, which is not in the included instructions, but is online) and refilled, fertilizer added and the grow deck, with the plants and roots intact, replaced. Don't forget to wipe down the grow deck and in and around the port for fertilizer. It then has to go back on the stand. Quite a rigmarole! The last time I cleaned it, I had to use tweezers to extract roots from the pump housing, and I'm wondering if roots can eventually destroy the pump. Can the pump be replaced? Will it be worth it?
Container for keeping the plants during cleaning
While the plants were small, I only had to add water every week or two. When they got really large, they were really sucking up the water and I was topping it up daily. As I have relatively hard water, the recommendation is to use half tap water and half distilled water. At that point, I was going through quite a lot of distilled water, which is not expensive, but it does add up. I honestly have not monitored my power bills to see if running the AeroGarden has had any significant impact. The LED lights should not use considerable power, but the pump runs for 5 minutes every half hour (sorry, I have misplaced my instructions and am only going by what I recall, so forgive me if that's incorrect). I doubt such a small pump would have a significant impact on my power bill. 
February 19
The AeroGarden comes with a 3 oz. (about 85 ml) bottle of fertilizer. Following the label, I give 8 ml every two weeks. That means the the bottle will last for 20 weeks. Unfortunately, the method for adding fertilizer is to use the cap on the bottle, not very accurate or efficient. It doesn't come with a syringe or a measuring cup. Fortunately, I have some medicine cups and that is what I've been using, after making a mess more than once trying to use the cap. Canadian Tire currently sells a 1 litre jug of fertilizer for $39.99. That would be $41.99 with GST. That works out to 34 cents per dose every two weeks. So that's quite reasonable, even though the initial outlay seems steep. 
As for using the AeroGarden next time, I would have to purchase a new set of grow pods. At Canadian Tire, I can purchase a set of 6 (choice of herbs, salad greens, cherry tomatoes, salsa garden, or Grow Anything where I get to choose my own seeds) for $24.99. With GST, that's $4.37 per pod, so I'd want to get a lot of benefit from whatever I'm growing to justify that cost (plus the cost of power and distilled water, but that does include the fertilizer). I can find online instructions for re-using or making my own pods, but my time is worth something as well, so I don't think I'll pursue that option. Amazon, on the other hand, has an AeroGarden Grow Anything 50-pod set for $83.64, which also includes the fertilizer. With GST, that's $1.76 per pod, less than half the price of the 6-pod set. And Amazon has some off-brand pod sets for even cheaper. 
I live alone and so generally only have myself to cook for, so that could be why I haven't been able to keep up with the herbs that are growing in my AeroGarden. Or I should say some of the herbs. As anticipated, the dill and mint took over, along with the Thai basil, which grew a stem so thick and woody that I could not cut it with my kitchen shears. They blocked out the light from the remaining three herbs to the point that I have only had one reasonable harvest of the Genovese basil, a small amount of parsley and I haven't used the thyme at all yet. But I've had dill in abundance. I've used the mint once, but it shot up past the light and I ended up with a bunch of dried/burnt leaves. I really doubt that I would use mint frequently enough to justify ever growing it again in my AeroGarden. Aside from the practicality of growing such an aggressive plant in that environment. And I really didn't like the Thai basil all that well because it tastes too much like licorice, and I'm not a fan of licorice. Sorry, but I neglected to take a picture of the overgrown mess before I trimmed it back as seen in the picture at the top of this post. I will say that trimming it back has drastically reduced the water usage.
Amazon also has some off-brand indoor hydroponic growing systems for much cheaper than AeroGarden, that have good reviews. I just found one for $139.99 that has capacity for 12 pods and a 30" height for the light. To get something similar from AeroGarden, I would have to spend about $400.
My conclusions? After my experiences, would I buy an AeroGarden if I had to do it over again? Probably not. It's a lot of trouble for what I have gotten out of it. Having said that, there are some things I would do differently if I chose to have one of these systems. First of all, I would really explore the cheaper options. Spending less money would be less heartache if I decided that it wasn't worth the trouble. And since there are some systems with better options for cheaper, why not? Knowing what I know now, I would probably not have bothered starting the mint and dill, or maybe starting them at different times from the other herbs. Only using 3 or 4 pods at a time is another option, giving the plants more room to spread out without blocking the light from each other. The openings are only a couple of inches apart! I would also try to see if I could thin the plants in each pod. I'm not sure how many seeds were planted in each pod, but they likely should be thinned to one or two healthy seedlings per pod. This would be challenging since the sponge is well below the lip of each pod and the pods are partially covered with a label, leaving only a small opening for the plants to grow through. Another thing would be to locate it in another part of the house, so that the light is not so bothersome. The problem with this option is that if it's in a low traffic area, I might not notice the warning to add water or fertilizer. 
I haven't yet determined the future of my AeroGarden. Sell it or keep using it? After this batch of herbs is finished, I will likely make another attempt with herbs of my choosing. I really can't see going through all that rigmarole for 3 heads of lettuce, because that's all I would likely plant if I chose to plant lettuce. The space is too limited to expect a good harvest if I planted 6. There are some interesting videos on YouTube of what different things people have grown in their AeroGardens, mostly in larger ones than the one I have. I can't imagine trying to lift the deck and plants laden with tomatoes - even cherry tomatoes -  every time the tank needed to be cleaned...
So, if you're thinking of buying an indoor hydroponic system, do your research, watch some videos and consider what I've said here. Only you can determine whether or not it's a worthwhile purchase for you. It's too bad they aren't available for rent...

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