“$300 to grow some tomatoes?!”
That was my first reaction, almost six months ago. My brother, Pablo, told me he was ordering an AeroGarden. Some of it was ignorance; I didn’t know exactly how these things worked. Pablo patiently explained that it was like a Keurig coffee machine, but for plants. You stuck plastic pods that contain growing sponges and seeds into a countertop tub, poured water and a nutrient solution into it, and soon you were raising plants through the magic of aeroponics and the AeroGarden’s LED grow lights.
Still, even in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I knew I could probably score a small bag of tomatoes at the supermarket for about $1.50. The appeal of buying one of the top-of-the-line AeroGarden models (most are in the $100-$200 range), didn’t make sense to me.
Fast forward six months. My brother and his fiancée both have their own AeroGardens producing yards of fresh lettuce. My mother, who initially said she didn’t want one, ended up buying her own and is also flush with salad fixings. My girlfriend purchased a huge Farm Plus AeroGarden that grows 24 plants at a time.
And me, the doubter… I am currently growing Thai basil and jalapeños in my first AeroGarden, and I purchased a second AeroGarden, one with a touch-screen and a companion phone app, to grow basil, chives, and snap peas.
How did this happen? Why did we fall so hard for this technology? And would we do it all again? Storytellers like to ruminate; instead, let’s germinate on these little seed pods and how they changed the lives of my family members.
Let’s be clear: AeroGardens are not new. The first of this product line came out in 2006; for many years, these electronic devices that pump water and nutrients into seed pods for indoor gardening have been sold online, on QVC, and in stores including Kohl’s, Target, and Lowe’s.
AeroGardeners have for years proudly posted their fast-growing Genovese basil and mint on blogs and Instagram. Since 2016, Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has had a 80-percent controlling stake and is seeking more in Colorado-based AeroGrow, the company behind the indoor-garden devices.
AeroGarden appears to have broken through in 2020. As more people stayed home in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in gardening grew and demand rose quickly. By April, as my brother can attest, there was a sudden run on the premium AeroGarden models such as the Bounty and Bounty Elite, which cost about $300 to $400 and include enough starter seed pods to grow nine plants at a time.
AeroGrow says that even with global supply constraints earlier this year, the AeroGarden line is seeing record sales because of COVID-19. “While the awareness of the AeroGarden in the minds of consumers has been steadily increasing over the past several quarters, we believe that the pandemic has further increased this awareness and may be moving our products from being considered somewhat discretionary to being more of a consumer staple,” the company’s president and CEO J. Michael Wolfe said in a June earnings report.
When Pablo started texting me photos of his modest little sprouts turning into veggie-producing powerhouses, I got the itch to grow some plants of my own. Figuring there must be a much cheaper way to get back to nature without investing in a new appliance, my girlfriend Jeana and I purchased potting soil, seeds, a $30 set of multicolor grow lights, and some cheap seed-starter trays. Neither of us has green thumbs; we can barely keep houseplants alive. But we threw ourselves into the project, hoping for a bounty of garden vegetables by June. Every morning, we excitedly checked our tiny sprouts for growth, carefully watering and monitoring our gardening progress.
After several weeks, we had a few green bean plants that eventually produced a small handful of pods then died, some tomato plants that grew and grew vines but have never given us tomatoes, and lots of spindly, leggy seedlings that eventually withered and died. Our trays of dozens of seedlings amounted to not much; transplanting them to larger pots seemed only to accelerate their decline. The promise of a system that ditched the whole idea of temperamental soil, factoring out over- and under-watering, began to seem more attractive with every sprout we lost.
So I ordered one. I had $40 in Kohl’s Cash saved; combined with the store’s sale price, I was able to buy one of the more basic models, an AeroGarden Harvest, for just over $50. The Harvest, which holds six seed pods at a time, doesn’t have a touch screen or app compatibility and it can’t talk to Amazon’s Alexa. It’s basic, but uses the same nutrients and pods as every other AeroGarden model.
How It Works
The setup was simple. Plug in the device, fill it with water, add the muddy, brown nutrient mix, pop in the cone-shaped pods, and cover those pods with small, plastic humidity domes. Within as little as a day or two, you begin to see a tiny sprout emerging from the center of the pods. In three or four days, tiny leaves appear. Within two weeks, the fast-growing, plants may be ready to prune. When you carefully pull the pods out, you can see the white roots that have grown through the grow sponge to reach down into the water supply.
I was so dazzled by the fast start, I started making plans to get my mother an AeroGarden for Mother’s Day. When I floated the idea by my parents, they specifically told me that wouldn’t be a good idea; it was destined to get mothballed to the closet with pancake griddles and toasters of the past.
But two months later, after seeing so many photos of the herbs and vegetables my brother and I were growing, my mom ended up buying a Harvest model for herself.
Outgrowing the Basics
Before long, the dill and mint pods I’d planted in my Harvest were outgrowing the one-foot height limit, with leaves getting crispy-brown from spending too much time close to the bright, hot LED lights. We transplanted those plants out of the AeroGarden; the mint survived and continues to provide leaves for our Moscow Mules, the dill never recovered.
What my girlfriend and I learned was that the accelerated time it takes to actually harvest vegetables in the AeroGarden can still feel an eternity. With six slots, you can start to feel locked into choices you made several months before. With a desire to grow much more, Jeana decided to get her own AeroGarden for her apartment, and not just one of the countertop models. She invested in a Farm model with two full-sized LED lighting panels that can be raised two or three feet depending on the model. Half of her Farm Plus contains tomato plants, the other side has a variety of lettuces, chives, and other salad veggies.
Around the same time, I decided to upgrade to a Bounty Elite, which can do nine pods at a time, has a touch screen with lots more light and water pump customization options, and can even allow me to check on my AeroGarden’s needs remotely via a mobile app. It didn’t hurt that the very advanced, sleek model was on sale.
It cost $300, the same amount I’d found outrageous three months before.
Yes, the economics don’t make complete sense; I could buy a large bag of vegetables at the store or farmer’s market for far less than what this pandemic gadget experiment has cost me. But there’s been a lot of pleasure and learning in taking on gardening as a hobby. Plus, I’ve learned that there’s no vegetable or herb that tastes better than one you grew yourself.
Here’s some of what our family has learned about AeroGardens. You can find plenty of tips, blogs, and photos online from what thousands of other growers have learned. That online advice helped us along as we got better at figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Pre-seeded pods are fine, but my favorite thing about AeroGardens are “Grow Anything” pods that allow you to add your own custom seeds. AeroGarden fans have experimented with starting or going for the long-haul with everything from watermelon to snap peas to bonsai trees and garlic. In states where it’s legal, there’s even a whole community of growers posting online about using AeroGardens to grow cannabis.
Try to stock your AeroGarden all at once and then start over completely when necessary; trying to germinate new pods alongside full-grown plants doesn’t work very well.
Use distilled or filtered water, or a mix of distilled and tap water. Avoid tap water if your home uses a water softener, it’s not great for plants.
Don’t be afraid to prune; follow the AeroGarden’s instructions on how best to prune plants to accelerate growth and leaf density. It may seem like you’re hurting your growing plants, but the opposite is true; you’re helping it redirect energy and create even more stems and leaves.
Be careful with the fastest-growing plants taking over the AeroGarden and cutting off light for other plants. I’m looking at you, mint, basil, and dill.
Have fun! Experimenting with different pods, discovering local seed exchanges of new things to plant, and sharing pictures with friends and family of our harvests.
Don’t swear off soil completely. We’ve had some luck transferring full-grown AeroGarden plants to traditional potting soil and even putting some outside in the garden. It’s helped us become more confident about growing all kinds of plants, whether it’s indoors or outdoors.