As a gardening enthusiast and cooking addict, I enjoy growing my own herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Because the climate in Northern Virginia does not permit year-round outdoor gardening, I keep an indoor herb garden most of the year in an attempt to have a regular supply for cooking. Over the years I’ve grown many different kinds of herbs indoors with varying degrees of success, and I’m always looking for ways to improve herb yield and quality.
I first saw the AeroGarden® on television over a year ago and thought that it looked interesting. I tried hydroponics several years ago when I was growing alfalfa sprouts, but this was different and definitely a step or two up from the very basic non-motorized system I had used. I wanted to learn more and decided that I should review it myself. I contacted the company to see if they would consider allowing me to take one for a test drive and write an honest review, and they graciously agreed. They packed up a Classic AeroGarden and sent it to me.
The unit arrived early in November, and I set it up on November 10. The new model, called the Deluxe AeroGarden, is due out sometime in December.
The above photo shows what came in the box, a scaled-down version of the kit that ships for paying customers. I think the unit I tested had been returned or previously tested because I found some cat hairs in it. The unit comes in four pieces plus the two Grow Bulbs. Assembly is easy with the Simple Steps book and the handy illustrations, and the pieces just slide together. In other words, I didn’t need my husband, the aerospace engineer, to assemble it for me. It was very simple and quick.
The unit works by suspending seed containers, or pods, in a tank of water and flowing water to the pods. As the seeds gather enough moisture, they sprout and roots begin to form and hang down into the water. There is no soil at all, just water, air, and nutrients.
The unit came with an International Basil seed kit which has seven different kinds of basil: Lemon, Marseille, Napolitano, Genovese, Thai, Red Rubin, and Globe. According to the directions in the lid and accompanying booklet, the pods are laid out in the box the way they should be put into the garden for optimal growing, so the three front pods you see in the photo went into the front row of the garden in that order from left to right, and the same for the four back pods. Each pod is labeled according to seed type, and the directions state that the labels should not be removed because they help identify the type of plant and also inhibit algae growth. The included nutrient packs are added to the water on a predetermined schedule, and each pack is labeled 1, 2, and 3 so that you can easily identify them.
You can see in the above photo that the pods do not sit completely level with the unit surface, but these were not in far enough and were loose in the holes. I did not push down firmly on mine because I was initially concerned about cracking the base, so I think the seeds were not getting enough water flowing to them and took a few extra days to germinate. Once I realized the problem I pushed down firmly. The base held up just fine, and the seeds began to germinate a couple days later.
The small plastic domes should be pushed on top of each pod and left until the sprouts start to come up through the hole in the middle. This creates a warm, moist environment and encourages sprouting and growth, much like a terrarium. The seeds started to sprout on day 7 and the leaves started coming up through the holes on day 14. As of today, the plants are 25 days old and about 3 inches tall.
The AeroGarden has a number of proprietary seek kits available, each with different seeds, including 8 herb kits, 5 vegetable kits, 6 salad kits, and 1 flower kit. Each kit has different nutrients and a different program setting on the unit. Some kits, such as the tomatoes, have fewer seed pods due to space requirements for the fully grown plants.
The unit is quiet, and we only heard water running the first week or so before the roots sprouted. The pump runs continuously to keep the roots moist. The grow bulbs are key for encouraging growth as they provide full spectrum light for an optimal amount of time each day, about 17 hours for the basil. That seems like a lot of energy usage, and I tried to find out the total watts of the system, but could not find information specific to the pump unit. Each compact flourescent bulb is 26 watts. AeroGrow claim in their FAQs that the unit uses less electricity than a standard 60 watt light bulb. Using that information and allowing 8 watts for the pump (extrapolated based on their 60 watt claim), I estimated the daily and annual cost of electricity to operate the unit in Northern Virginia (does not account for taxes and government surcharges on electricity).
BULBS: (52 watts x 17 hours)/1000 x 0.08118 = $0.07 per day
PUMP: (8 watts x 24 hours)/1000 x 0.08118 = $0.02 per day
TOTAL ANNUAL ELECTRICAL COST: 365 days x $0.09 = $32.85
I believe in evaluating the total cost of ownership (TCO) of an item before investing, so I calculated the first year cost of ownership based on the going rate for the unit, electrical cost, bulb replacements on the schedule recommended by the company, and the cost of purchasing two additional seed kits (extrapolated based on the average 4 to 5 month life span for each seed kit).
UNIT: starts at $149.95 + starter kit
SEED KITS: $19.95 x 2 = $39.90
FIRST YEAR COST: $242.65
ANNUAL COSTS, YEAR 2+: $132.60 (2 sets of bulbs, 3 seed kits, electricity)
That is a substantial amount of money to invest in one year, and of course this begs the question of whether or not the unit is worth the investment, and I think the answer should be based on potential usage. I enjoy cooking with fresh herbs, but buying them here in Northern Virginia is not cheap. A bundle of hydroponic basil costs over $2.99, and other fresh herbs start at $1.50 per bundle and go as high as $4.99 for one of those plastic containers with a few leaves in it. I spend about $7.00 per month on fresh herbs if I don’t have any in my container garden, which comes to $84.00 annually. Unless you spend $20 or more per month on herbs, you will probably not recoup your cost in the first year. From the second year onward, you must spend at least $11.00 per month on herbs to recoup your operating costs. For tomatoes, the return on investment might be better depending on the yield of the kit. It would be interesting to test those to see how they work.
I dislike buying herbs, especially when the bundles are so large that I can’t use them up before they go bad. Tossing rotted produce is so annoying, so that’s why I try to grow my own as much as possible. Seeds are cheap, and potting mix isn’t so bad, and I just set up pots on a shelf next to the window and put grow lights on them at night. Total cost of doing it that way is maybe $40.00 annually.
To be fair, I have room for setting up a shelf and grow lights for my herbs, but many people don’t. Small apartments or condos or homes with poor outdoor light access are all good candidates for the AeroGarden, and I believe that this is the target audience for the product. People with a lot of room to spare or a south-facing room really won’t have a need for this.
I disagree with the company’s decision to go with a proprietary light design because it prevents owners from buying less expensive alternative bulbs. There is also a rumor circulating that the company has gone with a fixed price scenario for all their affiliates to prevent someone from undercutting other sellers, but I can neither confirm nor deny that allegation. If it’s true, it means that shopping around may save you some money, or it may not.
I believe that the company could do themselves a favor by lowering the price point on their products. If they want the product to really catch on for the long term and not get a bad reputation, the pricing strategy should be rethought. The unit itself should be under $100, and the seed kits should sell for no more than $15, and $10 would be even better. If they are going to use proprietary bulbs in their product they should lower the price point on those as well. I think the product potential is very good, but currently it is not cost effective.
Final Thoughts: Let me emphasize that I like the AeroGarden and if it were more cost effective I would probably have six of them hanging on the wall growing herbs and tomatoes on a staggered schedule! I sincerely hope the company will give some thought to their pricing strategy.
The bottom line:
Pros: Easy to assemble and use, relatively low energy usage, clean, small footprint
Cons: High TCO, proprietary grow bulbs, proprietary seed kits
Size: 15.5″ high x 18″ wide x 10.5″ deep, 21″ high with light arm fully extended; new Deluxe model slightly larger
Colors Available: black, white, silver, brushed stainless steel (extra cost)
Company Website: Aerogrow.com