Get growing: Adventures in aeroponics

Get growing: Adventures in aeroponics

Get growing: Adventures in aeroponics

This last December, my husband gave me an Aerogarden to play with. If you’ve not heard of this yet, the Aerogarden is a tabletop aeroponic/hydroponic growlight set-up that’s become hugely popular of late. No doubt that’s due in part to the pandemic quarantines and supply-chain issues that have fueled a renewed passion for home vegetable gardening in the last two years.

Despite appearances on Pinterest, it’s not that easy to grow food indoors, even with lights, because of humidity, varying temperature needs and air circulation. Microgreens and sprouts, sure. Scallions regrown from your organic market bulb? Yup. But thyme and dill? Not so much.
Growing happy herbs and veggies like lettuce, peas and tomatoes inside taking up less counter space than a waffle maker? Sounds amazing, right? I’m game to try. They had me at tomatoes.        

Now for the nitty-gritty. Like a Keurig, the Aerogarden has pods, but incorporates seeds instead of coffee. These are made of peat and are held with their base in a reservoir holding water and fertilizer. AeroGarden sells the pods in sets of six. Mine came with two sets: “heirloom cherry tomatoes mix” and “herbs.” To grow in this system, you need to buy new pods. The light, water and fertilizer alerts are all synced to a timer.
There are some caveats. Indoor plants need to be right near their grow light, so to grow anything really large, like a full-size tomato or bean vine, you’ll need one of the larger systems that incorporates a trellis. Some plants don’t do well hydroponically, like spinach.

My system, the Harvest Elite Slim, holds six pods and measures 17 inches high by 15 inches wide by 5 inches deep. Its black and pewter finish is streamlined and attractive. 

The 20-watt LED light extends up to 12 inches, so that’s my ceiling for plant heights. The kit came with six tomatoes, but the company recommends doing three at most because any more would smother each other. That’s fine because I really don’t need six cherry tomato plants at one time inside. 
My ideal grouping would be two lettuces, a basil and a tomato, but you can’t do that because the lettuce would need a light at five inches high, and the tomato at 12 inches — and there’s just the one light.

So obviously I started with the tomatoes. However, I was not happy without knowing the variety names, which Aerogrow (the parent company) calls a “proprietary mix.” 

Side note: I don’t believe these are actual heirlooms because I’m not aware of any micro-dwarves that are over 50 years old. I like to compare and hone my favorites list each year. So, once I found out you can buy empty pods, I was ordering rare micro-dwarf tomato seeds from France, so I’ll know what I’m growing next time.

I planted three pods of mystery micro-dwarves. One benefit Aerogrow touts is how much faster plants grow in its system — up to five times as fast as in soil, even under lights. 

I pushed the “start” button on Jan. 15, and in five days, baby cotyledon leaves were up, and in 10, some “true” leaves with tell-tale notches were showing.

Then my inner geek lit up, saying, “Wait, can we start our outdoor seeds in here?” Here comes another “Yes, but” answer.  
It’s tricky to swap plants from water to a soil medium. AeroGarden says it’s possible but is best done when the seedlings are about an inch high and are highly adaptable.

A bonus to this technique is if you can carefully separate the seedlings roots, you waste fewer seeds and plants. Each pod holds several seeds for insurance in case some don’t germinate. When you grow plants full-term in the AeroGarden, you must thin your group of three seedlings in a pod to the strongest one with an enclosed snipper.

Of course, I couldn’t kill off potential tomato plants that callously and gingerly separated them and moved them into seed-starting mix under another light I have. Even with fertilizer, they are barely 3 inches tall, whereas the AeroGarden plants are 7 (with pruning) as of mid-March.
I should be able to easily start cool-weather foods like peas, kale, lettuce or flowers like calendula or poppies. 

(Full disclosure — these seeds can also be sown in the old-timey way outdoors in late winter, no transplanting needed. In my yard, the dog would step on them, slugs could eat them or I’d forget to water the one crucial week it didn’t rain.)

Once I buy my seeds and pods, this may not be much of a cost-saver compared to buying starts at a nursery. Also, at most you can grow three seeds in a pod, so 18 altogether, versus up to 36 in a flat with a shop light. But it does have the value of being novel and convenient — kind of like gourmet home meal kits.

Back to those micro-dwarf tomatoes. Having picked one of the higher-maintenance, highest-reward crops, there’s a bunch to do. 
If all goes according to plan, I should start my regular regimen of pruning when the plant sports five sets of true leaves, pollinate flowers (by shaking, electric toothbrush or fan) every other day when they appear at five to seven weeks, and could be harvesting in nine to 12 weeks from the start. As the plants grow, they’ll need water more often, but the flashing alarm lets me know.

I had flowers as of Feb. 20 — about five weeks from sowing — and went with jostling or gently flicking the flowers when I remembered. We spotted the first green fruit recently.

One giddy Amazon reviewer claimed that religious pruning had her harvesting tomatoes at over 200 days and that her two plants combined had 50 tomatoes on them. 
On the other side, another reviewer said the tomatoes tasted flavorless and watery, on par with those at any winter supermarket.

Things I love:
• The uniform conditions the process provides, taking the guess work out of indoor seed-wrangling.
• The red light that signals it’s time to add water or fertilizer, and the interior pump which keeps the air flowing — lessening chance of human error.
Things I’d change: 
• Have a bigger system, include separate lights with variable heights, and use a renewable resource like coco coir for the pods. (Note: Inventive people are already selling off-market pods online).

Bottom line: Is growing with an AeroGarden or a similar system for you? For our house, I think it will be a great add for adding homegrown produce in the winter. Assess what you are most interested in growing and when to decide if it works with your lifestyle. I’m still sowing my summer’s seeds as usual — sweet peas, spinach and carrot seeds went outside this weekend, and tomatoes will be done inside (under a light) right now.