In grade school, they teach you the miraculous ability of a seed — with the aid of soil, sunlight and water — to sprout, develop and bloom. Ah, the awe-inspiring power of nature!
Though tried and true, this formula can be manipulated. You can substitute sun with grow lights, for instance, or the soil with nutrients fed hydroponically. These technological advances, once thought reserved for produce growers and pot farmers, is penetrating the cramped flats of urban environments.
AeroGrow, which creates self-contained gardening units, provides a near autonomous planting system. You periodically fill up a reservoir with water and nutrients, and it takes care of the other details, distributing these resources every few weeks while providing a constant light source 18 hours a day.
The company's latest model, the AeroGarden Ultra, brings robust functionality that allows advanced gardeners to customize these settings to their liking. The newbie gardeners among us — myself included — need not mess with such, since the default settings are crafted for optimal growth. With a screen and audio alerts, these plants also have a way of communicating with you.
Believe it or not, plant tech has grown to become oh so trendy. Prior to reviewing the AeroGarden, I had tried out Click and Grow (similar but more lo-fi system that relies on sunlight), and at CES, our own Raymond Wong was obsessed with Parrot's new garden sensor aptly named the Flower Power. With sensors that track light, humidity, temperature and fertilizer, Parrot's garden stake sends you mobile notifications about the state of your plants, so you have feedback on how your greenery is doing specific to its unique requirements (eg. some plants are thirstier or like to sunbathe more). All very helpful, especially since urban gardeners have taught me that the number one reason why plants die isn't because of carelessness, but because people care too much, often overwatering their leafy charges.
Though the Aerogarden doesn't give you feedback on the state of your plants per se, it does have a ticking internal clock that will alert you with a flashing light and occasional beep that it needs your attention (for new lights, additional water or more nutrients, say). Furthermore, the lights automatically adjust to maximize germination and growth as plants mature.
The reasons why my plants die though is because I'm not doting enough. But if all I have to do is add water or nutrients when annoyed to do so, this sounds like a foolproof system that even I, professed flora killer, can handle — black thumbs be damned.
The AeroGarden Ultra has more than 100 updates from its predecessors, including increased height and a larger water reservoir. On the tech side, the Ultra features a new MyGarden control panel — essentially an LCD control screen — that allows for you to program basic (step-by-step instructions for beginners) and advanced (customized settings) functionalities.
Having tested a prior model, my favorite addition is the ability to set a schedule for your lights and the ability for the system to pick up where it left off after being disconnected from power (due to an outage or moving the unit to a new location). In contrast, the AeroGarden 3 offered a much more rudimentary solution. While it had an internal clock that knew to turn off the lights after 18 hours, the only way to set this was by disconnecting and reconnecting the power source at the exact moment you want. Instead of setting a start and end time on a display, this meant waking up at 5 a.m. to physically plug in the system if you wanted the lights off by 11 p.m. Pray no power outage hits you because that would mean having to set your alarm again.
You might be thinking, isn't 5 A.M. a bit too early? If the AeroGarden is indeed gunning for small urban apartments, dwellers will notice that it's extremely bright. In my studio apartment, I placed the AeroGarden in my kitchen and it not only illuminated that room, so much so I hardly ever had to flick on the light switch, but that light poured into the main room, so setting these to go off earlier was ideal for my living situation.
As a lazy gardener, I mostly left the system to itself, opting to stick to its default settings and adding water and packets of nutrients when the AeroGarden occasionally chirped at me.
After testing the Ultra for a few months, I can say that I have successfully grown enough lettuce for salad and then some, but the success ratio was less than stellar. Though there are seven pods with the theoretical ability to grow seven plants, only one of my salad green seeds flourished. Most had never sprouted and the other that had died as a result of the one burgeoning plant's leaves blocking its light source. With the AeroGarden 3 I tested, two of the three pods germinated, but only one grew big and tall while the other withered away. Admittedly, these single plants were able to respawn over and over again after harvest, so they still had quite a bit of output.
While one of seven isn't so bad given my black thumb, this makes me skeptical of the Ultra's $250 price tag, which is already steep to begin with. Add to that proprietary seed kits that will run you $15 to $30, and it becomes obvious that no matter how much you utilize your AeroGarden for fresh herbs, tomatoes or peppers, you'll likely spend less at the produce stand. That or grow the old fashioned way: that tried-and-true nature formula we had talked about in the beginning.
However, there's still something appealing about this. Though the company's official stance is that AeroGardens only work with the company's seed kits, I've heard anecdotally that you can utilize the system to grow whatever you want. Just pop into a hydro store to pick up the necessary supplies. In fact, a source noted that he was able to grow more robust plants because of the different brand of nutrients he used. Adding to that, Gizmodo recently posted a picture of how one person was even able to grow marijuana in an AeroGarden unit.
Perhaps off-label uses will make this system worthwhile for an urban gardening enthusiast with cash to burn. But for the rest of us, we'll pick up our veggies at the store, since we're there every week anyway.
All images by Alice Truong for DVICE.