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Countertop garden systems promise to make it easy to grow fresh herbs. Do they deliver?
Update, July 2019: We replanted all four indoor gardens a third time. With the winning Click and Grow and Miracle-Gro AeroGarden, the results were the same, and their ratings stand. The SunBlaster also performed the same as it did previously, producing very small seedlings that we could not harvest, even after growing more than six weeks. We have reconsidered our rating and given that this did not operate as an indoor garden, we are changing its performance rating to Poor, and its overall ranking to Not Recommended. In the Edn garden, basil grew successfully this time, however the garden remained fussy to operate and care for. In addition, its light bar was not adjustable and was set too low, leaving plants distorted and scorched once they grew taller than a few inches. Our rating of Not Recommended stands.
What You Need To Know
Fresh herbs add a jolt of flavor to your cooking, and growing them yourself means they're as fresh as possible. Indoor gardens promise to make it easy to harvest herbs, lettuce, and other types of small produce at home, even if you lack outdoor space or sunlight. We tested four models, all priced roughly $200, that were equipped with full-spectrum grow lights that mimic daylight and more or less self-watering systems. Three were “smart” gardens with apps that cycled the lights on and off and sent alerts to help us monitor and care for the plants. We bought two of each garden, setting up one set in a windowless room and the other in a room with windows but away from direct light.
Setup for Some Wasn't Simple
Getting the gardens going took varying amounts of effort. The worst model, from Edn, came with a single packet of basil seeds, 10 pods of moistened soil, and detailed instructions for planting a specific number of the minuscule seeds at ¼-inch depth; we found the guidelines for adding water and the included nutrients to the water tank confusing and contradictory (water overflowed), and we struggled to pair the garden to its app and interpret the flashing-lights communication system on the container. It was frustrating and difficult to tell whether we'd succeeded.
Easier to start but requiring larger-scale, more hands-on gardening was the model by SunBlaster. This was simply a big, deep rectangular tray with grow lights installed in a hood above it. Four long rectangular seedling containers sit on a platform in the tray, with a fabric mat beneath them that helps plants wick up moisture from the tray, which you fill with water. You must separately buy seeds and a 10-pound bag of potting soil. As the seedlings grow, you raise the height of the hood. There is no app or automatic aspect to this garden: You must either switch the lights on and off manually or install a timer to do so. We used an internet-connected “smart” plug as a timer, setting the lights on a 12-hour cycle.
The final two models, by Miracle-Gro and Click and Grow, came with six and nine preloaded seed capsules, respectively. Setting up the Miracle-Gro and pairing with its app was a multistep process that required juggling parts and adding water to the proper level in the dark, black tank. We also had to decide on our preferred light cycle without much guidance. Once all that was arranged, it was a matter of pushing little pods into the slots according to the plant heights marked on the pods (short, medium, and tall, with tall in the rear) and covering them with plastic domes, which you remove once plants grow. A display on the front of the unit tells the...
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