Review: Miracle-Gro AeroGarden Harvest Wi-Fi

One of the enduring memories my New York years was seeing the blue glow of Times Square from 20 blocks south.

"That's where the aliens land," I'd joke. And now, for most of the day, my living room feels nearly that bright.

Under a tiny canopy of red, white, and blue LEDs, six "pods" have gone from plastic dome-covered plugs of peat to a miniature herb garden. It's a little hydroponic setup that has become a glowing companion in Seattle's maddeningly wet winter.

A veritable conversation piece, my Miracle-Gro AeroGarden is, in essence, an extremely well-lit plastic tub that now produces dill, mint, parsley, thyme, and two kinds of basil. It connects to the internet, there's a little built-in control panel, and it uses a mobile app that would feel like overkill except that it's fairly unobtrusive. During Seattle's insanely gray January, my herbs got 17 hours of light—an hour more than the Emerald City's longest summer day—along with a trickle of water pumped to each individual pod for five minutes every hour. The pods cost a couple dollars each, come in sets, and get customized treatment from the machine depending on if they're flowers, lettuce, or herbs.

AeroGarden's offerings have been sprouting up for the last few years, ranging from the 50-dollar, two-plant kids' garden called Herbie, to the 700-dollar, 24-pod Farm Plus. Some models come with different colors and finishes—anything from black plastic to, uh, "Eggplant Stainless." The six-pod unit I tested, the Harvest Wi-Fi, lists at $189 but seems to be regularly priced around $110 online and has a footprint that's about 11 inches wide and 7.5 inches deep.

Projected Growth

To get mine going, I filled the tub with water, dropped the pods into their openings and fired it up. I added two capfuls of nutrients (aka fertilizer) to my Harvest, and from there it was largely hands-off. At night, its light bounced across the room and, implausibly, around a corner and down the stairs, faintly illuminating the floor below.

Within a few days, flecks of green appeared under the "grow dome" above each pod. A couple days later, I took the domes off and there were my plants, reaching for the light. Underneath, seemingly thousands of threadlike roots began filling the water container. I settled into a groove of checking on the garden not because it needed me, but because it was fun to watch the progress.

Whole plants appeared from nothing but a pinky-sized plug of peat, water, and a thimbleful of nutrients. As the plants grew, so did my amazement—the miracle of life was happening on my bookshelf! After a couple of weeks, I pruned the taller basil and dill plants to make room for and share light with the shorter thyme and parsley. Once in a while, I'd trim a couple sprigs, chop it up, and toss it on dinner as a garnish.

The thing I noticed? As someone who cooks regularly at home, I'd want way more output than a setup this size produces. For me, it consistently produced garnish amounts, but doing a pesto or a favorite recipe with chickpeas and dill would require razing whole plants. I'd want the yields of one of the larger AeroGardens, but I'm not sure I'd want to lay out the extra money. The other thing was how, peculiarly, leftover chopped herbs collapsed like a wet balloon after spending a night inside a Tupperware in the fridge, not something that happens with heartier supermarket herbs which can last a couple days in similar circumstances.

Seeds of Dissent

At the 33-day mark, I took some photos of my plants and sent them to an AeroGarden representative who said they looked "really good." Then, starting local, I called Alex LaVilla, the perennial department manager and buyer at Seattle's Swansons Nursery, and asked why my herbs were turning to mush in the fridge.

"The plants are succulent and soft, and they've only ever been at room temperature. You're going from 70 degrees to 40," he said, adding that the sudden swing in temperature was the likely culprit. "Nobody likes that."

He was worried, though, about their growth, saying that everything looked "superoverfertilized" and noting how the basil, mint, and thyme leaves looked "completely pumped."

A representative at a large regional nursery who didn't want to be quoted, so as not to create a row between her company and AeroGarden's owner, Miracle-Gro, thought everything looked tall and spindly, likely because they were getting not enough fertilizer and too much light: so, conflicting opinions, but agreement on imperfect quality. With a little tinkering with the AeroGarden's controls or the amount of fertilizer, though, each of them could test their theories.

I also called Amit Dhingra, associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University and founder of an ag-tech micropropagation company called Phytelligence, and he had a different take.

"Thirty-three days? Wow! That is excellent," he said, marveling at the machine's self-contained system after inspecting my photos. He also seemed impressed by the array of light colors in the LED grid above the plants, particularly the growth-encouraging red and blue colors.

"That," he mused, "is pretty cool for a home garden."

Leaf Peepers

My AeroGarden arrived mostly assembled, so setup was easy, though I did have a hangup scanning a barcode on the base using the app. It was resolved by talking to the AeroGarden management team, but during that call, I gave them the number underneath the code and they remotely turned the lights on and off. At the time it was funny but creepy, but in the end it just felt creepy. Software or firmware updates are welcome, but the ability to flick lights on and off in my home from several states away is not.

For what it's worth, I went to my local Lowe's and priced out a 48-inch grow light, fluorescent fixture, timer, start trays, dirt, and seeds. While that's a slightly different setup and it's dirt based, and inevitably messier, it would cost $50.

For me and for other small household dwellers, one thing that would make it much nicer to live with would be the ability to control light color. The Harvest's blue tint isn't horrible, but I'd happily sacrifice slower growth for a warmer glow for the times when I'm in the same room as the garden. Similarly, a dimmer switch would be a lovely option.

Outside of that unnecessary light control, however, these are small faults. In the thick of winter, it had been raining and gross outside for weeks, but this little setup in my living room glowed away, growing herbs. Both the app and the control panel remind you when it’s time to add water or fertilizer, which is convenient, though it did completely whiff once toward the end of my time with it, and the only reason I knew it needed water was because the dill started doing a sad sort of backbend away from the light.

AeroGardens probably aren't the machines for serious gardeners, but if you're getting into gardening or would just like a happy presence in your house to help get you through the winter, the AeroGarden really is pretty cool for a home garden.

Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of "Sea and Smoke" with chef Blaine Wetzel.

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