The AeroGarden originally hit UK shelves just in time for Christmas 2008, and continued to make waves through 2009. AeroGardens (there are more models available now) are automated indoor hydroponics units, designed to sit on a shelf and provide small edible plants – herbs, leafy greens, tomatoes if you’re happy pruning – with light and liquid nutrients.

AeroGarden!
Aerogarden! By Marri, via Flickr

I wanted one. But they were expensive, and money was tight, and dabbling in hydroponics wasn’t a priority when I had a large garden outside.

Since then, I have developed an interest in growing plants in space, and space food generally. It ebbs and flows amongst my other passions, but it’s burning bright at the moment in the run up to the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first footsteps on the Moon. I am working on a big blog event for that, and I am enjoying delving into the archives and digging out the human stories behind an event that rocked the world before I was born.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch initiates the Veg-PONDS-02 experiment on the ISS
April 2019 [Image credit: NASA/DAVID SAINT-JACQUES ]

On Friday I decided the time had come for me to try space age gardening, and become what NASA calls a “pseudo-naut“, doing space-y things with my feet firmly on Earth. Since I currently know nothing about hydroponics, I wanted an easy-to-use starter kit with which I could get off to a good start. Indoor hydroponics have moved on somewhat since 2009, with various devices being brought out by other companies, and it has been possible to buy hydroponic kits from Ikea since 2016. My first thought was to buy one from Ikea, but it turns out they’re out of stock in most stores (and nearly out of stock in all of the others), and Ikea can’t tell me when they will be restocked.

I was disappointed, and a bit bemused looking through the other potential options, so Ryan took over. While he doesn’t have much interest in plants, he’s really into technology, and has been playing around with smart sensors for monitoring the garden – the Internet of Garden Things (IoGT), he calls it. Quick as a flash he had weighed up all of the options and bought me an AeroGarden Sprout LED.

AeroGarden arrival

The AeroGarden Sprout has room for three plants, and Ryan chose the ‘gourmet herbs’ selection to start us off – dill, Genovese basil and curly parsley. It’s very simple to set up. You fill the water reservoir, drop in the Seed Pods (they come with little plastic covers to help the seeds germinate), pop some of the liquid feed into the water, and switch it on.

And then you sit and watch it blow bubbles through the water for a few minutes, before you realise that the plants aren’t just magically going to appear, and it doesn’t have the Zen qualities of a fish tank.

AeroGarden Sprout LED

The LEDs are multicoloured, chosen to be grow lights (some of the cheaper kits come with a standard LED desk light). It has a timer that turns the light and pump on for 16 hours, and it remembers when you switched it on and comes on at the same time every day. It has an automated reminder to add more fertiliser every two weeks, and the water reservoir has a level indicator to remind you to top it up.

Our AeroGarden is sitting on my office windowsill, which is north facing, so the plants won’t overheat. It’s very bright, and the pump is reasonably loud; it has a pause button that turns both off if you (briefly) need it dark/quiet. It’s certainly not something you would want in a bedroom!

Curiosity or impatience?

The AeroGarden has a much-touted link to NASA. It claims “NASA-proven” technology, and I thought I would investigate a little bit. NASA’s Spinoff database has an entry for the AeroGarden from 2008. It says:

AeroGrow International Inc., of Boulder, Colorado, designed and released the AeroGarden line of countertop gardens based on NASA studies. One element, the Seed Pod, has since been used by BioServe as part of an experiment on the International Space Station, as its design would protect tomato seeds and prevent premature germination.

NASA Spinoff database

NASA published an article on it in their Spinoff 2008 publication, which doesn’t leave you much the wiser. (It’s worth noting that publicly-funded research bodies like NASA are always under pressure to demonstrate their ‘impact’ – their value to society, and any links to money-making enterprises.) My current understanding is that the AeroGarden is ‘inspired’ by NASA-sponsored research on aeroponics, and that the only part of it that has been into space is the plastic Seed Pods, which have flown to the ISS as part of educational activities on seed germination in microgravity.

AeroGardens have a pump to aerate the growing liquid, which pushes them towards aeroponics, but strictly speaking it’s probably just posh hydroponics, as the plant roots sit in the liquid. In true aeroponics, the plants are suspended in air and nutrient solution is supplied as a fine mist.