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How to Grow Herbs and Vegetables Without An Outdoor Space

Nothing enhances a home-cooked meal quite like an ingredient that you grew yourself. A cherry tomato that you pulled straight off the vine or a sprig of parsley that you pruned seconds before garnishing your dish won't just taste better than one that worked its way through a global supply chain over the course of weeks. It'll come with the intangible sense of pride that it's your cherry tomato. Your sprig of parsley. It's a feeling that can't be easily replicated.

But not all of us are lucky enough to live in a home with an outdoor space for gardening. And even if we are, we don't all have the talent, the time, or the cooperation of the local weather to be successful gardeners.

Luckily, there's a family of devices that makes gardening nearly as easy as using an iPhone, and they work in any climate, in any space in your home, no dirt required.

Hydroponics

AeroGardens, somewhat confusingly, use the principles of hydroponics rather than aeroponics to grow plans. If you've ever tried to sprout an herb plant from a clipping in a bottle of water, and waited for those thin, white roots to sprout, this is the same principle, writ large.

A NASA researcher studying hydroponics. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than growing in soil, the roots of hydroponic plants are submerged in water, and get their nutrients from nutrient solutions dissolved in the water.

Somewhat counterintuitively, hydroponic gardening actually requires significantly less water than traditional gardening, since the water remains in an sealed container, and is almost entirely absorbed by the roots of the plants, rather than seeping deeper into the earth.

Large scale hydroponic adoption has been limited due to the costs associated with creating a massive indoor farms, but we're able to take advantage of the advances made in the science at home thanks to relatively inexpensive and self contained AeroGardens.

AeroGardens

AeroGardens range from roughly the size of a shoe box to a the brand's new "Farm" units that can be several feet across, but all incorporate three basic things: a water reservoir, circular holes designed for AeroGarden plant pods, and an energy efficient LED light that simulates the wave lengths of the sun, encouraging fast and healthy plant growth.

The AeroGarden family

Most AeroGardens, like the small Harvest 360, come with a set of herb pods that will grow things like mint, basil, dill, and thyme. Setup is as simple as filling the water reservoir, adding the appropriate amount of included plant food, inserting the pods, and plugging in the unit. The LED light will automatically shine on the plants for 15 hours per day (though more advanced units let you tweak this, depending on what you're growing) to simulate the length of a real day, and means that you can even set up your AeroGarden in a windowless closet, with no detrimental effects.

Every few days, you'll need to add water, and every two weeks, you'll need to add more plant food, but blinking lights or warning messages on each AeroGarden will let you when your garden needs tending. Otherwise, the gardens essentially runs themselves. Most herbs sprout within a week, and can be harvested not long after.

An AeroGarden Farm model

Branching Out

Once your herbs have run their course (typically after four months or so), you can buy any number of replacement seed pod sets, including heirloom cherry tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, romaine lettuce (without the risk of e.coli that seems to plague our national romaine lettuce supply from time to time), flowers, sweet bell peppers, and heirloom salad greens.

All of AeroGarden's seed pods have a germination guarantee, and in my experience with a non-sprouting thai basil pod, it's very easy and free to obtain a replacement. But if you want to go it alone, they also sell a kit that lets you grow any kind of seed you want.

Just be warned; once you buy one AeroGarden, you're going to find yourself wanting to buy more of them to grow different kinds of food.


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