As a bit of necessary background, my success with plants over the course of my life has been… well, meager, to put it generously. On days when I’m feeling less charitable, I make it pretty well known that I have a black thumb.
Fun fact: I killed a cactus in middle school, people. A cactus. And, no, I wasn’t actually trying to do it. It’s a talent. A really, really annoying talent.
Therefore, if someone offers me any chance of helping a wee green baby survive long enough in my home to harvest and nom-nom-nom them, Cookie Monster style, with my food? To add much-needed vegetables to my diet that I grew myself?
Yeah, color me “definitely intrigued.”
Based on my previous history, I thus began working with Aerogarden about four years ago out of decidedly morbid curiosity. The site (and users) consistently hyped up how easy it was, how simple to maintain, and how much less mess you had to deal with during the process. They also offered a nice selection of plants ranging from flowers, to herbs, to miniature vegetables.
With equal amounts of skepticism, trepidation, and excitement, I dove right in, and there the rabbit hole began.
THE FACTS: Aerogarden is a company that specializes in hydroponic-style (water-based) gardening. You can purchase their gardens from small (with three “pods”) to a huge “farm-sized” monstrosities that I wouldn’t recommend if you only have a small apartment. When you buy a garden, they give you your choice of pre-packaged seed “pods” that you can insert into it and grow immediately from setup.
As a company, Aerogarden has been pretty fantastic about creating FAQs or answering consumer questions as best they can, whether in the form of direct communication or detailed blog posts. On top of that, if you’re having trouble getting the darn seeds to germinate in the first place, they will typically replace them for you.
Now, fast forward through a maelstrom of trial and tribulation on my part, three gardens later. Currently, I own a (recently upgraded) three-pod, a six-pod, and a nine-pod model. I love them all, even if I have to peer at flowers and leaves at points during a random day to ask myself, “Does this look normal? Is that fungus? Are those leaves blighted?” and scour the internet for hours seeking the answer.
While I continue to make mistakes, my number of successes moves higher with each planting. I’ve used basil on homemade pizza, dried herbs and flowers for teas, and made salsas out of the harvests of tomatoes and hot peppers.
Is Aerogarden worth it? Absolutely, in my humble opinion. If you’re considering making that plunge, read on, and avoid the pitfalls I discovered to often disastrous results.
But to quote that famous movie, “I got better!”
What follows is the first of several tips I’ve picked up over time. To begin —
PRUNE THOSE LEAVES.
No, seriously. The instructions do mention this, and they also conveniently provide you with a diagram about how to do it right. It helps.
Pruning might be needed anywhere between three to five weeks after your pod begins to sprout. It really depends on which variety you’ve planted. My trick is to wait until either (a) the sprout is nearly tall enough to touch the grow light when the light is positioned at its shortest height setting, (b) there’s suddenly a ton of leaves and shoots bunched together really closely, or (c) the plant starts to sprawl widely over the garden.
Yeah. It’s not an exact science. You’ve gotta really get in there and experiment. Be assertive… no, actually, be aggressive with pruning.
In part, you need to worry about the top of the plant (keep it away from the grow light as much as possible), but consider how crowded your garden’s going to be with something like basil. Or tomatoes. These plants are greedy little demonic beasts that love to kill any other plant you try to grow alongside them. They will send out shoots wherever they can under that grow light to soak up absolutely everything — water, plant food, root space — so you need to keep a close eye on them on a really regular basis.
My recommendation? Pick a “pruning day” of the week to check on things. Trim the top of the plant as suggested, but also prune away canes that are moving into the growing zones of other plants in the same garden, especially those that are smaller or less developed.
This may mean pruning away flower buds that would eventually produce fruit. This will happen. In the case of basil, though, flowers are unnecessary. Snip ’em.
Also important is to make sure that the plant isn’t overshadowing itself. Specimens such as the fairytale eggplant can grow huge leaves in a matter of days. Even a couple of those can kill anything trying to grow underneath them, and too many at once can overcrowd and potentially cause diseases (due to too much moisture/heat buildup and too little airflow/light).
If you notice any branches reaching too close to the grow light, or they’re shaded near the bottom of the plant and dying off, get rid of those, too. Bugs are not your friend here and they most certainly love dead plant matter — believe me, I’ve had some bad experiences with them, but more on that in another post.
You may be afraid of pruning too much and killing your plants. This is a common, normal fear. The best advice for this is to watch your plants, make mental note of how much they’ve grown in between refilling the water tank, or even take photos between watering for comparison. More than likely, you’ll be surprised at how quickly they grow from day to day, and how much you really do need to prune them (I’m looking at you, eggplants).
- Prune the top of the plant to make sure there’s not too much shade over the lower layers. Don’t let it get too close to the grow light, either.
- Prune any tendrils or branches that are crowding each other or those of nearby plants. Keep space between neighbors.
- Prune anything that looks like it’s wilting, browning, or twisted around one another, whether at the top or near the bottom (or anywhere in between, really). This keeps bugs and disease at bay.
In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss a closely related tip to this one: Trimming the Roots.