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Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Indoor Garden

Even as we move into gardening seasoning outside, I am keeping all of my indoor gardens going through the summer months. I've been surprised by how handy it is to have these gardens nearby and how it leads to me using crops like fresh herbs more often. The side effect I didn't expect was how much I enjoy having the actual plants and greenery around in my bedroom and living room: The gardens produce a calming tickling-water sound, like a creek, and I love the smell of the plants. If gardening outside isn't for you, you might find one of these indoor gardening sets that require almost no skill to be just the trick.

These commercial sets include everything you might need, from the seed cups and growing medium, to the lights, and the use a pump to recirculate the water at regular intervals. Small sets like the Aerogarden Harvest or Letpot can sit on a countertop and large ones like Rise need their own space on the floor. Here are the tips I’ve developed to use these gardens more effectively. 

Buy a level

Hydroponic gardens work by keeping the roots of the plant constantly hydrated either in a pool of recirculating water or by routinely “watering” them via a pump. For this to work effectively, the entire system has to be level. Usually, bigger kits like Rise will have leveling feet to help with this, but a system like LettuceGrow doesn’t, so you’ll need shims. You still need to ensure your countertop garden is level. When they’re not, the water will list to one side of the garden, and some roots might not get hydrated. If only one side of your garden is germinating, this might be the cause. 

Grow the right crops

Hydro gardens grow crops in a tight space, with a finite amount of “sunlight” and no soil for roots to steady themselves in. While almost anything will still grow, crops that are going to require a lot of support like squash can’t flourish. Crops with a really long grow period, like pumpkins, also are not ideal for the system, since you’ll need to turn the garden system over before the pumpkin is done and it will grow out of the “sunlight.” Moreover, while smaller and smaller vegetable plants are always being bred (I recently grew actual tomatoes on eight-inch tall plants from Aerogarden), it doesn’t mean they’ll taste good. I’ve been really disappointed by fruit and vegetables grown in hydroponic environments; while they still receive nutrition, sunlight and water, they usually just don’t taste great. So while you can grow almost anything, I’ve found that simply growing herbs or simpler, short crops like peas is the best way to go. 

Learn how to self-pollinate

Since your hydroponic garden won’t be visited by bees to do the work of carrying pollen from plant to plant, you’ll need to do that if you grow any type of fruit or vegetable. I’ve seen many of these gardens advise casually shaking the plants from time to time, but this is disingenuous. To achieve good pollination rates, you need to really vibrate the plants and do it often while there are flowers. The best way I’ve found to do this is with a real vibrator or massage wand and to use a smart automation to have it run for a minute every few hours. I specifically looked for one that plugged in and used a manual switch, rather than a button to be powered on each time. This way, I could leave the want plugged in and on, and just set an automation for the outlet it was plugged into. I just left it set on top of the garden, but you could also tape it to the back. As long as it’s attached in some way to the garden, it will vibrate it enough that the pollen will be freed and form a cloud of yellow dust that will settle onto the blossoms and pollinate them. 

Grow any seed you’d like

Most companies that make hydroponic gardens sell seed packs or starts for those gardens, and they’re quite expensive. But the gardens provide everything a plant needs to grow: sunlight, nutrition, and water. You can always purchase aftermarket pods and growing medium and plant your own seeds. There’s nothing particularly special about the lettuce or herb seeds they’re using, and you likely have seeds or can purchase a packet of them, cheaply. While small “patio” vegetables are bred specifically for these purposes, you can usually purchase similar varieties online (although, again, growing them is mostly for sport as they don’t taste great). 

Be vigilant about pest prevention

Plants will attract pests like aphids and gnats on their own with little work. Hydro gardens seem to worsen the problem, so you have to be proactive. Always ensure there is no standing water around, from a leaking unit or when you add water to the unit. Using traps nearby is a good idea—I like the Zevo flying insect traps that use UV light to attract the insects. You can consider adding nasturtium flowers to your garden—not in abundance, but in one of the growing pods since they work to “trap” aphids. The aphids are attracted to the nasturtium, and just hang out on it, avoiding your other plants; you just leave the nasturtium to do it’s work. 

The secret sauce, for me, has been using smaller gardens for growing herbs, which I use consistently, making sure I am hacking the plants back on a regular basis to keep them from bolting. For larger gardens, I grow greens like lettuce, celery, celery, chard, and spinach. Using small, compact plants like these means that nothing is crowded out, there’s no fruit to be disappointed by or that will take too much time, and you ultimately end up pretty satisfied with the experience. 

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