Buyer's Guide & Grow Test - Hydroponic Indoor Herb Kits

Posted by Amber Givens on

I've noticed a proliferation of kits for growing herbs indoors over the last couple years. Everyone, it seems, is trying to make growing your own herbs a little easier, and a little more fun, by developing electronic systems that automatically water your plants, give them light at the right time, and even alert you when to put nutrients in.

This begs an obvious questions, however: How well do these actually work? Are they actually better than, say, growing herbs in an empty soup can or an old shoe.

Indoor Herb Gardens - Our Top Reviewed

#1 - Click and Grow

#2 - Foody Smart 2 w/ LED

#3 - Aerogarden Sprout

#4 - Emily's Garden System

So I decided to do a little experiment comparing what we see as the top 4 indoor herb garden kit options:

I based on these 4 criteria:

  1. Ease of Setup
  2. Features/Quality
  3. Productivity (how well the plants grew)
  4. "Fun Factor" (a purely subjective measurement based on how much I liked it)

A note about this comparison: Of these four, the Click and Grow, AeroGarden and Foody 2 are very similar growing systems in size, lighting, care specifics and germination time. The Emily’s Hydrofarm is an obvious outsider, and is quite different in that it is much larger, uses clay pebbles and water rather than soil, doesn’t come with seeds, and the set-up process is extensive.

AeroGarden "Sprout"

Ease of Setup: The AeroGarden is packaged well and requires very minimal effort to get set up. The step-by-step picture instructions are very easy to follow and the on/off light switch and see-through reservoir window are very nice features for being able to monitor the garden’s needs. Overall, setup only takes a couple minutes to put in the light, add water and nutrients, and put in the pre-seeded grow pods. Grade: A-

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Features/Operation: This unit comes with everything you need to start growing (except water), including the seed pods and nutrients. It also has a couple key/useful features: The light automatically turns on for 16 hours a day, and there are instructions included on how to set this so it best coincides with your schedule. It's also very easy to operate, with only two buttons to set the light and nutrients. So what do you have to do? Water will need to be added every few days to keep the level stable (as I found out the hard way...). The liquid food needs to be added every two weeks. The good news here is that there's a handy view panel for checking water levels, and the AeroGarden reminds you when to add the nutrients.

So what would I like to see improved?

  • LED lights instead of CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Light). CFLs need to be replaced a couple times a year. LEDs are much preferred for plant growth, and will last years and use less electricity.
  • Higher adjustment levels for the light. As it stands, the light only extends 10" above the plants. This can be a problem for plants (like dill) that like to grow up fast and furious. I've seen lots of other reviewers complain about this same issue, with some noting that the light burned/killed their plants when they grew too tall.

Grade: B+

Productivity: The good news: The plants grew. The bad news: The growing area is so small you are really limited in how much, and what types of plants, you can grow. All three of the plants that came with the kit (basil / dill / parsley) grew enough in 6 weeks that I was able to get a harvest. As you can see from the pictures below, though, the harvest was pretty meager. Dill probably isn't the best plant for this unit, as it likes to grow tall, and the light isn't high enough to allow for a full growth. Also, each one of the pod spaces is pretty small, which really limits the plant growth. Overall, this is more of a fun grow/science project (that makes growing really easy) than a serious herb garden for people who want semi-regular harvests. If I could do it again, I get a bigger version of the AeroGarden for a fuller harvest. Grade: B-

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Fun Factor: My kids loved this unit (it was their favorite). They liked the little paper descriptions on each growing pod that explained when the seeds would sprout, and how big the plants would get. They especially enjoyed watching the little aeration bubbles in the water reservoir. 

I, on the other hand, was less impressed, and I wouldn't buy it again. For more serious gardeners like myself, this was more of a "one time" operation, as I wouldn't expect that I'd ever get a good harvest from it. I liked the see-through water reservoir better than the other models. I would consider growing just basil or parsley in this unit but not dill. I also find that it's not as aesthetically pleasing as some of the other small hydroponic units out there (especially the "Click and Grow" and Foody Smart 2), which makes it less likely to find a place in my home. Grade: B

Overall Recommendation: I wouldn't recommend this unit as my first choice as an indoor herb garden/kit. It would make a fun gift for a niece or nephew who wants to explore what it's like to grow a plant, but it's not the most productive for even a semi-serious indoor herb grower, and it's ease-of-use and aesthetics don't make up for its growing limitations. 

Buy Online: AeroGarden Sprout by Miracle-Gro – $79.95

Click and Grow

Ease of Setup: The Click and Grow comes totally pre-assembled, and the packaging is very user friendly, full of great pictures and advice as well as reorder information for additional seed pods. Opening the box feels more like opening a well packed lunch box than a garden system. The little booklet that comes with the kit is very helpful in providing step-by-step instructions for set up. Each pod came pre-planted so the labels were marked “basil” for each container.  Water was added to the reservoir until the white float reached the green surface level. Grade: A+

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Features/Operation: This unit works almost entirely on its own, and comes with three basil "pods" pre-planted... just add water and plug it in. The light (an energy efficient LED) goes on and off by itself (16 hours on, 8 off), giving the plants all the light and heat they need. The humidity covers are a nice touch, speeding up the seed germination process. I also thought the little "peel back" plant labels were neat, especially if you are growing multiple different kinds of plants. The float (integrated into the lid) is clever, making it easy to see when you need to add water. The seed pods themselves include the nutrients the plants need to grow, meaning no adding or monitoring of nutrient levels separately. The adjustable arm (3 settings) on the light allows you to set the light close when plants are small, and move it up as they grow. The Click and Grow also has a companion app for your smart phone that enables you to track things like growth rates, water levels and more.

So what would I like to see improved?

  • The float ... it has a tendency to get stuck when you're filling the water level. Not a big deal, just a little annoying. 
  • Higher adjustment levels for the light. As it stands, the light only extends about 10" above the plants. This can be a problem for plants (like dill) that like to grow up fast and furious. Don't expect to grow plants that have tall stalks. Also, at it's highest level the light is a little flimsy... doesn't seem sturdy.
  • Replacement pods cost: One of the biggest issues with the Click & Grow is the cost of replacing the pods with new seeds/varieties. A new 3-pack is $19.95. 

Grade: A-

Productivity: Wow! What a great harvest. The plants grew quickly, had a uniform growth pattern, and by harvest time I had lots of tender leaves. One thing to note here is the seed pods come packed with seeds, so whereas with the AeroGarden you will get 2-3 plants shooting up per pod, I had up to 12 basil plants shooting up per pod. This means you'll likely want to do a little thinning after a couple weeks, but it guarantees that if one or two of your seeds are duds you'll still have a full harvest. Grade: A

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Fun Factor: This is my favorite design of all the comparable desktop indoor herb kit units, and my favorite aesthetically. I picked the option with the green lid, which gave me something green to look at while I was waiting for my plants to grow. I also loved the packaging the unit came in, which was like opening a lunchbox and was filled with fun/interesting facts about growing food. I also like how "clever" this system is, from the innovative water float to "peel back" plant labels on each of the seed pods. Grade: A

Overall Recommendation: My favorite! This is my top recommendation for a desktop or indoor windowsill herb growing system. I'd recommend growing plants that don't shoot up (like dill) as they will quickly outgrow the light. If you're not interested in spending the extra $$ to get replacement pods, I'd recommend grabbing a bag of starter plugs (which fit perfectly in the pod holes) and using your own seeds. If you go this route, you'll also have to add your own nutrients to the water.

Buy Online: Click and Grow "Smart" Garden – $59.95

Foody Smart 2

Ease of Setup: The Foody Smart 2 is extremely easy to set up, as it comes as essentially just four parts (growing base, two growing pods and the grow light) that snap together in about 15 seconds. To start growing you remove the covers from the growing pods, plug in the unit, turn on the light, add water and nutrients (included), and add your seeds (also included). The instructions are helpful, but not as detailed as those of either the AeroGarden or the Click and Grow. Grade: A-

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Features/Operation: The Foody Smart 2 is different from both the AeroGarden Sprout and the Click and Grow in three major ways:

  • It has much bigger growing pods (2 vs 3) that are filled a loose ground-cork growing medium (vs little grow plugs pre-planted with seeds).  This allows you to grow much bigger plants.
  • It has the best lighting system. The LED light has two settings... a "natural" light setting that makes it more of a lamp than a grow light, and a grow light setting that is ideal for plants. The lamp stand is very sturdy, and has an adjustable elbow for easy storage or angle adjustment.
  • It doesn't have an automatic timer. This means you need to turn the light on an off every day. Not a big deal... unless you're going to be gone for the weekend.

The package comes with a couple of seed packets and some liquid nutrients for helping the plants grow. The Foody Smart 2 also features a helpful (but irritating) alarm when water gets low. The alarm is nice for notifying you the water is low. Not so nice when the water runs low in the middle of the night. Grade: B-

Productivity: The first time I tried to grow with the Foody Smart 2 I didn't do a good job turning the light on/off at the appropriate times, and the plants never thrived. I'm going to get a light timer and try again, and update this section when I have more to report. Grade: coming soon

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    Fun Factor: The Smart 2 has some neat features (the multiple light settings and the bigger grow pods), but ultimately has two big flaws that take some of the fun out of using it: the low-water alarm and the lack of a light timer. Anything that wakes me up in the middle of the night immediately loses its luster. That said, the big growing pods allow you to grow a much wider range of plants than either the AeroGarden or the Click and Grow, and the Foody Smart 2 doesn't lock you into using a specific specialized grow pods. This means big savings on replanting, as all you need is a simple packet of seeds. Also, the innovative lighting system is the best of all the indoor herb kit units I've used. Grade: B

    Overall Recommendation: This is a tough one because I can see the potential of this unit; if used correctly, it could be the most productive of all the desktop herb growing kits. If you can get past the low-water alarm, and if you don't mind going out and buying yourself your own electronic timer, you'll probably love the Foody Smart 2. I could also see this being a great system to use with real soil... the big growing pods could simply be planted with dirt, and would probably be very productive. If you're more of a gardener than a novice, go with the Smart 2. If you're a complete beginner, or if you're giving as a gift, I'd recommend the AeroGarden or the Click and Grow.

    Buy online: Foody Smart 2 w/ LED – $69.95

    Emily's Garden System

    Ease of Setup: Emily’s Hydrofarm is much larger system than the others reviewed here, and is meant for a serious garden enthusiast with previous gardening know how. That said, I'm an experienced gardener and assembly and start-up was complicated and time consuming. When the large box arrived it was surprisingly heavy. The reason for the heaviness is the inclusion of 29 liters of clay pebbles as the growing medium. Once unboxed, get ready for a serious setup ... there are so many parts and pieces to the growing system!  The detailed instructional manual gave us a good start but left lots of setup to interpretation. I've tried to detail each step in the slideshow below. Overall, I think this system could be greatly improved by prepackaging it with many of the setup steps/pieces already combined. Grade: C-

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    Features/Operation: This is the biggest system of all that I've reviewed at 16" x 24" x 6" with six individual planters. The best feature of this system is the large growing areas, which allow you a wide range of bigger plants (like pumpkins), and gives you the ability to rotate or add new plants as you please. The kit comes with with seed starter cubes, Geolite growing medium (clay grow pebbles), a large 2-gallon reservoir and pump irrigation system, an air pump, tubing, formed cover, pH test kit, and a water level indicator. No lights are seeds/plant starts or included. It is intended that, once setup, you will constantly monitor the water for nutrient and pH levels to ensure optimum plant growth. 

    So what would I like to see improved?

    • The biggest issue with Emily’s Garden System is it doesn't come with an artificial light source. In this sense, it's not a true "complete kit" as you will need to solve the light problem before you can grow anything. I tried to use light sources from a couple of other hydroponic systems I had growing nearby, but the results weren't good. Here's a guide to picking the right light.
    • The plastic mold needs to be improved. I found that plastic to be rather thin and flimsy, which I feared breaking during setup. I'm not sure how this heavy system will survive a move either. Also, as you can see from the slide image above, there is not a "port" for the air pump tubing to fit into the water reservoir, so it's just sort of jammed under the top lid.
    • It's noisy. When the air pump is plugged in it provides a constant low hum. This is an issue I've read from many other reviewers as well. It is recommended in the instructions not to turn the pump off once it has been plugged in since turning it off could promote negative bacterial issues. Many people solve this problem by upgrading to a pump with a quieter operation. 
    • Use less water. This system requires ALOT of water to run properly, making it very difficult to move once setup, and a bit of a water hazard if you every get a leak. We've seen systems that use water much more efficiently.

    Grade: D

    Productivity: Here's where I think the Emily's Garden System really has a chance to outshine the other systems. Unfortunately, I didn't give it a fair growing test as I didn't have the right lighting to setup with the system. I will say, though, that I see an issue with the included growing starter sponges. I tested six sponges with pumpkin seeds. The sponges were soaked and then a seed was inserted in each sponge. The sponges were placed on gravel in a glass dish and covered with plastic to keep humidity high. They were then placed in a warm, light location. None of the seeds in the green sponges sprouted! I also planted the same variety of pumpkin seeds in small pots with Wondersoil potting soil. Those little pots were also placed in a glass dish and covered to increase humidity. They were placed right next to the green sponge dish in a warm, light location and they all sprouted

    I plan on retesting the system again with a better lighting system. Grade: coming soon

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      Fun Factor: For me, I didn't really enjoy using the Emily's Garden System. I found it too cumbersome with too many pieces and steps. For the amount of work involved, I would rather just go grow in the dirt. It's not really a fun indoor unit (as marketed), because it's so bulky and requires an extensive extra lighting system. This only really makes sense in a garage, not on your countertop. Grade: C

      Overall Recommendation: This soil-less growing setup is definitely not in the portable tabletop category. It is really designed more for the serious indoor gardener who is focused on plant production without dirt.  The base of this garden system holds a lot of water ... like six gallons!  So when deciding where to place it, think carefully because it is heavy and awkward to move!  I tried moving it about three feet and, between the water sloshing, pump falling out and nearly cracking the plastic sides, it was not my best gardening moment.

      So, if you have a designated growing space with adequate supplemental lighting and don't want to use dirt, then this garden could be for you!  Set up and maintenance is detailed and challenging, but once the pump is on and the plants are soaking up the nutrient rich water, you have great potential for some garden harvest from Emily's Hydrofarm.

      Buy online: Hydrofarm - Emily’s Garden System – $99.95


      About the Author

      Amber Givens has loved and studied herbs for over 30 years, using these incredible plants to serve her family in the kitchen and the medicine cabinet. A mother of 4, Amber keeps a number of herb gardens around her property in the woods above Dryden, Wash., as well an assortment of farm animals and traditional gardens. She writes for the The Herbalist when she has a new herbal discovery to share.