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Gardyn review: Building a wall of salad is easy with smart hydroponics

There's a jungle in my kitchen. Pass the ranch.

I've been living with a 5-foot-5-inch salad-producing machine in my kitchen since June. This smart, indoor vertical hydroponic system, called the Gardyn, grows heaps of fresh, organic greens. We're talking gourmet salad every day, endless basil and mint, and enough dill to make you feel guilty that you don't know any recipes that use dill.

I don't have to fuss with watering or making sure it gets enough light. No soil, no bugs. Just a computer assistant named Kelby that pings my phone with alerts as it watches over the plants. (Yes, it actually watches. With cameras.) The whole automated system starts at $800.

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The Gardyn is an indoor, smart hydroponic system that grows fresh produce pretty quickly.

Bridget Carey/CNET

It's designed for folks like me who have no outdoor yard, and no spare time to care for plants. Throw in a pandemic, and this became the perfect opportunity for me to test a smart garden. You mean to tell me that I, a Frazzled Working Mom™, can keep my family eating freshly picked lettuce, herbs and veggies without needing to go anywhere or deal with people? Bring on the kitchen jungle!

The Gardyn system holds 30 plants. Each plant starts as a seed tucked in a little pod, called a "yCube," which snaps into slots along three columns. You might think of these special yCubes as kind of like Keurig cups -- but for kale instead of coffee. 

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Seeds for the Gardyn come inside little pods called yCubes.

Bridget Carey/CNET

At the base of the structure is a six-gallon tub of water that's two feet long. The whole structure sticks about about 16 inches from the wall. A pump inside brings water up the plastic poles, trickling down to the plant roots on a schedule. Two light poles in the front face the plants, giving them plenty of simulated sunlight. The machine just needs a power outlet, a home Wi-Fi connection and a mobile app to make it work.

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The Gardyn can grow 30 plants at once. Owners can choose from a variety of lettuce, herbs, vegetables and flowers.

Gardyn

Multiple sensors manage much of the daily care automatically. But this machine won't let you set it and forget it -- it still requires an occasional human touch to keep it nice and orderly, a lesson I learned the hard way in the first couple months that I documented in my video review, embedded above.

What's surprising is how quickly it produces food. In four weeks I was harvesting some fancy dinner salads. By the second month, I had bushes of basil. And in three months, my plants qualified for "Feed me, Seymour!" jokes. That said, I lost many good sprouts along the way as I got the hang of the machine. If you're considering getting the Gardyn, or want to know if it's right for you, I hope my experience can help by answering the big questions:

What can I grow?

The Gardyn system offers more than 20 different varieties of produce, all organic, non-GMO and grown in the US. The Gardyn also sells six flower varieties. If you're feeling adventurous, you can grow whatever you'd like using seedless yCube pods and tuck your own seeds inside. (I've done it, it works.)

This hydroponic system isn't made for root vegetables (such as carrots, beets and onions), but you could try anything that grows above ground. And if it gets too big, pop it out and transfer the pod to soil. I transferred one to a pot without a problem.

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A cherry tomato I grew in my Gardyn. I keep my tower mostly stocked with lettuce varieties, along with cilantro, basil and mint.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Fruits currently available are cherry tomatoes, jalapeños and sweet peppers (strawberries coming soon). Available herbs are basil, chives, cilantro, dill, Mexican tarragon, mint, oregano, Italian parsley, rosemary, sage, Thai basil and thyme. As for greens, it goes way beyond the store-bought iceberg. You can get arugula, breen, butterhead, cardinale, green mustard, Matilda, kale, red mustard, rouge d'hiver, swiss chard, tatsoi and watercress.

The starter pack includes a mix of salad greens and herbs. After that you can order whichever seed pods you'd like sent in the mail. Pay for each a la carte, or subscribe to a service to get a monthly supply.

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The system lets you pull plants in and out at any time, so you can rearrange or trim the roots when needed.

Bridget Carey/CNET

What's the cost?

The Gardyn device and starter kit together are $799, or payments of $37 a month, and for now they're only available in the US. The starter kit comes with more than 30 various yCube pods, along with a bag of plant food (powered minerals and nutrients) that gets mixed in the water tank. 

As with most tech these days, there's a subscription service to consider. A Gardyn subscription mails 10 new yCubes to you every month. You just pick the plants you want to grow. After three months those original starter pack plants will likely need to be replaced, so if you don't get a subscription, you'll need to buy more refill pods on your own.

Commit to a membership for a year of yCube deliveries, and it'll cost $408 -- that's roughly 120 plants. If you bought the same amount a la carte, that would come out to about $600.

Commit to two years and it comes out to less than $3 a plant, a cost of $686.

It would be very difficult to fashion your own plastic yCube replacement pods -- not to mention the hassle of hunting for similar unique organic seeds -- so buying these seed pods direct from Gardyn is the only realistic option. 

Customers can set up payment in monthly installments. So a starter-pack Gardyn device with two-year subscription is $69 a month, or $1,485 all up front.

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The roots of your plants drink up the water collected in these reusable cylinders. The center yCube pod pops out to be replanted in soil or thrown away, if that time has come.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Is the subscription worth it?

It's a lot of green for greens. But you'll feel cheated if you overpay and go a la carte. You want to keep the Gardyn stocked with fresh produce, yes? You're planning on keeping this around for a few years, yes? Then you'll use the membership, so it's worth it.

Here's what isn't very clear when you get started: You will need to start growing new plants each month to eat well. You can't just keep the same starter-pack plants alive forever. 

I found that 10 new plants a month was realistic, especially at the start. Some rookie mistakes led to me tossing a few sprouts out. And you need to plan for plants to only be good for eating for about three months. (I tried to keep my favorites alive for as long as possible, but with age some plants begin to flower and the leaves tend to change in taste. Harvesting time doesn't last forever.) If you want to keep the food supply continuous, you'll want to set up a cycle of getting new plants every month.

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Once you see one of these suckers growing from your lettuce, it's time to say goodbye. It's now trying to make flowers instead of food, and that can change the taste of leaves. This happened to me in the third month.

Bridget Carey/CNET

In the beginning you will want the ease of the subscription service, because you have no idea what you're doing and you'll want to experiment with different plants. When you find your rhythm and find the plants you love, then maybe you'll only need to grow six seeds in a month instead of 10. But that's no problem, because you'll just have a backup supply of seeds for the next round. More food for later when the plan ends.

What's up with those cameras?

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Here's what the cameras see, as captured from the Gardyn app.

Bridget Carey/CNET

There are two stationary cameras on the light posts, pointed at the plants, taking still photos every 30 minutes. The Gardyn team says no audio or video is captured. Users can open the app to get a view of the last photo taken -- helpful if you want to check on plants when you're away from the house for an extended time. (I think people used to call that vacation.)

The idea is that, if you need some customer service help, a human can see recent photos of your plants for reference. And the Kelby smart assistant can use the cameras to detect some basic aspects of plant health. From the mix of alerts I got, it's hard to always tell if the advice is from a computer or person. I've been alerted to check on wilting plants or to trim them when too much growth covered the cameras, and got a pep talk when some herbs didn't grow. 

The cameras can be deactivated in settings.

Is it really all automated? How much work is needed?

The basic daily stuff is automated. Water and light are set on a schedule in the app, you don't have to mess with it. When water is running low, you'll get alerts to refill the tank. 

But there is a little more work involved than I originally expected. It's not a magical do-it-all machine. The "smart" assistant doesn't tell you everything. But it's also pretty simple work.

The biggest chore comes once every month when you'll need to spend 10 minutes cleaning the tank and refreshing the water. You'll have to lift the entire plant tower structure up and off the water tank. I find it a little awkward to lift but I can do it alone. 

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To clean the tank, you need to lift and remove the top of the Gardyn.

Bridget Carey/CNET

When you get yCube seed pods in the mail every month, it takes a little TLC to get them going. You can't just pop them in the Gardyn tower. You need to sprout them in a separate container. Add a little water and wait about a week for them to sprout before snapping them into the Gardyn. Why the wait? Your established Gardyn has a water tank mixed with plant food. Little seeds can't grow well if they're doused in water filled with mineral salts.

Twice a week you should check up on the plants to harvest leaves, make sure the plants aren't blocking each other's light (you can move a plant into another slot at any time), trim roots and make sure things are looking clean.

You'll need to be on top of anything that looks off, and message customer service for advice if needed. Again, don't expect Kelby the smart assistant to chime in with all the advice. (See below.)

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Sometimes the roots get aggressive and start to grow down into the pipes. This butterhead lettuce is due for a root trim.

Bridget Carey/CNET

How smart is the assistant, Kelby?

Not as smart as I hoped. It's pretty helpful with the basics the first couple of weeks, but honestly, I wish I could have switched its personality to being more pushy and direct when I had no idea what was going on. 

I thought Kelby would send alerts for every single aspect, such as telling me how much to harvest (no), or if something is ready to harvest (not quite), or that it would say something about the sketchy algae I saw growing at the base (nope), or how long I should expect plants to last (nada) or that if I don't harvest enough I may harm the plant (wrong again).

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Green algae growth was a bit much on this cilantro plant pod. Gardyn support told me to cover the base with aluminum foil, and it helped.

Bridget Carey/CNET

My first two months had some snags. A few plants grew gross mold and fungus in the center because I didn't harvest enough and they became bunched up too tightly. Algae grew at the base of some others. (Keep something wet for weeks and feed it mineral salts and, uh, life finds a way.) When I brought this up in an interview with the CEO, he said most owners email customer support as soon as they have any questions. Guess I should have done that sooner. 

And once my plants got too big and obstructed the camera's view, I didn't get much advice about anything. To be fair, the Kelby system is constantly adjusting its advice as it is a new product. And if something goes wrong with a plant and advice can't solve it, the company offers to send a replacement. 

Now that I'm a few months in, I found what's actually way more helpful than Kelby is the Facebook group for Gardyn owners. I didn't discover its existence until the end of my review. But the network has members posting all sorts of questions and tips, and members get really quick answers from Gardyn staff. It's also full of interesting hacks and problem-solving tricks.

The Gardyn app does offer a resource of tips on how to care for each plant, like a digital plant book. But I would love to see more photos or videos to help. Like, where exactly do you cut when you harvest chives? How much should I trim the roots? I guessed some things and Googled others. A lot of living with a Gardyn at first is learning by doing.

I wanted a smart system to just tell me everything automatically. I have two young kids, plus trying to cook and clean and keep a job -- I don't want to read up on and study how to care for plants. I don't want more homework. But after trial and error, my fourth month of ownership seems much more straightforward and I don't need as many tips.

How is this with kids? Is it safe?

If you have a baby or toddler, you should be careful where you put this in your home. You don't want a young kid climbing on it or grabbing the lights, which can get very hot. 

My son is a year old -- a prime trouble-making age -- and there's been no problem with him around our Gardyn. He actually is a little sweet with it, copying us by trying to pull off leaves to eat. But I can't let him be with it unattended. I keep it in the kitchen, and I can block off access with a gate. 

I also have a 4-year-old daughter who bumps into it almost every day. But it handles the occasional knock. 

A side perk is that the Gardyn got her interested in eating healthily. In the morning my daughter comments on little changes, like how the tomatoes are changing color. She gets to pick out her salad at dinner, or pluck the basil for the pasta. It makes being healthy fun.

Can assembly be done by one person?

Yes, but hooking in the lights takes patience and a careful hand. It took me about an hour. The poles and water tanks are made of a tough plastic, with pieces that lock together and can be taken apart. 

How much food does it produce?

Herbs or veggies can take a while to mature. But if you're growing a tower full of big, leafy greens, you could easily have a side salad several nights a week, if not every night. That surprised me. The cherry tomatoes I've been growing are taking longer to mature -- so my tomato plants are more of an occasional treat than a constant source of food.  

I'm now growing more lettuce than herbs, and we're having the tastiest salads I've ever had in my life. I could probably win friends with this salad

What can you control with the app?

The system is programmed to handle water and light scheduling for you. But the app does offer manual controls. You can even dim the brightness or turn it off completely if you want it dark in the room for movie night. There's also a button on the Gardyn base that turns off the lights. 

The way it's designed, all plants get the same amount of water and light at once, which works out fine. So it doesn't matter where you place your plants on the columns.

The app is how you'll order more yCubes and get maintenance alerts from Kelby. But it lacks a way to quickly message the customer service team with questions. I'd love a way to start a chat with someone right from inside the app.

What did you learn that you wish you'd known from the start? 

Some plants may only really last three months before you have to toss 'em. So when you order new plants, try to keep a supply of your favorite ones so that when one plant meets its end, a new sprout has already been in progress to take its place. 

Also, I wish I had harvested more often at the start. I was worried that if I ate too much I'd kill the plant, but instead I didn't eat enough and there was waste.

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Now that I understand the system better, I have plants in various life stages to keep the food supply continuous. This baby green is just two weeks old.

Bridget Carey/CNET

Is there anything else like this out there?

There are many types of indoor gardening systems popping up. The iHarvest could be the Gardyn's closest competitor, also holding 30 plants and starting at $800. It also has a pump system to automate watering. A different approach is the Rise Gardens modular shelving system, which has an app to help monitor plants' needs. 

Many are much smaller (and cheaper) and designed to sit on a table top, like the Click & Grow Smart Garden 3 and the AeroGarden.

Would you get it, knowing everything you know now?

If I just saw this advertised online, I would not be convinced to drop $800 on it, plus all the costs of more seed pods. I've gotten by just fine in life with store-bought bags of salad. But after this review experience, my husband and I both don't want to go back to a life without growing our food. It feels empowering to always have fresh produce within reach. And the Gardyn makes it easy. I need easy right now.

The Gardyn is like a piece of furniture, but furniture that grows tomatoes and gets kids eating healthy food. With all the time we spend at home, it's nice to have greenery to care for in the house. It's a peaceful moment when I check on the plants. In that sense, you could say it feeds the soul.