EDITORS' NOTE, 11/21/2014: This piece has been updated to include additional information about the nutrient drawer based on new details provided by AliGro.
AliGro wants to take low-maintenance gardening to its logical ideal: a completely hands-free plant-growing process. That's the promise of the new AliGro Planter, from California startup AliGro Works. The company hopes to create products that can save water while still producing beautiful crops.
Its first product, the Planter, plans to achieve that with a reservoir that attaches to a hose and uses a float valve to keep it filled to the right level automatically. The plant roots fit on top of a wicking basket above the water, which will theoretically give them just the amount of moisture they need.
Extending upward from the wicking basket, the rectangular base has windows so you can check on the roots inside. You can close off the top with a grow medium cover, which AliGro claims will help keep out pests and weeds while minimizing water evaporation. Alternatively, you can extend the top with the included, collapsible plant cage designed for tomatoes.
The color scheme of the Planter is customizable. You can choose from a number of preset patterns or get one with sports team logos, army-style camo, and other designs.
AliGro's Kickstarter campaign launches soon. You can preorder a model for $60, which will help the company fund production. The retail price will be the same as the preorder cost, and AliGro hopes to get models shipped by April of 2015. They'll ship internationally as well. The price converts to about £38 and AU$69.
Self-watering planters aren't new, but standard models, such as those offered by popular brand Lechuza, keep water in a reservoir that you occasionally have to fill manually. Thus, you still have to water these self-watering machines. By attaching a hose to avoid even that minimal effort, AliGro's system aims to help you take the next step toward true hands-free maintenance.
I'm not sure AliGro's system would actually end up being less work, however. The port on the back of the planter that feeds the reservoir fits a quarter-inch micro-hose. If you don't have one of those ready, the package includes a short one with a kit to punch it into a standard garden hose. Running a hose through your living room and past your indoor planter to keep a water supply running might not actually be as easy as refilling a Lechuza tank every month.
Additionally, AliGro also offers no automatic way to fertilize your plant. A nutrient drawer slides out to make the process simple. You can also use the nutrient drawer to fill the water reservoir manually if need be. But if running a hose to it is impractical and you still have to worry about nutrients every couple of weeks, I'm again not convinced that you're saving much effort over a standard self-watering planter setup.
There are planters that take care of nutrients as well, but the added technology leads to a significant bump in price. Modern Sprout and Windowfarm offer user-friendly hydroponic kits. The first costs from $129 to $249 depending on the finish you select and whether you want a solar powered planter. Windowfarm runs between $199 and $499 depending on how many columns of plants you bundle. Both offer a plant-it-and-forget-it comfort similar to AliGro, but directly feed roots both water and nutrients.
AliGro, then, doesn't do quite as much, but makes more sense as an entry-level model. The $80 Click & Grow Smart Flower Pot sits in the middle. It offers prepackaged soil to help with nutrients and manages light by including a lamp as part of the structure, but you'll need to pick from its selection of seeds. If you want to pick out your own plant from a nursery, you'll need a different planter.
The AliGro will offer simple gardening convenience that isn't comprehensive, but isn't priced to be. If the installation turns out to be an easy process, the advantage of AliGro over a standard planter becomes obvious. At $60, given the many designs it offers, it has the look of a reasonable splurge and solid entry point into hands-free gardening.
Fortunately, there are plenty of self-watering planters out there that differ simply by having a reservoir you need to occasionally fill yourself, instead of a using a self-filling reservoir. Depending on your setup, and how easy it would be to get a hose to your planter, the AliGro might not hold an advantage in terms of convenience over those models. It looks like a clever idea with a pleasing variety of design choices, but it might not make sense for every gardener looking to add convenience.