This story is part of Road Trip 2021, CNET's coverage of the push and pull to manufacture more products in the USA.
It was just one week before the US descended into COVID-19 lockdown early last year when my plant obsession began. Stuck at home with a recently broken leg and a 4-year-old whose Seattle preschool had closed, I bought a lemon tree that we could tend together -- something to keep us occupied and out in the sunshine. By the time we heard of one of the first American COVID-19 deaths, in the hospital where my son was born, our garden grew with a crop of Yukon gold potatoes in a planter box.
By summer, just before another leg surgery, I'd peppered the yard with tomato plants, knockout roses and a 100-foot lilac hedge. And today after 17 months at home, my garden has grown to include basil, rosemary, chives, lavender, mint, oregano, hens and chicks, blueberry and butterfly bushes, hydrangeas, gardenias and five apple trees. "You have a problem," my husband Dave muttered the other day as he lugged the garden hose across the yard under the August sun.
But my problem was born out of necessity. When the pandemic hit, most of us watched as supply chain shortages -- including imports that account for 15% of US food consumption -- emptied grocery store shelves for the first time. Faced with such unprecedented stress, it's no surprise that just over one in four Americans began growing food at home, according to a Packaged Facts National Online Consumer survey. These novice gardeners said their worries about the future, including food shortages, hunger and inability to go to the grocery store, were the main reasons for their newfound self-sufficiency. Locally grown meant more than just being within driving distance; it meant being in your backyard.
"The appeal of being able to grow fresh, year-round, is just too much to resist," said Kevin Morgan, a retired print industry professional. "My outdoor gardening is raised beds, but I live in Indiana, so we have a limited growing season."
Practicality aside, food security isn't the only reason to garden. The long-associated health benefits of plant exposure, or "green therapy," were the draw for me and many others. One of several Japanese studies found that simply observing your plants reduces mental and physical strain, including stress, fear, anger, sadness, blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension.
Like Morgan, I was feeling all the benefits, but I was fresh out of yard space. Still craving comfort, I turned to the latest at-home gardening trend: indoor hydroponics.
What is hydroponics?
Hydroponics is a gardening method that uses nutrient-rich water instead of soil to grow plants. First popularized in the US in the 1920s by University of California professor William Gericke, the centuries-old farming technique requires less space and water than soil-based planting and typically yields larger plants that can grow and fruit for up to nine months. Hydroponics can feel intimidating, but you don't need to be a scientist working in a lab. In the last few years, US startups have modernized the processes in favor of low-maintenance products that control lighting and feeding, and advise you on how to tend your plants through Wi-Fi-enabled apps.
There are few types of hydroponic techniques:
- Nutrient film: Plants grow in an angled tray positioned above a reservoir filled with flowing water. The roots sit submerged in the nutrient-rich solution that aerates the plants as the water flows.
- Ebb and flow: Plant roots are periodically flooded with nutrient-rich water, then drained back into a reservoir, conserved, and reused.
- Wick system: Plants, usually secured by sand or clay to keep them in place, are fed water and nutrients from a piece of string or "wick" running up from a water reservoir.
What does the industry look like?
Commercial hydroponic farming is a $32 billion worldwide industry that's projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.1% through 2025, and home gardening hydroponics companies have reported similar upward arcs. Here are a few of the major players.
- Headquarters: Chicago
- Hydroponics technique: Nutrient film
- Product prices: $279 to $949
Rise Gardens come in four sizes, from a single-level tabletop garden to a three-level freestanding model. Each system includes a starter kit of company-selected seed pods -- 8 to 36, depending on the size you choose -- that changes seasonally. The Rise Gardens app alerts you when it's time to add nutrients and water, adjust the lighting and harvest your food.
According to founder and CEO Hank Adams, a Rise Garden may be the best choice for you if you plan to grow large-scale fruits and vegetables. "[Vertical towers] cannot support large plants and often don't have sufficient light for large plants," Adams told me in an email. "While many claim to grow tomatoes, you'll note the tomato plants are tiny. It also allows for rooted veggies, vining crops, microgreens and so on, all of which is not possible with other systems set up for consumer use."
While company sales soared during the pandemic, Adams said that indoor gardening was already a well-established hobby that's become a necessity for many Rise Gardens customers. "I think [our demand] is driven by two things," he said in a January interview with TechRepublic. "One is, we're all stuck inside. We're all tired of streaming and binge-watching TV or being on our devices. And those of us who are parents, as I am, we're looking for something to do with our kids that's not on a screen." The second trend is the food itself. "I think people who like to cook or like great fresh food for their family have found their way to these products."
Rise Gardens sells its smallest system through its Amazon storefront, and you can shop all its products directly from the company website.
- Headquarters: Bethesda, Maryland.
- Hydroponic technique: Ebb and flow
- Product prices: $799 to $1,485
Gardyn's vertical hydroponic system takes up 2 square feet of space. The company claims its 30-plant system yields the same amount of produce as a 1,300 square foot outdoor garden. Its wifi app and smart assistant, Kelby, automates water and light levels for optimal growth and promises a harvest that feeds a family of four to six in four to five weeks after seed sprouting. Prices vary depending on whether you decide to add a one or two-year membership subscription on top of the system's $799 base price. Although the lengthier membership doubles the cost, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
The Kelby app's capabilities expand to include plant care guidance like how to thin and where to place sprouts in the system. You also get 10 free yCubes (the Gardyn's version of seed pods) each month from a selection of nearly 70 options, 60% off additional yCubes, support from Gardyn experts and replacement yCubes if they don't germinate after 28 days. You can buy a Gardyn directly from the company website and on Amazon.
Gardyn founder and CEO FX Rouxel credits a portion of hydroponics' success to climate change and the need to think beyond traditional farming that relies on the weather. It's a shift that most people would support, according to a Statista Research survey, which found that 68% of people prefer locally branded vegetables, citing freshness and better value as the drivers behind their choice.
Like me, Morgan bought a Gardyn during the pandemic, but he said that being stuck at home wasn't the main reason behind his decision. "It's a pricey setup, but the [customer] support behind the product drew me in," he said. "I always have cuttings of some sort in my kitchen window, so the appeal of hydroponics was a natural choice for me. I would have invested in something, pandemic or not."
- Headquarters: Boulder, Colorado.
- Hydroponic technique: Wick
- Product prices: $79.95 to $399.95
Designed for small spaces, Aerogarden's tabletop systems are the most affordable hydroponic gardening options. The company's suite of four gardens are well-suited for apartment-dwellers with limited floor space, and even the smallest model can support up to three plants at once. Each system's base price allows you to choose from a selection of starter seed pod kits.
Aerogarden's small products hold a significant place in the market. Last November, Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. acquired Aerogrow seven years after becoming an initial investor. Aerogarden kits are now widely available through Amazon, Kohl's, Home Depot and Best Buy.
The Aerogarden systems can grow the same varieties of greens, herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers as their larger competitors, but as Adams noted, plant size is limited by space, and you probably won't see large vegetable fruiting without a makeshift trellis to support longer vines. If you don't want to sink too much cash into an indoor system or you live in a suitable climate that will allow you to transplant your crops outdoors, an Aerogarden is a good option.
My hydroponic experience
It's true that the larger hydroponics systems are priced as luxury items and can cost well over $1,000, but even with my growing backyard garden, I justified the expense for a few reasons:
- Education: While I'm a gardening enthusiast, I'm by no means an expert, and the apps that accompany these products come with all kinds of tips and tricks on how to tend plants and encourage the largest crops. I wanted to learn about the science of edible farming, and the tech made these systems too intriguing to resist.
- Distraction and diet: Quarantining with a high-energy child isn't for the faint of heart, and there's only so much Disney Plus I can stand in 24 hours. We've always encouraged healthy eating and home cooking, so indoor gardening -- in addition to keeping us busy -- fits in well with those priorities.
- Seasonal limitations: Seattle is known for its rainy weather, but we also have long stretches of summer drought. The temperamental climate makes it challenging to grow food outside without constant watering, and the soil quality of suburban lawns doesn't always yield the best-tasting results.
"I could probably make one," Dave said as we browsed home hydroponics websites one night after dinner.
"Yeah, but we want it to fit in the dining room," I said, imagining a do-it-yourself PVC sculpture stretching out like ivy across the dinner table.
"I guess," he said, "but it's an awfully spendy way to grow lettuce."
After assessing the market, I settled on a Gardyn because it fits well in my dining space and I liked the added support of the membership app (for example, Kelby just reminded me to thin my eggplant sprouts). It's been a satisfying bordering on giddy experience: The plants grow at a surprisingly quick rate after sprouting.
I took the photos above just before my family left home for a four-day beach trip. I switched the app to Vacation Mode, which slows the growth when owners know they won't be around to harvest plants. Even with the adjustment, we were shocked to find that nearly every sprout had doubled in size.
I'm only six weeks into the process, and besides eggplant, I've begun growing several varieties of lettuce, basil, dill, thyme, cucumber, strawberries, jalapenos, sweet peppers, catnip and cherry tomatoes. Gardyn crops won't replace my entire grocery order since the system can't grow root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots.
I think the greater value lies in planning how to use my harvest while cooking at home. I'm guilty of throwing out unused vegetables, which is the unnecessary fate of half of all US produce. That said, there's a big mindset difference between letting a tomato languish in the fridge and watching it grow on a vine. I'm hopeful that this perspective will save us a few hundred dollars a month in food waste and take-out meals.
Tips on starting a hydroponics garden
The jury's out on whether interest in at-home hydroponic gardens will wane once the pandemic ends -- not that we're certain when that could be. For home gardeners who've invested in pricier models, it would come at a tangible cost. For me, as I send my now 6-year-old off to in-person first grade with news of the delta variant, the Afghanistan withdrawal and Hurricane Ida swirling in the background, I look at my indoor crops and know I still need gardening for the foreseeable future.
Still, it would be disingenuous to say that this gardening method is universally affordable, and the financial security of would-be customers will ultimately decide these startups' fate. If you're thinking of buying an indoor gardening system, here are a few things to consider before settling on a brand.
What motivates you?
The "why" behind your gardening motivation is crucial when deciding whether to invest in a pricey indoor system. If you envision green winters in your kitchen, a system that can accommodate larger plants is probably the best choice. If you're simply interested in growing the occasional herbs, on the other hand, a smaller and more affordable system can meet your needs without affecting your budget.
Do you have small children or pets?
Little hands can easily disrupt an indoor garden, and I'd recommend keeping yours high on a counter or behind a closed door if your children are too young to resist handling the plants. It's also a good idea to test your pets' willingness to leave your crops alone unless the low-hanging produce is meant for them. My Bengal cat completely sidestepped the catnip in favor of the dill, and I have to police her snacking on my other plants when she gets too close. (Butterhead lettuce? Really?)
How much time do you want to invest?
Each hydroponics system has varying levels of automation, and you aren't likely to use it long-term unless you feel satisfied with the level of support. Similarly, some systems require weekly watering and feeding, while others stretch the maintenance periods to 30 days or more.
To avoid signing up for a chore, research the specifics of each system to find a model that aligns with your expectations and ensures that you get all the physical and emotional benefits gardening has to offer.