Should You Get a Hydroponic Garden to Grow Your Own Veggies Indoors?


For the recurring series, That’s Debatable, we take on a contentious issue of the day and present two spirited arguments—one in favor and other emphatically opposed. Previous installments from the series are here.

IN A PANDEMIC, the promise of automated indoor-gardening systems is compelling: Grow your own fresh herbs and veggies, with no need to brave superspreader supermarkets or dirty your fingernails. But is it worth devoting precious kitchen space to these devices—some as compact as a toaster, others as large as a bookshelf? Enthusiasts of hydroponic, or soil-free growing, say they’ll never go back to fretting over squirrels or hail. But naysayers argue that, given the investment of time and money, the economics might not add up. Here, both sides.

YES, A HYDROPONIC GARDEN IS A GOOD INVESTMENT IN FRESH PRODUCE.

Laurie Stephans hasn’t bought lettuce or tomatoes from the grocery store in more than two years. Yet even in the depths of a Racine, Wis., winter—where temperatures struggle to reach the teens—she eats a salad filled with just-picked vegetables every day. Thank her fearsome fleet of 21 hydroponic planters.

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These soilless devices have colonized many kitchens over the past year, their popularity stoked by alarming recalls of tainted produce and a desire to avoid crowded supermarkets. In the second quarter of 2020, revenue at

AeroGrow International,

the parent company behind the AeroGarden brand of hydroponics, was up 245% year over year.

Unlike temperamental backyard plots, however, these planters promise to function as obediently as Keurigs. Simply pop in a few pods filled with seeds and growth medium, fill a water reservoir, hit a button and wait. The devices nourish, say, basil sprouts with a regulated supply of moisture and fertilizer while a canopy of sunlight-replicating LED lights shines down. After roughly 25 days, according to Click and Grow (and five times faster than seeds would sprout in the dirt, according to AeroGarden): Presto, pesto!

Bonus: the allure of saving money on produce. The toaster-sized Sprout ($100, target.com) and app-enabled Smart Garden 9 Pro ($260, clickandgrow.com) offer an eclectic seed selection and promise limitless bounty. Ms. Stephans has even taken to giving AeroGardens as gifts to housebound loved ones. “Having something green and easy can really make a difference,” she said.

Countertop gardens that let you grow your own veggies are trending in the pandemic.

NO, YOU’LL ONLY END UP WITH HALF A SALAD’S WORTH OF BLAND LETTUCE

Gardening nuts know all about the $64 tomato—the pyrrhic result of obsessive investments of time and money in a backyard garden. Investing in a Click and Grow Smart Garden 3, however, taught Tom Marszal the lesson of the $100 arugula.

“I was taken in by their marketing campaign,” said the Surrey, British Columbia, resident, explaining how “irresistible” he found the website’s imagery of “someone eating a huge salad” alongside a device bursting with lettuce.

In reality, even after several weeks, Mr. Marszal had only eked out half a salad’s worth of produce. “Then, I would need to wait several weeks to grow another one.” And, no, he didn’t want to acquire a battalion of the devices like Ms. Stephans, or wait for a bookshelf-sized model like the $5,000 Farmshelf Home—which will be able to feed a horde of herbivores when it’s released next year.

Plus, a salad cultivated the old-fashioned way might wilt the appeal of hydroponic greens, according to a 2019 Ohio State University study. It found that “lettuce grown in soil contained more sugars and compounds that contribute to taste” than those grown hydroponically. Julia Sherman, author of “Salad for President” concurs: Hydroponics are OK for texture-forward butter and oak lettuces, she said, but not herbs and tomatoes. “There is a qualitative difference.”

After a few largely lettuce-less months, Mr. Marszal listed his unit on Craigslist for half what he paid for it.

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