Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cheap alternative for Aerogarden grow lights - Adapters for regular light bulbs

I have to admit, one of the things I find most annoying about the Aerogarden is that the grow bulbs seem to blow out on a regular basis, and worse, the only way to get replacements is to go to Aerogarden's store.

Here's the problem--just one of these light bulbs easily cost upwards of $10-13. It's a clever way for Aerogarden to get themselves a regular source of revenue, sort of like the way Gillette never made money on its razors but on the razor blades. But for someone like me who wanted to get into indoor gardening partially to save money, it really doesn't make sense for me to be raving about how I save money by not buying fresh herbs, but end up paying triple the amount I would have paid in electricity and replacement bulbs.

Now for years I've been fastidiously buying from the Aerogarden Store, but when one of my grow lights decided to fail lately, I decided to bite the bullet and try one of these adapters I've been seeing on eBay. They look like this:

Here's how it works. You take a regular CFL or LED light bulb, the same kind you use around the house, and screw it into the adapter.

Then, you plug the adapter right into the Aerogarden. Note that certain light bulbs are going to be too big to fit, but the ones I happened to have lying around fit perfectly.

Voila--instead of shelling another $13 for a new light bulb from Aerogrow, I ended up using a $1.42 light bulb. While Aerogrow will tell you that its lights are "specially formulated to maximize growth", I haven't noticed any difference between the bright light that the Aerogarden grow light is putting out vs. the one that the regular light bulb is.

For your reference, Aerogarden replacement lights typically produce 1450 lumens of light and use 26 watts, so you'll want your CFL or LED bulb to output about the same.

One thing to keep in mind is that depending on what model of Aerogarden you have, you'll need to choose between two types of light bulb sockets.

Any Aerogarden that has three lights (including the original Aerogarden Extra, Aerogarden Extra Elite, VeggiePro, Elite+, Pro200, Deluxe, and Deluxe Upgrade Kit) use a light bulb that has more of a flat end, with two metal prongs coming out of it parallel to the shape of the light (model #100633).

All other Aerogardens (including the AeroGarden 3, AeroGarden 6, AeroGarden 7, AeroGarden Ultra, and new Miracle-Grow AeroGarden Extra) use a bulb that has a more round end, with two metal prongs coming out of it perpendicular to the light (model #100629 or 100340).

Where to get them

Obviously, Aerogarden doesn't sell these on their store, but a good place to go is eBay. Just search for "aerogarden adapter" and you'll find a ton of sellers selling them for about $5 each. As with everything on eBay, make sure to check that the seller has a good history and great reviews, and make doubly sure that you have the adapter for the right model.  I happened to use this seller, whom I was very happy with.

Now obviously this isn't sanctioned by Aerogarden, so chances are if you have a warranty on your product using one of these would probably invalidate it if they were to find out. On the other hand, if you're like me and have already sent hundreds of dollars of your hard-earned money to them, these little adapters are a great way to keep your gardens running. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013's that "Chinese Cabbage" doing?

So, it's been a few weeks since my last update on the Chinese Cabbage. Here's an update.

In my last few posts you might remember I was confused over what AeroGrow meant when they said "Chinese Cabbage". The good news is that I've finally figured it out once and for all, now that I've seen it growing.

You might recall I was wondering if it meant Napa Cabbage or Bok Choy, the two most common varieties of cabbage that go under the name "Chinese Cabbage".

For reference, here's what Napa Cabbage (scientific name pekinensis) looks like:

DSC04382 (Photo credit: snekse)
And here's what Bok Choy (scientific name chinesis) looks like:

Baby bok choy
Baby bok choy (Photo credit: dollen)

Our cabbage has been growing exceptionally well (making up for the anemic growth of all but the basil plants in the other Aerogarden).

A few weeks ago Lisa harvested the first batch.

She then prepared it the classic way: by chopping up some garlic and very, very quickly stir frying it in a very hot pan with a little oil until the leaves are slightly wilted and the stems soft.

One taste and I knew the answer--it's neither Napa cabbage nor what we normally call "bok choy". It's actually a third kind of cabbage that's common in Chinese cooking, but which most Westerners have never seen nor tasted. In fact, it's so foreign to Western palates that even Wikipedia doesn't explain it very well.

I have a decidedly Western palate, but my Lisa is from Taiwan, so she explained it to me. She also has a master's degree in speech therapy and linguistics, so I look to her for the authoritative answer.

The first thing to understand is the Chinese word "bai tsai", which depending on who you ask may be romanized as "bai cai", "pei tsai", "petsay", "bok choy", "pak choi", "bok choi", or "pak choy". The reason for the radically different pronunciations is that some of them attempt to transliterate Mandarin pronunciations, while others attempt to translate Cantonese ones. But all of them are the word "白菜", which literally means "white vegetable".

Making matters more confusing is that Westerners refer to chinesis as "bok choy" and refer to pekinensis interchangeably as "Chinese Cabbage" or "Napa Cabbage. But that's not what they're called in Chinese.

What we call "Napa Cabbage" is called "da bai tsai" in Chinese, or literally "large white vegetable". This kind of cabbage is commonly used in dumplings, soups, or stir-fried with pork.

What we call "Bok Choy" is called "bai tsai" in Chinese. This kind of veggie is most commonly steamed or stir-fried. It has a distinctive shape.

And so what's this stuff growing out of the Aerogarden called? Well, it's commonly called "shiao bai tsai" in Chinese, or literally "small white vegetable". The Cantonese equivalent is "siow pek chye". As for the English name, it's so rare to find in American supermarkets that I can't see a name for it other than "Chinese Cabbage", which is probably the same dilemma the Aerogarden copywriters faced (which is why the first line in their product copy is "this is not your traditional cabbage").

What makes matters even more confusing is that even in Asian countries they can't decide on a name to call these plants, but these are the most common ones.

As for the taste, this kind of cabbage has generally a taste that's a little stronger than Napa cabbage but is more leafy and has a little less pronounced of a flavor than bok choy.

As for the quality of the Aerogarden cabbage, Lisa's first comment when tasting it was that it was really fresh, not surprising since she cooked it 30 seconds after cutting it from the live plant. If you look back at the archives, you'll see that I was a little ambivalent about my experience growing Aerogarden lettuce mainly because it became a bit of a pain trying to decide what, other than salad or sandwich, to use the lettuce for. But I foresee a lot of great meals with this cabbage, and of course I'll share them here.

By the way, there appear to be some good recipes on Google, but all along the same theme of stir-frying them in garlic and in some cases oyster sauce.

We're averaging a harvest that can accomodate a side dish for two about once every two weeks now. I have to say, after yielding rather anemic results with the tomatoes and lettuce, the Chinese Cabbage is turning into what I imagined Aerogarden should be--a sustainable and consistent way to enjoy fresh vegetables from my own indoor garden.
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Aerogarden Ultra with LED lights

I do have an update on my Aerogarden Chinese cabbage (including what the heck it is--spoiler alert--unlike what I wrote last time it's not Napa cabbage). But in the meantime I just noticed that there's actually a new Aerogarden in town that looks even better than the Aerogarden Ultra.

It's called the Aerogarden Ultra LED, and it retails for $349.95. To check it out, visit AeroGarden's site, hover over "Aerogardens" in the upper navigation, and click on "Aerogarden Ultra LED". This is basically the same as the Aerogarden Ultra, complete with the ability to support tall planets and the handy "control panel". The difference is that instead of traditional grow lights, they use LED lights. LED lights are a great solution because they draw less power, don't burn out nearly as often, and have a "coolness factor" that the regular florescent bulbs don't have.

As you can see, there's a "space age" quality about the Aerogarden Ultra LED. It sort of reminds me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. According to Aerogrow, the red, white and blue LEDs aren't just there for show (or for patriotic reason), but actually are scientifically proven to stimulate fast growth (white), bigger yields (blue) and more flowers (red). Since it's been less than a year since I plopped down over $200 for the Aerogarden Ultra, I can't see myself buying this new unit for a while. But if you're in the market for the top-of-the-line Aerogarden, this new one is definitely a huge step forward. From a cost savings perspective, it's about a wash--you pay $100 extra for this unit, which could pay for a couple years of replacement grow lights. But if you want the newest and coolest technology, this is the way to go.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Chinese Cabbage Doing Well, Other Herbs Not So Much

So, remember those pods I planted a month ago? Here's how they're doing now.

 Here's the Chinese Cabbage growing in the Aerogarden Deluxe:

As you can see, it's growing amazingly well. I was actually curious about what "Chinese Cabbage" was, as the Aerogarden site isn't too specific--there are at least two varieties of plants that go by that name, one being "pekinensis" (a.k.a. napa cabbage or white cabbage) and the other bring "chinensis" (a.k.a. bok choy).

From what the leaves look like, it's pretty clear this is napa cabbage, which is great for us because we use it in cooking all the time. It's great stir-fried with pork, for example, as well as great for making dumplings, spring rolls, soup.

Hopefully the garden will produce enough for us to cook all of them. I'll of course post recipes and pictures as I start harvesting (which unfortunately I have to figure out how to do, as the documentation from Aerogarden doesn't really help). And I really, really hope that I don't have to deal with bugs, at least for a while. Here's the other Aerogarden with the herbs.

What a difference. While the basil is doing well, as expected, none of other other pods are growing. And no, this time I don't want to deal with the trouble of trying to ask for replacement pods. I suppose this is par for the course with Aerogarden--some batches of seeds are just sitting around longer than others, so whether a pod will grow or not can be hit-or-miss. I attempted to salvage these pods by clearing out the bad seeds and the fuzzy mold that invariably grows around them and planting new seeds. We'll see if that helps.

 In other news, I got an email the other day that Miracle Gro is now an investor in AeroGrow. They didn't buy them outright, it seems, but they invested enough that all Aerogarden products are now being co-branded with the Miracle Gro logo. AERO's stock price has shot up to about $2.20 a share, small consolation for me who in 2011 exuberantly bought a bunch of shares at $5 and took a big loss when the stock became a penny stock--but good news for the future of the company--and for people who bought when it was a penny stock (yes, I know, if if's and but's were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Xmas).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Modern Sprout: a new player in the indoor gardening world!

As much as I've enjoyed hydroponic gardening with the Aerogardens over the past five years, I have to admit that as much as Aerogrow has tried to make the Aerogarden units prettier to fit into home decor (even going so far as to making one unit look like a ladybug), the big gurgling plastic monstrosities tend to be somewhat of an eyesore. Plus, I really don't like how you have to buy proprietary seed pods, motors, nutrient at ridiculous prices just to keep the thing moving.

Well, it seems there's a new kid on the block. There's a husband-and-wife team in Chicago who have a new start-up called Modern Sprout. As so many innovative entrepreneurs do, they went onto Kickstarter to tell the world about their idea, and the Kickstarter community embraced it enthusiastically.

The couple, Nick and Sarah, faced the same issues and frustration in their Chicago apartment that I've talked about on this blog and on that I've faced in my New York apartment, namely, wanting to grow healthy, vibrant plants, but not having a balcony or real windowbox I could use.

Their ingenious idea was to create a "windowbox" planter that sits inside and runs on hydroponics.  They put a lot of thought into their product.

Here's what the product looks like--notice they have designs ranking from modern looks, to wooden boxes, to chalkboard boxes.

They'll be selling a few different models on their site at various prices.
$129 – Plug-in model planter in chalkboard, high gloss white and weathered gray
$159 – Plug-in model planter in reclaimed wood
$219 – Solar powered in chalkboard, high gloss white and weathered gray
$249 – Solar powered in reclaimed wood

If the product works as beautifully as it looks, I think Nick and Sarah are going to do very, very well, given the number of you who's written in over the years to share your thoughts on the need for an indoor herb growing solution that actually works and won't break the bank. Hopefully I can try one of these out someday and let you know how it works, but if you've been able to use one of these, please leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Aerogarden Ultra "Recall" - Installing the Replacement Parts

As I mentioned in the last post, AeroGrow sent an email a few months ago that said something pretty much to the tune of "don't panic, there's no danger, this is just a precaution", and then finally that there was a risk of electrical shock or fire due to the design of the Aerogarden Ultra.

Evidently, if water overfills and leaks into the bottom of the unit, the bottom of the unit isn't protected well enough to keep the water out away from the electrical wiring. Probably not a huge risk of danger, but no doubt Aerogrow and its lawyers are exercising an abundance of caution.

They gave instructions for early purchasers of the Aerogarden Ultra to apply to get replacement parts in the mail. I got them a few months ago, but after dealing with bird mites and all kinds of other things in life, I put a pause on indoor gardening for a while.

But now that the weather is cool, I'm getting a hankering to start up yet another generation of indoor gardens again so I can enjoy fresh veggies and herbs through the winter. So I got the box out.

Just like they did with the AeroGarden Ultra, UPS pretty much smashed this box to a pulp

Inside, there were instructions, a new base plate for the main unit, and four rubber foot pads.

The instructions were pretty simple. Step one was to unscrew the old base plate from the unit

Comparing the two baseplates, it looks like all they did was to add some "ridges" to the plastic. So if water leaks and gets to the unit, the sensitive parts with electronic wiring will at least have a little bit of protection from water seeping in.

Strangely, while the base plate of the old unit screwed in to be flush with the base, the new base plate doesn't fit as tightly (notice how the edge juts up a little). But according to the documentation, this is normal.

The next step is to replace the current rubber feet with new ones, the only difference being that the new ones are slightly taller. Again, seems like a rather low-tech solution to the potential problem of the unit sitting in water.

Here's what the new baseplate looked like all assembled.

And so, it was time for me to start planting again I decided to plant two gardens again. For the first garden, I chose to grow "Chinese Cabbage". I admit, I was a little disappointed by my whole lettuce experience of a couple years ago, but I admit I do enough cooking with Chinese Cabbage that I figured I'd venture into the whole leafy green in an Aerogarden thing again.

With the Aerogarden Ultra, of course, setting up a new garden is a snap.

The seed pod instructions for the Chinese Cabbage were generic, so I just guessed that I had to use the "lettuce" setting.

The Ultra was helpful as always, telling me exactly when the lights would be turning off and on...

...and letting me adjust.

So, here's my September planting of a crop of Chinese Cabbage. We'll see what we come up with in a few months, assuming we can keep bug free.

In other news, I wanted to resurrect my old Aerogarden VeggiePro. If you recall, this was the tall garden with the 6 seed pods that Aerogrow tried to sell in various forms before it went back to the 7-pod garden. Among other things, these units used a "air stone" to supply oxygen to the plants, rather than the pump that's in the original Aerogarden (now call the "Classic" or the "Aerogarden 7") as well as in the Aerogarden Ultra

Sadly, the VeggiePro just isn't doing its job anymore I bought a few replacement stones, but the VeggiePro doesn't seem to be strong enough to blow enough air through them. This means stagnant water, dead plants, and algae.

Luckly, I still have all my original Aerogardens, and I literally dusted off my silver unit. To my surprise, the motor still works, and the metal contacts on the arm still conducted electricity and weren't totally corroded. So I planted all the seed pods I had remaining from my past few efforts (as well as the replacement pods Aerogrow's customer service finally sent me).

They include Italian parsley, cilantro, two basils, and three lavenders. I'm not sure how smart it is for me to grow a lavender together with the herbs, but if my herb start taking flowery, I'll plan on taking them out.

And so, we begin yet another generation of indoor gardens. I'll try posting more than once every few years :)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

AeroGarden Ultra Problem and Resolution

Interestingly, I got an email from Aerogarden that pointed out a design flaw in the AeroGarden Ultra. If you have an Ultra and didn't get this email, you might want to contact AeroGarden to find out more.

Long story short, if you happen to overfill your AeroGarden Ultra, you run the risk of shorting out your AeroGarden.

Those of you with AeroGarden Ultras will notice a problem right away--the way the unit is designed, you pour water into a corner of the unit that's covered by a rubber flap. The problem is that it's hard enough to lift the flap and see under it very clearly, but it's also usually so dark you can't really see inside this corner. I know a lot of times I'll be pouring water in and before I know it it'll be too much and water will be spilling on the kitchen floor (thank heavens that so far there hasn't been any shocking moments!)

In their email, AeroGarden does a pretty good job of explaining the potential problem in detail. They also encourage AeroGarden Ultra owners to send away for a free upgrade. The problem is, they don't really explain what the upgrade does, only that you'll be "upgrading your base plate". What the "base plate" at the bottom has to do with the "pump cord port" that's at the top of the unit (and that can get compromised with overwatering) is anyone's guess.

In any case, I placed my order and I'll be providing more details once I get it. In the meantime, here's the contents of the original email I got from AeroGarden:

Our quality control engineers are constantly testing and re-testing all of our products, and they just told us something I want to pass on to you: In cases of massive or repeated overfilling or spilling of your AeroGarden ULTRA, water could pool and short out your AeroGarden, causing it to stop working. In very rare cases, this might also result in overheating some components. We don't want this to happen to you!

The most important step you can take is to be sure that you don't overfill your AeroGarden. I know it sounds obvious, but please take care not to overfill your water bowl. Do not fill past the fill line mark inside your water port (see diagram #2). Filling past this line can result in leaking through the pump cord port on the back of the AeroGarden (see diagram #3).

The simple Upgrade Kit we've designed can make your Garden more resistant to accidental overfill or overspill. We recommend that you choose one of these two free options:

Option 1) Upgrade your AeroGarden ULTRA base plate.
 We'll send you the essentials: a new, custom-fitted durable part, plus easy-to-follow instructions to switch out the plate. It will take less than 5 minutes, will not affect the look or the growth of your Garden in any way, and best of all… it's completely free! To order your ULTRA Upgrade Kit, click here or call 1-800-476-9669.
Option 2) Have us upgrade the base plate. Call our Customer Service department at 1-800-476-9669 for instructions on how to return the base (only the base please!) of your AeroGarden ULTRA. We'll issue a pre-paid label for return, upgrade the cover plate, and rapidly send it back to you to get your Garden growing again in no time. That's all there is to it! We strongly suggest that you always take care not to overfill your AeroGarden, and we also recommend choosing either Option 1 or Option 2 for a long-term upgrade to your AeroGarden ULTRA. We're happy to help in any way we can.