Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Aerogarden Strawberry Kit - Can you Really Grow Strawberries indoors?

If you've been following this blog you know I've grown just about everything there is to grow in an Aerogarden (at least legally). I've gone through herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, peppers, and flowers. In short, I've been a sucker every time Aerogrow decides to release something new.

With my Aerogarden Ultra back in action I decided to do something I wanted to do for a long time--send away for the Aerogarden Strawberry Kit. Now for years people have been experimenting with strawberry plants in the Aerogarden with limited success. I'm not sure the exact reason, but my guess is that it's because strawberries are really tough to grow from seed, so the best way to grow them is from cuttings which are rooted in an actual soil.

But recently, Aerogrow designed a new system that lets you root plants in an actual growing medium. And not surprisingly, the first kinds of plants they released were strawberries (although according to their site, their system also supports plants like orchids, bonsai, dwarf fruit trees, miniature roses, and more).

I'd love to try some of those other kinds of plants at some point, but because this would be my first experience I sent away for the Aerogarden Strawberry Kit, which I assume has the best chance for success.

The package arrived in the mail about a week after I ordered it using a service called "UPS SmartPost". This is where UPS delivers it to my local post office and the post office delivers it to me. What this usually means is an extended delay by the time the package gets to me, a fact that will become relevant as you read on.

Opening the box revealed a bunch of new plastic parts. It took me a while to figure out how they all go together, but once you realize how it's engineered you'll find that it's an ingenious way to "extend" the Aerogarden.

You actually have to do some minor surgery on your Ultra to make it work. Here's what you need to do:

1) Take your existing grow bowl and remove the top cover (with the holes to plant the seed pods in), and put it aside. You won't be needing it.

2) In the box is a smaller bowl that fits snugly on top of your main grow bowl. This is what's going to contain the growth medium, which I'll describe below.

3) You need to go into your big grow bowl and remove the long tube that sticks out of the pump. Again, put it aside as you won't be needing it, but you'll need it whenever you decide to convert your Aerogarden back to its original state.

Then, you'll replace it with a shorter tube that they provide you.

You then fit a plastic drain and "inlet nozzle" to the upper bowl

And then put the two together by putting the small bowl over the large bowl.

Here's what it'll look like, with the drainage plug in place. 

4)  You get two bags of growth medium. It's not soil, but something called "Chunk Coco Grow Media". If you don't want to use their growth medium, you can also use other media like aquarium gravel, perlite, or hydroton. Chunk Coco Grow Media looks like a bunch of wood and twigs broken into pieces the size of croutons. It turns out this is coconut fiber (basically chopped coconut shells) which turns out to be an ideal growing medium because it provide support for growing plants, provides sufficient oxygen, drains much more quickly than soil or sand, and is a renewable resource (no guilt throwing this in the trash).

You fill your bowl with this coconut fiber (the two bags they provide are more than sufficient to fill the bowl and have some left over). Prior to using it, you need to soak them in water to hydrate and expand them. This turned out to be a much more difficult exercise that I thought it would because as it turns out, wood floats. So I would follow the instructions and fill the plastic bag the coconut fiber came in with water only, only to see them float on top of the water and pop out. I figured out after a while that I just had to fill the bag halfway, tie the end of bag to seal it, and let the wood soak the water in that way.

Once your wood is soaked the rest of the process is pretty simple. You just pour it into the smaller bowl, and this will be where you plant your plants.

5) You also need to configure the computer for the AeroGrow Ultra. One thing I missed in the instructions is that you first have to set up using "Quick Plant" and choosing the cycle for "Flowers".

Then, you need to go in and modify the behavior of the pump so that every hour it pumps for two minutes and then it goes off for the other 58 minutes.

By setting the Aerogarden this way, your plants essentially get "rewatered" every hour when the water is pumped out of the lower bowl into the upper one. It's a rather clever way of simulating a hydrated fertile piece of ground. If you plant something other than strawberries, you'll need to experiment with different watering cycles--plants that like drier environments like orchids or bonsai may need only 2 minutes a week!

6) The next is planting. Unlike previous Aerogarden sets, you don't get a seed pod with the Strawberry kit, but actual live plants. Or so it's supposed to be. I think because I had my package delivered on a hot summer week using UPS SurePost (when these packages sit in warehouses for days at a time), what I got didn't look a lot like live plants.

Here's what I expected to see, photo courtesy of the Aerogarden Web site:

And here's what I got:

As bad as it looks in the picture, it looked worse in real life. It was just a clump of brown twigs and dirt that looked pretty dry and brittle. I could see that maybe two plants had the slighted hint of green in them, but the others were so dry they practically disintegrated when I touched them. In fact, a few had fuzzy mold growing on them.

The package was supposed to have "ten plants", but for the life of me I had a hard to finding ten after trying to separate the dirt, dried roots, twigs, and dust.

I called AeroGrow and the woman there insisted to me that they were in a "dormant state" and that I should try planting them anyway. After a little bit of back-and-forth, she was kind enough to agree to send me a new set of plants, but I could tell from her voice she was skeptical. She said a new batch was on its way, but why don't I try planting them anyway and seeing what happens?

And so I did. To plant them, you basically have to put them root side down (again, it was a little tough telling which side was the root), push the coconut fiber aside, and basically cover all but a small portion of top of them with the medium.

Here's what they looked like planted.

I'm going to predict that maybe two of them are going to grow, but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts the rest won't. But to Aerogarden's credit, they'll be sending me more plants.

If you're interested in buying your own Aerogarden Strawberry Kit, bear in mind that first you need an Aerogarden ULTRA or ULTRA LED (it won't work with other kinds of Aerogardens, even tall garden ones due to the shape of the bowl and the type of pump).

If you have one of those, all you need to the AeroGarden Site, click on "Seed Kits" in the top navigation (even though these are plants, not seeds), and search for "Aerogarden Grow Bowl and Strawberry Kit" (for the entire kit) or "Strawberry Crown Kit" (for just the plants).


Kenneth Devine said...

Please post a follow-up. Did the plants grow or did you have to replant the replacements? Did you get any strawberries? I would upgrade from my current "7" to an "Ultra" if I saw any evidence or even some positive reviews that mention successfully harvesting strawberries. The whole concept of growing strawberries this way seems pretty sketchy.

Diesel Bio said...

You should have planted the roots and wait a few weeks before calling aerogarden and whining.
She was right, dormance state.

Steve said...

Thanks for the comment, but when you snap the root and your hear a dry cracking sound and dust comes flying out, it's a pretty good sign that your plant has gone to the great beyond--as we confirmed in the next post. But Aerogrow to their credit did come through.