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.

Most Aerogardens that have three lights except for the Ultra, including the original Aerogarden Extra (not the "Miracle Gro" branded 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).

Aerogarden Light 100633

All other Aerogardens, including the AeroGarden 3, AeroGarden 6 (a.k.a. Space Saver and Space Saver Elite), AeroGarden 7 (a.k.a. Classic), AeroGarden Ultra, and new Miracle-Gro-branded 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).

Aerogarden Light 1000629 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 sellers selling them for about $10-14 each; the price has gone up a little since I first wrote this post, but it's still a bargain considering the savings you'll get over time. 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. The seller I used, whom I was very happy with, doesn't seem to carry them anymore, but there are certainly plenty of others that do. Just make sure you're buying the adapter that lets you use regular light bulbs in the Aerogarden, not the adapter that lets you use Aerogarden bulbs in a regular light socket.

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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