Last Updated on July 18, 2021
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EDITOR’S NOTE: See the end of this post for updates about accessories we purchased to go with this garden and how things are growing so far.
When I was in high school, my family went on a vacation at Disney World. I remember being impressed and intrigued by the giant greenhouse at Epcot that features cutting-edge gardening methods, including hydroponics. Hydroponics is a form of gardening that doesn’t involve soil. Instead, plant roots are bathed in water (often with liquid nutrients or fertilizer).
This spring, Aldi decided to dip its toe into the world of hydroponics with a smart indoor garden. I eagerly awaited the day this garden would hit store shelves, and I was fortunate to be able to find one in my local store. This is the first time I’ve seen Aldi sell anything like this.
The Ambiano Smart Indoor Garden cost $39.99 at the time of publication. That’s a bargain compared to most other indoor garden systems I’ve seen, with a few in the $50 range but with most running you $100 or more.
I’m new to hydroponic gardening and will be figuring this out as I go, but to get started, this set includes the garden device itself along with four grow baskets, a power adapter, an instruction manual, and a three-year warranty card.
The garden’s features include:
- A cyclical 12-hour timer to control the included LED lighting
- A time-controlled watering system
- A water level indicator
- Four grow baskets for use with standard grow sponges or seed pods with a maximum diameter of 1 inch (Important: grow sponges or seed pods not included)
The package indicates this garden can grow kitchen herbs or small ornamentals. The manual includes a chart listing several common herbs and their sprouting and maturation times, with a recommendation that you choose plants with similar growing times for best results. I probably plan to grow basil and cilantro/coriander in my garden, and other options include parsley, mint, chives, thyme, rosemary, and chili.
The garden comes mostly assembled straight out of the box. All you have to do is lift the grow basket holder to remove the power adapter and grow baskets.
Then plug the power adapter into the back of the garden, and replace the grow basket holder and drop the grow baskets into the holder.
Besides seeds or plants, one key component is missing from this garden, and you’ll have to make a separate purchase. It does not come with grow sponges or seed pods. I’d love to be able to run out to my local garden center or hardware store today to pick up some and get started. However, it looks like these are not on the shelves at my local Home Depot and Menards stores, although I can order them from those retailers. I’ll probably order some from Amazon.
Upon the recommendation of an Aldi Reviewer reader, I may also order some liquid fertilizer and some grow domes (small caps that go on top of the grow baskets and help retain moisture after first planting seeds).
I’ll probably purchase these all under the Aerogarden brand name, as that appears to be one of the most common names in the market for indoor gardening systems. Hopefully their grow sponges (made with peat moss) will fit the Aldi garden’s grow baskets.
You have several choices to get you started.
- You can simply buy just grow sponges. Amazon sells Aerogarden and other brands of sponges in bulk packs of 25-100 starting around $10-$15. I think I saw some packages that contain grow sponges and fertilizer as well.
- Aerogarden also has seed pod kits that include grow sponges, grow baskets (the Aldi garden already has grow baskets, though), specific seeds, grow domes, and fertilizer. Seed choices range from various gourmet herbs to Italian herbs and more.
- Or if you want to use your own seeds Aerogarden also makes a Grow Anything kit that includes everything except the seeds.
Depending on what products you buy and in what quantities, these additional supplies will generally set you back at least $15.
Once I get some seeds and my grow sponges and any other accessories arrive in the mail, I’ll be able to truly get started.
Operating the Garden
In the meantime, I filled this Aldi garden with water and put it through the paces. The water tank has a window in the back that shows minimum and maximum water levels required for operation. You don’t want to let the water level fall below the minimum water mark or the pump may be damaged. The tank also has a window in the front to allow you to view plant roots as they grow, which I think is cool.
It goes without saying that you’ll want to be careful using this garden because it uses both water and electricity, and the manual offers plenty of safety warnings upfront.
Once you plug the garden in, water will start to circulate through the grow baskets. This feature runs for 5 minutes, then pauses for 55 minutes, and then repeats the cycle as long as the unit is plugged in. I’ve been letting it run, minus the plants/seeds, to see if it works as advertised, and so far so good.
To operate the light, give the light switch button on top of the garden a gentle tap. Touching the light switch starts an internal timer, and the light will run for 12 hours, then shut off for 12 hours, and repeat. Each time the power is disconnected, the internal timer will reset.
When you first plant seeds in this garden, the manual recommends lowering the light unit all the way down until a gap of only about 0.6 of an inch remains open. As your plants grow, adjust the height of the light unit. You don’t want your plants to touch the light.
To refill the water tank, pull off the little rubber stopper on top of the grow basket holder and pour your desired amount of water in, and then replace the stopper.
Occasionally you’ll want to take apart the garden to clean it and remove dirt buildup or algae growth, including from inside the tank and around the water pump. The manual has instructions for doing that, but clearly I’m not ready for that just yet.
I’ll update this post after my grow sponges and other accessories are delivered in the mail, so check back later for more information about how this garden works.
UPDATE (5/13/2021): I bought an Aerogarden seed pod kit for about $15 on Amazon that includes a variety of pre-seeded grow sponges, additional grow baskets, grow domes, and liquid fertilizer to go with the Aldi garden. There were several types of seed options and I went with the kit for gourmet herbs, including basil, thyme, chives, mint, dill, etc.
The grow sponges and grow baskets are not the exact same dimensions between the Aldi and Aerogarden brands, but with a little jimmying I think I made it work.
The Aerogarden grow baskets and grow sponges are taller/longer than the Aldi grow baskets.
If you try putting the Aerogarden grow sponges in the Aldi grow baskets, the sponges stick out of the top farther than I prefer. I ended up using the Aerogarden grow baskets in the Ambiano garden and storing the grow baskets that originally came with it.
The Aerogarden grow baskets don’t sit as low in the holes in the Aldi garden, but I think they’re low enough that I won’t have problems. I had to turn and reposition a few of the Aerogarden baskets to keep them from bobbing up and out of place in the garden unit, but I eventually got them into positions that seem to work. The grow domes don’t fit tightly on top, but I think that’s just how they are and it’s not because they’re made for a different brand of hydroponic garden.
The herb seed packets I had around the house were older, which is why I went with a kit that included seeds, but in the future, I’ll probably purchase the grow sponges that do not already contain seeds, so I can add my own seeds. I might also use the Aldi grow baskets in the future because they naturally fit the unit better, but I would experiment with trimming the grow sponges I purchase to better fit the shorter Aldi grow baskets.
Mechanically/technically, the garden seems to be working as it should, and now I’m just waiting for the seeds to sprout. I’ll update later with additional progress.
UPDATE (5/25/2021): I planted seeds/grow sponges on May 13th, 2021, and here’s what they look like after not quite two weeks.
The dill and Thai basil are growing great.
The chives and mint are coming along more slowly, but they’re growing. I wasn’t sure if the chives would sprout because that grow sponge developed fuzzy mold (I eventually took off the plastic grow dome to see if that would help), but there is one small sprout growing.
I’ve had to raise the light by a good amount, and at the rate the basil and dill are growing, I anticipate some small herb harvests soon.
One other observation is that the LED light timer doesn’t seem to be on an exact 12-hour cycle. Maybe more like 12 hours and 15 minutes. As a result, the light cycle timing changes slightly each day. It’s not a big problem to me, though, and when it gets off by too much I turn off the light manually by tapping it, and I turn it back on when I want to restart the light cycle.
UPDATE (6/29/2021) — The garden is growing great at this point. The basil and dill grow quickly, and I’ve had to prune and harvest them more times than I can count to keep them from overtaking the LED light, but that’s great if you want lots of fresh herbs to cook with. The mint and chives grow more slowly and less abundantly, and that may be partly due to the fact that I’ve had to move the light up farther away from them because their neighboring plants are such vigorous growers.
My only real challenge now is keeping the water tank full. With larger plants growing in the garden, they tend to be water hogs and I have to refill the tank every two or three days max. There have been a couple of times when I wasn’t paying close attention and the water line got below the minimum level, which can be bad for the pump. If you plan to go out of town for more than two or three nights and you have larger water-sucking plants, I recommend leaving this garden with a friend who can keep the water tank full and share in the harvest.
UPDATE (7/18/2021) — My basil and dill have been growing so vigorously and are such water hogs that I left my garden at a friend’s house so she could keep the water tank filled while I was on vacation for a couple of weeks. By the time I returned and picked up my garden, my friend was adding water to the tank twice a day.
I decided to experiment with gently pulling the basil and dill out of the smart garden and planting them in pots on my patio. The dill came out pretty easy, but the basil had such an extensive root system and the grow hole is so small that it lost a lot of its root system when I removed it from the smart garden; it has enough remaining roots that I think it will be fine.
I planted the dill and basil with the plastic grow baskets because there’s no way to separate those from the live plants at this point. I’ll disentangle the grow baskets in the fall after the plants die off.
While I was clearing the dill and basil roots out of the smart garden, I gained access to wipe some green algae growth off the front display window and the rear water level indicator window. Now I just have mint and chives growing in the smart garden, and I think they’re on the small side because I kept having to move the light farther away from them because their dill and basil neighbors grew so quickly. I have several more pods with seeds and grow sponges from Aerogarden, so I might try planting some new things, or I might simply let the mint and chives grow on their own for a while.
The Ambiano Smart Indoor Garden is an opportunity to try your hand at growing herbs or small ornamentals using a hydroponic method, which primarily uses water instead of traditional soil as a growing medium. Before you can get started, you’ll need to purchase extra supplies such as seeds and grow sponges, and possibly grow domes and/or liquid fertilizer. If you’re lucky, you might find these things in your local garden center, but I ordered them via Amazon. Our garden has done well and yielded plentiful harvests of herbs.