Serious Eats / Irvin Lin
Confession: I do not have a green thumb. Years ago, back when I had a day job, a co-worker shamed me when they found out I didn’t have any plants in my home. So the following weekend, my husband and I went to the local plant shop and told the clerk, “We’d like a plant we can’t kill.” Spoiler alert: it lasted about a month before it died.
But indoor herb gardens are supposed to be foolproof, and if anyone can put that claim to the test, it’s me. Now, I love fresh herbs. However, I rarely use up the entire clamshell or bundle of store-bought herbs before they go bad. Indoor herb gardens offer a solution, allowing you to harvest the herbs you need (and only the amount you need!)—year-round.
To find the best indoor herb gardens, I tested eight of them. I sought out models that grew efficiently but were also customizable and easy to clean and maintain.
The Winners, at a Glance
The AeroGarden Harvest Elite can grow six different plants at once. Set up was easy, and involved literally just popping a pod into the machine and adding water and plant food. The digital screen in front makes it mostly foolproof, telling you how long ago you started your garden as well as when to add more water or plant food. And, unlike other cheaper AeroGarden models, it also gives you a variety of options for different types of plants and a “vacation mode” that uses less water and light when you’re away for extended periods of time.
If you are a budding gardener, but don’t have the outdoor space, or just want to grow specific plants that don’t come pre-packaged in pods, the iDOO Hydroponic System is the indoor garden for you. It was one of the more complicated models we tested, but also the most satisfying, since you can use any seeds. It’s also a great way to germinate and sprout seeds, allowing you to kick-start plants and then move them to a garden or pot.
If you live in a small apartment or by yourself and don’t need an abundance of fresh herbs, the Click & Grow Indoor Herb Garden is the best option. It was easy to use and maintain and had a slim profile, with only three pods.
Serious Eats / Irvin LinHerb Test: We set up each indoor herb garden, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and took note of the difficulty of installing, maintaining, and harvesting herbs. We recorded how long it took for the herbs to grow, as well as how easy it was to add water and/or plant food. We also cleaned each unit after an entire grow cycle was completed.Usability Tests: We evaluated displays, buttons, and how easy it was to know when to water the herbs. We tested any apps that came with units and we researched what sort of additional pods or plants were available for each model.
What We Learned
All of the Herb Gardens Were Easy to Use
The indoor herb gardens we tested were all surprisingly easy to use; they’re the garden equivalent to a Keurig or Nespresso machine, where all you need to do is pop a pod or cartridge into the machine, add water, and plug it in. (Others allow you to add seeds of your choosing.) Some do require a little more work, like adding plant food every two weeks. And, occasionally you need to clean the tank and prune the plants. But the amount of work required is minimal, with some units even alerting you via a flashing button, screen, or mobile app notification when water or plant food is needed.
How Do Indoor Herb Gardens Work?
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin
Indoor herb gardens claim to be foolproof, and they mostly are. But can’t just set up the machine and forget about it. You do need to maintain them, albeit pretty nominally. Most indoor herb gardens work by providing pods with seeds already planted in them.
To use them, place the pods into the machine, cover them with the humidity domes, and then add water to the base. Plug the garden in and it’ll automatically start the growing cycle, with light and water circulation. Some gardens require plant food added to the water at regular intervals (two weeks), while others have the plant food built into the pods themselves. Most machines also have you clean them once a month, otherwise, algae or mold can grow, damaging the plants.
Once the sprouting starts, it’s pretty fun to watch the plants grow. But pruning is important, as faster-growing plants will hog the light. Once you get the hang of things, it’s like you’re actually gardening, albeit in a totally low-key manner without the weeding, bugs, and sweat. The result is fresh herbs or small vegetables (like cherry tomatoes) grown inside with minimal work.
Finding the Right-Sized Garden for Your Home (and One With the Right Features)
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin
Depending on your household, getting a big indoor herb garden might not be the best choice. Larger units like the AeroGarden Bounty Elite and Click & Grow Smart Garden 9 offer numerous pods to grow lots of plants, including small vegetables. The AeroGarden Bounty Elite is the size of a regular toaster oven, taking up even more vertical space when the light is extended fully. The Click & Grow Smart Garden 9 is about twice as large as the Bounty Elite, at two feet wide—the width of the inside of a standard oven. But not everyone needs or wants bountiful amounts of various herbs…nor might they have the space for these behemoth models. For those with compact kitchens, opt for smaller units like the Click & Grow. Its slim, 5-inch profile is thinner than a loaf of grocery store sandwich bread.
As far as features, if you travel a lot, pick a garden like the AeroGarden Harvest Elite which offers a vacation mode that stalls plant growth by limiting water and light exposure. And if you want to plant and grow your own selection of herbs or vegetables, opt for the iDOO so you can grow from your own seeds. (You can also purchase the “Grow Anything” kit for your Aerogarden for this purpose.)
Light Height Was Important
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin
All of the indoor herb gardens had adjustable light arms. This allows you to lower the lights closer to the seeds, which helps them germinate faster. Then, as the plants grow, you can move the lights higher to accommodate them. But some lights start off fairly tall, like on the Veritable, and taller lights meant less intensity and slower growth. The Veritable garden took an extra week to germinate, and the plants took nearly twice as long to grow as tall as other indoor gardens. If you’re impatient, choose an herb garden that has adjustable lights that are set low at first, like the AeroGarden Harvest, Harvest Elite, or Bounty Elite. These had some of the faster-growing plants, like dill and basil, sprouting in less than a week. Otherwise, a little patience will result in growth, regardless of the height of the lights.
No Indoor Herb Garden Was 100%
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin
When we mentioned that the gardens were mostly foolproof, we meant that they were pretty easy to use. But we did experience minor fail rates, mostly due to user error, with a few pods across all the brands. For example, a few plants sprouted but then withered and died because adjacent plants hogged the light.
There could be environmental factors, like placing the unit too close to an open window or a hot environment like the stove or oven. Some brands, like Aerogarden and Click & Grow, have a guarantee that their pre-seeded pods will grow. If they don’t, you can contact their product support, send a picture of the pod that hasn’t sprouted, and they will send you a replacement.
The Criteria: What to Look for in an Indoor Herb Garden
Serious Eats / Irvin Lin
The best indoor herb gardens sprout and grow quickly and are relatively easy to use. It’s also nice if they tell you when to prune and where to place herbs for best success (i.e. fast-growing herbs shouldn’t be right next to each other or they’ll block the light). Depending on what you’re looking for, consider the herb garden’s features, like whether you want to plant any seeds or desire a vacation mode. The herb gardens should also be easy to clean.
The Best Indoor Herb Gardens
What we liked: We tested four Aerogardens and found the Harvest Elite was somewhere in the middle of the pack: medium in size with space for six plants, which is ideal for most folks, giving you a variety of herbs without creating a veritable jungle.
Like the other AeroGarden models, the Elite’s setup was easy (involving just dropping the provided pods into the opening and adding water and plant food). Unlike some of the cheaper models though, there is a digital screen. Once you plug it in you have to set the clock and choose the mode you want. The digital screen tells you when you needed to add water or plant food, as well as how long it has been since you started the garden. Once a month you need to clean out the bottom water well, to make sure no algae or other undesirable growth is happening in there. However, this is easy, as the top of the unit comes off, allowing you to empty and wipe out the inside.
The digital screen also allows you to access modes for various lighting cycles. Growing different plants like flowers, vegetables, salads, and herbs all require varying amounts of light. You can also set a custom mode, which allows you to turn the lights on and off whenever you want. We found one of the more useful modes to be the vacation mode, which uses less water and only turns the light on for shorter periods of time, so the plants don’t grow as fast when you’re gone.
What we didn’t like: While we found the setup to be easy, there was very little documentation or instructions that came with the garden. Thankfully there are plenty of YouTube videos and blogs that show you how to use the Harvest Elite and its various settings. It’s also the most expensive of our winners.
Price at time of publish: $159.
Dimensions: 10.5 x 6.125 x 11 inchesComes with: Pod garden unit with LED grow lights, 6 pod seed kit, grow domes, plant food, power adapterNumber of pods: 6Warranty: 1-year limitedGood to know: Guaranteed to germinate; will replace pods if they do notSerious Eats / Irvin Lin
What we liked: The iDOO Hydroponics Growing System is different from other gardens in that the pods do not have any seeds in them. Instead, you have to separately purchase seeds and “plant” them in the pods, allowing you to grow whatever you want. Planting involves adding the seeds to the hole in the middle of the sponge and might require a tiny spoon or tweezers as herb seeds can be pretty small (think the size of a poppy seed).
The unit has adjustable, LED lights and a fan (to aid in pollination, if needed). Cleaning the machine was fairly easy as well, with a drain hole in the back of the unit that allows you to easily empty the water.
In short: the iDOO is a great option for those who want to be a little more involved or like to pick the plants they want to purchase (as opposed to buying the pre-seeded pods other brands offer).
What we didn’t like: The iDOO was the hardest indoor herb garden to set up. It’s also fairly wide.
Price at time of publish: $70.
Dimensions: 13.5 x 10.25 x 10 inchesComes with: Pod garden with LED grow lights, plastic pods and grow sponges, grow domes, 2 bottles of plant food, power adapterNumber of pods: 12Warranty: 1-yearGood to know: No guarantee about germinating or sproutingSerious Eats / Irvin Lin
What we liked: The Click & Grow Indoor Herb Garden is a slim and modern-looking machine that takes up very little countertop real estate. It has spots for three pods and an adjustable light that comes with two extra “arms” that extend the light higher up as the plants grow. It was the easiest unit to use, requiring just the addition of the pods and water and plugging it in. There’s no need to add plant food (it’s in the pod soil) nor does it have any buttons at all. The minute you plug it in, the Click & Grow is set to turn on for 18 hours and then turn off for six hours, cycling this way until you unplug it.
Clean-up is practically unnecessary as well. Roots stay within the pod, and do not grow into the water. Instead, the pods have a paper stem wick that sucks up water via the capillary effect, keeping the bottom water well clean and self-watering the seeds and soil. The space where you add water has a floating bobble that lowers as the water is sucked up into the pods and plants, so you know to add water when the bobble is depressed. Otherwise, you just wait until the plants start to grow and then harvest as needed.
What we didn’t like: Because the arms are set heights (and not variable like other machines) at two inches, seven inches, and 12 inches, and there are only three spots for the lights over each pod, the plants do grow a little slower than other machines (the further away the light, the less growth).
Price at time of publish: $75.
Dimensions: 12 x 4.75 x 9 inchesComes with: Pod garden with LED grow lights, 3 pod seed kit, grow domes, power adapter, 2 additional arm extensions for lights (adding 5 inches per leg)Number of pods: 3Warranty: 2-yearGood to know: Guaranteed to germinate; will replace pods if they do notSerious Eats / Irvin Lin
Veritable Smart Artic White Indoor Vegetable Garden: The Veritable Smart Indoor Vegetable garden was similar to the Click & Grow with a modern design and a bobble that lowers as the water is sucked up. But the light is initially set relatively high from the plants and that means the plants germinate and grow very slowly. Worse was some of the seeds never germinated, even after 45 days.AeroGarden Harvest: AeroGarden Harvest is a slightly cheaper model of the Harvest Elite without a digital display. It’s a good indoor garden but the digital display on the Harvest Elite allows for more customized light modes and a vacation mode, as well as conveniently tells you how long you have been growing your plants and when to feed or water them, making it a superior indoor garden.AeroGarden Bounty Elite: The Bounty Elite is a much larger indoor garden, capable of growing nine different plants, with a large color digital display with all the capabilities of the Harvest Elite as well as an app that reminds you when to add water or plant food, as well as gives you tips on your garden. It’s a great garden for those folks who have space and want to grow many plants, but the price is significantly higher than the Harvest Elite.AeroGarden Sprout: This small three-plant Aerogarden works fine but felt and looked a bit cheap, with the entire unit made of thick plastic. Click & Grow Smart Garden 9: This nine-unit garden was the largest indoor garden tested. It performed well but the machine felt really, really large, taking up a lot of space.
How much light does an indoor herb garden need?
All of the indoor herb gardens tested have built-in lights so there is no need for additional lighting. Some indoor herb gardens have specific-colored lights, which are designed to help with plant growth.
How do you start an indoor herb garden?
Each indoor herb garden is different, but most of them have minimal setup. Typically, they require you to assemble the machine, add the pods into the slots, add water, and plug it in. Some require adding plant food. However, that’s really it.
Where can you buy indoor herb garden pods?
You can buy indoor herb garden pods online or at a local hardware store.