Best Countertop Indoor Gardens

Green thumb or all thumbs? With proper care, these self-contained hydroponic gardens from AeroGarden, Click and Grow, Rise Gardens, and SereneLife let you grow (a bit of) your own food—without an outdoor plot.

By Tobie Stanger

A countertop garden promises the farm without the fuss.

Using water and strong artificial light, these units let you grow food or flowers from seeds inside your home, in a footprint about as small as that of a toaster. At their best, they offer fast growth and gratification year-round—without the dirt, fickle weather, and critters of traditional gardening.

Tantalized by the vision of lush greens and herbs flourishing on my kitchen counter, I volunteered to try out four countertop gardens in my home. With these units, I hoped I could provide fresh, healthy food for myself and my family without having to go to a store. Besides, they looked cool. I knew my husband would never go for a living wall in my house; this was the next best thing in eco-décor.

I decided to try the following indoor gardens. But little did I know of the learning curve ahead.

How Indoor Gardens Work

Indoor gardens often utilize hydroponic technology.

Hydroponic growing involves four elements: light, seeds, oxygen, and water—the “hydro” part. Energy-saving LED lights, some mimicking the spectra of sunlight, are suspended above an array of little containers holding a growing medium that contains seeds. (In our plug-and-play units, that medium typically included peat moss and coir—coconut husk—in some cases combined with polyurethane sponge.)

There’s no soil involved; a tank of water moistens the growing medium to trigger germination, then delivers nutrients (more on that below) to the roots as they grow. Typically a pump circulates the water to allow for aeration, and to prevent algae growth and root diseases.

The system is ideal for growing greens and flowers in small spaces, and it actually conserves water. Because the water is recirculated, you end up using as little as a tenth of what you’d use to water an outside plot.

And because the plants get their nutrients through the water—an efficient form of delivery—they don’t need to expend energy extending their roots into soil. Instead, they can use that energy to quickly grow leaves, flowers, and fruit—aided by 15 to 16 hours of strong light that’s never obscured by clouds or shade.

“Hydroponically grown food is the ultimate in locally grown food,” says Neil Mattson, PhD, professor and greenhouse extension specialist at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “It’s only you handling the crops, so you know it’s free of pesticides and food-borne pathogens. It’s also really fresh.”

Plus, growing your own means your food doesn’t degrade while shipping. “It also might encourage someone who doesn’t like to eat vegetables—like my kids—to eat them because you can include them in the growing process,” Mattson says.

While the concept is simple, hydroponic gardening is not effort-free—as I found out in the course of my review. I had to make adjustments over time, including adding water and sometimes nutrients, refreshing the water, cleaning elements of the growing unit and, of course, harvesting.

I also found that I had to adjust my expectations. If I wanted to keep the plants growing in an individual garden and not harvest them all at once, I couldn’t take more than a handful of greens each day. It was enough to embellish a salad, not to fill a whole bowl.

Four DIY Indoor Gardens Reviewed

The four indoor gardens I tried at home were designed to get you up and growing quickly on a countertop, a table, or any place that won’t get disturbed by kids, pets, or a vacuum cleaner. I went with basic units from AeroGarden, Click and Grow, Rise Gardens, and SereneLife, all highly searched brands.

Each kit provides built-in LED grow lights and a refillable water tank, as well as a rack to hold pods filled with “growing media”—the Keurig K-Cups of the gardening world.

Two of the models—the SereneLife SLGLF130 and The Smart Garden 3—impregnate their growing media with nutrients; the other two require you to add nutrients to the water periodically. With the exception of SereneLife, each brand also prefills its starter kit pods with seeds; you can order seed-pod refills, either as needed or as part of a subscription.

Internally, the AeroGarden and Personal Rise Garden have little pumps that keep the water circulating for better root aeration. Click and Grow says it has no pump because it’s not technically hydroponic; rather, it uses “capillary precision irrigation,” in which the special “smart soil” in its seed pods does the work of balancing the levels of water and nutrients that the plants receive. All but the tallish Personal Rise Garden let you adjust the overhead LED lights as your crop grows.

All are characterized as smart gardens, though the meaning of “smart” varies. SereneLife uses the term to refer to the growing medium in its seed pods and to the timer you set manually to turn the lights on and off. Rise and Click and Grow offer apps that remind you of needed plant maintenance, and offer information about the plants you’re growing. However, only the Rise garden setup instructions mentioned the app, so it was the only app I used.

The seeds provided by these starter kits aren’t identical, so I didn’t compare how big the plants got, or how good the grown greens tasted. Having grown spindly tomato plants from seeds on my windowsill the year before, I was looking for more success and more simplicity. So I focused on ease of setup, operation, and maintenance; responsive and knowledgeable customer support; useful apps, growing guides, online communities, and other resources; and low cost.

How I Evaluated Indoor Gardens

I assembled the systems and set them up in a darkened bedroom, where they’d get the light only from their own sources—and would be protected from three curious cats.

Each of the gardens requires its LED lights to be on for a minimum number of hours each day; it’s up to you to decide on that schedule and program it into the unit. Because the AeroGarden needed 15 hours of light and the others needed 16, I separated it from the other units with a blackout curtain so that each model got the prescribed amount of light.

I set the room temperature at 68° F, in line with the manufacturers’ recommendations, and downloaded their associated apps. Then I followed the care instructions as best I could for the next five weeks.

Beginning gardeners can benefit from support, so I checked out the various community and support resources offered for each brand, including Facebook communities, chat, how-to videos, and growing advice. (The AeroGarden Enthusiasts Facebook page appears to be the only one not sponsored by the company.)

At some point during my experiment, I emailed each of the companies with a technical or product question. All got back to me within a few days, a good sign in an era of tepid customer support.

Even with that support, I made mistakes. That leads to my major takeaway about these indoor gardens: If you’re a beginner in hydroponic growing, start with a unit that’s plug-and-play. Save the complex science experiments for when you’ve had a few growing cycles under your belt.

Editor’s Choice: AeroGarden Harvest 360

The AeroGarden Harvest 360's setup and maintenance were a breeze. Its quick yield was satisfying.

Photo: Aerogarden, Tobie Stanger/Consumer Reports

Price: From $130. Additional seed-pod six-packs start at $16 (before discount coupons).
Where to buy: AeroGarden, Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, and Kohl’s.
What’s included: Tank, height-adjustable lights, set of six seed pods (mine were lettuces), one bottle of liquid nutrients, and power cord adapter.
What it grows: In addition to supplied seed pods, you can choose from among 70-plus varieties of herbs, greens, flowers, and vegetables (mini cherry tomatoes and peppers).
What we like: Simple setup, relatively easy maintenance, and active user community.
What we don’t like: Crowded design means plants don’t grow equally well.

The circular AeroGarden Harvest 360, among the smallest AeroGarden models, includes six ports for seed pods. The starter kit provided various lettuces. Of the four gardens, the AeroGarden was the most fun to use—in part because most of the lettuces sprouted in a week and grew fast. But the unit also was relatively easy to operate. Total setup took just 8 minutes.

After that, two flashing lights at its base told me when to refill the tank with water and add nutrients (a couple of capfuls of a solution formulated by Miracle-Gro). Once the lettuces were mature, I was able to harvest a handful of leaves every day—not enough for a full salad, but enough to stuff into a sandwich or add some freshness to store-bought greens.

The one nuisance was emptying the tank of water every couple of weeks and adding fresh tap water. I used a turkey baster for the job. AeroGarden sells a dedicated siphon for about $15; the AeroGarden Facebook community suggested some other, low-cost solutions.

That AeroGarden community, in fact, was a font of information. When I discovered aphids on my lettuce plants, my cry for help generated a lively conversation and dozens of recommendations. (I ended up harvesting all the plants, and rinsing and eating them.)

AeroGarden provides how-to videos, various guides, live chat, and a newsletter among its online resources; independent reviewers have created additional how-to’s for this popular brand. The AeroGarden app offers maintenance reminders for some models, but not for the AeroGarden Harvest 360.

AeroGarden has a 1-year limited warranty on the materials and workmanship of its machine and grow lights, and guarantees it will replace a nongerminating seed pod. I took advantage of that last promise.

When one of my lettuces failed to germinate, the company sent a new seed pod within a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, under the shadow of the other plants, it didn’t thrive. I would have done better holding on to it and using it after the other plants finished their growing cycle.

AeroGarden sells more than 120 seed pod kits, holding three, six, nine, or 12 pods each. Prices range from $14 for a three-pod to $31 for a 12-pod (without coupons applied). You can also buy pods with only growing medium, if you want to use your own seeds.

Best for Novices: Click and Grow The Smart Garden 3

Click and Grow The Smart Garden 3 was easy to use. But you can grow only three plants at a time.

Photo: Rise, Tobie Stanger/Consumer Reports

Price: $140. Additional seed-pod three-packs start at $10. Seed-pod subscriptions start at $4.50 per month.
Where to buy: Click and Grow, Nordstrom, and Walmart.
What’s included: Tank with internal pump, height-adjustable lights, and set of three basil seed pods infused with nutrients.
What it grows: In addition to supplied seed pods, you can choose from among 75-plus varieties of herbs, greens, flowers, vegetables (mini tomatoes, peas, peppers), and fruit (wild strawberry).
What we like: Easiest setup and maintenance.
What we don’t like: Small yield; you’re growing only three plants at a time.

Click and Grow The Smart Garden 3 is perfect for horticultural newbies, chefs who want herbs or a few greens close at hand, and families ready for kid-friendly lessons in horticulture.

Just a foot long and 5 inches deep, The Smart Garden 3 could fit on many a kitchen counter and even on some wide windowsills (when the adjustable lights are at their highest, it’s 19 inches tall).

It took under 5 minutes to read the instructions, set it up, and fill The Smart Garden 3 tank with water. The included pods were seeded with basil, and the plants were bushy and ready to harvest after five weeks. The only maintenance required was refilling the water tank and adjusting the light height as the plants grew.

Customer service got back to me the same day when I emailed an inquiry about tips on garden placement and setting the light timer. But with just three holes for seed pods, The Smart Garden 3’s potential yield was small. It was enough to provide a handful of leaves every few days to flavor a sauce; at their full height, I would have had to harvest all the basil plants to provide the two packed cups needed for a cup of pesto.

Click and Grow has a Facebook community; because the setup and follow-through was so simple, I didn’t use it for advice. I also didn’t take advantage of the app, which Click and Grow says provides timed advice on plant care, visual guides, and video tutorials, among other benefits.

A seed-pod subscription, which delivers seed pods of your choice every two, three, or four months, starts at $4.50 per month; if you get the minimum of two three-pod sets every four months, that works out to $3 per pod. Click and Grow says all its products are covered by a 1-year warranty, which starts “automatically from the moment of receiving the product,” according to its website.

For the Serious Gardener: Personal Rise Garden

Personal Rise Garden's manual wasn't entirely clear, contributing to errors along the way.

Photo: Rise, Tobie Stanger/Consumer Reports

Price: From $250. Additional seed pods start at $10 for a four-pack. Subscriptions available for nutrients only.
Where to buy: Amazon and RiseGardens.
What’s included: Tank with installable pump, stationary lights, seed pods (four lettuce types and four herb types), starter bottles of nutrients and pH balance solution, and litmus strip.
What it grows: In addition to supplied seed pods, Rise offers 59 varieties of herbs, greens, microgreens, flowers, and vegetables (beet, celery, hot pepper, mini tomatoes, radish) for this model.
What we like: Room to grow more plants, wider selection of available vegetable seeds, huge trove of info and advice, responsive customer support, and active user community.
What we don’t like: Overly complicated setup and maintenance. Instruction booklet can be confusing.

The Personal Rise Garden is a commitment to hydroponic gardening, not a flirtation. Getting the most from this 12-pod unit required more effort and thought than the other units I tried. For example, it’s the only indoor garden that supplied litmus strips to test the pH of the water, a solution to correct pH imbalances, and two vials of nutrients for different plant growth stages.

The 29-page hard-copy manual reads like a middle-school science text, including explanations of the impact of water quality on hydroponics (distilled water: great; softened water: really bad), and how different light intensities and durations affect plant growth.

But the manual isn’t clear on some basics. That tripped me up. The text doesn’t specify, for instance, that the tiny pinholes in the seed pods’ foil tops need to be enlarged so that the seedlings can emerge.

Being a word person, I ignored small drawings beside the text showing a finger poking a hole in the pod top. As a result, most of my plants failed to thrive. So I removed the stunted seedlings, cleaned out the unit, and started over with free replacement pods that Rise Gardens customer service provided.

I also got confused about when to use the Rise “nursery,” a little plastic trough that’s not included on the “What’s in my box?” instruction page, nor in another page calling out all the parts, and only mentioned in passing in the setup instructions. But whatever. Once I got new seeds, they began to grow.

Soon after, the Rise app told me that the tank’s water was low—a state it assumes when the pump stops operating. But the tank was full. After phoning customer service and checking the Rise site, I determined that the pump had been broken—perhaps when I cleaned the unit.

Referring to a Rise tutorial, I tried to fix the pump, unsuccessfully. I then partially emptied the tank and added new water and nutrients, a more primitive method recommended by Rise. I could have requested a new pump, but I chose not to because of time constraints. (Rise Gardens has a 3-year warranty for hardware components and a 1-year warranty on electronic components against defects in workmanship.)

These snafus—some caused by me—made my experience with Personal Rise Garden less than optimal. Still, you might want to try it if you have a real interest in hydroponics—and patience. With 12 holes in which to place seed pods, the Personal Rise Garden offers the potential to grow more plants at once than the other gardens I tried—though the spacing it recommends for some plants means some holes go unused.

It also offers seed pods for more vegetable types, as well as empty pods so that you can use your own seeds. (Rise sells more than 70 seed pod varieties, though some are meant for units that are taller than the Personal Garden.) The Rise Gardens Facebook community is also large and active, and users share photos and support. The app and website also include lots of advice and information.

Bargain Play: SereneLife SLGLF130 Smart Indoor Garden

Just two plants grew in the SereneLife SLGLF130. An unclear manual—and maybe overfilling—didn't help.

Photo: SereneLife, Tobie Stanger/Consumer Reports

Price: $94
Where to buy: Amazon, Home Depot, and Wayfair.
What’s included: Tank with height-adjustable lights (no pump), six empty seed pods infused with nutrients, and tweezers to plant your own seeds.
What it grows: You supply your own. Recommended choices are herbs, such as basil, parsley, thyme, and mint; small vegetable plants, like lettuce and poblano peppers; and flowers such as petunia, lavender, dianthus, coreopsis, gazania, and phlox.
What we like: Easy setup and responsive customer support.
What we don’t like: No starter seeds supplied and little gardening advice.

SereneLife SLGLF130 Smart Indoor Garden is the only countertop garden in I tried that doesn’t include seeds in its spongy pods. I found that to be a negative, though some might like the flexibility.

Like Click and Grow, SereneLife doesn’t have a pump or require users to add nutrients; rather, the “smart soil” in its “nutritive plant sponges” includes 1 to 2 grams of Osmocote Controlled Release Fertilizer to do the job for you.

Setup was simple, taking about 16 minutes. The 12-page instruction booklet explains how to plant the seeds in the seed pods. The instructions mention a few suitable types of seeds to use. (I planted cilantro and basil.)

The lights offer three levels of brightness, but the instructions don’t explain when to use which type. When I emailed customer service about this, I got this answer five days later: “For newly planted seeds, use 100 percent brightness and gradually increase the brightness as the plant matures.” (The service rep amended this comment after I questioned it.)

I didn’t take advantage of SereneLife’s 1-year warranty, which is offered to customers who review the unit on Amazon. SereneLife says it also sends reviewers a free 10-pack of its pods, which it calls “nutritive plant sponges.”

The yield was disappointing. Just two of the six seeded pods sprouted. It could be that I overfilled the tank, drowning the new seedlings. It may have been my error, but the user manual might be more useful without this watering instruction: “When plants have more leaves and they will need more water, then add water below Min. water level but do not add too much water into the tank which exceeds the Max. water level mark on the indicator or higher than the Min. water level, both will hurt the plants’ growth.”

The sentence that followed would have sufficed: “Keep water level between the Min. and Max. Mark (blue area) is always a good choice.” 

Still, the lack of a Facebook community and other support resources don’t make SereneLife Smart Indoor Garden a great choice for a beginner. If you know what you’re doing already and want to use your own seeds, however, this lower-cost model could be worthwhile.

How to Begin Gardening Indoors

For the money, AeroGarden Harvest 360 offers a fairly trouble-free entry into countertop indoor gardening, with plenty of resources to sustain you.

Click and Grow is another good beginner’s alternative, though it yields less. That said, if you spend any time on the AeroGarden or Rise Gardens Facebook community, you’ll see posts from commenters using multiple units of one brand or using models from different brands. So if you’ve mastered the basics and are looking for a higher yield, consider the Rise Gardens; the higher lamps could make growing better for some types of plants. Or get a second of the other two units, which will end up costing about the same as one Personal Rise Garden.

And before you embark on your green journey, consider these tips.

Choose first plants that reward fast. If you have a choice of seeds to start with, choose basil or leafy greens like lettuce, which grow fast. I found that they delivered more instant gratification than other plant types.

Economize with herbs. Once you’re more experienced, consider using your indoor garden to grow herbs only. You’ll get a bigger bang for your buck. Ounce for ounce, fresh herbs cost more at the store than, say, a head of organic lettuce.

Locate your unit properly. Put it where you won’t mind having strong light all day long. (AeroGarden, for one, warns against putting units in closets.) Place the garden where you’ll be able to view it regularly. I didn’t, which means I didn’t always check the water levels daily.

Take advantage of customer service. All four of the companies responded within a few days to my emailed queries.

Join an online community. AeroGarden, Click and Grow, and Rise Gardens all have them. You’ll learn a lot from the members, and can get good feedback on questions. For instance, I learned through the AeroGarden Enthusiasts group that, while some plants are spent after three or four months—meaning it’s best to harvest them and start over with a new pod—others, like spearmint and Thai chili peppers, can last for more than a year. Another tip: You can buy low-cost, off-brand “grow sponges” to replace spent AeroGarden ones.

Follow transplantation rules. If you want to use one of these gardens to jump-start seedlings for outdoor planting, check online or in the manual for instructions on “hardening”—that is, accustoming your plants to fluctuating outdoor temperatures and natural light. As bright as hydroponic LED lights seem, sunlight is five times brighter, Cornell University’s Mattson says. That means you should place your little plants in natural shade initially, weaning it over a week to part-shade and then sun.

This product evaluation is part of Consumer Reports’ Outside the Labs reviews program, which is separate from our laboratory testing and ratings. Our Outside the Labs reviews are performed at home and in other native settings by individuals, including our journalists, with specialized subject matter experience or familiarity and are designed to offer another important perspective for consumers as they shop. While the products or services mentioned in this article might not currently be in CR’s ratings, they could eventually be tested in our laboratories and rated according to an objective, scientific protocol.

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