If you want fresh veggies and herbs for your meals without those last-minute supermarket runs, an indoor gardening system can be a fairly painless and straightforward option. Many also come with built-in gardening essentials like grow lights, self-watering containers and auto-timers.
“There is nothing quite so exciting as seeing seeds start to sprout in your indoor garden and then watching them grow into plants and produce edible fruits and veggies,” says Julie Bawden-Davis, a professional gardener and founder of Healthy Houseplants.
We consulted with experts to learn more about the basics of indoor gardening and what to look for when choosing the right system for your space.
How we picked the best indoor gardening systems
When compiling the best options to shop, we considered the following factors based on our gardening experts’ guidance:
- Type of growing system: There are four main types: hydroponics, soil-based, aquaponics and aeroponics, and they all involve different methods to help plants grow. Some require more maintenance than others (we expand on this below).
- Lighting: Most indoor gardening systems come with full-spectrum LED lights that simulate daylight and lead to plant growth, according to our experts. Some kits will have these lights built-in, and with others you’ll need to purchase them separately.
- Growth capacity: Stick with a size that fits your indoor space and expertise level — some systems are portable and compact, while others take up a few square feet in your home.
- Maintenance: Keep in mind features like timed LED lights, self-watering functionality and app-controlled settings, which make your garden easier to care for.
The best indoor gardening systems
Based on our experts’ guidance, all of the following systems use one of the four main growing systems (hydroponics, soil-based, aquaponics and aeroponics). Additionally, all of them either come with built-in grow lights — which our experts strongly recommend — or the ability to purchase them separately through the brand.
“In my opinion, Aerogarden has the most advanced technology, especially in the area of lighting and hydroponics,” says Bawden-Davis. The Harvest Elite can grow fresh herbs and vegetables during any season without direct sunlight, according to the brand. It includes a stainless steel base and comes with high-performance LED grow lights that automatically turn on and off via a customizable timer. Plus, it has a digital display that automatically reminds you when to add water and plant food, as detailed on the brand’s website. The seed kit includes multiple cooking herbs — Select reporter Harry Rabinowitz has been growing his for over 30 days, and now has “a thriving garden of dill, basil and thyme.”
Growing system: Hydroponic | Growing options: Herbs and microgreens | Capacity: Up to 6 plants | LED grow lights: Included
This system comes with an automatic self-watering planter and built-in LED, energy-efficient grow lights that work on a 16 hours on and 8 hours off cycle, according to the brand. It comes with nine complimentary pods: three mini tomatoes, three green lettuce and three basil pods, which you insert into your planter. You then add water to the tank — which holds enough liquid for up to a month — and use the float indicator to monitor its water level over time. For a higher-tech gardening system, try The Smart Garden 9 Pro, which lets you control its light and watering schedule via an app. For a more budget-friendly pick, consider Click & Grow’s original garden kit.
Growing system: Soil-based | Growing options: Herbs, fruits, vegetables and microgreens | Capacity: Up to 9 plants | LED grow lights: Included
This hydroponic garden doubles as a stylish piece of decor. It can accommodate up to 12 plants, and the included starter kit comes with a one month supply of nutrient pods and eight seed pods that’ll grow various veggies and herbs. The garden also has a smart self-watering system (you’ll need to load it up once a week) that gives your plants the appropriate amount of water and nutrients over time, according to the brand. You can monitor and control the water, nutrient levels and LED grow light settings via the brand’s mobile app or an Amazon Alexa. Additionally, the app can remind you when to add water and nutrients. The brand also offers a larger option with two levels.
Growing system: Hydroponic | Growing options: Herbs, fruits, vegetables and microgreens | Capacity: Up to 12 plants | LED grow lights: Included
This self-watering and self-fertilizing system is a great option for smaller spaces, according to Ashlie Thomas, a professional gardener and author of “How to Become a Gardener.” “This is a comprehensive yet user-friendly gardening kit that pretty much comes with everything that you need to grow certain vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even fruits,” she says.
This model is available in five sizes and you can grow a variety of non-GMO vegetables, herbs and leafy greens. The brand recommends adding water and nutrients, and testing the pH levels once a week. You can assemble it in under ten minutes, and it takes about five minutes to maintain each week, according to The Farmstand.
Growing system: Hydroponic | Growing options: Herbs, fruits, vegetables and microgreens | Capacity: 12 to 36 plants, depending on the model | LED grow lights: Not included
Jenn Frymark, chief greenhouse officer of indoor farming company Gotham Greens, recommends this Tower Garden system, which some of her community partners — including the Green Bronx Machine — also use. This vertical aeroponics system nurtures exposed plant roots by pumping nutrient-rich solution through a small central pipe for even distribution, according to the brand. It comes with a seed-starter kit that includes a germination tray, net pots, a variety of seeds and rockwool cubes (which act as a soil replacement and provide moisture and oxygen to the plants, according to the brand). This system doesn’t include LED grow lights, so you’ll need to buy them separately.
Growing system: Aeroponic | Growing options: Herbs, fruits, vegetables and microgreens | Capacity: Up to 20 plants | LED grow lights: Not included
This hydroponic garden system can accommodate up to 30 plants, and includes five-foot-tall columns that evenly distribute water, according to the brand. The system comes with a built-in camera to monitor your plants’ health and optimize its water and grow light schedule as needed, according to Gardyn. You can also control some of the maintenance features and order new plants via its app.
Growing system: Hydroponic | Growing options: Herbs, fruits, vegetables and microgreens | Capacity: Up to 30 plants | LED grow lights: Included
This flexible modular system — which Bawden-Davis recommends— can accommodate up to 72 seedlings in three-and-a-half square feet of space, according to the brand. It includes two full-spectrum fluorescent lights along with high-tech reflectors that can direct light onto your plants to help them grow. You can also easily adjust the light placement as your plants get bigger, and place add-on units on top of each other to create more space.
Growing system: Soil-based | Growing options: Herbs, fruits, vegetables and microgreens | Capacity: Up to 72 seedlings | LED grow lights: Included
How to shop for an indoor gardening system
Before starting your indoor gardening journey, experts recommend considering the various types of growing systems available along with how much time and space you’re willing to dedicate to it.
Types of growing systems
There are four main growing systems that indoor gardening systems use: soil-based, hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic systems.
- Soil-based systems are similar to outdoor gardening — they contain pods with traditional potting soil that you can plant seeds into and water periodically, according to Thomas.
- Hydroponic systems supply a nutrient-rich solution to the plant’s roots instead of using soil. These typically use less water than soil-based systems because they don’t create runoff or water larger-than-necessary areas.
- Aquaponic systems are similar to hydroponics, but use live fish in the water — their waste provides nutrients that helps plants grow, mimicking a natural ecosystem, Thomas says.
- Aeroponic systems are a more advanced form of hydroponics, using air or moist environments rather than soil. These systems spray nutrient-rich water on the plant’s exposed roots, while hydroponic systems require plants to grow in the solution.
What size should your indoor garden be?
Sizing can vary, and experts recommended sticking with what fits your indoor space and expertise level. Most indoor gardening systems, including larger options, only take up a few square feet of space. Some seed pod gardens, like the Aerogarden Harvest, are typically compact, portable and lightweight, while ones like the Rise Garden options take up more space but can grow more plants at once.
What types of plants can you grow?
Some are designed to only grow certain types of plants — a system for growing lettuce or microgreens may be different than one that grows tomatoes — and Frymark recommends doing research on what you can grow before investing in a system. Depending on your space and budget, you can use the pre-seeded pods that come with your system or purchase pods separately.
Do you need grow lights?
Since all plants require light for photosynthesis and growth, it’s best to look for a system that contains grow lights — they make up for any lack of sunlight within your home, and ensure that your plants’ light source stays consistent. “You definitely want to look out for kits that have grow lights built-in or incorporated — LED full-spectrum is best — [since] this will allow the plants to grow healthy foliage, flowers, and fruits,” Thomas says.
Frymark says certain plants (like basil and chives) do well with lots of sunlight, while others will require lower light levels. If a sunny spot isn’t available, LED grow lights mimic normal sunlight and allow the plants to photosynthesize. Some systems even include dimming features along with automatic timers that’ll keep lights on for the majority of the day.
What is the maintenance level?
Some systems require more maintenance than others. If your system is soil-based, you should invest in a self-watering option that keeps it from drying out, according to Angela Judd, founder of Growing in the Garden and author of “How to Grow Your Own Food.” You can also look for features like a built-in irrigation system and timed LED light rings that make for minimal maintenance during the week. However, it’ll likely come with a higher price point.
There are also many smart garden options that come with growing supplies like seeds and fertilizer so you won’t have to purchase them separately.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Julie Bawden-Davis is a professional gardener and founder of Healthy Houseplants. She is also the author of “Indoor Gardening the Organic Way” and “Southern California Vegetable Gardening.”
- Ashlie Thomas is a professional gardener who runs The Mocha Gardener and author of “How to Become a Gardener.”
- Jenn Frymark is the chief greenhouse officer of indoor farming company Gotham Greens.
- Angela Judd is the founder of Growing in the Garden and author of “How to Grow Your Own Food.”
Why trust NBC Select?
Mili Godio is an editor at Select who has covered a variety of gardening articles including pruners, garden hoses. For this article, she interviewed four gardening experts and researched dozens of systems on the market that aligned with their guidance.