This American (plant) Life

Michael Nagrant / 07.17.07

Welcome to the jungle baby…err, Nagrant Family Farm.

I’ve killed more plants than a Detroit auto executive. Everything, from finicky herbal seedlings to hearty tomatoes, has met the reaper that is my green, or maybe more appropriately, gangrenous, thumb. I once grew the tallest plant in a junior-high biology contest, but only after my father introduced me to Miracle Grow, and I juiced that bad boy like an agricultural Barry Bonds. That was a lifetime ago. Last month, despite their legend for weathering biblical droughts, two cacti in my living room recently developed a feathery mold.

In addition to my inherent gardening shortcomings, I happen to live in a landlocked condo, an old converted corrugated box factory in the West Loop, shadowed by a towering UIC office building. I’ve got no outdoor space or reasonable growing light and the constant brick dust from the walls chokes most things that grow. Were I just trying to spruce up my home or maintain carbon neutrality, I could probably just buy a ficus or take my cues from Al Gore and screw in a few compact fluorescent bulbs and move on.

My personal agriculture obsession, though, is culinary. Aside from learning to season your food, using fresh herbs is probably one of the easiest and quickest ways to improve your cooking. Dry herbs are fine, but most folks are still rocking the spice rack they received as a wedding or college gift, and after about a year, those jars have as much taste as North Avenue Beach sand. Of course fresh herbs have their own inherent timer, and those plastic clamshells from the local grocer are usually bland and turn into a brown juicy slush at the bottom of your crisper.

The only way to really ensure a constant, tasty, non-rotting supply is to grow your own or steal from an unsuspecting neighbor. (Most of my neighbors lock the doors to their balconies, however.) Thankfully, I discovered the AeroGarden, a small indoor gardening device that features “aeroponic” technology developed by NASA for growing who knows what (astronauts do like to get high) on the space shuttle.

The device is about one-and-a-half feet wide by two feet high and compact enough to fit on a kitchen counter. There’s a base that holds seed pods for herbs, tomatoes, lettuce or whatever you plan to grow, and an adjustable top that looks like E.T.’s head, which contains a couple of grow lights.

The promise is that you pop in a handful of “bio dome” seed pods, pour in some water and drop in a couple of nutrient tablets in the base reservoir and walk away. The only regular maintenance is to add water and a couple of nutrient tablets every two weeks when a sort of gardener’s alarm clock—a couple of red lights on the base—start flashing. Frankly I was skeptical as the whole thing had a smarmy Ron Popeil “it slices, it dices” sales pitch to it.

But after a week, micro-greens were shooting up through the base, and the device was sprouting like a Chia Pet. After three weeks, I was getting harvestable shoots of basil, chives and thyme. I went on vacation for a week, and because you only have to water and feed in two-week intervals, I left the thing alone. When I came back, the plants were almost twice their size.

It’s now been three months, and I’ve harvested tons of herbs for soups, pizzas, meat and more. Because everything’s live, nothing dies in my fridge. The basil is extraordinary and fills the house with that spicy licorice scent. My wife and I have taken to calling the garden the “Nagrant Family Farm.” According to the manual, with proper pruning, the garden should yield herbs for four-to-six months. The only real snag is that the growing root system requires water in one-week intervals now.

The whole thing costs $150, including the first seed kit. I figure I spend about twenty bucks a month on herbs at the grocery story and the farmers market, so at that price I break even in about eight months. After you deplete the first kit, additional seed kits which allow you to grow salad greens, strawberries, tomatoes, chili peppers, etc., run about $20. There’s even a kit that allows you to make your own pods using seeds of your choice. Very cool if you want to work with heirloom or artisanal strains of plants, and the perfect antidote to balcony-less, poor-gardening city dwellers.

You can buy your own at Sur La Table or at

This article first appeared in Newcity in a slightly different form.