Hydroponic Kits: Expectations vs. Reality

So, you have seen the photos of small, compact hydroponic kits overflowing with tomatoes, leafy vegetables and herbs.

And now you want one.

But based on my experience, it is a picture that requires some modification.

Don’t get me wrong, I own several hydroponic kits, and I think (most of them) are great.

But, if you want to buy a hydroponic kit, it is important to match your expectations with reality.

This article will not promote any one particular hydroponic kit. I do have my favorites, but here, I will explain what you can expect.

Hydroponic Pak Choi
Hydroponic Pak Choi

What Is A Hydroponic Kit?

Hydroponic kits are beginner-friendly turnkey indoor garden systems ideal for growing plants indoors in small spaces.

The systems rely on hydroponics, a soil-less growing technique for growing plants in a nutrient solution.

No soil means a cleaner indoor gardening experience, which is especially welcome when we garden indoors.

The kits are easy to set up and run and include everything you need to get started.

However, not all hydroponic kits are created equal.

Two types of hydroponic kits

All hydroponic kits are more or less built the same way. You have a reservoir to hold the water or nutrient solution, a lid to keep the plants and a grow light.

Still, you will come across two different types of systems.

  • Traditional hydroponic systems with net pots: Aerogarden, MUFGA, and iDOO hydroponic systems are three popular examples.
I recommend a Deep Water Culture system like the iDOO, Aergogarden of MUFGA if you are looking for a true, high-yielding hydroponic garden. 
Traditional Deep Water Culture Systems use net pots
Net pot, germination dome and growing medium
I recommend the Click and Grow Smart Garden systems for the truly hands-off indoor gardener looking for a stylish no-hassle setup.
Plant cup in a wick based system
Plant cup for a wick-based system

The cost of the systems starts from less than 50 dollars and varies with size and brand.

But regardless of the kit you choose, they all share pros and cons.

Let’s start by looking at what you can expect from your hydroponic kit system.

What You Can Expect From Hydroponic Kits

1. Ease of setup and use

Hydroponic kits excel in their ease of use. You will have your system up and running in less than an hour.

And yes, it is that simple.

The instruction manual is clear and easy to follow – but not really needed.

Easy setup of Smart Garden 9
Easy, intuitive setup
Tip! Hyproponic kits come with a pre-installed timer that starts when you plug in your system. This means that the lights will be on for 18 hours per day from then time you start your system. Keep this in mind when setting up your system. If you want a do-over, unplug the system for a couple of minutes, and plug it in again to reprogram the start of the timer.

2. Fresh herbs and vegetables on tap

If you are new to hydroponics, you will be amazed at how fast your plants will grow.

Hydroponic kits are designed to create an ideal growing environment for your plants; the results will speak for themselves.

There is no comparison if you are used to growing herbs on a window sill.

Fast growing hydroponic lettuce
Hydroponic lettuce grows fast

You will quickly learn to harvest your plants to promote more growth, and staggered planting will ensure you always have herbs or vegetables ready for harvest.

I use one system exclusively for herbs and grow leafy vegetables in my other kits. Different types on lettuce, kale, mangold, and Pak Choi are some of my favorites.

3. The power of full-spectrum grow lights

Most hydroponic kits have a pre-installed timer function that automatically manages the grow light.

And for many gardeners, hydroponic kits are their first introduction to full-spectrum grow lights.

And if you take one thing only from this article, let it be this: Full spectrum grow lights will transform your approach to indoor gardening.

I live and garden in zone 7, and there is no way to grow herbs and vegetables indoors from October through March without grow lights.

The seeds will germinate, but you will have leggy seedlings and a very unsatisfactory yield.

If a hydroponic kit is too rich for your budget, try your have at DIY hydroponics using inexpensive grow lights. 

Lesson learned: grow lights matter when you grow herbs and vegetables indoors.

Common Misconceptions and Limitations

So far, so good. It is almost like there are no limitations. Next, let’s look at my top 5 reality checks for first-time hydroponic kit buyers.

Fact 1: One hydroponic kit will not feed your family

One hydroponic kit will not yield enough to feed your family with tomatoes, vegetables, and herbs.

I use one 10-pot hydroponic system for herbs and another system to grow leafy greens.

And this works for us. We have our kitchen herb garden, and as hydroponic lettuce and kale grow fast, we are rarely short of leafy greens.

Apart from when I test new systems, I grow tomatoes and peppers in grow buckets or other DIY hydroponic systems.

Hydroponic kits for small-space indoor gardening come in different sizes.

The smaller systems hold three plants, but those with around ten plant holders are the most popular.

Click and Grow Smart Gardens, iDOO, Aeraogarden, and MUFGA all have popular systems holding 3 to 12 plant pods.

Fact 2: The number of plants you can grow simultaneously

It is a common misconception that you can always grow 10 plants simultaneously if you have a 10-pod system.

Overcrowded hydroponic garden
Overcrowded garden

This is not true. The number of plants you can grow is limited by

  • Plant Size and Spread: Plants have different growth habits and space requirements. Plants like larger herbs or vegetables spread as they grow and might overshadow or crowd out neighboring plants, leading to stunted growth.
  • Root System Development: Some plants have extensive root systems that can invade the space of neighboring plants. Competition for water and nutrients can negatively impact the growth of other plants in the system.
  • Light Requirements: All plants need light to grow, and fast-growing larger plants like lettuce can overshadow and stunt the growth of slower-growing plants like cilantro/coriander.
  • Maintenance, Accessibility, and Pest Control: If your system is crowded, accessing individual plants for pruning and harvesting can be challenging. Poor airflow makes densely growing systems more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Leaving some plant pods empty can actually increase your yield if you are growing larger plants like basil, lettuce, tomatoes, kale and mangold.

Fact 3: Cost vs yield

Will my hydroponic kit save me money? Is it cheaper to grow than to buy produce from the store?

The short answer is “No, you will not save money” – at least not the first few years.

The initial investment in a system will buy you a lot of herbs and vegetables.

But it can save you money over time.

And I don’t think saving money should be your main reason for investing in a hydroponic kit.

Instead, focus on self-reliance, self-production, freshness, and eating well.

My hydroponic systems have definitely saved me money over time. Once you have your hydroponic kits, the cost for running the systems are small compared to what it costs to buy organic produce at the store off-season. At least where I live. 

Fact 4: You will mostly grow herbs and leafy vegetables

We all love the photos of hydroponic kits overflowing with cherry tomatoes.

But honestly, you will grow tomatoes once or twice and then decide to focus your efforts on herbs and leafy vegetables.


Fruiting plants like tomatoes are slow to grow, and you will find that you can produce 5-10 batches of lettuce for every tomato plant you grow.

One exception to this rule is hot peppers like piri-piri chilies. Peppers are also slow growers but here one plant is enough to deliver fruits to last you all winter.

Fact 5: You will wish you had bought a larger system

Hydroponics is addictive. Once you start, you will want to grow more.

And it is not much more work to maintain a system with more plants.

If you have the space and the budget, I recommend a system holding at least nine plants. Remember, you do not have to grow plants in every slot at all times.

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

Hydroponic kits are ideal for all-level gardeners interested in growing herbs and vegetables indoors year-round.

The advantages include easy use and fresh herbs and vegetables on tap.

However, it is also important to understand the limitations of hydroponic kits. One kit will not feed your whole family; you will most likely grow herbs and leafy vegetables.

Even if there are better ways to save money, hydroponic kits are a great way to grow fresh and healthy produce indoors year-round. And today, systems are relatively inexpensive, starting from less than 50 dollars.

Mattias Magnusson: Hello, I'm Mattias, a passionate and experienced gardening enthusiast. I am the creator of MattMagnusson.com, your guide to year-round herb and veggie growing. Let's simplify green living, no matter your space or location.