Your gardening tools and> your smartphone have more in common than you may think.
Experts say that as the economy continues its slump, fewer consumers will be paying for outdoor maintenance; more will take summer staycations in their backyards; and some will even augment their vegetable beds to save a little on groceries. Sensing opportunity in the $36 billion lawn-and-garden industry, companies are pitching more high-tech products, like $70 plant-examining glasses that use NASA technology to identify damaged and diseased leaves. Some of the latest tools include environmental sensors that can recommend the right blooms for your soil, remind you to pull out the hose or relieve you of watering duties altogether. Others, like robotic lawn mowers, hail straight out of The Jetsons.
But earth and electronics can make for odd bedfellows. Some dirt-under-the-fingernail purists pooh-pooh digital proxies.
This is not hands-on gardening, says Bruce Butterfield of the National Gardening Association. And some of the more complex technologies can get pricey or require professional geek help. Still, horticulturists say technology can help solve common gardening problems. Here s how:
When Brenda Horrigan couldn t keep her potted rosemary plant from wilting this winter, she tried more water and less sunlight. When that didn t work, the Cape Cod based copy editor got a second opinion from a $60 device called the EasyBloom. After plunging the sensor into her pot to analyze soil moisture, air humidity and sunlight levels, she then wired it to her computer, where a software program ran a diagnostic and offered a remedy: Back off the H O and provide more light. It s like going to the garden center and asking, What does my plant need? says Horrigan.
If this seems a little sci-fi, there s good reason: The sensor technology in Horrigan s gadget was originally used in a 2007 mission to Mars. For $10 to $40, gardeners can find other probes to monitor a plant s vitals, none of which require a rocket scientist. But one diagnostic tool for plants does call for hands-on tech skill. The $100 Botanicalls kit includes switches, resistors and capacitors that need assembly (soldering iron not included). It sends text alerts to a mobile phone whenever a plant feels parched: Urgent! Water me!
Informative as these probes can be, they can t quench a plant s thirst yet. That s where lower-tech gizmos ($10 and up) like the Drip-it Squirrel and self-watering pots come in handy. Gardeners simply fill them with water and let so-called dual-action wicking or subirrigation systems slowly hydrate the soil. For $50 to $150, more sophisticated digital timers can connect to your home s sprinkler system and water up to nine zones in a yard.
New high-end digital monitors go a step further they communicate wirelessly with nearby weather stations or a box of sensors in the garden that measure temperature, solar radiation, wind speeds and humidity. Some models (like Vantage Pro2, $600) can be placed on a bedside table and set to ring an alarm when, say, it hits 34 degrees and you need to cover the tomatoes; others, like the Rain Bird ET Manager ($700), get hourly weather updates and water plants and grass only when necessary. Sure, the need for professional installation ups the cost, but for someone who wants a weekend away, these are godsends, says Douglas Green, author of Gardening Wisdom.
Robotic Lawn Mowers
Ron Hostetler takes pride in his lush, track-free lawn. And the 65-year-old from Canby, Ore., credits his robotic mower that regularly trims the top of his grass but never needs emptying. At exactly 7 a.m. five days a week, the 19-pound device rolls out from its charging station and navigates nearly a quarter-acre avoiding a brick wall and stream and scaling hills as high as 12 feet. Whenever it runs into one of Hostetler s maple trees, the mower s bumper sensors push it in another direction.
Their names say it all: Auto-mower, LawnBott, RoboMow. These canine-sized mowers ($1,000 to $3,500) can be programmed to cut at specific times and are guided by electronic perimeter wires pegged to the ground that keep them from barreling into the neighbor s barbecue. The latest models can climb steep hills, run up to four hours and cut lawns that are more than a full acre, while the new $3,000 solar-electric hybrid Automower claims to use only the energy of a single lightbulb. But eco cred aside, at least one firm has issued a voluntary recall of some older models due to a laceration hazard. Experts recommend models with tilt and touch sensors, which stop the blades in less than a second if, say, a dog or child gets too close. For his part, Hostetler prefers the view from afar. I ve drunk a lot of good booze sitting and watching it, he says.