The dawning of the digital age of gardening

I look at my phone. The screen says “Need Watered” in an angry red text.

No, my phone isn’t demanding a drink of water (which would not mix well with its electrical components), nor is it some online game where you take care of a virtual garden.

My phone is telling me about one of my real, live plants — an African violet that just happens to be in need of a drink.

Welcome to the digital gardening age.

We as a society are becoming more and more connected to technology as part of our everyday lives, and it is no different for the garden. While we may not yet have automated robotic gardeners or plants that can care for themselves, there are technological tools available for home gardeners that can aid in their gardening endeavors.

The technological gizmo that is sending information to my phone concerning my African violet plant is called a Parrot Flower Power. I mentioned it a few weeks ago in my article giving a brief overview of current garden trends. I was so intrigued that I just had to try it out.

The plant monitor looks inconspicuous enough; it basically looks like a small, forked stick made of green plastic. Once you twist the tip off and slide the battery in, a green LED flashes a few times to let you know it is ready to go. You download an app to your phone that communicates with the sensor via a Bluetooth connection and can get real-time and historical information from your plant. It did take a few tries to get it successfully paired and communicating with my phone.

It measures soil moisture, air temperature, light levels and soil fertility (at a basic level, not detailed). The neat thing about it is that the app has a built in database of thousands of plants. You choose your plant species (and even take a picture of your plant), and the app uses the data it collects to make suggestions on keeping your plant healthy. It tells you when to water, when to fertilize, if the plant is too cold or if it needs more light.

The gizmo is labeled for indoor and outdoor use, and apparently it will store data for 80 days if your phone is out of range.

So is this technology necessary? Not really, especially if you are a decent or observant gardener. I do think that it could be handy for someone who knows absolutely nothing about gardening, though. One thing I’ve observed about inexperienced gardeners is that they are often afraid to grow things because they don’t know when or how to care for plants. This could possibly help, though at $50-plus apiece, they aren’t the most economical of investments.

Of course, sensors like these exist in the commercial and research world, and I have used them before. This little gizmo could be useful for research as well, but I have not yet found a way to export the data it collects into a form I could access on my computer.

This isn’t the only place where technology can help a gardener. There are numerous apps available to assist the digitally connected gardener. Here are a few:

•  Garden Squared: design app for laying out small garden beds

•  BeeSmart: a guide to help you pick out plants for pollinators from the Pollinator Alliance

•  Plantifier: identify plants by taking a picture of it (LeafSnap is another similar app, but unfortunately only available for iPhone)

•  ID Weeds: a key developed by University Missouri Extension to pick traits and identify common weeds

•  Google Images: Not an app, but you can use the search function to upload a photo and look for a match to aid in identification

•  Company apps: A few companies, like Burpee Seeds and Mother Earth News Magazine, have garden planner apps (of course, they’ll have ads for their products in there)

Aside from a smartphone, there are other technologies that make gardening a little easier. My favorite bit of technology is the water timer I use to irrigate my gardens. I have two different types. One functions very similarly to an old kitchen timer — you turn the dial to how long you want the water to run and it shuts off after that time period.

The most useful one is an automatic, battery operated system. You program the time and day, and choose when, how often and how long to run the water. I use this one for my vegetable gardens and don’t have to worry about them all summer. More advanced models have a moisture sensor that keeps them from kicking on if the soil is already wet enough from rain.

Garden companies are using technology, too. Did you ever notice tags on plants at the store that you can scan with your phone? Many companies use those to take you to websites offering design ideas (using more of their plants and products of course) or care information.

So, while it may be slow to evolve, technology is creeping into the garden. Will gardeners embrace it? Perhaps new, younger gardeners (that are a growing percentage of those who garden) will, but only time will tell.

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