I Tried 5 High-Tech Apps Meant To Simplify Gardening—Here’s What Actually Happened

Gadgets and apps promise to optimize your lettuce and houseplants. But do you want them to?

January 31, 2017
garden gadgets
Melanie Gandyra

I am sitting in a movie theater 380 miles from home, tending to my plants. The previews won’t start for five minutes, so it’s a perfect time to futz with my phone and water the jade in the kitchen. Also, I see an alert that predicted rainfall did in fact hit my back yard, so I deactivate the sprinklers that are scheduled to run tomorrow morning. Everything looks good until I see a notification that my recently store-bought fountain grass has too much fertilizer and the soil needs to be flushed out. I don’t have an app for that—but I do have one for just about everything else in the garden.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

Advertisement
Advertisement

There’s no way around it. Technology has begun to disrupt one of the last bastions of austere pleasure left in the universe: the garden. I always saw my outdoor space as a refuge from our relentlessly digital culture—an oasis where I can get my hands dirty and feel the sun on my back and grow a perfect summer salad. But now, a raft of gizmos and apps could push aside my pruning shears and other conventional gardening tools. Though I honestly can’t live without Waze and Twitter and Grubhub, I’m not sure I’m ready for a connected garden.

Related: 5 Surprising Ways Gardening Is Good For Your Health

To test my boundaries, I acquired, set up, and tested the Parrot Pot; Edyn’s Garden Sensor and Water Valve; the Plantlink Basestation; and the Green IQ Smart Garden Hub. My iPhone was aglow with new apps and a dozens of colorful screens displaying weather forecasts, soil data, and watering schedules. It was like Candy Crush for the houseplant set.

The gadgets range from the utterly simple — Parrot Pot monitors and waters a single plant—to the ambitiously sophisticated. The Smart Garden Hub was trickier to set up, but once it’s running, it can control and optimize an entire household irrigation and lighting system.

Related: Gardening For Beginners (As Well As Some Tips For Pros)

Some of the systems include a reference encyclopedia that contains data on thousands of plant species, and thus know how much water or light your garden needs. After monitoring conditions in my yard, the Edyn’s app suggested plants that would do well in that environment (Lemon Verbena and Algerian Iris got five stars). Meanwhile, the Parrot Pot app dispensed the fun fact that farmers grow fountain-grass species as a cereal crop in some subtropical countries. I’m not sure any of this information will help me develop a greener thumb, but I’ve got new material for my next cocktail party.

 

At their core, the products are all about monitoring and watering plants. For managing a real-life garden, Edyn and Plantlink were the most useful options. The app from Edyn, a brand that jumped from Kickstarter to Home Depot in 2015, has the best interface, and watering plants (either on a schedule or on demand) was easy to manage. But the sensor can only be in one place at one time—so it’s not optimal for managing multiple rows of veggies or an expansive garden. By contrast, the Plantlink Basestation and app can manage up to 64 separate sensors (the starter package includes one; additional units can be purchased for $35) but cannot water plants on its own.  (The company’s next generation Plantlink Lush, due in stores later this year, will have an integrated water valve).

Related: 7 Secrets for a High-Yield Vegetable Garden, Even When You’re Tight On Space

If you have trouble keeping indoor plants alive (in which case you should read this article on 10 hardy houseplants anyone can grow), the Parrot Pot is a potential lifesaver. The wifi-enabled pot has a built-in water supply and soil sensor, and it automatically irrigates different plant species, and warns you if you have issues with light or soil nutrition. There’s no doubt that $100 is a tidy sum for an 8-inch wide plastic pot, but it’s a good option for someone who travels often or is a ficus serial killer.

It’s easy to dismiss these products as toys, but the ability to control watering is a potential game-changer. In places like Southern California, where I live, H20 is an increasingly scarce (and expensive) commodity, and technology will surely help homeowners manage this precious resource. In my neighborhood, nearly every home has a sophisticated irrigation system that waters plants on a preprogrammed schedule—the flaws of which are on display when you go for a walk on a rainy winter morning and the sprinklers are going full bore. The Green IQ evaluates complex real-time weather conditions and forecasts to save tons of water. (The Israeli manufacturer claims the system can cut gardening water bills in half.) The product is enormously capable, but after installing it I would recommend it only to people who feel comfortable programming DVRs or troubleshooting broken printers.

 

Related: 10 Ways to Save Water In Your Garden

Ultimately, I was intrigued but not sold on the whole category. I was reminded of that not-so-distant era, right before the dawn of smartphones, when a certain demographic noodled around with Palm Pilots. Early adopters will love the wow factor and the available functionality, but the promise of easily monitoring and managing a complex garden has not yet been realized. I suspect it will arrive soon. (In the meantime, here are 7 garden tools that are worth their weight in gold.)

Even then, I’m not sure I’ll bite. Sure, I’d probably install a system that automated my sprinklers to save water. But I think I’ll otherwise remain a gardening Luddite. I hardly spend an hour of my waking life without turning to technology for help, and I’d prefer my garden not be synched, streaming, and wifi-enabled. My tomatoes might suffer, but I’d rather feel connected than be connected. 

Tags: techwatering