KC Gardens

How does your garden grow? With high-tech apps and robotics

Ania Waitr, a senior gardener at Powell Gardens, uses a motion-activated sprinkler as an animal deterrent in her urban garden, City Meadows Farm in Kansas City.
Ania Waitr, a senior gardener at Powell Gardens, uses a motion-activated sprinkler as an animal deterrent in her urban garden, City Meadows Farm in Kansas City. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Picture a sunny day for working in the garden. You venture out back and check the vegetable patch. A few peppers are ripening. Hmm…. does that tomato plant look a little peaked?

You pull out your phone and make an adjustment. In a second, a device scurries to the spot in question and delivers a shot of water or maybe a little plant food. Problem solved, all without changing into gardening shoes.

Technology is working its way into gardening, with an array of wireless, app-driven devices using Raspberry Pi – small single-board computers often used in robotics — to help you grow raspberries for pie.

The Farmbot, for instance, does so much of the gardening on its own that you may be able to grow cabbage without ever touching dirt. There’s a whole subcategory of smart watering devices with soil sensors and internet connections using data to help you water efficiently. And motion sensors have become the latest tech tool to scare away the pesky critters who come in the night to eat your sweet corn.

As a rule, these products are not in stores. They’ve sprung up on the internet — first on crowdfunding sites while in the development stage and later in the catalogs of online stores and traditional hardware and garden stores.

Perhaps the biggest new entry into tech gardening is Farmbot. Picture a raised garden bed with metal rails atop the wooden sides supporting a gantry that moves back and forth. The system operates with a computer program that sees the garden as a grid. The gardener can drag and drop icons of what seed should be planted where on the grid and key in their watering preferences. According to the inventor, Rory Aronson, the computer interface is simple enough that no coding knowledge is necessary to grow food.

The Farmbot has different tool heads that can be switched out by computer command. There are heads to plant seeds, water, sense soil moisture and even find infant weeds and pound them out of existence.

FarmBot customers have two options for purchasing a system. They can buy a ready-to-assemble kit for $3,100. Or they can download software code and all the schematics, allowing them to custom-build their own system with a hobby-level 3D printer, drill press or plasma cutter. Those customers can also help develop the product by suggesting changes and additions to FarmBot’s makers.

The company has gotten off to a successful start with its first shipment of 350 devices, sold primarily to schools and hobbyists. Aronson said a second shipment is scheduled for July.

Farmbot is only one example of how the maker movement — where consumers help develop products — has intersected with the primal human desire to grow food. Technology enthusiasts have been trying for years to merge the two hobbies. Several devices on the market use soil sensors and a cloud full of data to help gardeners find the most efficient way to water.

The Edyn garden sensor, for example, has a sensor that measures soil moisture, nutrition, daily sunlight and temperature. It then sends the gardener advice about what types of plants would grow well and whether nutrients need to be added to the soil. The company also offers a smart valve that can be hooked up to the sprinkler or drip hose and will water according to the current needs. The Edyn website offers the sensor for $99.99 and the watering valve for $69. They can also be found online at other stores.

The GreenIQ Smart Garden Hub is basically a new brain for your existing sprinkler system controller. It connects via WiFi with local weather stations and adjusts the watering schedule based on current and forecasted weather. It can also be hooked up to garden sensors and can turn outdoor lighting off and on based on sunrise and sunset. The GreenIQ will set you back about $250.

On the lower-tech end of the scale, motion sensors have been put to use in scaring away raccoons, deer and other hungry animals that forage for food in the garden. The Hoont Solar Scare Owl is one example.

When one of those stealthy marauders enters the zone, the owl will be waiting. At the first sign of trouble, the owl, which should be positioned about 5 feet off the ground, will flash its yellow eyes and emit a hunting screech.

The ScareCrow motion activated animal deterrent has to be hooked up to a hose to do its work. The battery-powered machine surprises animals with a squirt of water when they enter its range.

The owl is available on Amazon for about $30 and the ScareCrow for $69. Havahart also makes a motion-activated sprayer for $149, but it uses a self-contained basin and doesn’t need a hose hookup.

Gardeners will have to keep moving predator and sprinkler deterrents around because animals learn how to avoid them over time, said Ania Wiatr, a senior gardener at Powell Gardens.

Wiatr uses one on her one-acre urban farm in Kansas City. She put it up because deer are frequent visitors, and the 8-foot-tall fence needed to keep them out would be unsightly and illegal in her neighborhood.

“It works fine as long as you keep moving it around. Deer learn very quickly where the trigger is,” she said. “They’re really clever and you have to respect them for that.”

Technology is a long way from being done with garden applications. One project under development may be the stuff of dreams for gardeners who have spent too many hours wearing out their knees in the weeds.

The Tertill solar robot wheels around the garden like a Roomba vacuum, searching for tiny sprouting weeds that it slices off before they can get a roothold. The machine senses and backs away from obstacles like larger plants, but that said, young seedlings need to be protected with a collar or other barrier. That it works a little like a Roomba is no coincidence – one of Roomba’s creators, Joe Jones, is on the team developing Tertill under the auspices of Franklin Robotics.

So far Tertill is only in its infancy. The crowdfunding is set to begin this summer, with a price of $300, said Rory MacKean, Franklin’s CEO.