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Tech Matters: Tech for backyard gardeners

By Leslie Meredith - Special to the Standard-Examiner | May 18, 2022

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Leslie Meredith

Smart homes have become commonplace, with apps and hardware that connect your household systems — heating and cooling, lighting, security and appliances — for better energy management and remote monitoring. But did you know you can bring those same principles to your garden? From simple plant information to robotic weeders, tech can be an invaluable resource for gardeners looking to reduce maintenance and grow healthier plants.

Let’s start with a simple tool that you likely already have in your hand. Recent models of iPhones include an often overlooked photo feature that can identify plants for you. When you see an unfamiliar flower or tree, take a photo with your iPhone. Open the Photos app and tap on the image. Below the row of thumbnails, you’ll see the share icon (to send the photo to someone), the heart icon (tap this and it makes your favorite photos easier to find in the future) and then the “i” with sparkles around it. Tap that one to call up the “Look Up” feature, which will connect you to Wikipedia listings that identify the plant in question with a photo and extra information. Mystery solved! Now you can visit your local nursery and buy one of your own.

If you’re open to adding an app to your phone, you can start with LeafSnap, which uses artificial intelligence to identify plants. In fact, it can recognize 90% of all known plants and trees. Take a picture of a plant and it will tell you how to grow it and how much light and water it needs. LeafSnap also includes a Care Calendar where you can set reminders for watering and other maintenance needs. It’s available for free for both iPhone and Android.

For those who would like to identify pests (and garden friends), along with plants, try iNaturalist, created by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic. Using a photo or video, the app will identify plants, insects and birds. If it can’t identify the subject, it automatically tags your photo and makes it available to the iNaturalist community who may then provide an answer. You can opt to let the photos and videos you upload to the app be used for scientific purposes. The app also includes a searchable map that shows you all the species that have been spotted in an area.

Moving on to devices, a great place to start your smart garden is with a new sprinkler system controller. Today’s systems go far beyond simple timers and stations. They can integrate weather reports and use sensors to deliver the correct amount of water to the different zones in your garden. With Utah deep into a drought, it’s a great way to conserve water while maintaining your garden. Two recommended controllers are the Rachio 3 and the Orbit B-hyve XR. Both are compatible with Alexa, as well as including an app for your phone. Expect to spend around $200.

But as we all know, water is only part of the equation for healthy plants. Soil and light play critical roles, and sensors can provide reliable data to determine why certain plants aren’t thriving. For around $10 you can buy a three-in-one moisture, pH and light tester. Price varies on how long the probes are, so if you have a plant with deep roots, opt for the slightly more expensive unit. These measuring devices are widely available on Amazon and can also be found in home improvement stores.

Now that the weather is warming up, you and your family may enjoy working, studying and streaming movies outside. If you find your Wi-Fi signal is not as strong as it is in the house, you can add an outdoor Wi-FI extender. These work by connecting to your router, then repeating that same network signal over a bigger area. You may want to consider a weatherproof model or remember to bring it inside once you’re finished for the day.

If you’re ready to say goodbye to mowing the lawn, indeed, robotic lawnmowers are available. They’re not cheap, starting at around $1,000. But if you love your Roomba vacuum, a robotic mower may be worth the price. I don’t see these becoming less expensive because the demand is simply not as great as with their vacuum counterparts. With five months of mowing, it would take you more than a season to equal the cost of a lawn service, but you’d never have to worry about it not showing up.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about technology for more than a decade. As a mom of four, value, usefulness, and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.


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