The Blossoming Internet of Things — For Your Garden

11:52 minutes

These gadgets will tell you helpful info about your garden. Credit: CNET
These gadgets will tell you helpful info about your garden. Credit: CNET

For garden enthusiasts, spring means planting, fertilizing, watering, and possibly researching to what extent, and when, to do all of those things. But there’s a growing market of sensors, smart hose attachments, and even robot lawnmowers vying to help you with such chores. These devices and apps can monitor soil temperatures, send you notifications when it’s time to water, and even do the watering for you. It’s the Internet of Things—for plants.

Andrew Gebhart is an associate editor at CNET who’s been reviewing the world of garden gadgetry. He joins Ira along with Jason Aramburu, CEO and founder of Edyn, which can track the conditions of your garden. An ecologist by training, Aramburu says smart garden technology could help save water in drought-plagued areas and encourage more people to garden or even grow their own food.

Segment Guests

Andrew Gebhart

Andrew Gebhart is an associate editor at CNET, based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jason Aramburu

Jason Aramburu is an ecologist and CEO/founder of Edyn, based in Oakland, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. As a gardener– you know I am one. I’ve talked about it. And I’m always worried about whether my plants are getting enough water, especially this dry spring. Do they need more fertilizer, compost, mulch? And if you’re a garden enthusiast, you have, I’m sure, already been hard at work this spring with your shovel, your spade, your rake, your whatever– it goes on.

But have you ever thought about adding your smartphone to that list of tools? There’s a growing market of sensors, smart hose attachments, and even robot lawn mowers vying to help you with garden chores. It’s the internet of things for plants. And they can monitor soil temperatures. They can send you notifications when it’s time to water, even doing the watering for you when the detectors decide you should have some water.

And from vegetable gardens to house plants, from novices to experts, these devices and their apps purport to make keeping things alive easier. We’re talking smart garden and smart tools. Do you already use an app to monitor and take care of your garden? How does your garden grow? If not, would you ever use technology to make watering or other garden chores easier?

We want to hear from you. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. And of course, you can tweet us at SciFri. And joining me now are a couple of garden gadget gurus. Andrew Gebhart is an associate editor at CNET. He’s been reviewing the world of garden gadgetry. Welcome to Science Friday.

ANDREW GEBHART: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Jason Aramburu is CEO and founder of Edyn. That’s one of the companies making these devices and apps. He’s an ecologist and soil scientist by training. And he says smart gardens could help save water in drought-plagued areas and even bring gardening and food growing to a wider audience. Welcome to Science Friday.

JASON ARAMBURU: Thank you, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Andrew, tell us about where the garden gadget scene currently stands.

ANDREW GEBHART: It’s currently that we have a wide variety of devices, as you were mentioning. We’ve got plant sensors. We have sprinklers. We have robot lawn mowers. And right now what we’re starting to see is some of these things are starting to work together.

The Rachio Iro is a sprinkler system that communicates with a couple of plant sensors via IFT, which is an online rule maker. The Green IQ– again, it’s a sprinkler– communicates with plant sensors. And some of these devices even communicate with your smart home on a larger scale. So if your Nest Protect senses smoke, it can turn your sprinklers on, which is pretty cool.

IRA FLATOW: That is kind of cool. Walk me through the actual experience of having one of these setups might be like on an daily basis, that you just turn it on, set it, forget it, and it monitors your whole garden for you?

ANDREW GEBHART: Well, it depends on the device. I mentioned Rachio and Green IQ. Those are for, like, if you have an in-ground sprinkler system already but you have a dumb controller and you’ve got to program it and schedule it manually. With those guys, Rachio, Green IQ, Blossom– there’s several of them out there that replace your dumb controller with a smart one. It’s kind of a retrofit solution. And they monitor the weather and help you out. So when it rains, even if you’re scheduled for your sprinklers to go off, it won’t go off.

IRA FLATOW: Let me bring in Jason, who’s part of the company Edyn that makes some of the devices Andrew was talking about. You have a background in ecology, right? So what brought you to this point of the gadgetry?

JASON ARAMBURU: That’s right. Well, I studied psychology at Princeton. And after college, I actually went and worked over in Africa with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I was working on a project funded by them to help small farmers improve their fertilizer usage and also their yield.

And we were working with people who are farming for a living. But it turns out they were really growing in very similar conditions to a home garden, about a half-acre sized plot growing vegetables. And these people were growing them for food.

And what was really interesting to me was that a lot of those farmers had second jobs. They were teachers or they worked in a store or something. And I thought to myself, maybe this is an interesting model for the developed world. Maybe we can all have normal day jobs and grow some of our own food in our spare time.

IRA FLATOW: So how do the sensors work? What are the sensors monitoring in the soil?

JASON ARAMBURU: The Edyn garden sensor has 5 sensors. It measures temperature, humidity, and light levels. And then in the soil, it measures the soil’s moisture and it measures the soil’s nutrition. And it does that by sending an electrical pulse into the soil and detecting how that pulse is affected by fertilizer and water. It’s a technique that’s been used by a lot of really large commercial farms for a few years now but hasn’t really penetrated to consumers yet.

IRA FLATOW: And so you can hook up your garden hose to one of the sensors and it will turn on the water automatically when it detects it needs water?

JASON ARAMBURU: Exactly. So now, we have two products on the market. We just launched our second product, the Edyn water valve and that’s actually a replacement for your dumb hose end timer. It goes in place of that timer, connects to your garden hose, and then to your irrigation system. And it actually pairs with the sensor in your soil and it waters your plants only when they need it. So only when your soil moisture gets to a certain threshold where your plants need water.

IRA FLATOW: Does it send me a signal to my cell phone saying what it’s doing or the state of what my soil is– how wet it is, how much nutrients are in it?

JASON ARAMBURU: Exactly. It will send you a push notification when your soil needs watering. And then you can actually go into the app on your iOS device or Android device and see exactly what the moisture levels are, what the temperature is, the humidity. And you can see also if that’s in the ideal range for your plants or not.

IRA FLATOW: Andrew and Jason, is this something that’s going to take away from the pleasure of gardening? I mean, I don’t think for me it’s going to. I’d love to know when it needs water or needs things. Are purists going to say, hey, that’s the whole point of gardening, you’re taking that fun away?

JASON ARAMBURU: I don’t think it will, because when we first started this project, we interviewed thousands of gardeners. And what we overwhelmingly found was gardeners love to be in their garden, experience the beauty of a garden in full bloom. They’re not so crazy about all the work that’s required to do that. So I think it we designed it not to get in the way of the gardening experience, but really to augment it and create a totally new experience.

ANDREW GEBHART: And I’ll agree with Jason. Most pieces of the process are still intact. You’re still going to have to plant yourself. You’re still going to have to fertilize yourself. A lot of pieces of the smart garden are taking away the menial tasks, like watering and remembering to water.

And they can help you also keep track of that by making a calendar for you. So it’s more like a smart garden assistant. The smart garden certainly isn’t at the point yet where it’s ready to take over your garden for you.

IRA FLATOW: Are we talking about affordable prices here?

JASON ARAMBURU: Well, we designed the Edyn system to be affordable. The sensor retails for $99 and the valve retails for $69. And we’ll be launching a bundle as well, if you want to get them together.

IRA FLATOW: And I guess we’ll be seeing competitors coming out. We’re going to be seeing more of these sensors coming out. Let me go to a couple of phone calls, if I have time, to see how people are reacting to this. Let’s go to Huntsville, Alabama. Hi, welcome to Science Friday, Al.

AL: Hey, longtime listener. And I wanted to say you guys are actually very spot-on about being self-sufficient. And I just wanted to get back up and agree with the praises that you guys are singing. The idea is to work smart, not hard. And I can’t wait to see what we go with a fully robotic garden. That would be very good. But I use a timer on my watering system.

And it’s a great thing to sync up with the iPhone, because you can actually turn it off or on, depending on if you have to leave the garden or the house immediately. And then I was also curious as to would your products that you will be selling also be able to do different types of plants, like rice, how it needs a lot more water as opposed to tomatoes or any kind of basic root system vegetable.

IRA FLATOW: Good question.

JASON ARAMBURU: Absolutely, yeah. We have a database of thousands of different garden plants as well as food crops and turf grasses as well. So in the app, you can actually select what you want, and it tunes the system to the needs of that plant. What we can also do is actually recommend plants for your garden that are really well-suited to the conditions there.

IRA FLATOW: What about pest control? I’m waiting for a drone that will chase the squirrels and the deer away from my veggies. Is that something you think might be in the realm of possibility?

JASON ARAMBURU: Ira, I can’t really disclose future products that we might bring to market. But what I can say is that we are in discussions with a couple of very large companies who make robotic equipment in the lawn and garden space. And they’re very interested to offer an integrated solution where, yes, everything is totally automated, where your pest control is automated, where your fertilizer delivery is automated. And it’s all controlled via your app. And this isn’t something that’s ready today. But within a couple years we’ll definitely see it.

IRA FLATOW: Andrew, you expect to see this stuff?

ANDREW GEBHART: Actually, yeah. There’s a small pest control device you can buy now on Amazon. It’s called Scarecrow. And we haven’t tested it out so we don’t know how good it is. But it actually senses motion in your yard and will spray the animal with a stream of water to try and scare it away. So whether that works on any animal other than cats, I don’t know. But it’s at least some form of deterrent.

IRA FLATOW: I think it would work on squirrels.


I think from my experience, squirting squirrels with my watering device.

JASON ARAMBURU: Absolutely. And it really points to a need that we’ve identified too, that gardeners of today don’t want to spray and pray, meaning they don’t want to just cover their garden in toxic chemicals and pray that it kills all the bugs. They want something more sustainable.

IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Well, good luck to you. And I’m waiting for the product that attracts hummingbirds to my garden. I’m waiting for that one to come out.

JASON ARAMBURU: Hummingbirds are good luck.

IRA FLATOW: Andrew Gebhart is associate editor at CNET, and Jason Araburu is the CEO and founder of Edyn. That’s E-D-Y-N, and one of the companies currently making garden sensors and apps.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they happen to have an audio recording of their research findings.