Gadgets to Help Tend a Garden
Collecting pollen with a VegiBee, which helped tomato yields rise 38 percent for Bill Whaley, the tool’s inventor.
The Garden Defense Electronic Owl.
The future is knocking at the door of home gardening. And, if some do-it-yourselfers have their way, there is no aspect of nature that can’t be improved with a rechargeable motor and a sensor or two.
Take, for example, the VegiBee. Bill Whaley, a former department store executive living in St. Louis, said he invented the device after a disappointing tomato yield.
Mr. Whaley concluded that the problem was pollination, and quickly set out to improve on the bees, which were clearly remiss.
Looking a little like an electric toothbrush, the VegiBee’s wand is held close to a flower on a tomato plant. The tiny vibrations — 44,000 a minute — gently shake the pollen into the plastic spoon that comes with the package. You dip the female part of another flower into the pollen. Vibrate, dip, repeat.
It does the trick, Mr. Whaley said. His harvest increased 38 percent and he recently put a rechargeable model on the market for $50.
Would the average gardener want to take all that trouble? Maybe.
Mr. Whaley said some determined gardeners have been performing a similar manual pollination for years using electric toothbrushes. The VegiBee, though, is better at shaking off the pollen because of its quick vibrations, he claims.
Gardeners love to dig in the dirt, but how can it be completely savored, you may ask, without spreadsheets full of sweet data? Garden stores have answered that call with an array of gadgets that test soil for moisture and acidity levels.
The Rapitest 4-Way Analyzer, for instance, not only measures moisture and pH levels, but also determines whether to add fertilizer and what the sunlight level is in a particular spot in the garden. It’s about $30 online or in stores. Or try a digital rain gauge. Digital gauges used to be so expensive that only true weather zealots bought them. “But they’ve gotten cheaper and cheaper as time went on,” said Matt Glenn, vice president for business development for Headwind Consumer Products in Syracuse, Neb.
These rain gauges are impressive. They are wireless and track rainfall by the day, week, month or year. They also have thermometers for indoor and outdoor temperatures.
Why stop there? Once you have data, why not share it on a social network of other like-minded gardeners?
Enter Future Tech Farms, the high-tech gardening brainchild of Brian Falther and his business partner, Austin Lawrence. The two mechanical engineers are trying to develop a network of indoor gardening pods, hooked up via phone or home Wi-Fi, to a social pod network, which would share information on the most effective growing conditions.
“The whole goal is to create a food production format for the world that is ecologically sustainable, energy sustainable and carbon neutral,” said Mr. Falther, a 2010 graduate of Kettering University in Flint, Mich., where Mr. Lawrence is a senior. “I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing this.”
Why indeed? The small self-contained pods would collect data on water temperature, light, pH levels and such. Then the information on what works best could be shared on the network, making it easier for newcomers and participants to garden, Mr. Falther said.
The two have more than $30,000 in start-up money and are hoping that someday their pods will be as familiar a sight in homes as refrigerators and televisions.
Outdoors, gardeners are constantly battling voracious creatures. It never fails that, just when you’re ready to pick that perfect tomato, a squirrel snatches it away.
But there is some high-tech help for that too. The Garden Defense Electronic Owl, made by Easy Gardener, is placed on a fence post, and when a sensor in the battery-operated plastic bird detects a woodland creature, the owl’s head turns to fix the intruder with a murderous stare intended to frighten it away.
The owl, about $40, is not the only device meant to scare on the market, but it may be the creepiest. Several brands of sensor-driven, motion-activated sprinklers are also available, with names like the ScareCrow, Yard Enforcer and Spray Away, ranging in price from $49 to about $140.
But why settle for a threatening turn of the head or a simple squirt of water when you could have a quadricopter drone?
At the University of Victoria in British Columbia, engineering students charged with the problem of deterring garden pests came up with the Garden Gnome Drone, a small but noisy machine that rises off its landing pad when infrared sensors detect an intruder, then flies a quick pattern around the garden before settling back down in its place.
The students didn’t test their device to see if it deterred garden animals, said Chandra Beaveridge, who was one of five on the design team. But theoretically, any wandering raccoon would drop its ear of corn and flee in terror at the eerie sight. The idea is to scare creatures away from the garden without harm or the use of water, she said.
Drones for home gardens would be expensive, she acknowledged. The drone, called Parrot, costs about $200, which is one reason there are no plans to market it at the moment. But the group left behind its code for future engineers to build on, she said, so someday someone might market and sell it as an animal deterrent.
But your garden robot need not be airborne.
Stephen Verstraete, a sculptor living in Belgium, designed a do-it-yourself garden robot. “I don’t have green thumbs. All my plants always seem to die,” he said. So when he was asked to create robots to roam around a technology convention in Amsterdam last year, Mr. Verstraete built robots that detected sunlight and moved house plants to the light.
“I wanted to make them as cheap as possible and easy for anybody to make,” he said. “I made mine with stuff lying around, but if you want to buy everything new, I guess the cost will be a minimum of $15,” he said. He lists the parts at instructables.com/id/Plant-Host-Drone/
If your plants don’t visit you in your sunny breakfast nook, they could at least call, right?
Or, better yet, send a message by Twitter.
Botanicalls, a collaboration among artists and technologists, has designed a do-it-yourself kit with a sensor that goes into the dirt to measure moisture. When it gets too dry, the plant posts, “Water me please.” And it will send out a polite thank you when you respond.
“We didn’t want it to be like that person who only calls when he wants something,” said Robert Faludi, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York and in the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University. The kit is for sale at botanicalls.com/buy/ for $100.
The goal was to encourage a happy relationship between plants and people. “A lot of people are afraid of plants. They’re afraid whatever they do the plant is going to die. This makes it possible for them to have a plant in their lives where they might not otherwise,” Mr. Faludi said.