My First Forray Into the Wild and Dangerous World of Connected Gardening

Tech Features Gardening
My First Forray Into the Wild and Dangerous World of Connected Gardening

Deep in my subconscious, lingering like a broken promise or a whisper, there’s an insatiable desire to plunge a rusty hoe into fertile ground and tend the blackened soil. It might be something in my Scandinavian blood or floating around in the corners of my synapses. I imagine myself rolling chunks of dirt through my fingers in a thoughtful pose. I dream of thick green cornstalks casting a furious shadow across a lush field. I gaze out at a cornucopia of ripe tomatoes as far as the eye can see, a product of my own inscrutable toil.

Then, I wake up and remember I grew up in Minneapolis. When we tended the soil, it’s because we had poured a bag of the stuff from Bachman’s Lawn & Garden on a path and planted tulips, then said a prayer hoping no one would notice the tulips were already fully formed. Instead of weeding anything, we used an underlayment of polyurethane—the same material used for trash bags and to cover fishing boats for the winter. A “hoe” was the one tool we had in the shed that caused serious confusion. We knew it was a farm implement but we had no idea why anyone would use one. I know as much about gardening as mechanical engineering.

That’s why, when I heard about a new app that helps newbie gardeners learn the craft, I paid attention. It’s called Gro and it’s from (big surprise here) Scott’s Miracle Gro.

The initial conversation went something like this:

“So, what you’re telling me is that there is an app that tells me how to grow zucchini?” I said.

“Yes, and plenty of other vegetables!” the PR rep said.

“And I don’t need to watch a single YouTube video made by a guy named Jim Bob?” I asked.

“Not a single one!” she said.

I quickened to the idea pretty fast. The app works with plant sensors that give you tips about when to water. It provides detailed instructions about how to make rows for your carrot seeds or build mounds of dirt for zucchini and squash. It even includes a few Millennial jokes. Eventually, the company plans to support sensors like the Parrot Flower Power and many others.

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I also heard about a company called SeedSheet that makes a product designed for people who grew up in the suburbs who obfuscated their tulip planting ritual for the neighbors. It’s one huge sheet you lay across the flattened Earth. The seeds are housed in small vestibules, so once you stake everything down to the soil and water it routinely, you end up with a Vegetable Garden Fit For a King that appears almost magically with no weeding required whatsoever.

Because I was really into the whole “connected gardening” angle, I asked Lowe’s if I could test their Orbit Hose Faucet Water Timer ($35), which triggers sprinkling automatically at set times of the day so you can watch a lot more NBA playoff basketball and drink root beer. I was ready to see if that long-lost inkling from my Viking ancestors sprang to life along with the turnips.

I will tell you that my seed-to-plant ratio started out a little low. I sowed too early for Minnesota, trying to get a jump on the game in soil that’s way too sandy. Scott’s stayed patient with me, telling me to try again. They even sent me some herb plants, which is a bit like sending a screwdriver to someone building IKEA furniture. (For those who don’t know anything about herb plants, they will grow in a hot desert in Tucson with no watering and lots of bugs. You have to try pretty hard to not grow herb plants even if your soil is utterly terrible like mine.)

Anyway, I kept at it. I installed the Orbit timers on two different faucets, then connected them to the Lowe’s Iris Smart Hub ($60). The Iris app let me set a watering time at 7AM (to avoid shocking the seeds as they are basking in midday sun) and then again at 7PM (so the water soaks evenly into the soil like someone getting a spa treatment at the Hilton). Running two hoses across my yard, I connected two sprinklers and laughed a little inside. Too easy!

I then sowed a few more seeds and added a few Bonnie plants. Using the Gro app, I kept checking for tips about weeding and watering. One of the sensors that connects to the app, called the PlantLink, didn’t quiter work and kept telling me I was watering too much or not enough. (The company is working on a new version that will probably work much better.)

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The Seedsheet seeds (say that three times fast!) sprang up from the ground, one by one. It was amazing! A little sun and connected home watering works wonders. I had used the super deluxe 10×16-foot sheet that costs $200 but they make much smaller sheets that cost about $35. The massive sheet has multiple tomato varieties, beans, carrots, and even broccoli. It was a perfect fit for a newbie like me and I barely had to do anything, but I definitely wanted to learn more about the gardening process. I kept planting more seeds in May, including pumpkins and more squash. I added more tomato plants and a few rows of corn. I went a little nuts.

Eventually, I forgot all about the Orbit timers, which is a good thing. Each day, the sprinklers erupted right on queue. I dutifully checked the app and drank root beer. My garden turned into a lush green field of vegetables (photo evidence included below). The Gro app helped me learn how it all works, providing tips and notifications. The Iris Orbit timers meant I didn’t have to trudge out to the garden two times per day with a watering can. The Seedsheet also worked perfectly despite my arcane knowledge of the subject matter. I had actual vegetables growing.

So what did I really learn? For one, if you do use the Iris system, make sure you ask about wireless reception. I had to install an extender because one of my faucets is on the opposite side of my house from the hub. With the Gro app, the gardening tips were amazingly helpful and the herbs (including basil and rosemary) added some nip to my salsa, but you do have to rely on the schedule they have for your area—I’d prefer if you could customize things more.

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As for the Seedsheet product, I’ve got no real complaints. If you read some of the reviews online, you’ll see that everyone else is happy with this small startup as well. I imagine this product will show up soon at your local Wal-Mart soon, although it seems to be online only for now. If there’s any slight ding against them, it’s that the gardening process is almost too easy.

Of course, what I learned most is patience. You can’t pull tomato plants up any faster. The Seedsheet prevents weeds from growing, but in every other area of my garden I had to contend with weeds every few days. (And by “contend” I mean I had to whack them with a hoe.) When you decide to start a garden, you have to be ready to make an investment in time.

I’m just starting to enjoy the results. Yesterday, I plucked off my first piece of lettuce and added it to a salad. I’m still watering automatically and using the Gro app. Next year, I might decide to use a colored flag system to identify the plants. For now, I am waiting for the corn to grow, for the broccoli to start unfurling, and for my gardening blisters to heal.

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