Automating Green Thumbs

The current pandemic has left of us with more free time than ever before. Among the numerous activities begun these past few months, gardening was one of the fastest growing (see what I did there!). Seed suppliers were reporting shortages as people started growing personal gardens, nicknamed “Covid Gardens” or “Victory Gardens”. Typical reasons for starting a garden included finding extra free time, worries about supply lines being disrupted, or just wanting to limit time in stores. Whatever the reason for gardening, if you are anything like me, as the summer moves on and fall looms in the distance, the only thing my garden shows is how not green my thumbs are.  

Let’s face it, no matter how romantic a personal garden is, the daily upkeep of watering, feeding, and weeding are repetitive and time consuming. This got me thinking that when I run into repetitive time-consuming tasks at work, I use automation and programming to save some effort. Can I automate and program my way through gardening? Yes, yes, I can. Turns out, there is a lot to offer in terms of technology for home gardeners. Now it is nothing as sophisticated as using satellite imagery to monitor heat and light signatures to improve crop yields like large farms, but for the casual home gardener it can prove useful.  

There are technological solutions for all types of gardeners, whether you are the set and forget type or the type that wants interactive apps with your garden. By far the quickest to set up are robots. Gardening robots may require a small amount of time to train at first, but once completed they are off and running. The first I found is turtle, well Tertill, which is a solar-powered, four-wheel drive, weed-killing machine. This is essentially a Roomba for my garden, which is not far-fetched considering it was designed by a Roomba engineer. Kobi is another robot that weeds, mows, and scoops snow if I were looking for more than just gardening help. With these robots, the only gardening I must do regularly is apply water.  In addition to a sprinkler system, drip irrigation kits are quick and easy to set up and found at most local hardware stores making this task even easier.  

One hard-learned lesson with gardening involved the fact that insects like my garden more than I do. Since we are still waiting on Photonic Sentry to release their mosquito laser, we will have to find another solution to deter insects without the use of pesticides. While I was sitting in the A/C comfort of my dining room staring at the garden outside where it is 90+ degrees, I realized why should I have to garden outside at all? Aquaponic and hydroponic systems can be set up inside or outside. When inside a number of these problems are solved, making it a feasible solution. 

Essentially both systems feed and water plants by slowly flowing nutrient-rich water over plant roots. Hydroponic systems require the gardener to add nutrients, where aquaponic systems use fish to balance out water nutrients for plant food. Both systems can be set up manually or by using a Raspberry Pi or Arduino. A gardener can automate just about everything needed to get a hydroponic or aquaponic system going. Several suppliers make Arduino-ready pH sensors, thermometers, and float sensors that are almost as easy as plug and play.  Thanks to the Arduino user base, finding code for these sensors is super simple.  

Once the daily needs of my garden are taken care of, it would still require me to leave the couch and stop binge-watching television to check on the system. So, the next stage in my gardening adventure would have to be adding a mobile app or website that I can access from my couch to check on it. Maybe even adding a webcam, so I can look to see if any lettuce is ready for harvesting before going out to the garden. So, my Covid Garden is turning into a couch garden, but it will be time well spent once those veggies start rolling in. No matter what kind of technical gardener you are, happy gardening! 

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