How to get smart in the garden
The smart home has well and truly escaped the bounds of its traditional four walls
Those of us lucky enough to have them have become intimately attached to our gardens in this past year. They’re a home away from home – and given that those same four walls get a little samey, a safe-space trip to the great outdoors is a real tonic. The garden is now more than a patch of grass out the back, it’s a viable room in its own right, with all the modern conveniences we’ve come to expect.
It should come as no surprise that the burgeoning smart home is expanding outward into this new room at pace, ready to offer you smarter garden management, better connectivity and a whole host of new kit to tie into your existing routines; if you’re committed to your outdoor space, you can even find full-on entertainment rigs ready and raring to annoy your neighbours as you put your feet up on the patio.
Go, go, robo mow
Smart mowers may be the big headline grabbers of the smart garden world, but don’t be so hasty to presume that a robo-mower is a ‘drop on your lawn and go’ solution. There are a lot of factors fighting against automated grass management, not least of which is your lawn itself. Let’s consider the way a Roomba (other vacuum bots are available) navigates inside your home to work out why: they can barely deal with scaling the edge of a rug, can’t even consider stairs (though we don’t rule out a Dalek-like hovering evolution in the future) and wouldn’t be too happy with an undulating surface. Vacuum bots use cameras, lasers, and bump sensors to pick out the edges of a room and map it. That is all comparatively easy compared to what a robot is likely to face in your garden, unless you’ve been manicuring until now with nail scissors and a spirit level; lawns vary massively, light levels constantly change, and finding the difference between a path, border and stretch of grass requires advanced smarts, or at least a good memory.
Generally, you’ll need to manually delineate the different parts of your garden to help the robot out, usually by installing a perimeter wire which can be rather unsightly; some newer models have begun employing humidity sensors to detect the difference between grass and stone, but the similar humidity between soil and grass means these can’t usually work out where a border begins and your begonias will get a
chopping without also employing a wire. GPS location is another option on wider lawns, as long as you’re not looking for ultra-accurate edge-to-edge coverage. Modern GPS has the potential to be centimetre-accurate, but it needs the right conditions and a prevailing wind. Trees and buildings near your garden are going to chop that accuracy down.
It might seem like we’re being overly negative towards smart mowers, so we should point out that they’re really not all that bad – it’s just worth thinking of the potential issues before your new outdoor robot hurls itself into your pond. There are some truly excellent models out there: the Stihl iMow RMI 422 P (£1,199) has been making waves in the low-cost sector, and can keep your lawn trim and proper with 17 hours’ work per week – it’s self charging, so it should get the job done with the minimum of fuss, though it does require you to permanently install its charging dock somewhere on the same level as your lawn. If you want to get slightly smarter, Husqvarna’s range is worth checking out, with the Automower 315X (£1,999) adding smart connectivity and handling slopes with aplomb, and the Automower 435X AWD (£4,399) able to nip up a 70% gradient with its all-wheeldrive wheels, perfect for palatial lawns.
Wet and wild
Of course, if you want your lawn to stay green as well as groomed, you’ll probably need to offer it some water now and then. This is another area where we encourage you to exercise a little caution; there are a number of smart watering systems on the market, but (without mentioning any particular
examples) they’re often a little pointless. Sure, they can sense the weather and activate when they think your lawn might need a little refreshment, but that’s about as far as their smart functions extend, and many have left the market over the years because they’ve not proven popular. You, we are sure, are able to sense the weather for yourself, and switch on your sprinkler when you think your lawn needs it, and basic mechanical water timers are effective enough when you’re away from home.
That said, there is one strong option for automated irrigation in the form of the Eve Aqua (£89.95). It ties into HomeKit, which is a big tick, unless you’re primarily using a different smart home system. It bests its rivals by dint of its ability to be tied into full-blown smart home routines – using an outdoor weather station, for example, you could potentially build a function which turns your sprinklers on after a certain number of dry days. That’s handy.
If you’d like a more specific look at what your plants are doing, there’s a Bluetooth plant monitor coming out of China which can check moisture levels in the soil, nutrient levels, temperature and light levels. The exact same product is available under a bunch of different generic brand names – Wanfei, VegTrug, Bainuojia et al – at somewhere in the region of £26; we’d expect the device to be functional if not spectacular.
Watch the skies
As far as weather monitoring goes, we’ve looked at the Netatmo Smart Weather Station Indoor Outdoor (£149.99) in these pages before – though it may have had a different name at the time, because Netatmo can’t seem to decide what its products are called – and it remains one of the best choices you can make for local monitoring. It’s fully HomeKit compatible, as well as working with Alexa, and feeds into a beautiful and highly useable app. You can also tack on extras like a wind meter or rain gauge, as well as additional outdoor modules, all of which tie into its high-end aesthetic nicely.
There are others out there which offer a wider range of features. Indeed, there’s a vast hobbyist community for weather monitoring, packing in features like integrated cameras,
solar power, and consistent Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity which enables you to stream your weather data online – perhaps even contributing to a distributed, hyper-local forecasting service like Weather Underground, and helping those who aren’t so lucky to have a weather station or perhaps even a garden to see what conditions are going to be like.
You may even be able to get away without a weather sensor at all. Consider using a smart camera like the Blink Outdoor (£99.99), which not only offers a pin-sharp view of your garden whenever you need it, be that for security purposes or to check whether your robomower has taken it upon itself to munch the toys your kids have left on the lawn, but it also incorporates its own integrated temperature sensor. It’s all about constructing the ecosystem that works for you, and giving weight to the things which matter most.
Bring the outside in
Even if you don’t have a garden to call your own, you can get your fix of the natural world indoors thanks to a wide range of smart indoor gardens. Some are more focused on producing edibles, things like herbs and leafy greens, which you can enjoy fresh from the plant: the most prominent examples come from Click and Grow, whose Smart Garden 3 (around £90) is small enough to sit on a kitchen counter, using energy-efficient LED grow lights and automated watering to get your plants (supplied in capsule form, like a slightly greener coffee machine) growing fuss-free. The company also produces the larger Smart Garden 9 (£170), which triples the possible planting, and offers the Smart Garden 27 (around £540) which is basically just three of the nine-capsule modules stacked up on a wooden plant stand.
Another option if you’re more looking for the purity of plants is the Respira, a vertical hydroponic garden which doesn’t use soil. Instead, it pulls air over the exposed roots of its plants where, to quote the company, “beneficial microorganisms capture and break down toxins in the air”. It can also help to improve the humidity of dry homes, and there are obvious mental health advantages to having a big wall of pretty plants. The only issue is getting hold of one as it has only just left the Kickstarter phase, but keep an eye on respira.ca for news of international distribution and pricing.
So whichever way you get your zen, be it indoors, outdoors, green thumb or clean thumb, there’s a smart option for you – and don’t forget the power of smart outdoor lighting (see ‘Bright night’, and we’ll cover this more in future editions of MacFormat) to upgrade the looks of even the most pedestrian garden.