New Technology and Old Time Gardening

Edyn Garden SensorSolar-powered monitoring and control of garden conditions holds promise.

Developing and using new technology has been part of gardening since ancient peoples first started fashioning stone tools for digging. Nearly all advances in agricultural development, from the first use of antlers as a hoe to the gas-powered roto-tiller (and its big brother, the tractor and plow) have come from technological development. Not all of them have necessarily been good. But most of them are done in the name of advancing the science and craft of food production (some seem done purely for selfish profit-motives).

In terms of home gardening, technology hasn’t really changed that much since our grandparent’s days. And most of the recent advancements, things like electronic soil testers and digital moisture meters are useful advances that help make it easier to gather the information we need for best growing conditions. Some technical advancement, like this and this, are purely mechanical, things that grandpa’s crazy inventor neighbor probably thought up but never brought to market. Then there’s these things, devices that made an ancient practice easier, faster, and all-around more convenient.

In these wired-in, computerized, solar-powered days, applications for smart phones and other inanimate objects with a brain have found use in everything from counting calories to minding the baby. What about growing things?

For one, there’s the completely automated garden (this reminds us of visiting Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland” all those years ago …. we’re still waiting to see some of the modern, Jetson-like conveniences we saw there). But there are more serious attempts to bring growing into the modern age.

Pest Problem SolverJason Aramburu, an ecologist, soil scientist and self-described “gardening enthusiast” with a degree from Princeton in in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology is working to revolutionize gardening and commercial agriculture. His Edyn company has developed a “smart gardening system,” that does what every conscientious gardener does: monitors and tracks environmental conditions, helping you make your plants thrive. The difference is that the Edyn system does it electronically.

How does it work? As explained at the Edyn site, an electrical, solar-powered sensor takes a variety of readings from your garden soil — moisture, humidity, pH, NPK — and transmits them via wi-fi and a router to your smart phone. The sensor will interface with automatic drip or other irrigation systems (Edyn also makes a moisture regulator), turning it on and off at opportune times. It will suggest the proper organic fertilizer to be used in conjunction with your soil conditions as well as when to use it. It also contains a massive database that will suggest which plants will best grow in your conditions and, when planted, when conditions merit their harvests.

What about those cloudy days when electricity-generating solar power is at a minimum? The sensor has a “smart power algorithm ensures the device stays online even during cloudy weather.”

The ultimate aim of the product is to create both a personal data base (your own electronic gardening journal) and a shared vault of gardening knowledge that will encourage more people to grow their own food while making their gardening efforts more effective. Wired has a detailed story on the development and goals of the Edyn sensor and app that can be found here.

Mr. Aramburu recently began a Kick-Starter campaign to fund his efforts. His hope, as reported in the New York Times story, is to sell enough of his product in the U.S. so that his manufacturing increases and he can begin to sell the senors in developing countries at a reduced cost.

We think that all these intentions are good. Anything that will increase food production in countries that need it is an important plus. And Edyn’s uses in water management in these years of drought are welcome indeed. Mr. Aramburu’s overall business model, one that emphasizes social entrepreneurship during an age when profit is everything and shareholder values seem to trump the notion of quality and usefulness, are a refreshing change.

Of course, we have some questions about the technology. And we’re not the only one. Treehugger has a history of looking askew at so-called technological advances in gardening. Do we really want our plants tweeting us? But they seem to be willing to give Edyn a chance.

Our questions would relate to the durability of the sensor and its large-scale applications. One of our colleagues loves to tell the story of renting a home in rain-thirsty New Mexico with an expensive, automated, solar-powered drip irrigation system that had succumb to the elements seemingly long before he moved in (see “profit is everything” above). And what about cost and maintenance of the system? Currently one of the sensors monitors only a 250 square foot area and its router requires a “repeater” at certain distances (2,500 feet is suggested as a maximum) from the garden. We know the toll that gardening takes on our jeans. What will it do to electronic senors?

But our biggest argument with the system is aesthetic. Currently, we are the monitor for soil conditions, moisture and other weather conditions, pests and disease, and all the other factors that influence how our garden grows. We stick our fingers in the dirt, examine leaves for signs of disease and lack of moisture, see just when a tomato or ear of corn is ready to be picked. To us, that’s one of the things that gardening is all about.

Commercial applications are one thing. But a big part of the reward that comes of home gardening is our contact, our relationship with the weather conditions, the soil, and the things that grow there. The less standing between us and our garden, the better the aesthetic reward of gardening. We also take a certain amount of pride in our resourcefulness when it comes to building and maintaining all the things connected to our garden — tools, soil amendments (compost), trellises and other structures. We try to hold costs to a minimum. Anything we buy needs to pay for itself. In other words, the Edyn system is probably not for us.

That said, as an information-gathering tool (see “electronic journal” above) and as a way to learn more and become more effective gardeners, well, we can’t slight the Edyn sensor (and especially its wise-water use functions) in the least. And the company’s dedication to improving the world’s food production without resorting to chemicals and GMO technologies, well, that encourages us in a big way. We’ll be monitoring their commitment and, hopefully, their success. Until then, it’s time to go out and see what needs watering.

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