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I was previously a father of one, but now I’m father to hundreds. Overnight, I went from dutifully caring for one beautiful, thriving indoor apartment plant and am now the provider to an entire yard of demanding flora. My wife and I bought our first home, and in the process, adopted an entire garden of children each with their own personality, maturity and degree of neediness. I was a great father to one, because he was the perfect kid – a genetically altered, IKEA conceived specimen that barely needed any light, and seemed to prosper, even when deprived of water for weeks on end. My new family is much more fickle, and since I’m no Smith Hawken, I need help.

There has to be an app for that, and since my day job focuses on mobile technology, my hunt for the ideal gardening app began. The Wall Street Journal helped the cause with its recent article, “The Best Apps for Gardening – WSJ.com.” Yet, after checking out some of these apps, and a number of others, I couldn’t help but think how much better they could be. Technology today is an enabler, and it does an amazing job of getting us the right information, whether we are searching for something on Google or asking Siri about an upcoming appointment. But, imagine how our lives change when technology not only brings us the data, but acts upon it as well. Let’s explore this via the context of my dream garden app.

What Beautiful Specimens Do I Now Own?

Since I adopted this garden, I have no idea what anything is. Sure, I could use one of the existing apps to scan through thousands of pictures for something that looks similar, but that would take hours and is imprecise. What if I could ID my garden by simply taking some pictures or video with my phone? Homeland security already uses facial recognition software to detect individuals from populations of tens or hundreds of millions – it seems that we could apply this technology to match my garden against the 321,212 or so plant species. Knowing what’s in my garden is one thing, but how to take care of it is another.

How Should I Care for Them?

Today’s gardening apps are useful because they tell me that my Citrus meyeri (Meyer lemon tree) needs to be watered 2 times a week, more heavily when flowering. Some take it a step further by asking for my zip code in order to adjust the watering schedule based on my microclimate. But, just like humans, each plant has unique preferences, and a personalized approach is always going to succeed over one-size-fits-all care. What today’s apps don’t take into account is that the mature Meyer lemon tree that is shaded by my garage during the sunniest hours of the day requires less water than the unprotected Meyer lemon sapling I just planted in the middle of the yard.

How would my dream app tackle this challenge? This is where those original photos come into play. Beyond helping to ID the plants, they store a tremendous amount of information such as location, time of day/year, luminance (measure of the brightness of a point on a surface that is radiating or reflecting light), etc. Based on this data, it’s would estimate the maturity of the plant and very specifically define the sub-microclimate where that plant lives – in other words, my garden could now have multiple, distinct microclimates. The app could then plot my entire garden and craft a personalized care plan for each plant.

But… Gardening is Just a Hobby, Not My Job

Just like parents hate to cook different meals for each of their children, I don’t always have the time or energy to serve such a customized watering menu to my garden. This is where it really gets cool. Imagine if my gardening app collaborated with an intelligent irrigation system – each sprinkler wirelessly sharing real-time information such as ambient temperature and moisture levels in the soil. Together, they’d collaborate on dynamic watering schedules to deliver the right amount of water to each plant at the right time. More importantly, I’d be able to kick back on my deck with a margarita, enjoying this elegant orchestration of nature and technology.

Is this Gardending Uber-App Possible?

Does this uber-app for gardening sound like nirvana? Does the technology to make it real exist today? What types of companies could benefit most from creating this app and what are some other industries where a similar solution would apply? Stay tuned for part 2…

Meantime, I’ll do my best to keep the plants alive!    

UPDATE: Read part 2 here – The Uber Mobile App for Gardening (part 2)

Follow me on twitter @BrentCohler

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  1. JV Faulks

    Brent, sign me up as an alpha user!  I’m building a sustainable farm based upon aquaponics which is a newer farming approach combining hydroponics and fish farming into a balanced system. I can imagine a mobile app helping to identify appropriate plants for combination of variables related to this specific farming approach.  This covers plant selection for region and season. Since aquaponics has accelerated growth cycles with multiple harvests during the year, there are seed to system to harvest timelines to manage for different seed types. Then, there are the 1000’s of fish with different group ages in order to have different sizes and ultimately fuel the system. This adds feeding and harvesting complexities which need to be managed to keep the system optimized. Hey, a nice mobile app to manage one of the farming systems of the future.  Let me know when it’s available!

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