Keeping up with the latest tech doesn’t have to mean wearing a computer on your face or letting AI programs write your emails. Some new apps and gadgets are helping people get outside and touch grass.
Tools that make it easier to appreciate and take care of plants — “plant tech,” we’ll call them — are getting smarter thanks to advances in gene editing, computer vision and smart home setups. Some plant products draw on the same technologies powering breakthroughs in augmented reality and medicine. These new avenues for plant care are making life easier for novices and experienced green thumbs alike, said Hank Adams, chief executive and founder of indoor hydroponic company Rise Gardens.
“Gardening is a cool way to connect with the Earth and have something that’s not purely analytical and technical,” he said. “But at the same time, I can follow along on my phone as my garden grows, and it kind of acts like a fallback.”
For Adams, tech and the natural world aren’t opposed — they’re complementary. Plants make us happy, he said, and tech can help keep our plants happy.
Plant tech is a big category that includes apps, smart sensors and bioengineered plants themselves. So whether you’re struggling to manage a sprawling outdoor garden or just trying to keep a succulent alive, you don’t have to toil alone. Here’s a list of our favorite plant tech to keep you informed and inspired along the way:
Plants help capture carbon and other pollutants from the air. And with the power of genetic engineering, some plants go above and beyond.
Take Neoplants, a company that made a splash at this year’s CES, a giant consumer tech exhibition in Las Vegas, with its air-purifying houseplants. Neoplant engineers edited the genetics of the plants so they would absorb more volatile organic compounds — chemicals emitted from thousands of household products that can cause short- and long-term health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
A single Neoplant can remove 30 times more volatile organic compounds from the air than a typical houseplant, the company says. The plants are in testing to see how they perform compared to air purifiers, said Patrick Torbey, co-founder and chief technology officer. And the company has plans for more genetically engineered houseplants.
“Every year we want to offer a new species of plants to people that are maybe bigger, more performant, that have a different look,” Torbey said.
You can join a waiting list as the company releases small batches of the plants to start. The plants, along with a stand and three month’s worth of special bacteria drops, run $179. (The drops help the plant continue cleaning the air, Torbey said.)
Curious about that weird tree you saw on a hike or the aromatic flower outside your apartment door? There is, of course, an app for that, and the best ones are totally free. As Washington Post climate columnist Michael Coren found, scientists have shared the latest data on plant and animal species to power augmented-reality apps that can identify flowers, trees and everything in between.
Coren recommends the Seek app, which identifies plants and animals in real time as you shoot live video. If you want more information about the plant you found, switch over to the iNaturalist or Pl@ntNet apps and upload an image. There, amateur and professional nature lovers work together to identify plants and document their observations. The apps are fun, Coren said, and the data they generate helps scientists and citizens take better care of the natural world.
You may not even need to download a new app to start identifying the flora around you. If your iPhone runs iOS 15 or newer — which it really should be, considering that software was released two years ago — the “visual lookup” feature built into the Photos app can try to figure out what flowers you’ve snapped pics of. A similar feature — Google Lens — will do the same for photos on Android phones, also free.
String lights are a backyard staple, but glow-in-the-dark plants could soon give you a new way to illuminate your garden or patio.
Light Bio, another cell-programming company in the vein of Neoplants, took genetic information from bioluminescent mushrooms and used it to make other plants emit light, the company says. You can join a waiting list to get your hands on one of the company’s proprietary “firefly petunias,” which give off a soft green glow.
When it comes to indoor gardening, your setup can be as fancy or simple as you like.
For an easy set-it-and-forget-it option, check out tiny indoor gardens like the herb garden kit from Click and Grow. This countertop-friendly unit comes with plant pods like basil and lavender, an LED grow light and self-watering reservoir. Just drop in the pods, fill up the water and wait.
For something more elaborate, look at the personal-sized rig from Rise Gardens. This setup fits up to 12 plants, including fruits, vegetables, herbs and microgreens, the company says. The accompanying app alerts you when the plants need water or nutrients.
Overwatering is the easiest way to kill a houseplant. But without real-time feedback from your plant, it’s hard to know how much hydration is too much.
Apps like Planta can be handy for figuring out what kind of care your plant friends need, while smart plant pots and sensors can help you keep tabs on their health. This smart sensor, for instance, sits in the soil next to your plant and pairs with an app. It claims to provide data on water level, soil fertility, temperature and light exposure. Guesswork, be gone.
If squirrels or deer are eating your hard-won garden, an unexpected bath might send them packing.
A motion-sensor-equipped sprinkler like this one from Black & Decker ($62.69 at Home Depot) detects when something is moving nearby and sprays it with water. It’s more humane than chemicals and traps — just don’t forget you set it up or you’ll end up wet. And remember: Some animals love water even when they arguably shouldn’t.
Chris Velazco contributed to this report.
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