Innovation Talk: Market is ripe but growth in hi-tech garden yet to Bloom
I long for the day when a robotic weeder would gently untangle bindweed from my raspberry canes, remove creeping buttercup and scutch grass from my flower beds
Garden enthusiasts enjoy the Bloom festival in the Phoenix Park. Photograph: Artur Widak/PA Wire
Bord Bia’s Bloom festival in the Phoenix Park finishes today. Earlier, as I wandered around enjoying the 30 show gardens and related areas, I wondered whether a show garden will ever be sponsored by one of our numerous high-tech companies.
What would an imaginatively designed high-tech show garden look like? Perhaps a seamless transition between real and virtual arrangements, with the viewer never quite sure what flower displays are material and what are electronic images.
As Bloom demonstrates, the domestic gardening sector is big business. A quick search of the internet did not yield me details of the size of the Irish market, but I did find figures suggesting that 80 per cent of US households participate in gardening activities (including indoor), and that each on average spends several hundred dollars per year. Yet, by and large, gardening remains a low technology sector and, as my back frequently reminds me, a largely manual occupation.
Lawn mowing has gone robotic however. A number of vendors offer autonomous mowing pods, a few on display at Bloom. These wander around your lawn leaving mulched grass trailing behind them, before heading back to their docking station at any hint of rain or when low on battery power. Some even offer integration with your smart phone, allowing you to monitor their progress and remotely change their settings. I confess I do not actually own one, although my elder daughter and her partner take delight in double-jobbing theirs to deliver plates of party food and drinks.
There is a robot kindred to its mower friends which can wander around your garden tethered to an attached hosepipe, periodically squirting water on your plants. I suspect a well laid out sprinkler network would be more practical.
With the advent of water charges, I am sure the Irish market will be well served by high-tech sprinkler systems doubtless controllable from your smart phone. There is even a digital attachment available for your hose nozzle, which monitors and alerts you to the volume of water y ou have sprayed.
Self-watering flower pots, for indoor plants, are offered by a few vendors. Each has a small reservoir which you fill, and then the pot controller dribbles out water as necessary. Some high-tech flower pots rotate the pot to ensure a uniform distribution of sunlight on the plant.
One or two come combined with their own telescopic LED lamp, which occasionally raises itself cobra-like to flood your plant with artificial light. There are even autonomous flower pots which meander across your floor to follow sunbeams, much like your cat.
Rotating and moving flower pots are probably not as creepy as robotic scarecrows. There are now robotic quadrocopters which are programmed to buzz the birds before settling gently back again onto their home recharging pad.
Then there are the remote sensors. These can measure soil acidity, water content, air humidity and temperature. One or two are wifi equipped and so will send push notifications to your smart phone when their ward needs your doting attention.
The better sensors are even pre-programmed with the optimal conditions for a large number of plant species. Once you tell the sensor what kind of plant you want it to monitor, it will advise on any deviation from the optimal environmental conditions for your flower. You can also ask the device, after it has had a chance to sense its surroundings, what species might be best suited for that location.
Naturally there are many smart phone apps available for keen gardeners. These too can advise on what plants are best suited to specific locations. There are guidebook apps, helping you to schedule garden activities and maintenance. There are social garden networks too, which enable you to share experiences and seek peer advice.
From my browsing and musings, high-tech domestic gardening appears to still be in an early adopter phase. Sure enough, there are many build-it-yourself kits. For example, the Raspberry Pi computer card, which is being used to promote computer science in UK schools, has a few projects dedicating to building your own garden environmental sensors.
The growing global interest in 3D printers made me wonder whether there are yet any publicly available designs to print off and build your own garden gadgets. The only ones I could find allow you to print and assemble your own bird houses and boxes, but so far little else.
The high-tech world has much to do to make an impact in the real world of domestic gardening. It seems a large market, ripe for intelligent disruption.
I long for the day when a robotic weeder would gently untangle bindweed from my raspberry canes, remove creeping buttercup and scutch grass from my flower beds, and put any giant hogweed that dares to show itself instantly out of its miserable existence. My back would undoubtedly celebrate too.