CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Smart Home

Is the smart garden growing or wilting?

Spring has sprung and we're celebrating with a close look at the state of the smart garden.

parrot-flower-power-product-photos-6.jpg

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Extending your smart home to the great outdoors can have a lot of benefits. Smart sprinklers can remember to water on their own, and they'll watch the weather so they won't turn on when it's raining. You can get a notification on your phone when you need to fertilize your houseplant. Tech can take care of a lot of your gardening work for you.

Because of those benefits, the promise of the smart garden is enticing. A couple of years ago, it looked like the category would become as prominent as the smart home category, which has now entered the mainstream thanks to competition from big name tech companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google.

The two main categories of smart garden tech so far have been smart plant sensors and smart sprinklers. One category has indeed moved beyond the early adopter phase and become almost standard. The other has faded from relevance and become even more of a niche product.

Now Playing: Watch this: The state of the smart garden
3:11

What happened to plant sensors?

Back in 2014, I reviewed three products in a relatively new category of connected tech called plant sensors. The premise of the tech was simple and a great fit for a beginning gardener like myself: Stick these sensors in the ground by your plant, and they'll send an alert to your phone when you need to water it. This way you won't murder your houseplant with accidental neglect or too much attention.

The sensors I tested offered a variety of features at prices ranging from $60 to $130. You could search the internet and find a dozen options if you wanted a plant sensor, and new ones kept popping up on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter. The one that got the most attention was from a startup called Edyn, which rolled out a plant sensor with a slick look from award-winning designer Yves Behar. Given Behar's involvement with other smart-home products, the August Smart Lock especially, his name gave the gardening niche some heft.

edyn-product-photos-4.jpg

The Edyn Garden Sensor had lots of features and a beautiful design.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Compared to the other major smart outdoor categories -- smart sprinklers, robot lawnmowers and weather sensors -- plant sensors looked like the most accessible entry point. Smart sprinklers cost at least $200 and are only any use if you have a yard with an inground sprinkler system. Weather sensors seemed to be aimed at a specific niche of specialists given all of the free weather apps. Robot lawnmowers are expensive and tedious to set up.

But anyone could make use of a plant sensor, whether they wanted to monitor an extensive garden bed or a small potted plant. Because of that accessibility, I wrongly pegged smart plant sensors as the category that would help lead the smart garden to prominence.

Fast forward to 2018 and smart plant sensors have all but disappeared. The four plant sensors I reviewed are all off the market. Larger garden companies saved two of the four. Lawncare giant Scott's acquired PlantLink and is resurrecting it as the Scott's Gro Water Sensor. Koubachi was acquired by a European smart garden company called Gardena (a subsidiary of Husqvarna) and it's no longer offered in the US.

The two with the highest profiles -- the Parrot Flower Power and the Edyn Garden Sensor -- have vanished entirely. Parrot is no longer making smart garden gadgets and the promising Edyn isn't selling anything at the moment.

Others, such as the Wimoto Grow, never came to fruition. Try to buy a plant sensor now and Amazon pulls up a small handful of unexciting options that all appear to be produced by the same manufacturer.

I talked to Jason Aramburu, the founder of Edyn, over Twitter and email to find out what happened. "I believe market demand has evolved," he said. "Consumers today want to know more about their plants than what this class of sensor can provide." He noted that the category stagnated: "the pace of R&D and innovation in the market as a whole has been slow."

While I thought the price of plant sensors would help them flourish over other categories, Brad Wardle, the Director of B-Hyve and Digital Products for smart watering company Orbit, believes the price wasn't low enough for what they could do. Because "In any lawn across this country," he said, "you get a bunch of different microclimates." So you'd need "four, five or six sensors per zone to get an accurate reading."

Wardle gave a sloping hill and a shady area under a tree as examples of different microclimates, and concluded that "The cost-benefit ratio doesn't really work out."

I never gave a glowing review to any of the plant sensors I reviewed. Avid gardeners likely didn't need a reminder to water, and none of the options offered enough data for research purposes. So even though the price of a plant sensor was cheap relative to other smart garden tech, the category still banked on those who didn't care enough to water on their own investing $100 on tech that didn't actively fix the problem.

As a result, plant sensors aren't dead, but they're even more of a niche product than they were four years ago.

Smart sprinklers on the rise

In stark contrast to plant sensors, smart sprinklers seemed too expensive and too niche to gain much popularity. Smart sprinklers replace your existing sprinkler controller for your in-ground sprinklers. If you don't have a home with a built-in sprinkler system, you have no use for a smart sprinkler.

Perhaps because smart sprinklers targeted specific consumers, they've flourished while plant sensors faltered. Startups such as Rachio, Blossom and GreenIQ popularized the category. Like PlantLink, Blossom was acquired and rebranded by Scotts.

Rachio still stands on its own and it just released the third generation of its product along with a new flow sensor. GreenIQ is widely available at places like Home Depot. Long time sprinkler company Orbit jumped into the smart game with the B-Hyve Smart Sprinkler.

You can also find smart sprinklers from Skydrop, Rainmachine and Rainbird. Meanwhile new products from startups such as Sprinkl Conserve are still jumping onboard.

Regarding Orbit's sprinklers, Wardle noted, "The majority of people that are buying the smart sprinkler timer are replacing a working, perfectly good sprinkler timer." They're not just waiting for their old model to break down, but seeking out smarts for their timer.

Chris Klein, the CEO of Rachio, agreed. "Look at the aisle of Home Depot or Lowe's," he said. "It's just dominated by internet connected controllers. It's literally becoming the standard."

Klein mentioned "tech gurus" that want to make their home smart as fast as possible, but noted "That's still the base, but as things like drought influence outdoor water use and make conservation more of a purposeful activity, you're gonna see a new persona kind of come in and that's kind of what we're seeing from our consumer insights."

After reviewing a couple of models, including the Rachio and Orbit sprinklers, I can attest that everyone who has a sprinkler system can benefit from a smart sprinkler. While old-fashioned control panels can be tedious to operate, smart controllers let you manage your sprinklers from an app on your phone.

b-hive-sprinkler-2

The Orbit B-Hyve earned high marks in our review.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The best ones can accurately do the scheduling work for you and monitor the weather over Wi-Fi, so you don't even have to manage your sprinklers if you don't want to. Plus, they can save you water by watching the weather and smartening up your watering routine, so if you have a sprinkler system, you stand to be paid back for your initial investment in the controller upgrade.

Smart sprinklers seem to have flourished while plant sensors faltered by offering a clear benefit and a polished user experience to a specific group of consumers.

Gardening time

We're celebrating the start of Spring by building a smart garden at the CNET Smart Home. Here's what we did to make our garden smart. We also took a deeper dive into robot lawnmowers, outdoor lighting, smart weather stations and using cams to scare away pests. More stories are coming to our gardening page soon including a guide to indoor gardening.

The promise of the smart garden is as enticing as ever. We'll put that promise to the test and see how easy it is to use tech to make our garden grow.