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Smart Home

Can technology help our garden grow?

We planted some vegetables in the garden of the CNET Smart Home and installed connected gadgets to take care of our plants.

The CNET Smart Garden has started to look like an actual garden. We set it up a couple months ago at the start of spring at the CNET Smart Home in Louisville, Kentucky. In the meantime, we used a couple of indoor planters to grow seeds into seedlings, and planted some lettuce in the garden while we waited for temperatures to rise.

This past week, Kentucky weather cooperated, and I got back to work in the smart garden. Our setup is now fully operational. Here's what that means, what we discovered about the needs of a smart garden, and what we hope to achieve with our little intersection of tech and nature.

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Time to plant and water the smart garden

At the start of spring, we built a customized irrigation system to live in our homemade garden bed. We planned to plant lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeños and Carolina Reaper peppers, so we tailored our drip hosing to give different amounts of water as appropriate to each of the plants. (Check out the details about how we set up our smart watering system here.) 

However, we could only plant lettuce at the beginning of the season, and there was plenty of rain to keep them growing, so we still don't know if the irrigation system is reliable enough to help our plants grow without our intervention. 

This week, we planted everything but the Reapers (we're still waiting on those to grow a little more before transplanting them). I also had to plug a leak in the hose running from the faucet to the garden, which is something to watch out for if you'd like to follow our approach. We're using the Wi-Fi-enabled, $70 (roughly £50, AU$95) Orbit B-Hyve Faucet Timer to regulate when water goes to the garden -- it's the central piece of our system and the part that makes it smart. I had to reset the timer once, but it's worked well otherwise.

Nature will test our irrigation system in the coming months: We're about to hit a period that tends to be quite hot and dry in Kentucky. We'll consider this system a success if we can grow the vegetables in our garden with little intervention on our part.

We built our garden bed by hand.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Other smart tools

We've also set up other connected products and services to protect our plants from pests. We have the $250 (roughly £190 and AU$335) Netgear Arlo Pro 2 mounted on a wall near the garden bed and angled to see the whole garden. This cam is battery powered and rated for outdoor use, which means we didn't need to run an extension cord out to it and it can survive through rain.

At night, we arm the Arlo Pro 2 so it watches for motion. We'll get an alert through the camera's app if it detects any movement. We also set up a trigger through the free online rules platform IFTTT to flash our Philips Hue outdoor lights if the camera senses any motion. No one lives at the CNET Smart Home, so we can't run outside and chase away pests ourselves: It's up to our smart system to keep our growing veggies safe.

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Here's what our garden looked like at the start of Spring, complete with the drip irrigation system.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Still waiting on more smart garden helpers

Our fully operational smart garden takes care of a lot of the day-to-day maintenance of growing veggies, but it doesn't do everything. As we prepared to plant our seedlings, I had to spend a couple of hours in the garden pulling out a seemingly infinite number of weeds. 

A tool to battle weeds is on the horizon. The $300 (£238 in the UK, roughly AU$395 in Australia) Tertill is like a solar-powered robot vacuum for your garden. It roams around your garden bed every day and cuts away the weeds while they try to grow. It doesn't pull out roots, just cuts them at the stem, but the company claims that because it does daily patrols, the weeds won't have a chance to grow back. Tertill won't cut anything over a certain height, so it knows to avoid your plants. The creators of the Tertill, which began as a Kickstarter projectsaid they expect to ship Tertills to backers by the end of June. 

The Tertill is aimed at maintaining a weed-free garden rather than shredding through the mess I encountered this past week, so it could be a much-needed assistant to maintain the results of my manual labor. However, I'd be concerned that the blades would mess up our irrigation hosing.

I'd also love a smarter way to fertilize plants automatically. Some plant sensors can tell you when to fertilize, but there aren't many options for connected fertilizers out there. That said, you can readily find systems to mix fertilizer in with your water. Plus, indoor planters can fertilize and water for you. A couple of our tomato seedlings were grown from seeds in the $200 (roughly £150, AU$270) Click and Grow Smart Garden 9 planter, so we'll see how they fare next to store bought seedings now that I've transplanted them outside.

Finally, to make the smart garden better, we need more smart garden options in general. Not many smart sprinklers attach to a simple garden faucet like our model from Orbit, so we'd be out of luck if we didn't like this particular product. We ran into similar challenges with the camera and the outdoor lighting. The smart home is booming, but finding the perfect connected gadgets for an outdoor garden is still difficult.

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Here's what our garden looks like now.

Chris Monroe/CNET

What's next?

In a couple of months, we'll know if the system and gadgets we've put in place are good enough to make our garden grow. We'll plant the Reapers once they're ready and eat them on camera for the spectacle of it all. We'll continue to look for ways to refine our system.

The forthcoming $400 (roughly £300, AU$540) GardenSpace automatic sprayer would fit our project perfectly, as it can spray water directly on plants and spray pests as a deterrent, but we're still waiting on its release. Our smart garden isn't perfect, yet, but it is operational, and with plants in the ground, the stakes are now real.

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