Buying Guide

Smart home garden tech buying guide

With the right technology, the grass doesn't always have to be greener on the other side of the fence.

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Nature and technology don't have to exist at odds with each other. In fact, similar smart home tech that automates your thermostat or your garage door can extend outside the walls of your house, helping you make your own corner of nature thrive.

Smart garden tech encompasses plant sensors, weather monitors, sprinkler systems and even robot lawn mowers. The diversity is fitting for the great outdoors, but it can also make it difficult to know where to start. Once you understand your options, you can stem your plant killing ways with push notifications, you can save time with automation, or you can simply collect data and monitor the conditions of your land. The diversity of smart garden tech will prove beneficial instead of daunting once you find the tools to fit your needs.

Focus on your goals

Like their indoor counterparts, every smart garden device does one or both of the following: senses the environment around it and/or automates a task. Smart outdoor devices will thus help you learn about your environment, help it thrive or both. Robot lawn mowers focus mostly on automation, but still need to sense enough to stay within the boundaries of your yard. Both plant sensors and weather monitors focus mostly on senses, but can still send you push notifications and act as triggers for other automation devices. Connected sprinklers gather weather information, and use it to automate a watering schedule.

Except for some robot lawn mowers, all smart outdoor devices have accompanying apps and communicate with the cloud in some form or another. And that's the end of the similarities of smart garden tech. Given how vastly different the devices are, you can quickly narrow your choices just by focusing on what you'd like your new smart gadget to accomplish. Are you a seasoned gardener looking for assistance to help you save time? Are you an enthusiast trying to collect data? Are you a busy homeowner hoping to cut your water bill? Are you an apartment dweller who struggles to keep a houseplant alive?

Connected garden tech can help with any of these goals.

Category overview

Plant sensors

You place these devices into the dirt near you plant, where they gather information on the surroundings and send it to your phone, tablet or computer, ideally to help you become a more informed gardener.

This is the only category of smart outdoor tech that can actually be used indoors, making them great for keeping a potted plant alive. Even the simplest plant sensor we've seen measures soil moisture, and compares that info against a plant database to give you specific advice about when to water your species of plant. You'll even get push notifications reminding you to water from all plant sensors we've tested, so you can root out your own accidental negligence.

More advanced plant sensors measure criteria such as ambient light, humidity, temperature and even levels of fertilizer in addition to the basic moisture readings. They can also measure multiple plants at once, so you'll be able to use a single sensor to watch a whole garden. (Note: The following products are available in the UK and Australia, unless the price is in brackets, in which case it is an approximate conversion from the US price.)

Plant sensor comparison

Edyn Garden Sensor Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor Parrot Flower Power Oso Technologies PlantLink
Price $100 (£65, AU$140) $100, £70 (AU$140) for the indoor version; $130, £109 (AU$130) for the outdoor $60, £31, AU$69 $80 (£50, AU$110) and $35 (£20, AU$50) for extra links
Signal Type Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Bluetooth Zigbee
Apps iOS, limited Android iOS, Web-based, limited Android iOS Web-based
Soil Moisture Yes Yes Yes Yes
Temperature Yes Yes Yes No
Light Yes Yes Yes No
Nutrition Yes No data, yes recommendations Yes no
Humidity Yes no no no
Push Notifications Not yet Yes When in Bluetooth range Yes
Plants in Database 5,000 800 7,000 50,000
Plant Finder no Yes No no
Battery Type Solar powered 2x AA 1x AAA 2x AAAA
Battery Life 2.5 years 1 year+ 6 months 1 year+
Interoperability Upcoming Edyn Water Valve None IFTTT None

You can expect plant specific recommendations on each criteria your plant sensor measures. Some plant sensors even keep careful track of the numbers they collect, making them the right tool if you want to study the conditions of your garden over time.

Plant sensors are a great tool for beginners, but can provide valuable assistance and reminders to seasoned gardeners as well.

Sprinklers

Using weather reports and sometimes data from your garden, these systems can help you save water by giving your yard a drink when it needs it, then automatically adjusting the schedule to stay off when it rains.

The Blossom Smart Watering Controller. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Most of these devices replace the controller of your existing irrigation systems, making them a fit for homeowners looking to save time and money. You won't have to fuss with your sprinkler schedule and can trim the amount of water your sprinklers use while keeping the yard green.

Smart sprinkler controllers vary in the number of zones they can control -- from 6 to 16 -- so check into how much coverage you need and how much the specific device offers when making your purchase.

If you don't have an irrigation system, a couple of hose-fed options are on the way. These will serve the same purpose as smart irrigation controllers, but can be threaded into more basic watering systems.

Weather sensors

Even more of a niche item than most smart garden tech, weather sensors can be quite useful in certain scenarios. They're the optimal device for learning more about your surroundings in general. Plus the included sensors can be used to monitor sensitive areas of your home, like a wine cellar or a child's room. Short of having a specific use in mind though, you might not find much value in these devices beyond what you can get from the dozens of free weather apps.

We've only seen two weather monitors thus far. Bloomsky adds value by taking periodic pictures of the sky over your house and letting you create time-lapse videos with them, in addition to providing hyper local weather. The Netatmo Urban Weather Station adds value by monitoring your indoor air quality in addition to outdoor metrics like temperature and air pressure.

If you're interested in hyperlocal weather, one of these devices will work for you.

Robot lawnmowers

Robot lawnmowers could be useful for many once the category has had time to mature, but as it stands, the tech is new, expensive and unwieldy. The benefits of robot lawnmowers are obvious -- you will no longer have to spend time pacing up and down your grass to keep it from overgrowing. Just be ready to spend more than $1,000 for the privilege.

The Kyodo America LawnBott costs $2,800 (£1,800 or AU$3,900). Colin West McDonald/CNET

You'll also need to go through a setup process. As it stands, robot lawnmowers navigate the yard using wires placed around the perimeter as guidelines (it's the same tech that is used for electric dog collars). After your purchase, but before starting to use the machine, you'll need to bury these wires around your yard.

So the barrier to entry into robot grass cutting is high at the moment, but if you're willing to invest the time and money to get over that hump, you could cross one of your items off of your regular chore list.

Asking the right questions

What type of signal does the device use?

Though your options are many, the Internet is a key ingredient in any smart garden device, so it's important to note how exactly your tech will reach the cloud.

Wi-Fi: Most commonly, devices will connect directly to your router with Wi-Fi. That's a fine option, as you won't need to pay for a bridge for a specialized signal and you can check on the device remotely.

The range of Wi-Fi should be plenty for most scenarios, but if you're looking to place a plant sensor in the far corner of a large yard or an irrigation controller behind a concrete wall, you should check signal strength in those desired locations before making a purchase.

Fortunately, Wi-Fi is a common enough signal standard that even if your reception is weak where you want your device, you're not out of luck. You can always purchase Wi-Fi extenders or additional routers, but you'll want to factor that extra cost into the equation when considering the total value of a new smart device. Also keep in mind that if you like to turn off your electronics when you leave town, then you won't be able to check on your devices when the router is off.

Bluetooth: A more battery-friendly signal than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth also has a significantly shorter range. Since it won't talk with your router, you'll need to be near your device with a phone or tablet in order to use it.

Since you can't access Bluetooth-specific devices remotely, I've yet to find a Bluetooth smart device that I preferred over a Wi-Fi one.

That said, Bluetooth isn't necessarily a deal breaker. If you're more interested in data collection than push notifications, or if you live in a small apartment, a Bluetooth device will serve you just fine.

For instance, the Parrot Flower Power is a plant sensor that collects information on moisture, fertilizer, temperature and light. You need to be near the device to get new data and the resulting care recommendations for your plant, but when you're not around, the Flower Power stores the data to push over during your next visit.

The Parrot Flower Power relies on Bluetooth. Colin West McDonald/CNET

This means you won't get a notification that you need to water when you're out and about, so Bluetooth won't be as effective at preventing plant killing by accidental negligence.

Power line, Zigbee and Z-Wave: Other signal types include power line, which uses the electric wiring in your home to transmit signals, as well as Zigbee and Z-Wave. The latter two are specialized radio frequencies that can be sent over a relatively long distance.

All three have a range longer than Wi-Fi, but need a bridge that will plug directly into your router to translate the signal. The extra hardware can cost more, though most devices that use these signals tend to include the extra piece in the initial purchase package.

Because it uses Zigbee, you'll need a sensor and a base unit to start using PlantLink. Colin West McDonald/CNET

To use the Zigbee-based plant sensor called PlantLink, you'll need to buy the starter pack for $80. (It's not yet available in the UK or Australia, but that converts to about £50, AU$110.) That pack includes the moisture sensor you place in the dirt and the hub you plug into your router. Additional plant sensors only cost $35 (about £20 or AU$50), so you can expand your system without buying an extra hub -- easy expansion is usually possible with devices that use these specialized signals. But the starter price of $80 to get the hub is more than the Flower Power's $60 (£40 or AU$85) for a standalone sensor. Though, it's less than standalone Wi-Fi Plant Sensors such as Edyn and Koubachi .

The Blossom Smart Watering Controller uses power line, and includes Wi-Fi capability as well, giving you an option for customization. The extra signal will prove useful if your sprinkler controller is outside, or behind a number of thick walls that Wi-Fi will have problems penetrating. Since power line transmits over your home's wiring, it should have no such trouble.

I expect to see future smart gardening devices that take advantage of Z-Wave, a similar frequency to Zigbee employed by current smart home devices like the Piper security camera.

With any of these signals, you'll also need to consider the space on your router. Do you have enough Ethernet ports that you can spare one for the hub? Make sure of this before purchasing a device that relies on a specialized signal.

3G: In an interesting new development, the GreenIQ Smart Garden Hub -- a smart sprinkler controller -- will connect to the cloud on its own, using cellular signal provided by US carrier AT&T. This has the advantage of not relying on your router, though the GreenIQ Hub still includes Wi-Fi as an option. The disadvantage will be cost. If you choose this signal option, you'll have to pay a service fee for the privilege. You don't have to pay to connect with any other option as long as you already have Wi-Fi at your home.

GreenIQ will connect to AT&T's 3G cellular signal. GreenIQ

Is it weather-proofed?

If you're going to keep your new smart device outside, you'll want to check and see if it can hold up to the conditions. You might expect that every device in the smart outdoors category can endure weather, but that's not necessarily true. Blossom is weather-proofed, the competing Rachio Iro isn't. You shouldn't submerge the Edyn Garden Sensor, but it can take normal rainfall. The Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor has an indoor and outdoor version.

Double check how much weather your device can take before making your purchase, and double check it's operational temperature range if you live in particularly hot or cold climates. Even if you have four typical seasons, you'll need to bring most plant sensors back inside before winter strikes.

How is it powered?

Most plant sensors and weather monitors require batteries, so you'll want to check what type of batteries they use as well as how long those batteries typically last. The Edyn Garden Sensor gets a nice boost here, as it has a built-in solar panel that recharges its specialized battery with just a sunny day.

Others use AA or AAA, which is where Bluetooth devices or those with specialized signals get an advantage, as those signals typically use less power than Wi-Fi. Most devices provide an estimated battery lifetime.

Solar panels keep Edyn charged. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Robot lawnmowers charge up using an included station that plugs into any outlet. You'll want to check how much charge the lawnmower holds though. Mowers with a bigger battery capacity can mow a greater area before coming back to the station.

With irrigation controllers, power isn't usually a factor, since you'll be replacing your existing controller and can plug your new smart device into the same spot.

Is it compatible with your phone or tablet?

Since you'll generally need an app to operate your smart gardening device, check to be sure the device has an app you can access. Most of these apps are free, so you can download the corresponding one before purchase to get a glimpse into how it looks and feels. Once you have your device, the app will be your main source of interaction with it.

With plant sensors, the app provides care advice. If you want plant-specific care advice, explore the plant database of the app and make sure it has your plant or a species close enough to give useful recommendations.

Koubachi's app helps you identify your plants. Koubachi, screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

If you're interested in plant sensors or weather monitors for their data, make sure the charts are readable, specific and helpful. For sprinkler systems, check out your scheduling options and make sure it's intuitive to set them up.

Does the device play well with others?

Many of the devices in the smart outdoor family will talk to smart devices you have setup inside your home. An interconnected smart home doesn't have to stop at the outer walls. The advantages of this could be many -- the more devices you have that work together, the more chores you can automate.

A completely interoperable smart home like in "The Jetsons" isn't feasible yet, but thanks to online rule maker If This Then That ( IFTTT) and other systems that unify third-party devices, you can tell different tools to work together in interesting ways. For example, when your Nest Protect senses a fire, it can send a signal through IFTTT to the compatible Rachio Iro to turn on your sprinklers.

The Rachio Iro has an IFTTT channel. Rachio Iro

If weather monitors or plant sensors can talk to your sprinklers, the amount of water distributed will be that much more customized. If accidental negligence is a big problem for you, a plant sensor that talks to IFTTT can go one step further than a push notification and flash your connected lights when it's time to water.

An IFTTT channel allows the creation of these third-party rules and it's one of the most popular ecosystems at the moment, so I'd give an advantage to smart outdoor devices compatible with IFTTT over ones that aren't.

It's a balancing act, of course. Rachio has an IFTTT channel, but Blossom doesn't. Blossom's weather-proofed, Rachio isn't. You might not want or need your smart gardening device to work with other smart devices. Keep in mind though, that once you get started with home automation, you might enjoy the benefits enough that you want to keep building your smart home. At that point, interoperability could come in handy.

Making the right choice

Once you decide what you're trying to do and pick your category, making the right choice comes down to choosing the features you want. Don't pay more for an irrigation controller with 16 zones if you can make do with eight. If you're never going to move a plant, you probably don't need a plant sensor that measures temperature or sunlight, since you won't be able to effectively alter either.

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If you simply need push notifications to help you remember to water, you can also get creative and set that up yourself for free. Sometimes, apps can be quite useful with or without the product, and again, you should always take a tour of a device's app before making your purchase.

With the right devices on your side, your yard can practically maintain itself. Get smart with your yard care, and you can use the power of the Internet to make your neighbors jealous.