EasyBloom is a digital babysitting system for a garden. It consists of a flower-shaped, USB-enabled plant sensor gizmo, and an online plant-matchmaking database. People with green thumbs might not need it, but this product could be attractive if you'd like some high-tech help to keep your plants alive and thriving.
The $60 EasyBloom comes from PlantSense, a start-up founded by a former manager of wireless products at Cisco. The product includes sensors with dielectric capacitance technology used on the NASA Mars Pioneer mission to measure soil drainage.
Setup and design
Downloading and installing the EasyBloom software took less than 5 minutes in our tests on both Windows XP and Vista computers. Once that's done, just plug the flower-shaped gadget into your PC's USB port, which triggers an EasyBloom Web page to open in your default browser. Supported operating systems include Windows Vista or XP. (Compatibility for Mac OS 10.5 or newer is set for release in 2009.)
We like the well-designed Web site, which features plant profiles from seed companies, although it might be nice to have an option for managing plant data on a local hard drive. That would be helpful in places lacking an Internet connection, like a back yard or greenhouse.
The device consists of two main pieces. The top part resembles a flower, with decorative plastic petals hugging a light sensor above a Start/Stop button, an air intake sensor, and the USB plug. It would look at home in the Brady Bunch household.
The other piece, the stem, fits into the top component and has two prongs for sticking into a plant's soil. A gray stand, which can be screwed to a wall for hanging, lets the top piece rest upright. The company thoughtfully includes a AAA battery, as well as a USB cord for connecting the EasyBloom sensor to tight spots with USB ports.
Although not made from recycled materials, this product gets a few "green" points for shipping nestled within a recyclable and compostable PaperForm tray, rather than polystyrene. The outer cardboard box is also recyclable.
The Web site helps you narrow down plants by color, bloom season, foliage characteristics, height, soil type (from acidic to well-drained), and so forth. We liked its simplicity, which shouldn't scare off technophobes.
To get started, plug the petal sensor into a PC, and then on the Web site pick from among three options: "Recommend," to learn which plants may fit a specific location; "Monitor," to check on a specific plant's health in its current location; or "Water," to learn how much a plant needs to drink.
With the Water option, you're supposed to stick the water sensor in the soil not long after a watering session. If the device chirps, then add water. The company recommends against using the Water sensor with a cactus.
If you have a large garden, monitoring all the foliage with EasyBloom could take a while. We chose the Monitor option to see if our Devil's Ivy was doing well in a window. After 24 hours of leaving EasyBloom with the plant, making sure leaves weren't blocking its sensors, we plugged the device into our PC. EasyBloom drew charts of environmental conditions, showing that the sunlight and average temperature were just right for that plant.Performance
EasyBloom generally performed as promised in our tests. We spent several weeks plugging the EasyBloom sensor into other plant pots, then uploading the data to its Web site, with good results. However, in a few instances the site failed to save data from the sensor, which had emptied its readings, so we had to restart the 24-hour measurement cycle.
To monitor plants you already have, you'll need to know their names first. We found many plants common to local nurseries. However, the PlantSense database is limited. For more than half of the dozen or so plants around our house, we had to look up the species at other Web sites. Trying various popular and Latin names, we could find neither our sedum plant nor our money tree on the PlantSense Web site. We faked it by pretending they were similar plants. We hope the company will integrate more listings as it fine tunes its Web site.
We wish the hardware included sensors to measure soil pH, which would be really helpful for determining what kind of fertilizer or soil a plant should have.
We'd also like EasyBloom to narrow down plants by the amount they need to be watered or fertilized. Down the road, perhaps a system like this could provide data about pollutants in the air. For instance, could we blame the proximity of our back porch to a busy road for the browning leaves of our sedum tree? More sophisticated settings might even, for example, warn you against placing particular plants next to each other, to ward off pests hungry for them both, or to prevent invasive species from taking over. That might be too much to ask for a device at this price point. More realistically, we hope that PlantSense will expand its Web site. Details about plants native to a particular region would help outdoor gardeners achieve more eco-friendly results.
One downside to the EasyBloom 24-hour environmental measurement cycle is that if you use it on a day with strange weather, you might need to repeat later for more average results. The system doesn't take into account geographic zones, making this most helpful for indoor plants. An outdoor reading in June in Vermont obviously won't apply in December.
Service and support
Tech support is excellent for this product, with online FAQs, introductory videos, a Quick Start guide, and a manual. Live customer help is available via a toll-free telephone number or e-mail address between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (PT). Support representatives responded quickly and helpfully to our phone calls.
Determining how to care for plants the old-fashioned way could take much longer and with less precision than EasyBloom, for which there's really no competing product on the market. Despite our wish list of features, EasyBloom is a fun and practical gardening assistant that could pay for itself.
If you're away from home all day, how else would you know that a dark window gets a blast of sunshine in the early afternoon? That knowledge alone could help you make a smarter choice about how to treat some shrinking violets, potentially saving money by preventing plant murder.