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How to set up a smart garden for free

You can use the free Koubachi application to get all of the care advice and email reminders you need to keep your plants flourishing without paying a penny.

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The price of connected plant sensors lessens the lure of the smart garden for many cost-conscious consumers. Yes, it would be cool if technology could give your plants a voice, make care recommendations, and send you reminders, but why would you want to pay $60 to $120 to monitor a houseplant that you only paid $10 for in the first place?

Fortunately, you can set up a smart gardening system, complete with reminders and recommendations, and it doesn't have to cost you a penny. Here's how you can use the Internet to help you care for your plants for free.

Get a free Koubachi account

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor . The device worked well, if a bit slowly, but I still felt the high cost was hard to justify. One reason for this was the capability of the Koubachi app, which, with a little more setup on your part, can do just about everything the sensor could, without having to pay for the sensor. Thus, the Koubachi app is the key to free smart gardening, and I'll walk you through what that setup looks like.

You can download the Koubachi app for iOS or Android, you can also sign up on the website and access the same system from any Web-enabled device.

Identify your plant

Once you have the app up and running, you can use Koubachi's system to help you identify the plant or plants you'll be monitoring. If you know your plant, skip this step and search the database by name. If not, you'll have the easiest time with the beta version of Plant Finder on the iOS app. Plant Finder will guide you through the process with step by step questions and pictures, and you can skip any questions you don't know. For a novice, it's the easiest way to identify your plant out there.

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Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Unfortunately, it's not yet available for the Web-based platform or Android. The Android app will limit you to browsing pictures and searching by name. On the website, you can narrow your choices by stem and leaf criteria.

Temperature, light, misting, and fertilizer

Next, you'll want to pull up the info Koubachi has on your specific plant. There, you'll find its preferences for sunlight and temperature in specific and understandable terms. Now you'll know if your plant likes direct sunlight, shade, or anything in between. The info will also list the ideal temperature ranges for your plant in both summer and winter. Follow these basics when deciding where to place your plant, and you're done with temperature and light.

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Use your plant's info page to get sunlight and temperature recommendations. Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

For upkeep with misting and fertilizer, Koubachi will give you scheduling recommendations right away, based on your specific plant. My giant yucca didn't require misting, but Koubachi instructed me to give my coffee plant a full misting every four days. Similarly, the system will tell you how often to fertilize and the type of fertilizer to use.

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With or without the sensor, you'll get misting and fertilizer recommendations instantly. Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Customize reminders for these tasks, and you'll start receiving emails when your plants need something. Just make sure to tell the system when you've misted or fertilized so it can update the schedule for you and keep the reminders accurate.

Within a couple of minutes of downloading the app, you'll have light, temperature, misting and fertilizer covered.

Calibrate a watering schedule

Finally, you'll need to help Koubachi with the last and most important piece of day-to-day upkeep: watering. Koubachi needs to know how long it takes the soil around your plant to dry out after you've watered your plant. Once it does, it'll remember that time frame and send you reminders for this as well.

Koubachi calls this learning process "calibration," and it's as simple as the rest, but it does take a little more time. Start by fully watering your plant. If you don't know how to fully water your plant, Koubachi can give you more detailed instructions, but you'll have to manipulate the system a little to see these. When you first start calibrating, Koubachi simply tells you to water, no specifics provided. To get these details, tell the system the plant is dry. It'll be surprised this happened so quickly and ask if you're sure. Confirm, and it'll schedule your next watering, complete with the exact watering instructions for your plant.

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Koubachi gives great watering instructions, but you might have to look for them. Screenshot by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Now, restart the calibration. Getting these specifics is more of a pain than it should be, but if you need the help, it'll really only take an extra minute or two.

Once your plant is watered, you'll need to check the soil moisture regularly. For a sensitive plant, check daily. Most of the time, checking every other day will be fine. Don't worry -- Koubachi will send you reminders for the calibration process as well.

To check the moisture, take a pencil and insert it an inch into the soil. When you pull it out, dirt will stick to the pencil if it's still wet. Once its dry, the dirt will fall right off as you pull the pencil from the soil. Update Koubachi, and you'll have a set watering schedule. You can even adjust the schedule as necessary if you have an outdoor plant. Just tell Koubachi whenever you water or if it rains. It'll keep the same reminder interval and simply shift it accordingly.

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Dirt will stick to your pencil if the soil is still moist. Colin West McDonald/CNET
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Your pencil will look clean when the soil is dry. Colin West McDonald/CNET

If you like Koubachi's app and don't want to calibrate yourself, paying for $99 for the indoor sensor or $129 for the outdoor version can provide added convenience. Alternatively, the PlantLink from Oso Technologies costs $79 and can take care of the moisture part for you.

However, if you're willing to help Koubachi calibrate, you can setup connected plant care, get advice on temperature and light, and receive email reminders for misting, fertilizing, and watering, all for free.