“High-tech gardening” usually brings to mind the automated indoor vertical farming devices everyone from startups to major appliance makers are pushing these days. Those are great for time-strapped folks or those who tend to just kill plants. But for people who want to keep their hands in the soil, technology in the smart garden will need to play a different role — that of assisting the human rather than automating their entire process.
NYC-based GrowSquares has found a way to leave the human element in the gardening process while still taking advantage of tech to improve the grow process.
“We’re the opposite of automated gardening,” GrowSquares CEO Zachary Witman said over the phone last week.
The company uses data science (advanced LIDAR and location data) as well as microbiology to determine the best plants for a specific user’s space as well as the most optimal elements to include in the soil. An accompanying app then helps the user monitor the plants, though watering and feeding them are still manual tasks.
“We look at sun, wind, taxonomy of the soil. We capture those things and then using a lot of data science we create a microenvironmental profile and say, ‘Based upon this, the attributes of your space, (time of year, etc.) these are the plants that will grow best,'” Witman explained.
Users see a scoring system where plants are rated Optimal, Good, Fair, and Poor based on location data. For example, in Nashville, TN, Basil grown at my address gets a score of 93 for this time of year, which means it’s an optimal plant for growing right now. Spinach, on the other hand, just scores 51, making it a bad fit for my backyard at the moment.
The system can actually get even more granular in terms of a users’s location than just their city. Using a customer’s geo-coordinates, the company then uses data science and machine learning models to determine which plants are best for that particular user’s garden. The recommendations may or may not be the same as the person two doors down.
“We break down each individual client’s soil. Fidelity of our data showcases the difference between you and your neighbor.”
Once a user has purchased the right plants, GrowSquares sends the necessary seeds along with optimal spacing and depth and a soil formulation for your individual garden. That might include green sand, coconut husks, feather, alfalfa, or other elements the company uses to formulate soil. Meanwhile, the app also sends notifications for when it’s time to water the plants and time to harvest them.
The actual squares in which the plants grow are made of palm leaf that naturally decomposes over time. Since it’s a modular system, users can add more squares over time, and the squares can be configured to fit different environments, balconies, backyards, and rooftops among them. Since the squares decompose, they actually replenish the soil.
Like other consumer-grade smart garden companies, GrowSquares has seen an uptick in sales thanks to the pandemic. Witman told me the company started out servicing just three cities, Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. Because of COVID-19, demand spiked and GrowSquares went national — a decision that’s temporary stressed the supply chain. Right now, new users must reserve their GrowSquares and wait, though Witman told me it would not be too long before things return to normal.
He was also cautious to attribute too much of the product’s popularity to the pandemic. “I think everybody has their own reason for why they want to garden,” he said. The pandemic is one, but so is a desire to eat locally or the wish to avoid industrial-scale farming companies. And for some, going out to the balcony or backyard to grab some herbs is just easier than ordering them via Whole Foods or going to the store.