Dirt Free Urban Gardening Through Sensors and Automation

Self contained hydroponic gardening systems are available for aspiring horticulturalists who want the benefits of plant life at home but who are missing the time or skills to manage them.

In the old film Serpico, starring Al Paccino, there is a scene where he is gardening in his tiny New York townhouse yard.  In a prelude to their impending romance, his neighbor shouts out, “I love your garden,” to which he replies, “They say that if you love a man’s garden, you gotta love the man.” Though it might have been unusual for a NYC cop to be gardening back then, nowadays, urban gardening has become quite popular. There is a bigger demand for food that is as fresh as possible along with the satisfaction of being “green”. 

Home gardening has come a long way, now with everything from watering timers to plant sensors which can determine, among other things, soil moisture, light levels and pH.  In many cases, even the dosing of minerals can be automated.

However, despite having the technology to do it, growing a garden in a confined space is not an easy task. That’s where a company like City Crop can help. The company first launched in 2005 in Athens and was one of the finalists in the Greece chapter of the annual MIT Enterprise Startup Competition of 2017.  

Hydroponic gardening in your home

Hydroponic farming is a way of growing plants without soil. Plants are placed in water which contains the nutrients needed for them to grow.  This method has been used in agriculture for several decades now, mainly in the production of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and even marijuana. The main advantage of a hydroponic system is that the plants consume only 10% of the water needed in conventional gardens and require less fertilizers. 

Christos Raftogiannis, CEO of CityCrop, explained that he wanted to scale down the farm and make it available for use in a small indoor area. He added that, “miniaturizing large hydroponic systems to one that can fit in your kitchen was a challenging endeavour especially when it came to climate control.” 

How does your garden grow?

In order to use the garden you first purchase one of the enclosures you prefer along with seeds of the plants you wish to grow. Then you subscribe to a service which will periodically provide you with a nutrient pack to dose your plants. Once you have set everything up, simply install an app and select the type of plants you are growing. The system does the rest. 

Sensors in the garden measure temperature, pH, lighting and humidity. This data is forwarded to their “cloud based infrastructure and is stored and processed in order to optimize the growing cycle.” It then decides and sets the ideal climate settings based on the type of plant and its current stage in the growth cycle. 

At the core of the system is the Beaglebone, a single board computer, similar to a Raspberry Pi, which runs on the Modbus protocol, and is connected to the local wifi network. Beaglebone’s responsibility is to share the device data and receive the environmental data of the garden.

In a show of how precisely the parameters can be controlled Christos added that, “you are even able to grow plants with different climatic needs within the same enclosure.”

The garden also provides a ‘doctor’ service where you can ask questions about any issues your plants may have. Finally, there is a platform where you can communicate with other fellow gardeners.  

The Future 

When I asked Christos about future plans, he said that, “we scaled down, now it’s time to scale up.” He plans to create larger gardens for use in hotels, convention centers, and airports among other places. 

Besides being convenient and easy to use, automated gardens could also have a future when it comes to elderly populations. Even if someone isn’t physically able to take care of plants anymore, they may still benefit from having a garden