These High-Tech Garden Tools Will Do Your Yard Work for You
Innovations like autonomous mowers and weeding robots let you upgrade your corner of nature.
Innovations like autonomous mowers and weeding robots let you upgrade your corner of nature.
Whenever the weather permits, Britt Wood drinks his morning coffee on his patio, proudly watching his little guy mow his lawn. No, he doesn’t have a particularly diligent son. Mr. Wood, the CEO of the National Association of Landscape Professionals, recently purchased an autonomous robot that drives around his South Riding, Va., yard, quietly munching each blade of grass down to the ideal 2½-inch height.
“It makes life a little easier,” said Mr. Wood of the convenient, “pet-like” robot. “Once you get one of these, your lawn never looks better.”
If 2020 was the year that many grew dependent on their backyards as a safe outdoor refuge, then 2021 might be the year they figure out how to spend less time maintaining their go-to retreats. One appealing solution: Upgrade the way you nurture your corner of nature with techy new tools—from robots that cut down weeds to sprinkler systems that rejig their run time depending on impending weather.
Anything that lets Americans enjoy more stress-free hours outside is good news: 27% of homeowners overhauled their gardens in 2020 and 19% plan to tackle an outdoor improvement project in 2021, according to a December 2020 survey by tool manufacturer Craftsman.
Here, our guide to the gear that might leave your neighbours wondering how you’ve gotten your garden so trim and tidy.
Set an autonomous electric mower like Husqvarna’s Automower to run overnight and you can sleep later the next day—and achieve a cleaner, greener cut than most push models can deliver. By giving grass a regular (even daily) trim instead of lobbing off a lot once weekly, robo mowers leave small clippings the soil can more easily reabsorb, said Frank Mariani, the owner of Mariani Landscaping in Lake Bluff, Ill. An app controls the mower’s schedule, sets trimming height and, once you install the included boundary wires around your property, pings you if the robot leaves your yard in the arms of a jealous thief. Depending on the model, the mowers can chug away for up to four hours per charge, and, like Roombas, drive themselves back to their doghouse-like charging stations to juice back up. With their sensors, robo mowers are also safer than most manual counterparts. “You could practically lay your baby in front of the mower and nothing would happen,” Mr. Mariani said. When choosing a mower, consider the square footage and incline of your yard. Many less-expensive, lower-powered models freeze up on hills to prevent toppling. And be warned: an automower won’t give your lawn stripes of just-mowed green. (From $1699, husqvarna.com)
Water your grass too little, and it will shrivel into straw. Too often, and you’ll weaken the roots while encouraging mould and bacteria to grow. “That’s where smart irrigation comes in,” said Mr. Wood, who explained that smart weather-and-moisture-sensing systems outperform traditional irrigation setups—and waste less water—when it comes to keeping your garden hydrated. The Rachio 3 smart irrigation system controller, for example, automatically adjusts your watering schedule to coming weather patterns in your area. Just replace your old sprinkler controller with Rachio’s using the wires from your existing setup, and use the companion app to set a watering schedule for your system’s eight or 16 zones (from approx. $300, rachio.com). For the most strategic watering schedule possible, pair the Rachio with Weatherflow’s new Tempest Weather System. Once you install the water bottle-sized personal weather station on a post or pole 6 feet off the ground, the device will provide a forecast via its companion app that beats the local news for accuracy. The Tempest app will even alert you to garden-wrecking weather events like frost and high winds. (approx. $420, weatherflow.com).
To avoid making the same deadly watering mistakes in your potted plants and container gardens, stick Ecowitt’s unobtrusive Soil Moisture Sensor with Digital LCD Display into the soil. The device measures root wetness to tell you via a delightful potted plant graphic on the display when it’s time to water ($40, www.ecowitt.com). Alternatively, opt for a pot that does the measuring for you. Just fill the Self-Watering Wet Pot’s outer glass reservoir with water, and your finicky forsythia will absorb only what it needs through the inner, terra-cotta pot walls (from around $44, store.moma.org).
Heavy, roaring, gas-powered trimmers can seem more than mildly threatening. But new, electric variants are tame enough to let anyone become a serene topiary artist. “The [battery] tech is finally to a point where it really makes sense to use it,” said Mr. Wood of the quiet, cordless models that have recently hit the market. At only 5 pounds, Craftsman’s new V20 Cordless 2-In-1 Hedge Trimmer and Grass Shear Kit is lightweight enough to let you one-handedly hack at unruly bushes and overgrown flower beds ($80, lowes.com). Komok’s Cordless Electric Pruning Shears, meanwhile, use a carbon-steel blade and brushless motor to deftly cut through branches up to 1.2 inches thick ($296, amazon.com). The best part? Your neighbours won’t want to turn the hose on you for disturbing the peace all afternoon.
Sure, you could crouch in the dirt pulling weeds out by the root. Or, you could sic the turtle-like Tertill Garden Weeding Robot on them. Every day, the Tertill roams your plant beds, chopping the tops off emerging weeds before they suffocate your dahlias. With a rugged, weatherproof shell and top-mounted solar panel to power the device, it can stay in your garden all season long. Just remember to cage your seedlings. (approx. $450, tertill.com)
Feel like you take wildlife for granted? Try the Bird Buddy smart feeder to acquaint yourself with your local flying families. Using AI, an integrated camera and a companion phone app, the device counts up the variety of species who have come to nosh. “It’s like Pokémon Go for birds,” said co-founder Franci Zidar of the way the app turns attracting avian visitors into a game. Just add bird seed. (approx. $245, mybirdbuddy.com)
Subscription services that deliver seeds, moss and more to your door
For forest-y vibes in a shady corner of your backyard or a shot of color in an austere rock garden, moss does nicely. Monthly deliveries from the forests of Arkansas give you the chance to decorate with spiky haircap, plush pillow and delicate fern mosses. (around $62 for three months, teresasplants.com)
Gardening is about more than just the green stuff that comes out of the dirt. While it certainly delivers live plants, like Japanese painted ferns and Crotons, this subscription plan often includes interesting containers, soil and fertilizer, tools and accessories. (approx. $50 a month, mygardenbox.com)
This quarterly box from container-gardening experts based in Dallas delivers healthy, rooted herbs and flowers, selected for your region and growing conditions. You’ll also get access to Gardenuity’s Grow Pro service, with on-call expert advice and weather alerts. (approx. 193, gardenuity.com)
While most garden plans focus on spring and summer plots, Bloomin Bin gives you year-round, season-specific seeds and saplings in a quarterly box. Each one comes with detailed care instructions from a master gardener, and a choice of flowers or fruits/vegetables. (From $10, bloominbin.com)
Each month, subscribers receive eight to 10 varieties of organic seeds of unusual herbs, edible flowers and vegetables along with info cards. The April box includes seeds for Thai Pink Egg Tomatoes, Carentan Leeks, and Red Fire Orach. (around $28 a month, seedbankbox.com)
Professional green thumbs on no-tech, time-honoured paths to perfecting your plot
Landscape Designer, founder of the Perfect Earth Project
If you’re willing to mow higher and let your lawn look more relaxed and thicker, the grass will naturally out-compete weeds. We say that you grow to 4 inches, then cut to 3 inches. It should look tousled—like you want to flop into it.
Founding Principal of BASE Landscape Architecture
Any space, no matter the size, can be a bee-friendly, pollinator garden. Even on your balcony, a pot of flowers (bees love blue and purple) can provide them with food. Leave fresh water with stones or marbles so bees can drink without drowning.
Author of Lessons from Plants
Grow plants of the same height together, like purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, or companion plants that require different, complementary nutrients. These types of pairings are beneficial because they limit biological competition for access to light or nutrients.
You don’t want to put roses where they don’t want to grow. As in real estate, it’s location, location, location. Planting in good, sandy, loamy soil that drains well (but not too well), in a sunny location with good air circulation is going to give you an exceptional rose garden.
Senior Horticulturist, Missouri Botanical Garden
One of the best things you can do if your area has clay soil, besides add compost, is to add calcined clay-like Turface MVP. As counterintuitive as it sounds, it’ll even out moisture retention, improve drainage and reduce compaction.
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 16, 2021.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
How far can an electric car really go on a full charge? What can you do to make it go farther? We answer these and other questions that EV buyers might ask.
Many people considering an electric vehicle are turned off by their prices or the paucity of public charging stations. But the biggest roadblock often is “range anxiety”—the fear of getting stuck on a desolate road with a dead battery.
All EVs carry window stickers stating how far they should go on a full charge. Yet these range estimates—overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency and touted in carmakers’ ads—can be wrong in either direction: either overstating or understating the distance that can be driven, sometimes by 25% or more.
How can that be? Below are questions and answers about how driving ranges are calculated, what factors affect the range, and things EV owners can do to go farther on a charge.
The distance, according to EPA testing, ranges from 516 miles for the 2023 Lucid Air Grand Touring with 19-inch wheels to 100 miles for the 2023 Mazda MX-30.
Most EVs are in the 200-to-300-mile range. While that is less than the distance that many gasoline-engine cars can go on a full tank, it makes them suitable for most people’s daily driving and medium-size trips. Yet it can complicate longer journeys, especially since public chargers can be far apart, occupied or out of service. Plus, it takes many times longer to charge an EV than to fill a tank with gas.
Testing by Car and Driver magazine found that few vehicles go as far as the EPA stickers say. On average, the distance was 12.5% shorter, according to the peer-reviewed study distributed by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.
In some cases, the estimates were further off: The driving range of Teslas fell below their EPA estimate by 26% on average, the greatest shortfall of any EV brand the magazine tested. Separately, federal prosecutors have sought information about the driving range of Teslas, The Wall Street Journal reported. Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The study also said Ford’s F-150 Lightning pickup truck went 230 miles compared with the EPA’s 300-mile estimate, while the Chevrolet Bolt EV went 220 miles versus the EPA’s 259.
A GM spokesman said that “actual range may vary based on several factors, including things like temperature, terrain/road type, battery age, loading, use and maintenance.” Ford said in a statement that “the EPA [figure] is a standard. Real-world range is affected by many factors, including driving style, weather, temperature and if the battery has been preconditioned.”
Meanwhile, testing by the car-shopping site Edmunds found that most vehicles beat their EPA estimates. It said the Ford Lightning went 332 miles on a charge, while the Chevy Bolt went 265 miles.
Driving range depends largely on the mixture of highway and city roads used for testing. Unlike gasoline-powered cars, EVs are more efficient in stop-and-go driving because slowing down recharges their batteries through a process called regenerative braking. Conversely, traveling at a high speed can eat up a battery’s power faster, while many gas-engine cars meet or exceed their EPA highway miles-per-gallon figure.
Car and Driver uses only highway driving to see how far an EV will go at a steady 75 mph before running out of juice. Edmunds uses a mix of 60% city driving and 40% highway. The EPA test, performed on a treadmill, simulates a mixture of 55% highway driving and 45% city streets.
Edmunds believes the high proportion of city driving it uses is more representative of typical EV owners, says Jonathan Elfalan, Edmunds’s director of vehicle testing. “Most of the driving [in an EV] isn’t going to be road-tripping but driving around town,” he says.
Car and Driver, conversely, says its all-highway testing is deliberately more taxing than the EPA method. High-speed interstate driving “really isn’t covered by the EPA’s methodology,” says Dave VanderWerp, the magazine’s testing director. “Even for people driving modest highway commutes, we think they’d want to know that their car could get 20%-30% less range than stated on the window sticker.”
The agency declined to make a representative available to comment, but said in a statement: “Just like there are variations in EPA’s fuel-economy label [for gas-engine cars] and people’s actual experience on the road for a given make and model of cars/SUVs, BEV [battery electric vehicle] range can exceed or fall short of the label value.”
Pick the one based on the testing method that you think matches how you generally will drive, highway versus city. When shopping for a car, be sure to compare apples to apples—don’t, for instance, compare the EPA range estimate for one vehicle with the Edmunds one for another. And view all these figures with skepticism. The estimates are just that.
Batteries are heavy and are the most expensive component in an EV, making up some 30% of the overall vehicle cost. Adding more could cut into a vehicle’s profit margin while the added weight means yet more battery power would be used to move the car.
But battery costs have declined over the past 10 years and are expected to continue to fall, while new battery technologies likely will increase their storage capacity. Already, some of the newest EV models can store more power at similar sticker prices to older ones.
The easiest thing is to slow down. High speeds eat up battery life faster. Traveling at 80 miles an hour instead of 65 can cut the driving range by 17%, according to testing by Geotab, a Canadian transportation-data company. And though a primal appeal of EVs is their zippy takeoff, hard acceleration depletes a battery much quicker than gentle acceleration.
It does, and sometimes by a great amount. The batteries are used to heat the car’s interior—there is no engine creating heat as a byproduct as in a gasoline car. And many EVs also use electricity to heat the batteries themselves, since cold can deteriorate the chemical reaction that produces power.
Testing by Consumer Reports found that driving in 15- to-20-degrees Fahrenheit weather at 70 mph can reduce range by about 25% compared to similar-speed driving in 65 degrees.
A series of short cold-weather trips degraded the range even more. Consumer Reports drove two EVs 40 miles each in 20-degree air, then cooled them off before starting again on another 40-mile drive. The cold car interiors were warmed by the heater at the start of each of three such drives. The result: range dropped by about 50%.
Testing by Consumer Reports and others has found that using the AC has a much lower impact on battery range than cold weather, though that effect seems to increase in heat above 85 degrees.
“Precondition” your EV before driving off, says Alex Knizek, manager of automotive testing and insights at Consumer Reports. In other words, chill or heat it while it is still plugged in to a charger at home or work rather than using battery power on the road to do so. In the winter, turn on the seat heaters, which many EVs have, so you be comfortable even if you keep the cabin temperature lower. In the summer, try to park in the shade.
Going up hills takes more power, so yes, it drains the battery faster, though EVs have an advantage over gas vehicles in that braking on the downside of hills returns juice to the batteries with regenerative braking.
Tires play a role. Beefy all-terrain tires can eat up more electricity than standard ones, as can larger-diameter ones. And underinflated tires create more rolling resistance, and so help drain the batteries.
The meters are supposed to take into account your speed, outside temperature and other factors to keep you apprised in real time of how much farther you can travel. But EV owners and car-magazine testers complain that these “distance to empty” gauges can suddenly drop precipitously if you go from urban driving to a high-speed highway, or enter mountainous territory.
So be careful about overly relying on these gauges and take advantage of opportunities to top off your battery during a multihour trip. These stops could be as short as 10 or 15 minutes during a bathroom or coffee break, if you can find a high-powered DC charger.
Fully charge the car at home before departing. This sounds obvious but can be controversial, since many experts say that routinely charging past 80% of a battery’s capacity can shorten its life. But they also say that charging to 100% occasionally won’t do damage. Moreover, plan your charging stops in advance to ease the I-might-run-out panic.
Yes, an EV battery’s ability to fully charge will degrade with use and age, likely leading to shorter driving range. Living in a hot area also plays a role. The federal government requires an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on EV batteries for serious failure, while some EV makers go further and cover degradation of charging capacity. Replacing a bad battery costs many thousands of dollars.
Your EV likely provides software on the navigation screen as well as a phone app that show charging stations. Google and Apple maps provide a similar service, as do apps and websites of charging-station networks.
But always have a backup stop in mind—you might arrive at a charging station and find that cars are lined up waiting or that some of the chargers are broken. Damaged or dysfunctional chargers have been a continuing issue for the industry.
Be sure to carry a portable charger with you—as a last resort you could plug it into any 120-volt outlet to get a dribble of juice.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’