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.
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Vacationers scratching their travel itch this season are sending prices through the roof. Here’s how some are making trade-offs.
Capri Coffer socks away $600 a month to help fund her travels. The Atlanta health-insurance account executive and her husband couldn’t justify a family vacation to the Dominican Republic this summer, though, given what she calls “astronomical” plane ticket prices of $800 each.
The price was too high for younger family members, even with Coffer defraying some of the costs.
Instead, the family of six will pile into a rented minivan come August and drive to Hilton Head Island, S.C., where Coffer booked a beach house for $650 a night. Her budget excluding food for the two-night trip is about $1,600, compared with the $6,000 price she was quoted for a three-night trip to Punta Cana.
“That way, everyone can still be together and we can still have that family time,” she says.
With hotel prices and airfares stubbornly high as the 2023 travel rush continues—and overall inflation squeezing household budgets—this summer is shaping up as the season of travel trade-offs for many of us.
Average daily hotel rates in the top 25 U.S. markets topped $180 year-to-date through April, increasing 9.9% from a year ago and 15.6% from 2019, according to hospitality-data firm STR.
Online travel sites report more steep increases for summer ticket prices, with Kayak pegging the increase at 35% based on traveler searches. (Perhaps there is no more solid evidence of higher ticket prices than airline executives’ repeated gushing about strong demand, which gives them pricing power.)
The high prices and economic concerns don’t mean we’ll all be bunking in hostels and flying Spirit Airlines with no luggage. Travellers who aren’t going all-out are compromising in a variety of ways to keep the summer vacation tradition alive, travel agents and analysts say.
“They’re still out there and traveling despite some pretty real economic headwinds,” says Mike Daher, Deloitte’s U.S. transportation, hospitality and services leader. “They’re just being more creative in how they spend their limited dollars.”
For some, that means a cheaper hotel. Hotels.com says global search interest in three-star hotels is up more than 20% globally. Booking app HotelTonight says nearly one in three bookings in the first quarter were for “basic” hotels, compared with 27% in the same period in 2019.
For other travellers, the trade-offs include a shorter trip, a different destination, passing on premium seat upgrades on full-service airlines or switching to no-frills airlines. Budget-airline executives have said on earnings calls that they see evidence of travellers trading down.
Deloitte’s 2023 summer travel survey, released Tuesday, found that average spending on “marquee” trips this year is expected to decline to $2,930 from $3,320 a year ago. Tighter budgets are a factor, he says.
Wendy Marley is no economics teacher, but says she’s spent a lot of time this year refreshing clients on the basics of supply and demand.
The AAA travel adviser, who works in the Boston area, says the lesson comes up every time a traveler with a set budget requests help planning a dreamy summer vacation in Europe.
“They’re just having complete sticker shock,” she says.
Marley has become a pro at Plan B destinations for this summer.
For one client celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary with a budget of $10,000 to $12,000 for a five-star June trip, she switched their attention from the pricey French Riviera or Amalfi Coast to a luxury resort on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.
To Yellowstone fans dismayed at ticket prices into Jackson, Wyo., and three-star lodges going for six-star prices, she recommends other national parks within driving distance of Massachusetts, including Acadia National Park in Maine.
For clients who love the all-inclusive nature of cruising but don’t want to shell out for plane tickets to Florida, she’s been booking cruises out of New York and New Jersey.
Not all of Marley’s clients are tweaking their plans this summer.
Michael McParland, a 78-year-old consultant in Needham, Mass., and his wife are treating their family to a luxury three-week Ireland getaway. They are flying business class on Aer Lingus and touring with Adventures by Disney. They initially booked the trip for 2020, so nothing was going to stand in the way this year.
McParland is most excited to take his teen grandsons up the mountain in Northern Ireland where his father tended sheep.
“We decided a number of years ago to give our grandsons memories,” he says. “Money is money. They don’t remember you for that.”
Chima Enwere, a 28-year old piano teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., is also headed to the U.K., but not by design.
Enwere, who fell in love with Europe on trips the past few years, let airline ticket prices dictate his destination this summer to save money.
He was having a hard time finding reasonable flights out of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., so he asked for ideas in a Facebook travel group. One traveler found a round-trip flight on Delta to Scotland for $900 in late July with reasonable connections.
He was budgeting $1,500 for the entire trip—he stays in hostels to save money—but says he will have to spend more given the pricier-than-expected plane ticket.
“I saw that it was less than four digits and I just immediately booked it without even asking questions,” he says.
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