Garden gadgets in tune with nature

People are swapping out their gas-guzzling lawnmowers for ecofriendly landscaping tools such as hybrid robotic lawnmowers and propane-powered trimmers and leaf blowers.

Husqvarna's Automower Solar Hybrid is a robotic lawn mower that is partially powered by the sun.

Tending to the lawn and being kind to nature have been at odds since the first power mower was manufactured in 1919.

From the sprawling fields of rural America to the manicured lawns of suburbia, our ceaseless weekend obsession has wreaked havoc on the environment.

The worst culprits are emissions and water waste. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, each year Americans clock in more than 3 billion hours using yard equipment, emitting as much hourly pollution as 11 cars with a push mower and 34 cars with a riding mower.

Our habits at the spigot can be just as careless. Collectively, we douse our lawns with more than 7 billion gallons of water in just one day. As much as half of that is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff.

Things have gotten better. Many people have swapped gas-guzzling machines for electric ones and old-fashioned, motorless mowers are all the rage.

But here's a way to really keep up with the Joneses: A hybrid, robotic lawnmower and plants that twitter when they're thirsty.

This new technology allows you to be almost as green as your thumb.

Robots to the rescue
Say goodbye to toiling behind a hefty gas-guzzling mower. Say hello to your new best friend, the battery- and solar-powered robotic mower. This happy helper zips across the lawn, cutting work time, emissions, and, of course, the grass.

Husqvarna's Automower Solar Hybrid zigzags across the lawn within the boundaries of a wire that the user has staked in the ground. It maneuvers around obstacles with its lip sensor, which makes the robot reverse course when it nudges the oak tree or side of the house.

To protect people and animals from a robot attack, the blade stops the moment it senses a bump or if the mower is lifted.

The solar cells extend the battery life anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent, and when the mower has puttered out, the 22-pound device crawls back to its base to recharge for another cycle.

Other similar products include Kyodo America's LawnBott and Friendly Robotics' Robomow. Robotic mowers cost anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000.

Power up with propane
Get ahead of the game. Emissions from gasoline-powered devices such as trimmers and leaf blowers, which are currently unregulated, are significant, says the US Department of Energy. Electric alternatives exist, but to many, they don't make the cut because of battery limitations for some and lack of portability for those that are not cordless.

Lehr Inc. offers propane-powered lawn equipment such as the Eco Trimmer and the new Eco Blower, which will be made available just in time for the fall foliage. The company says its Eco Trimmer already meets new EPA regulation standards that will take effect in 2010 and 2011.

The Department of Energy says that replacing gasoline with propane in small engines like lawn equipment leads to "substantial" reductions in emissions, though the full impact has yet to be quantified in studies.

Get a personalized gardening guru
Maybe you don't even need a green thumb. Just pick up an environmental sensor, like Plant Sense's EasyBloom. The $40 to $60 device analyzes the sunlight, temperature, humidity, and soil drainage. Simply stick it in the soil for one day, then plug it into your computer's USB jack and behold the breadth of the gardening guru's wisdom. Matching the data from the soil to the EasyBloom's library of plants, it suggests the best vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and flowers suited for your garden.

The EasyBloom dovetails nicely with the growing ecofriendly landscaping trend of replacing lawns with native plants. Native plants can require far less watering and prevent water waste through run-off or evaporation.

With the EasyBloom, gardeners can pick the optimal plants for their location and get updates on whether plants are getting too much or too little water. "The vast majority of people out there are over watering their plants," said PlantSense's founder Matthew Glen, who is able see the data from EasyBloom devices in use.

For urbanites with little space to nurture gardens, house plants can be rescued with the Botanicalls kit ($100), a device that enables plants to tweet their owners, calling out such commands as, "URGENT! Water me!" or "You overwatered me."

Irrigate from the Internet
Cut the watering work out altogether with the latest weather-based irrigation systems. With status updates and personalized settings brought directly to your laptop, Cyber-Rain's XCI Controller ($570 to $675) is like your irrigation system's own Facebook page.

The system enables your sprinkler system and laptop to communicate wirelessly, pulling weather updates, tracking water usage and irrigating your yard accordingly. The company estimates that users slash their watering time by about 38 percent, which can translate into savings of up to 40 percent on water bills.

Get even more hands off with the Gardena Aqua Contour system ($395 to $675), a single sprinkler head that can water an entire lawn up to 4000 square feet. The device is completely solar powered, with a backup lithium battery for cloudy days.

The sprinkler can be programmed to irrigate the unique shape of your lawn, launching water with customized precision in each area of grass. Timers, rain sensors, and soil moisture sensors can be added to the system to monitor moisture, prevent water waste and irrigate the lawn with little human prompting.

With only one sprinkler head that requires a single supply pipe, there's no need to tear up the whole lawn for multiple sprinkler heads and a network of pipes.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page. Our blog archive. Our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos. Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.

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