Gardening is getting an infusion of high tech as startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere turn their technological skills to the popular hobby.
A social gardening and food-growing app is being developed by a San Francisco startup, and an affordable hydroponics setup for the home gardener is just reaching the marketplace, developed by a Southern California startup with offices in Berkeley.
Beyond that, big agriculture is going high tech, too. The inaugural Silicon Valley AgTech conference in Palo Alto this month drew a big crowd of consumers and major agricultural companies.
"This is like the perfect storm," said the event's organizer, Roger Royse of the Royse Law Firm in Palo Alto. "We have venture capital, we have technology and we have agriculture, but tech did not seem to be talking to agriculture until we started this group."
While the conference was more about technologies for large-scale farming, Royse said tech is coming to home gardening too.
"There's a lot for the home," he said. "Everybody seems to be getting into this growing-their-own-food thing. It's become a community in itself, so there's social networks growing up around it."
Gardening apps have blossomed at the Apple and Android app stores. There are dozens of planners, calendars and plant guides available, including garden monitors and popular apps like Gardening: The Ultimate Guide (free, iOS), and The New Sunset Western Garden Book ($14.99, iOS). Garden Manager (free, Android) sends alarms when it's time to water and fertilize your plants. With the Organic Gardening Planting Planner (free, iOS) or OG Planting Planner (free, Android), you can create your own garden and be alerted to planting and harvesting times and weather conditions.
Another gardening product soon to make its debut is an app from Sausalito-based Earthwire, which is preparing to launch a social app for gardeners. It's a kind of Facebook for the trowel and mulch set, according to its developers, a father and son team.
"We have built an interactive, mobile application that allows people to connect locally and regionally, communicate on what they're growing in their own backyards and form consortiums to grow that food and share it together," founder Drew Youngs said while taking a break at the AgTech conference.
Once pretty much confined to growing pot indoors, hydroponic farming has become a big business in growing fruits and vegetables, and has dawn interest from hobbyist gardeners. But hydroponics has remained a fairly demanding craft, requiring skills beyond those of the average gardener.
Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil -- in water, sand or gravel with added nutrients. Regular measurements of the acidity, electrical conductivity and temperature of the nutrient solution are necessary, as is care in adding just the right amount of nutrients. A startup called Sustainable Microfarms, based in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, has developed a small system called the Genesis Dosing Controller that takes the guesswork out of hydroponics, allowing at-home gardeners to grow everything from lettuce and tomatoes to strawberries and peppers.
"We build a product that takes out the need for you to have any prior understanding of hydroponics or plant biology or engineering," said Sanjay Rajpoot, who started the company while he was still at student at the University of Southern California.
"The reason why hydroponic farming or at-home farming hasn't caught on is because it takes a lot of work, a lot of effort and costs a lot of money," Rajpoot said. He said his system monitors the accidity, the concentration of nutrients and the temperature, and automatically maintains the optimal level of nutrients to make sure the plants are always growing at their best.
At $750, though, it may be beyond the reach of some amateurs even though it's much cheaper than competing systems and runs on a 5 to 100 gallon reservoir. On 5 gallons of water, you can grow five tomato plants, or 100 plants on 100 gallons -- a reservoir size that the company says is not uncommon.
"You are looking at a faster grow rate, less labor, and higher turnover rate in comparison to soil growing," said Ryan Tjan, a company spokesman.
A granddaddy of hydroponics, Lawrence Brooke of General Hydroponics, calls home hydroponic farming "a growing potential marketplace." He's waited a long time for it to happen.
Starting in Berkeley in 1976, Brooke grew peppers and sweet basil for a trendy Berkeley restaurant, later moving to Sebastopol. Now based in Santa Rosa, Brooke said the company sells growing systems and nutrients worldwide.
"I don't care if they grow pot or food, but systems for home gardeners are slowly finding their way out of the closet and into garden," he said. "You can grow the best food in world with hydroponics."
Richard Aylard, owner of Rasa Hydroponics and Organics in San Jose, said some of his customers are home gardeners and some are businesses, including several that grow mixed salad greens for restaurants. Aylard said he uses a home hydroponics setup to grow kale, lettuce, basil and heirloom tomatoes.
"A lot of people are into growing their own food. Neighbors and friends will say your plants are doing so well, I want my vegetables to look like that. That's how we get a lot of customers," Aylard said.
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him on Twitter.com/petecarey