Are we there yet?



Gardening in the digital age—is it 2.0, 3.0, or maybe 3.5? It depends. If you count all the websites, blogs, and social media about gardening, then I suppose there has been considerable progress. If we’re talking about digital garden planning and implementation, that’s different.

Garden-related computer software and mobile apps interest me—up to a point. I have to give Amy credit for having the patience to try out the EasyBloom plant sensor; I gave mine away to a tech writer who’s just starting a garden and makes his living writing about gadgets, devices, apps, websites, and the like. He’s excited about trying it.

QR (quick response) codes on plant tags have a lot of people excited in the nursery and garden center industries. All Proven Winner plants will have QR codes in 2011, and they are only one of the big brands who are using them. QR code usefulness depends on a lot of things—first, where will the code take you? If it’s a place where there’s useful information, fine. If it’s an empty sales pitch or cutesy video, not quite as great. Context is also important; in a big garden center, these codes can lead you to a knowledge base not available in person. In a smaller, hands-on place, there might be better help available in person. I’ll be aiming my device at these tags for fun, mainly—but for a plant newbie more at home with a touchpad than a trowel, the QR codes might help make sense of it all.

At first, I was really excited about the idea of having dozens of gardening apps on my iPhone. But here’s another area where the idea of it is more exciting than actually using one. After having dropped my iphone on the flagstones several times, replaced one screen, and learned to live with the current small crack in the bottom until I move up to the 5g, I am becoming less enthusiastic about using the thing outside. It looks like I might have to encase it in something like one of those rubber balls you use if you want to throw yourself over the Falls.

But even if I did want to use an app—carefully—the how-to and what-to ones aren’t any more helpful, really, than a good book would be. And—clearly—books hold up better to the hazards of outdoor life than iphones do.

I do anxiously await a truly interactive and fully functional plant ID app. We still lack guides that will identify from your photo, but the florafolio  and Audubon wildflower apps (Audubon soon to be available), and the Dirr Tree and Shrub finder are the next best thing. And for finding gardens, anyone with time to kill in the Big Apple needs to try the Gardenspace NYC app, a portable tour of all the city’s green spaces.

It's to be hoped that the digital world holds more revelatory tools for gardeners (and plant lovers) in the future.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I think that QR codes are going to be useful. Not so much while in the store, but more so when we bring the plants home and want to get more information on plant care. You are right – the usefulness depends upon where the code takes you. I bought an orchid this spring that had a QR code on the tag and when I got home I was hoping to find more information on how to make the blooms last longer. The code took me to their regular website that was designed to be viewed on a computer and not a phone. It was impossible to read as the graphics kept merging with the text. The experience was not a good one. Let’s hope that the growers that use them direct people to a site designed to be viewed on a smart phone.

  2. I’m also curious as to where the codes will take you. It would be quite cool if every single plant was eventually assigned a code! I’m still adding more plants to the wiki plant encyclopedia on and hope more and more gardeners will join in the effort. It could easily become the most comprehensive source of free content gardening information – much like Wikipedia has become for general information.

  3. Thanks for the garden app suggestions. I have been starting to look for some myself for identification, and am using the MyFolia web app to link to my Folia account for organizing.

  4. Books aren’t as easy to carry around in your pocket. I haven’t had my Android phone for very long but I did find it helpful recently when wanting to buy some agaves and aloes. Being able to do a quick internet search to see how large they would get and what the flowers would look like was pretty neat.

  5. I love the Dirr app, but can’t wait ’til they make it for the Ipad. Sure you can run it on the Ipad, but it’s iphone sized. I use this all the time when working with clients, and the first thing they say is “I wish the picture were larger.” At least I can email it to them from the phone so they can see it that way!

    Am also hoping Timber creates Flora as an app.

    And, we definitely need a good site evaluation sketching program — not too fancy, but something that really works well in the field.

    Hey, that’s not asking for too much, is it? 😉

  6. Can’t you just see it! A entire field trip of high school students wandering around the botanic garden fixated on their cell phones… oh wait! That’s already happening.

  7. Robin, this isn’t a perfect solution (and it may be something you already know), but if you hit the “2X” button at the bottom of the screen on the iPad, the image will expand to fit the screen.

  8. Robin – Yes, true story, no scaling yet. Sorry! But good to get feedback. The more we get, and the more successful the Dirr app is, the more likely we are to come out with New and Improved Versions. Thanks!

  9. First (sorry) I don’t know what a QR (quick response)code is. Could you clarify?

    Second, I doubt I’d use this code. I don’t own a cell phone and you probably need one for it. So I guess I’ll continue to get my info. through books, word-of-mouth, and the Internet.

  10. @Laura, a QR code is a square bar code (like the b&w one in the illustration for this article).

    You do, indeed, need a cellphone with a camera to use them.

    The QR code can represent a URL or text, and the idea is that you scan it with your phone and then you can read the text or visit the website quickly. All without having to type in anything on your phone.

    Hope that helps.

  11. I love my iPhone for gardening, but I don’t have a single gardening app on it. I just stand in the garden center and pull up Google, then punch in the name of the plant I’m interested in, to find out A) if it’s native and B) if not, is it invasive in my area? (I’ve gotten burned a few too many times by nursery staff who were either misinformed or…well, let’s just go with misinformed.)

    It’s also been handy for things like discovering that the wildflower bulbs at Lowes with the way-too-low price were almost certainly wild-harvested, by a company that had a terrible reputation.

    Although I’ve never bothered with a QR code (and am a trifle skeptical of the information provided by the grower–bet you dollars to donuts, none of them will say “This plant is a pain in the ass to grow, needs constant attendance, and appears to be suicidal,” even if it’s TRUE) I think smartphones are a fantastic tool for the gardener.

  12. I’m getting a glimmer of what these codes are but we are so backward in our area with only spotty cell service that I have not yet invested in a ‘hand held’. Fortunately I have lots of books.

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