These High-Tech Garden Tools Will Do Your Yard Work for You
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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.

By RACHEL WOLFE
Mon, Apr 19, 2021 12:01pmGrey Clock 6 min

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.

Lawn Labourers

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)

Wise Waterers

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).

Hedge Hairstylists

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.

Weed Cutters

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)

Flight Tracker

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)

POSTAL ROOTS

Subscription services that deliver seeds, moss and more to your door

Moss of the Month

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)

My Garden Box

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)

Gardenuity

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)

Bloomin Bin

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)

Seed Bank Box

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)

—Matthew Kronsberg

BACK TO BASICS

Professional green thumbs on no-tech, time-honoured paths to perfecting your plot

Edwina von Gal

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.

Patricia Algara

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.

Beronda Montgomery

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.

Dan Bifano

Master Rosarian

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.

Julie Hess

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.

–M. K.

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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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”