Those with doctorates in artificial intelligence are never the best stewards of houseplants. Programmer Bryan Horling says he’s killed whole swaths of greenery inside and outside his rural western Massachusetts home. But at least one plant will survive, thanks to a computer-controlled plant watering system — a simple network of plastic tubing and an aquarium pump to keep the Wandering Jew plant in his living room alive.

“You can do this project even if you’re too lazy to water your own plants,” Horling says. His computer activates an aquarium air pump, which displaces water in a soda bottle, sending it to the plant. He started with an X10 appliance controller from RadioShack, an aquarium pump, length of tubing, 2-liter plastic soda bottle, and aquarium check valve. He drilled two holes in the soda bottle cap, inserted the tubing, and sealed them with a glue gun. A metal binder clip holds the tube in place, and the check valve keeps the water from backing up the pipe after the plant is watered.

Horling, 30, uses hobby projects as a release from his difficult studies. His research on multi-agent systems is funded by the U.S. Army, which wants to use software agents to help filter and analyze information received by commanders in the field. To take a break from his thesis, he created a recipe for baby wipes that involves paper towels, no-tears shampoo, and a table saw.

In this case, the houseplant waterer is controlled by a Linux PC in his den. A freeware application for Linux allows the computer to control the X10 device. Then Cron, a built-in application in Linux, lets him run scheduled tasks. The script tells the air pump to turn on for five seconds every day.

A 2-liter bottle holds enough water to keep the plants happy for two weeks. Originally, he got it because his wife Maura and he traveled constantly. Now it comes in handy because they’re distracted by a new baby. “It created a whole other problem,” says Horling. “It’s just enlarged the scope of our forgetfulness. Now we forget to fill the water bottle.”

>> Computer-controlled watering:

From the column Made on EarthMAKE 8, page 22 – Bob Parks.

In the Maker Shed:
Botanicalls Kits let plants reach out for human help! They offer a connection to your leafy pal via online Twitter status updates to your mobile phone. When your plant needs water, it will post to let you know, and send its thanks when you show it love.