Gnome is a smart garden system for urban horticulturalists

Solar sensors and radio signals are a lot more useful than statues of small bearded men.

There are quite a few connected gardening products out there to help you grow and nourish plants. But most of them involve smart pots or indoor hydroponic solutions: Perfect for beginners or casual hobbyists, but not so great for more serious gardeners like Hugreen founder Clement Lee. New to the world of organic farming, Lee found himself frustrated by the limitations of existing products like the system from Edyn, which monitors small outdoor areas but is fairly limited in distance and overall capability. Hugreen's Gnome, launching on Indiegogo today, is aimed at large backyards or rooftop gardens and tackles those weaknesses directly with more accurate monitoring and the ability to communicate as far as a kilometer away.

Lee is a former solar researcher, an expertise that's immediately apparent in the Gnome's usage of solar energy to power itself. He became interested in farming when he found out 70 percent of humanity's water supply goes toward growing food and decided to shift his attention toward making food production more efficient. Even with his science background, he found himself stymied by the breadth of knowledge required of farmers, as well the the limitations of existing smart gardening systems.

Many products will water your plants automatically, but they can't make changes on the fly based on the humidity or temperature, and they definitely don't come with a built-in database of botanical information. Gnome is designed to be way smarter: The pods can read the temperature, soil pH and humidity then feed this information back to you via the web or the Gnome app. It can make some decisions on its own based on this info: If the pods sense the soil is a little drier than usual, the system will water it earlier, and if it's very wet, it will choose to delay the cycle.

This isn't all that distinct from what competing Edyn or Parrot products can do; Gnome just does these things a little differently. The first thing I noticed was that instead of a single metal stake at the bottom for insertion into the soil, each Gnome pod has four prongs. This helps Gnome get a more accurate reading than products like Edyn because it can sample more of the soil in a small area. Two of the poles focus on fertilizer levels while the other two are for measuring moisture content. They use an alternative method of measuring the moisture in the soil than competing products: The Edyn measures the soil's resistance to electricity while the Gnome focuses on the soil's capacitance -- how well it can store a charge.

The other big difference is how the Gnome transmits information. Where most solutions rely on WiFi or Bluetooth, which are ubiquitous, the Gnome relies on 2.4GHz RF. This has an upside of adding a lot more scale to your home garden: The Gnome can transmit as far as one kilometer and support as many as 30 units, whether they're sensor pods for reading the soil or valves for controlling the flow of water from your hose. Edyn is rated for 300 feet from your router though it's been successfully tested from as far as 2,500 feet -- at 0.7km, that's a significant difference.

Of course, those numbers tend to apply to direct line-of-sight scenarios, and not every garden is going to be a clear shot from the hub. One of the intended markets for Gnome is rooftop gardening, which means that an urban farmer will be contending with a lot of walls and ceilings between them and their plants.

Here at the Engadget office, the Gnome wasn't hampered by thick conference room walls or twisty office passageways, sending back the stats of a soil sample in a jar. The Hugreen team also demonstrated the Gnome's abilities using some fruit like apples and oranges. Obviously, acidic citrus isn't going to have the ideal pH for your crops, but it still has moisture and pH levels to read and report. Although the Gnome pods can communicate back to a valve connected to your hose with regard to the amount of water present in the soil and have the valve respond in kind by adding or withholding water, the system will also alert you to potential other problems, like whether or not your plants need more fertilizer or if there's too much.

These alerts will come to you via the apps -- you can go mobile with iOS or Android, or just access your Gnome system via any web browser. Though the sensors and valve correspond with each other via RF, all of that info is sent back to the Gnome hub, which connects to WiFi to communicate with you. The app also includes a plant database to help you decide what to grow and how to grow it, which should add a lot of context to the numbers that the sensor pods are sending you.

Gnome lands on Indiegogo today at a base price of $99 for a starter set, which includes one sensor and one hub. That's just for getting to know your plants better: If you want a valve to water them, you'll need to shell out $149 for a garden set, or $199 for the top-tier set that comes with two sensors. The Gnome system isn't set to ship until June of next year -- right on time to grow some good summer crops like peas and tomatoes.