February 6, 2016

From Remote to Self Watering

Some of you may have noticed pictures of plants growing in “self-watering” containers on our FB page. This is a condensed story of why and how we decided to go for self-watering rather than remote-watering containers for our smart gardening kit.

Our previous design had remote-watering: a container with motor housed inside it which would get activated and water the plant whenever you would tap a button from your mobile phone. We thought that was great. But feedback from some of our backers made us rethink.

Now in order to power the motor, we needed to have a wired container. But many backers told us that they did not have a power source in their balconies. We knew that an elegant solution would be one where plants can be placed where they get optimal sun, rather than where the socket was. For that our solution should be portable, i.e. run on batteries. But the motor was a power hungry component.

We searched for alternatives and found a mechanism called ‘self watering’, which is basically a neologism for capillary action watering in plants. Plants naturally draw in water from the ground by this mechanism. And unlike humans they aren’t greedy so they take in only as much as they need! That sounded awesome. If we could eliminate the motor, not only would we make our containers completely portable, but also more reliable (the fewer the components, especially moving parts, in a system, the less prone it is to breakdowns). We googled self watering containers designed on the same principle and found that many avid gardeners are using their own DIY versions across the world. Heck! The Africans/Chinese had been watering their plants with buried clay pots (Ollas) that retained water and released them slowly from the underground, 4000 years ago! That surely was promising, though we really needed to be sure if it would work out well for our context.

A traditional version of self watering pots. Source: http://www.permaculturenews.org/images/ollaroots.jpg

A traditional version of self watering pots. Source: http://www.permaculturenews.org/images/ollaroots.jpg

So we tried experimenting ourselves, with our first test batch of self-watering containers. The good news was that compared with surface watering (watering plants from the top), this was better as it obviated chances of superficial watering that does not reach roots + drastically reduced evaporation losses. However, a couple of plants later we realised that while plants do take in as much water as they need, if the growing medium has tendencies of retaining more water than the plant can really take, the roots may rot. So the next step was figuring an optimal growing medium — what proportion of soil, compost and peat to use?

We tried 2–3 compositions. Pro urban gardener Hariram finally came up with the right solution. He experimented with the growing medium. The Dill in the picture was a welcome proof that it was working well. We heaved a sigh of relief. It was working! He is currently trying some other compositions, the relentless learner/ experimenter that he is 🙂

Dill growing through self watering with Hariram’s potting mix

Dill growing through self watering with Hariram’s potting mix

A less-than-perfect potting mix we tried earlier. Used to remain rather saturated. The coriander didn’t look very healthy.

A less-than-perfect potting mix we tried earlier. Used to remain rather saturated. The coriander didn’t look very healthy.

One of the later potting mixes we tried that gave a better response. Though Hariram’s was (0bviously!) the best

One of the later potting mixes we tried that gave a better response. Though Hariram’s was (0bviously!) the best

And a meal we made out of the greens grown in our self watering design :)

And a meal we made out of the greens grown in our self watering design 🙂

 

We had solved a technical problem. But was this a good business decision? This was a classic “packaging vs content” dilemma.

From the “packaging” point of view, it no doubt looked attractive to have a product where you press a button in the US and it waters in India. It was sexy, even if inefficient. Much like that guy who dazzles everyone with a great presentation which has not much content!

But self-watering was clearly that guy who quietly does his job and does it better than those who make a noise. We decided to go for this quiet guy, the guy with “content”, inspired by Rashmi and Dinesh Korjan’s advice for our product journey, “When in doubt, do what in the long run is good for the users” 🙂

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