Piplanter Reboot

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Even robots need a little motivation every once in a while. My Piplanter was no exception.

Nine months after I first booted up my JG Piplanter (which is still keeping itself updated hourly here and here), the system is growing a fresh batch of basil, which should be ready just in time for summer. But for a while there, things got a little dodgy, and I was worried the experiment had entered its end stage.

For starters, some of the basil plants were collapsing practically overnight. I was concerned they were being shocked by the moisture sensors, or that they weren’t getting enough water. Yet even after adjustments, plants continued to wilt and die unexpectedly. As it turns out, some of the basil seeds had brought in a fatal fusarium wilt. Bad news. All of the plants and soil would have to go, and the entire planter needed sterilization.

piplanter2_tall20160404 No problem, I thought. This would give me a chance to replace the moisture sensors, which had rusted down to nearly nothing, and to redesign the irrigation system, which wasn’t doing a great job of evenly watering the plants. Over a couple days in January, I cleaned and rebuilt the system.

But there was another issue – we moved. I actually managed to transport the Piplanter completely intact (in a moving van, and down and up two flights of stairs). But its new location was in a room and location with 50% less sunlight. Not to mention, the dark days of December starved the plants of light, even with the grow lamp on 12 hours per day, and the winter months made this drafty room about 15-20 degrees colder than the previous spot.

At first, the refreshed planter shot up seedlings, but all of them died in about a month. I think the cold had a lot to do with it, because many of them shot up quickly but never grew any bigger.

In addition, it took a little while to work the kinks out of the new watering pattern. At first the pressure was way too low. I had drilled holes that were too big, and the water just dribbled down the sides of the bin. So I installed new tubing with smaller holes, which now sprays water across the full length of the planter from both sides (I even sprayed myself in the eye while testing it).

Finally, I updated the Pi software so that I could SSH into the system and control it remotely. That is, I no longer need to haul a flat screen TV monitor and keyboard into the room every time I need to access the system. I can simply remote in from my laptop. I know this is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff to most tech people, but it was a first for me, and made working with the PiPlanter so much easier.

I replanted once more, this time with about twice the seeds. I also switched to new varieties of seed, including a mini mounding basil variety. With a little help, the seeds have a started again, and as the days grow longer and warmer, the new plants look a little bigger and happier each day. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the wilt stays away and we will soon be back to a regular supply of basil to feed our addiction.

Check out new photos and a recent video below!

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Introducing the JG PiPlanter

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Well, it’s been about seven months in the making, but it’s finally alive: my PiPlanter.

Taylor gave me a box of tubing, resistors and electrical components for Christmas last year, along with a web address for instructions to build us a Raspberry Pi-powered automated plant growing robot (or “growbot,” as I like to say now that I just thought of it just right now). Challenge accepted!

The project was created, designed, coded, everything-ed, by Devon Bray at Esologic (@eso_logic), so I simply set out to replicate his basic PiPlanter 2 Lite model.

The PiPlanter monitors light, air temperature and soil moisture levels, and then – my primary albeit minor modification – waters the plants when it detects that the soil has become too dry. It also tweets an hourly photo and update on the readings, as well as periodic charts and videos documenting the planter’s status and growth.

As it turned out, everything from Devon worked great. I would have been done a lot sooner, but I am not skilled nor wise with either Raspberry Pi or Python, so I managed to completely brick my Pi twice before I even got the basic software packages downloaded. Then, a third time, after the Pi had been running for a few weeks, I tried to delete a folder of photos and ended up wiping every file and program off my computer. Whoops. I am not a skilled programmer. I can barely make a robot arm dance.

But, hey, even I figured out how to eventually make the code and circuits work. I got pretty skilled at starting from scratch with the Pi, and the final reinstall took me less than 90 minutes. I learned quite a bit about Raspbian, Python, etc. This was a fun, challenging, next-level project for me, and, to boot, I might even have some decent basil and thyme out of all of this soon.

My goal now is to not touch the PiPlanter for a few weeks and see if the plant survive without my human interference. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to figure out what else around the house I can automate…

Check out my PiPlanter page here: JG PiPlanter. I’ve got some photos, Tweet samples and videos there. I’ve also put up my final code (I made a few tweaks and updates to the Esologic code, but again I take no credit for creating this project). Feel free to borrow, replicate, improve and try your own PiPlanter!