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Garden intelligence

As the climate crisis escalates, we need to garden smarter – and there’s no time to lose. AI could deliver the data to fast-track the right decisions for our natural world.

We gardeners need help: heavyweight, ultra-intelligent help that can only come from the smartest – and getting smarter by the second – minds on earth.

We need the kind of help that isn’t found inside any human skull, but inside the powerful, tireless ‘minds’ of computers. We need to green up and grow algorithms, dig deep into datasets, and let machines learn from all we already know about how our gardens and greenhouses grow, tick and help to enrich the living world around us. We then need to let their indefatigable ‘brains’ bestow us with superpowers to garden better, smarter and greener, with a laser focus on gardening’s vital role in an ecologically imperilled world.

We need to ally and collaborate with artificial intelligence (AI) to help expand, hone and focus our own garden intelligence – let’s call it GI.

Flooding is part of our turbulent future.

Whether you welcome it, or are wary of it, AI is changing our world – for good or ill, as with many advanced, emerging technologies. It works by using algorithms and mathematical models to learn from data of all kinds to do stuff that usually requires human intelligence. AI learns – at lightning speed – from what’s gone before, and it gets smarter all the time. It can reason, solve problems, make suggestions, use perception, understand language, evaluate… much like we do, but at mind-boggling, brain-beating pace. GI will never have our gardeners’ soul or touch, but we can forgive it that for the benefits it can bring.

Speed is imperative given the entangled crises we face. Our direct, everyday connection with the earth – we frequently get our fingers dirty in it – means that with added GI, we can make haste on a whole array of fronts. Given the weather-driven chaos of the last few months, preventing or easing the risk of urban flooding is top of the list. We know that both home and communal gardens, together with green spaces, soak up rain, slow it down and keep it out of drains, helping to ease flood risk.

Good examples of this kind of designed, plant-powered flood mitigation already exist, but what if GI could help to recruit a trowel-wielding army of urban gardeners to a living flood defence force? It would be able to assimilate information about a specific area – its topography, geology, soil types, the proximity of natural streams and rivers, data showing weather patterns, any history of flooding, including how it has been impacted by human development, and plenty more.

Next, the area would come under the misses-no-detail eye of drones, which would map and record the existing infrastructure, including every single garden, allotment site and bit of green space. These drones would see with a far keener eye than even a blackbird eyeing an earthworm; they would be the airborne eyes of GI, connected to a vast algorithm able to accurately identify individual plants in our gardens. (They would need to learn how to identify them first, and that’s where allowing GI access to existing knowledge kicks in. All those books…)

Every garden (with the owner’s permission) would be flown over (it’ll be worth putting up with the drones’ infernal whine) and duly scanned and catalogued; its plants, area of lawn, open soil, borders, veg and fruit plots, greenhouses, paths, hard surfacing, drives, roofs or – heaven forbid – plastic grass would be duly measured and recorded in the evolving GI mind.

Garden Intelligence won’t replace a gardener’s touch.

Then the real magic would happen.

By bringing all this information together, GI would be able to not only highlight specific areas – whole towns or at-risk parts of densely populated urban areas – which are flood-prone, especially during extreme weather events, but would also be able to suggest and design plant-powered solutions. It could identify what kind of garden will have the greatest impact on preventing flooding, show where those gardens are urgently needed, and specify the plants giving the greatest rain-soaking benefits in that spot.

In a flash, GI would be able to illustrate the purpose of – and offer designs for – effective rain gardens; it could explain how to adapt existing plots, or make one from scratch, once impermeable patios and soil-entombing decking – both shedders of water into the drainage system – are ousted.

We’d be able to ask it, via our smart devices, for more information, such as how to tilt our planting schemes in favour of local insect populations; it would already have learnt a vast amount about our winged allies and other garden wildlife during the drone pass. Or we could simply ask it to suggest a rain garden matched to our own favourite hues.

When it comes to sourcing plants, GI could point us, having accessed their stock lists, to local nurseries selling those we need. It would even be smart enough to identify well-stocked gardens offering some of their own plants, for free.

GI might suggest that greater resilience to flooding could be achieved if several gardens merged together to create communal, water-storing features such as long, winding swales (hollows that catch rain and allow it to soak away into the soil). Having mapped the terrain, GI could produce ground plans and planting lists, alongside cool holograms where plants are tended by three-dimensional gardeners. Tackling flooding together, by taking down fences and growing with a shared purpose, would sow the kind of neighbourly camaraderie needed for our turbulent future.

The potential for using AI to give us GI is limitless; when you let your imagination unfurl, it can be mind-popping. My brain’s spinning just thinking about the countless other topics these 1,000 words or so could have been about; imagine what GI would have to say – in seconds – if we asked it to list all the ways it might help us.

There is growing, valid concern about how the evolution of AI will further replace the work and jobs many of us do across society. GI might fancy its chances in robotic form, but it will never be able to sow seeds, take cuttings, plant, stake, pick, prune, spread compost, sweep up leaves, water pots, mow with a scythe, deadhead, feel the sun, wind, rain, snow and hail on its cheek, be in tune with how a garden ticks, or take its pulse, quite like we can.

That’s still, and hopefully always will be, our job. Fingers crossed.

Text © John Walker. Images: Depositphotos

Find John on X @earthFgardener