Five garden gadgets that really cut it
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
A different grass
I have a lawn and a lawnmower, but they’re merely nodding acquaintances. They only meet when my father-in-law pays a visit, says “look at the state of your lawn” and heads for the shed. He’ll be shocked when he next comes over and finds it perfectly manicured and swept free of debris – but once again, I did none of the graft; that was down to Blade, the world’s first robotic lawn-sweeping mower and an Innovation Award honoree at this year’s CES technology trade show.
A cross between a Mars rover and a robo-dog, the Blade is undeniably cute, and while its most prominent feature is a large, red STOP button – which doesn’t inspire confidence – no emergencies or even mild peril occurred in testing. It comes in four parts: the Blade itself, a charging station, an antenna and the sweeping attachment. The EcoFlow app helps you position the charging station and the antenna; once they’re optimally located, you pin them down and tuck away the cable that runs between them, along with another cable from the station to mains power.
On Blade’s first run, you manually drive it around the edge of the area you want to cut or sweep (up to a maximum of 3,000sq m, a bit under half a football field) using the app as a joystick. Thereafter it works diligently on its own, respecting the boundaries you’ve set. As its front wheels point inwards at an angle, it’s not the most graceful of movers, but when it reaches an edge it can pirouette neatly and continue on its geometric path. (You’re left with very satisfying stripes across the grass.) The wheels are sufficiently large for rugged-ish terrain to pose no problem, it automatically routes itself around obstacles and, if it begins to rain, it heads back to the charging station (because mowing in the rain isn’t a great idea, robot or not.) The sweeper, which can operate independently of any mowing tasks, slots neatly on the back, collecting leaves, twigs and grass ready for manual emptying. The Blade may not be as wryly amusing as my father-in-law, but when it comes to lawn maintenance it offers stiff competition. EcoFlow Blade + Lawn Sweeper Kit, £3,199
Take the party outside
Bluetooth speakers have made it easier to bring your favourite sounds into the garden, but what might count as loud indoors can sound feeble in the open air. Marshall’s newest model, however, is its most powerful portable speaker to date, with a four-channel amp, 60W of total output and a 20-hour battery (which doubles as a phone charger). It’s also cleverly multi-directional, emitting excellent fidelity from every angle. I spared my neighbours the full experience, but I did use it as a keyboard amplifier at a gig I did at the Royal Geographical Society, of all places. Cranked up full, there was no distortion and zero complaint from my musical colleagues, or indeed the audience (for once). Marshall Middleton speaker, £269.99
How to water it
As someone with a history of accidentally murdering plants, the idea of automated watering appeals hugely. But I wasn’t prepared for the sophistication of the LinkTap D1, which offers a granular level of control over watering cycles while adjusting for local temperature and rainfall levels. Pop four AA batteries in and link it wirelessly to a small gateway device that plugs into your router. Then screw it onto your garden tap, turn it on and let the valves take the strain. The two outlets are controllable manually or via the app, where watering plans of any interval and duration can be set up. Any irregularities (such as pipe leaks, freezing temperatures or low battery) and you’ll receive a smartphone ping to let you know. LinkTap D1 Kit, £205
A question of weather
Never underestimate the quantity of delicious data that can be harvested from an aubergine-sized device on a pole in your garden. The solar-powered WittBoy (with AA battery back-up) sends weather information to a small, WiFi-connected hub in your home, which also keeps tabs on conditions indoors. The resulting graphs, visible on an app or the web, were like catnip to my inner geek: temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind, air pressure and UVI, all plotted live and stored for viewing. That data feeds into a map of local weather stations, allowing you to wonder why it’s half a degree warmer a mile down the road. Add-on sensors will measure soil moisture and air quality. Ecowitt WittBoy GW2001 Weather Station, $199.99
Just add dough
Given the opportunity, pizza-oven nerds will talk at length about the pitfalls of attempting an authentic Napoletana in the garden, including lumpwood charcoal strategy. Ooni has thankfully made such conversations redundant with this all-electric pizza oven (its first) for indoor or outdoor use. Operation really couldn’t be easier: there’s a temperature dial, a timer, and a third dial to adjust the balance of heat between top and bottom heating elements. The only thing between you and a delicious stone-baked pizza is human error – in my case, dough that was too sticky. My second attempt was magic, and at a blistering 450ºC I had but two minutes to wait. Ooni Volt 12 Electric Pizza Oven, £799