How do you know whether a plant is thriving? If you look closely enough, often enough, there are plenty of signals: are the leaves droopy or firm? Is the soil bone dry or sopping wet? Are the flowers perky or falling? Is the plant deep green or fading to yellow? My plants may not be able to speak to me, but the more I spend time with a plant and get to know it, the more this simple semaphore is revealed to me.
When I got the chance to try out a new gadget called PhytlSigns (see what they did there?) I wasn't sure what to expect. The catchline is "be a plant communication pioneer". I am not an early adopter of technology: I was still carrying around a brick of a mobile when everyone else was using iPhones.
Nevertheless, I was keen to try this out, attaching one electrode to the leaf via a drop of gel (I got the scientists' version, apparently the consumer version should have a clip to make things feel a bit less, well, experimental). This hooks up to a little box, which in turn connects to your computer, and to a tiny speaker.
I flicked the switch, and the speaker squawked into life, scaring the life out of my dog, and confirming that electrical signals were being received from my specimen plant, a streptocarpus. Every time the plant's environment changes - be it damage to a leaf, receiving water or a strong breeze - tiny electrical signals called bio-signals. The Phytl Signs device picks these signals up, and turns them into something audible, via the speakers - and the information is recorded and the data is turned into a graph.
So far so good. There was data, lots of data, and I could see how even brushing a leaf elicits a reaction from the device. I can see just how this gadget could be a great teaching tool - it allows the grower to see how a plant responds to different stimuli; the realisation that a leaf can communicate with a root via these tiny electrical impulses. All the data is saved and plotted into a graph, so you can see exactly how the plant is reacting over minutes, hours, days and even weeks.
For large-scale growers, raising plants in very precise conditions, I can see that this could offer a significant step forward. But for me? After playing around with the device for a few days, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't something I'd want to keep long term. I don't grow tricksy houseplants that are going to keel over at the first sign of a draught or a few whitefly; everything I need to know about my streps I can tell from touching the soil, feeling a leaf, deadheading a flower. I'd rather rely on my eyes and fingers than a gadget. A lifetime of observing plants allows me to spot problems and head them off before they begin to get serious (most of the time).
Nonetheless, I'm intrigued to see whether this project gets off the ground. This isn't a device you can buy over the counter, yet: Phytl Signs is crowdfunding on Kickstarter, and you can pre-order a device for delivery once the funding is secured. Crowdfunding is certainly opening up as an alternative way to backing for horticulture-related projects and products, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles wrote recently on the Guardian gardening blog. I've personally backed a few different projects so far, including Lia Leendertz's Unbound appeal for The New Almanac and Mark Diacono's Otter Farm kitchen garden school. It's wonderful to be able to give your own, albeit small, financial backing to a person or a project you believe in, in the knowledge that, along with a band of likeminded people, you're making something happen.
And in the meantime, I'll be sending back my Phytl Signs device to the makers, for someone else to try.