UC Botanical Garden sensors could help better meet irrigation objectives

Kenneth Berling/Staff

A team of UC Berkeley students implemented wireless sensor stations this month in the UC Botanical Garden in the hope of optimizing plant growth and limiting irrigational water use in the garden.

As part of a class led by campus professor of civil and environmental engineering Steven Glaser, students installed five sensor nodes in various areas of the garden. Garden curator Holly Forbes said that the project will continue for several years and that the findings will be displayed online once operational data collection commences Friday.

Glaser said in a press release that he chose the site for students to conduct their research because he and his wife were frequent patrons and were eager to work in the garden.

The sensors — which measure temperature, humidity, soil content and soil radiation — could help the garden meet irrigation objectives more effectively by providing comprehensive data on how air and soil moisture levels change and are absorbed over time.

“(The sensors) are going to tell us exactly what the plants are experiencing in the garden, and that will help us adjust our horticultural practices,” Forbes said.

The garden already collects data using existing weather stations and rain gauges, but the new sensors will supplement a broader scope of information. According to Forbes, the current rain gauges record only temperature extremes over the course of a day, while the new sensors record changes throughout it. This allows gardeners to predict how a plant will respond to an environmental change over a period of time.

The sensors also require less maintenance because they do not need to be manually reset every day, like the garden’s current detectors do.

According to Glaser, the team is particularly interested in analyzing the garden’s Asian plant collection because of its plants’ high humidity demands. The team hopes to limit excess irrigation in the area by measuring how quickly a soil plot drains water and by halting irrigation when the water reaches a certain depth.

“We are trying to conserve water, and this will tell us if we’re overdoing it,” Forbes said.

Sami Malek, the leader of the team and a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, said the system was ideal for the UC Berkeley Botanical garden area because it allows researchers to fine-tune a plant’s watering needs depending on its species and soil composition, as with the Asian plant collection.

Ziran Zhang, a UC Berkeley doctoral candidate who guided the team of students in deploying the sensory equipment, said the network sensors have myriad potential uses because of their communicative reliability and low power usage.

Yet, by implementing a sensory network into a local environment, Zhang said, the team’s project was “quite unique.” Zhang added that the sensors’ current use in the garden is one of many possible applications to monitoring environmental change and could be used in different ecosystems for further horticultural research.

Contact Kimberly Nielsen at [email protected].