We decided to test out B&Q’s foray into apps- the new Outdoor Assistant, which claims you can identify plants or weeds and get advice on gardening techniques.
B&Q recently conducted research that claimed while more Brits are gardening than ever, 10% are guilty of mistaking flowers for weeds, while 15% allowed weeds to grow thinking they were flowers. Helpfully they have introduced a new app for those unsure whether they’re weeding a border or demolishing grandma’s prize orchid.
Free to download and advertised as ‘Shazam for plants’ the app sets itself an ambitious task- using image-recognition software to identify any plant the user photographs. While other, similar apps are available, the promising mission statement and corporate brand made us decide to take this one for a test drive.
We found the app simple and functional, without unnecessary bells and whistles- which proved to be vital, as we ventured further into the garden it began to struggle with speed and connectivity. Several searches crashed or had to be abandoned after taking too long to load- leading to a series of searches being conducted on clippings inside with the benefit of WiFi.
Overall the accuracy was distinctly average, and while it didn’t seem the app promised to provide encyclopedic knowledge- in providing a selection of possible matches it came across as aware of its fallibility- correctly identifying 6 of the 12 plants certainly highlighted that work is still needed. Assuming that the majority of users are drawn in by the claimed ability to identify plants, we certainly hoped for more precise results.
Seeming to function better in well-lit conditions, it scored 4 for 6 in the first, border-based testing, correctly identifying primrose, tulip, daffodils and hyacinths- admittedly probably the easier end of the spectrum. Somewhat unfairly we decided to test it on strawberries’ distinctive leaves, which perhaps understandably was unsuccessful.
On the second, cloudier attempt (weeds, shrubs and pot plants) connectivity proved a huge problem, as did the gravel setting on which many of the weeds were situating- completely confounding it. The zoom required for a suitable picture produced blurry images that again failed to register and required several attempts- several had to be pulled up in order to be captured to the app’s satisfaction- though many of these still proved incorrect. It did however correctly ID an anemone and a particularly tricky Japonica- for a total of 2 for 6, slightly disappointingly. Eventually it crashed mid-way through a search- a fairly inauspicious ending to our experimenting. Admittedly there is an option to save a picture for searching later- though this seems like a fairly impractical measure for countering a poor internet connection in the garden.
-If you have gravel, don’t expect miracles. Gravel seemed to totally flummox the software, probably due to the variety of colours and textures interfering with the image recognition technology.
-If you have slow internet, you might be better off with a book. Despite an increase in urban gardening, many of those who garden aren’t fortunate enough to be situated in 4G hotspots- something that proved rather tedious during our time trialing Outdoor Assistant.
-An option to retrieve previous searches would be ideal.
-Though ostensibly a plant-identifying app, there’s an awful lot of shopping options built in below the surface.
-British weather seems, as usual, to stop play. The app contains a marvellous gallery of high definition stock-style images, all showing crisp and lovely plants in full bloom in thoroughly Mediterranean weather. Perhaps predictably then, it seemed to struggle to find a match for some of our markedly less luscious offerings- particularly a fuzzy close up of shaded flowering broccoli as dianthus- which could lead to some interesting border choices from less experienced gardeners.
Increasing numbers of Britons are gardening alongside using social media- with 24.3 million posts using the hashtag #garden in March alone. The RHS, meanwhile, has announced a £27 million investment in raising awareness of the positive effects of gardening- meaning that gardening could be about to take off as millions seek the therapeutic effects of ‘getting back to nature’, the RHS Claims. In the context of the decline of gardening and gardens, apps like Outdoor Assistant present an innovative, engaging and thoroughly 21st century solution to gardening illiteracy. Unfortunately there seem to be some problems that need ironing out- and while the idea certainly merits more development, there’s a lot of gardening books that can do the same job more reliably.