PHOTO: Susan Brackney
Susan Brackney
August 27, 2020

That smartphone in your pocket can connect you with more than just your favorite auntie’s gooseberry pie recipe. Whether you’re an Android or iPhone user, there are countless smartphone apps available to help you identify mystery weeds and insect pests, track your backyard hens’ productivity, and everything in between.

Here are a handful of mostly free smartphone apps to try. (Although some do include in-app purchases, even these afford perfectly serviceable, stripped-down versions you can use indefinitely at no cost.)

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Seek

Created through a partnership between the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences, Seek is like having a nature interpreter on call. The free app uses image-recognition technology to identify fungi, plants, insects and other living things in real time.

That makes Seek well-suited for would-be naturalists, but it also has real potential for gardeners. See a new pest eating your beans? Or a weird weed that’s taking over? Simply point your smartphone’s camera at the subject in question. Seek scans and provides the species, photos and details—most of the time.

Occasionally, Seek only gets close. But even then it suggests related species to help you narrow your search. Aside from real-time scanning, Seek also accepts static images from your camera roll. (Admittedly, Seek seems to have a harder time identifying species from stored images than from real-time scans.)

Seek also offers fun nature-spotting challenges and badges. My only real caveat? Seek could potentially gobble up battery power in a hurry. If you have a tired, old phone like mine, you might want to keep an eye on that.

Want to check it out before downloading? You can always peruse the online user’s guide.

Pl@ntNet Plant Identification

Pl@ntNet Plant Identification is part of a plant diversity citizen science project; however, it can also serve as a simple, free plant identification app.

Snap a photo of the plant you want to identify—or choose an image from your smartphone’s camera roll—and then select the category most relevant to your image: “leaf,” “fruit,” “flower,” “bark,” “habit” or “other.” Pl@ntNet will return photos and species names for suggested matches.

Just want to learn more about a particular plant in your region? Pl@ntNet also has a search function that returns botanical names, myriad reference images—again, many of which are crowdsourced—and outside links for more species detail.

Gardenize

The free version of the Gardenize app is a bare-bones garden journaling tool. You can use it to save photos of your plants, make notes about different garden areas, and record details about garden “events,” such as watering or seed starting.

The catch? If you stick with the free version, you’re unable to export your garden notes. (Paying customers can do so in the form of garden books, photo galleries or spreadsheets.)

Canning Timer and Checklist

Already an experienced canner? Then you’ll probably appreciate this free app by Oregon State University’s Extension Service. Canning Timer and Checklist offers a quick refresher on food preservation steps and protocols for more than 50 kinds of fruits, veggies, meats, jams, jellies and pickles.

Based on your elevation, canning jar size, canning method and whether you’re packing raw or hot ingredients, the app tailors a checklist and sets a timer to assist you during the canning process.

FlockStar

If you keep a small number of hens and want to better track their egg production, consider FlockStar. The free app enables users to upload photos and vital statistics for each of their hens as well as log daily egg laying, either for single hens or in bulk. It also charts monthly egg counts and even ranks hens via egg-laying leaderboard.

My only real gripes? Any weights—for eggs or hens—must be entered in grams. Also, there’s no obvious way to indicate whether a hen is broody. (But you can always mark a hen as “inactive” and enter details in the available “notes” field as needed.)

MiteCheck

Got bees? Then you’ve likely got a few mites, too. Developed by the Bee Informed Partnership, MiteCheck helps beekeepers of all skill levels to monitor their colonies’ Varroa mite levels. The free app includes details on the alcohol wash method as well as step-by-step instructions, a shake trainer and timer for the (better-for-the-bees!) powdered sugar roll.

After calculating Varroa mite loads, you can submit hive-related data to be included in interactive maps of Varroa hot-spots across the U.S. Visit the Bee Informed Partnership to learn more about MiteCheck data collection and the group’s multi-national Mite-A-Thon initiative.

Download a few of these apps, grab your smartphone, and head outside to enjoy nature in a fun, new way!

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