NFC Gives Trees a Touch of Blarney

By Claire Swedberg

Ireland's Blarney Castle Gardens is applying NFC RFID tags to its collection, in order to communicate information about the plants to staff members, as well as to visitors of the castle and Blarney Stone.

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Blarney Castle Gardens is attaching Near Field Communication (NFC) tags to its 2,000-plus collection of trees to help gardeners easily access historical data about specific trees, as well as update records with the services being provided. Equipped with NFC-enabled Android smartphones, employees can access data regarding which tree they are working with and what has been done to it, and the system will also allow them to input such details as the pruning or inspection provided on a specific day.

However, the ZipNFC solution employed by the castle’s gardening staff offers another benefit, head gardener Adam Whitbourn reports: It allows anyone equipped with an NFC-enabled phone, without an app, to capture data from the trees’ tags, including each tree’s species, pictures, information about the geographic area from which it originates, and how well it might grow in their own gardens. Blarney Castle Gardens began tagging trees in November 2014, and expects to have its entire collection tagged by March or April of this year, at which time the castle will also provide the public with access to some data. In the meantime, garden personnel are already using the technology to track the work they do in the garden.

To tag its larger specimens, Blarney Castle Gardens places ZipNFC’s 30-millimeter RFID tags behind an informational plaque, which is then nailed to the tree’s trunk.

The Irish Blarney Castle is famed for its Blarney Stone, where visitors reputedly can gain the gift of gab by giving the stone a kiss. Most visitors have historically come to see—and kiss—the stone, and then walk throughout the castle, leaving the site without fully seeing its 60-acre garden, which includes one of Ireland’s largest collections of international trees and shrubs. Beyond the gardens, approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) of trails traverse a 4,500-acre forest and lake with many native trees of interest as well. The forest includes a 1,000-year-old yew tree, for example, while the gardens feature many rare trees from Asia, Europe and North America.

While the castle wanted to encourage visitors to spend some time enjoying the beauty of the gardens and forest, Whitbourn says, the initial goal was to better manage the care of the trees and plants. As in most gardens, Blarney Castle’s staff conduct periodic tasks to care for the tree and plant collection, including pruning, inspecting and watering. To create a record of what had been done, as well as the condition of any particular tree or plant, workers previously carried pen and paper, manually inputting data into the castle’s database.

Head gardener Adam Whitbourn

Whitbourn sought an electronic system that could better manage the collected data, and came across NFC technology. He says he contacted several NFC technology vendors, and ultimately selected ZipNFC, a division of U.K.-based advertising software firm Ad World IT. ZipNFC provides NFC tags that it manufactures in-house, as well as its hosted software and apps for Android phones. In the future, if Apple opens up the use of the NFC readers being built into its products, the app would work on iOS phones as well, says Chris Humphries, the CEO of Ad World IT and ZipNFC. The app also works with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons, though ZipNFC, which was launched two years ago, has only sold its NFC-based solution to date.

The tags—made with NXP Semiconductors‘ NTAG 203 or 213 chips—come in the form of small black plastic disks, either as 28-millimeter (1.1-inch) tags that are hung on smaller trees or plants, or as 30-millimeter (1.2-inch) tags designed to be nailed to a tree’s trunk without causing it harm.

In November, employees began applying the tags to the trees, either directly to each tree or as a hangtag—in both cases, near informational plaques. Each tag is encoded with a unique identifier, and when it is first attached to a specimen, a phone running the ZipNFC Garden Manager app is used to read the tag ID number and, at the same time, record the tree’s location, via the handset’s GPS functionality. Personnel then enter such data as the tree’s species, the region it comes from and other information that might interest visitors. This data is then available to anyone equipped an NFC-enabled phone, without requiring an app to read it.

Other data, however, is available only to staff members, via the Garden Manager app. After inputting an access code into the app, authorized users can then view information such as when a specific tree was planted and pruned, along with a description of any damage or illnesses it has sustained. They can also write new data to the system, such as the results of an inspection.

ZipNFC’s 28-millimeter hangtag is used for juvenile trees and shrubs, by looping it around a branch adjacent to an informational plaque.

Although only 300 trees have been tagged to date, Whitbourn says, the system is already proving to save time for staff members in the garden, as well as creating a more accurate record of what is being done there. He notes that he can access data at any time regarding what work was done, and on which trees, on any given day. The software could also be used to manage other information, such as how well trees grow in specific areas of the garden, when a particular area is being neglected, or where disease is being found.

Although the NFC data is not yet being offered to the public, Whitbourn says he expects to begin advertising the NFC system to new visitors in the entrance brochure, so that they can start learning about the trees in the garden with their NFC-enabled phones this spring. A visitor would simply hold the phone near the plaque where the species name is printed, and view a picture of the tree, as well as additional data about its origins and preferred growing environment. That person could also view his or her location on a map of the garden, based on GPS data from the phone. In the future, Humphries says, the software will enable users of the Garden Manager app to locate specific trees by logging into the server and inputting each particular tree they are looking for, which will then be displayed on a map of the garden and forest.

ZipNFC’s Chris Humphries

Once the trees are all tagged, Blarney Castle’s garden staff will begin attaching tags to rhododendrons and other shrubs, of which there are more than 2,000. According to Whitbourn, the castle might opt to use the tags to provide visitors with information that could help them learn whether, and how, to plant a particular shrub in their own garden.

Tags are also being applied to batches of seedlings in the castle nursery, in order to track when they were planted and what species they are. The ID number encoded on the tag could be married to a tag that would then be applied to the tree or shrub once it is planted, thereby creating a history for the garden staff that begins with the seedling stage.