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Professor developing new tool for plant parents

Professor developing new tool for plant parents

April 15, 2022 at 2:59pm

Does my plant need fertilizer? How much? How often?

“Those are definitely the most common questions I get on a regular basis,” said FIU horticulturist Amir A. Khoddamzadeh.

The self-proclaimed Dr. Horticulture is the principal investigator for FIU’s Conservation and Sustainable Horticulture Lab. He knows plants. His trained eye can spot a plant that has been given too much fertilizer as easily as he can spot one in need of a little more. Too much water. Or not enough. Too much sunlight. Or not enough. When a pot is too small. When a pot is too big. Native and non-native. He’s become many people’s go-to guy when they don’t understand what’s wrong with their houseplants. He loves helping people become better plant parents. And now he’s hoping to expand his reach and share what he knows with everyone.

He is currently developing an iOS app that would allow anyone with a smart phone to keep track of their houseplants’ fertilization needs by simply taking a picture. It would work for commercial nurseries too. It’s something he’s been working on since 2016 with StartUp FIU and recently completed the Bay Area NSF Innovation Corps at UC Berkeley which paved the way for submission of a proposal to the National Science Foundation iCorps for customer discovery phase. That proposal was awarded funding earlier this month. This work is a continuation of Khoddamzadeh’s project,Nitrogen Management and Plant Quality Monitoring Using Optical Sensor Technology in Native and Non-Native Specialty Crops,” which is funded by a specialty crop block grant at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“For my research, I use optical non-destructive handheld sensors for fertilizer management,” said Khoddamzadeh, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Earth and Environment’s Agroecology Program and researcher in the Institute of Environment. “But we need something simpler, for people who aren’t horticulturalists, that can give meaningful notifications about their plants. That’s really where the idea came from.”

Florida’s fruit and vegetable farming and processing industries provide more than 90,000 full-time and part-time jobs and is a $6 billion-dollar-industry. Large scale nursery production involves the use of containers with lightweight potting mix to grow plants. One acre of land at a commercial nursery has the potential to house 40,000 to 300,000 containers, many of which are currently receiving excessive fertilizer application. Khoddamzadeh says the app and his research that will support it can be an easy solution for over-fertilization.

“Besides healthier plants, there’s another environmental aspect to this, and that’s to end over-fertilizing,” he said. “Too much fertilizer is not good for the environment, especially when it gets into waterways. That can lead to algae blooms and other problems.” 

Khoddamzadeh currently has a database of plants with images of species at different stages of growth and nutrition, indicating whether they are in need of fertilizer, over-fertilized or just right. Employing machine learning, he is able to expand this information to other species not currently in the database. With this information, the app will be able to assess an image uploaded by a user and determine fertilization need. A prototype of the app already exists and if all goes as planned, Khoddamzadeh hopes to launch it for the general public sometime next year.

His passion for plants started in his native Iran, where he had an internship at a rose farm. He eventually started working with other flowering plants before heading to Southeast Asia to pursue his Ph.D. at the University Putra Malaysia. There he spent time working with orchids.

Eventually, he found his way to the states, first Oklahoma and then South Florida, bringing his research to FIU. Being exposed to some of the most beautiful flowering plants in the world has made it hard for him to focus on any one species.

“Any endangered or threatened native plant is my favorite because they’re the ones in need of conservation horticulture,” he said.

But he also knows people love their plants and plants are good business. So, everyone is happy when plants are healthy. It’s what drives Khoddamzadeh in his research and in his efforts to arm others with the tools they need to be successful plant parents.