Thursday, February 14, 2013

Master Gardeners Go High Tech - QR Codes

Back in June, 2011, Karen Jeannette, who manages the eXtension Master Gardener Blog, posted about her discovery of Quick Response (QR) codes at the Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center in Texas.  If you scroll down in her link above, you'll see my reaction - "I’m intrigued. We just completed our annual plant sale and we have a year to figger it all out. Will definitely investigate. Thanks for the info."

I kept it in the back of my mind until this fall when I asked MG Juanita Kauffman's daughter, Jessica, who had impressed me during the greenhouse operations last spring with her knowledge of all things smart phone related (lord knows, being the old fogie that I am, I'm barely able to use the dumb flip cell phone I have, let alone the smart ones), to investigate the technology for us.

What I learned from her is, basically, QR codes are similar to bar codes - the things that are scanned at the grocery store, and virtually all retail places, that read the code and send pricing data to the cash register that then goes on to tally the bill for the buyer, and update the store's sales data base (maybe match it with the scan of your discount card), and manage the stock inventory of the item to report to managers and marketing specialists about what is and is not selling, etc., etc.

In the case of QR codes, however, there is an added dimension.  Anyone with a smart phone (IPhone, Android, etc.) and the appropriate application (APP) - usually included at no additional charge with most smart phone plans - has the ability to scan the code, so anyone can be a scanner, not just retail operations with specialized hardware and software.  Plus - the new QR code (two dimensional, rather than one dimensional) can contain up to 64 characters in the scan, whereas the old barcode technology was limited to 8 or 16 characters. The even more exciting new capability, is that the creator of the QR code can embed an internet address (a URL or Uniform Resource Locater - not that you need to know that)  in the code, that will link the scanner to a web address of the creator's choosing.  Powerful.

My first reaction was the potential to augment the information we offer about our Demonstration Gardens, like in the Ladybird Wildflower Center Gardens in Karen's example. Adding a weather proof QR code on the sign (mailbox) at each of our Demonstration Gardens linking back to this blog, or to our Extension Web Pages that include pictures of plants in bloom, and/or a list of each of the particular specimens in the garden, gives the scanner much more information than what we can include on the printed flyer or brochure that we hand out. 

On top of that, it drives traffic to reputable sites giving good Land Grant University information, fulfilling our outreach to the public mission.

The next thought that arose was the opportunity to augment our signage at the Plant Sale.  Think about it.  A sign with a single picture of American Elderberry - 2013 Herb of the Year, can include a QR code linking to Carol Kagan's excellent write up here, with pictures and embedded links to other good information.  It's also a way to fix the problem of specimens that aren't in bloom at the time of our plant sale - spring ephemerals that are already done (Blood Root, Virginia Blue Bells, Twin Leaf, etc.), Day lilies that have not yet bloomed, as well as the Bear's Breeches, Resurrection Lilies, and fall blooming Solidagos.  Create a sign, include a QR code to those blog posts and we're off and running - potentially better sales, as well as getting better information out there to the public.

Win. Win.

What made this all fall into place in the last couple of weeks, was a discussion on the Garden Professor's Blog you can read here that spurred me to action, and took the project off the back burner.  The last domino to fall was the response from the Penn State Information Technology team when I asked them to recommend an easy, inexpensive QR creator software that we could use.  Answer here.  Incredibly easy.  Tested it, and within 15 minutes of getting the link, created the code above, and Jenn Wetzel of our support staff read it on her smart phone (using the APP for the first time) and it worked perfectly.

As with any new technology, we still expect some glitches, but right now, the sky's the limit.


  1. HI Ray,

    It great to see your followup on QR codes. I'll be interested in keeping up with you as you explore their use at your plants sales and demonstration gardens.

    We'll share this on our National Extension Master Gardener Facebook page and again in our EMG Blog Learning Notes monthly update. As I believe you are, I'm very interested in hearing if other EMG programs are thinking about using QR Codes to help connect people to reliable plant information with a simple scan.

  2. Thanks, Karen. will definitely keep you informed about our progress, and any lessons-learned, as we implement. And, thanks for the shout out, and the plug on the eXtension FB page.

  3. Ray,

    I posted a couple of comments back over on The Garden Professors. This is a fun space right now. My start-up has built an "almost instant" audio (and video) tour-maker. We think that what we've developed could work well in the garden space - we need some help with volunteers to experiment with the service. If you're interested drop me a line - tola [at]

  4. Here in Vriginia Cooperative Extension - Arlington we just did a workshop with Master Gardeners on QR Codes in the Garden. Scan this poster at
    or go to resources: Templates, handout with how-tos and powerpoint at

    We're using QR Codes for labeling native plants a demo garden at a library - and developing other signs for our Central Library's vegetable garden, and we made QR Coded Tree Tags for a schoolyard...

  5. Hi Tola - sorry - I just noticed your comment earlier today. I sent you an email. Be glad to take a look.

  6. Wow, Mary. Great information. Just spent the last 1/2 hour going through your PDF of the presentation. Haven't checked, but I hope you share this with EMG and the Garden Professors. Love the color options, and angle shots - wasn't aware - will appeal to the fine-arts folks in our group who put together our brochures.

    We have another effort underway, partnering with our commercial hort educator. He wrote, collaborating with a local independent nursery, an article with some alternative recommendations for standard impatiens, because of the downy mildew problem. I turned it into a blog post ( and we're now making a flyer, with a QR Code to the blog post, that he can send as a PDF to his client list of greenhouse growers/nurseries. What an inexpensive way to get good, Extension information to plant buyers. Hope you don't mind if we take advantage of your contact info, if (when) we run into any glitches. Cheers!

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  10. Several years later now... are the QR codes still being used successfully and sufficiently to warrant adding to garden signs? Thanks!