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! Would you be interested in a plant database/planner/tool focused on permaculture?

 
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(Please move if this is the wrong forum.)

Hi fellow Permies,

We got into gardening when my grandpa gave me two potatoes. We put them in bought soil in a big ikea bag on the balcony and with a bit watering, they turned out great. Now 4 years later is the first year where we really tried to scale up and created raised beds all over our small urban plot in Berlin, Germany.

While planning the garden season at the beginning of the year (growing season starts mostly only after the last frost at “Eisheiligen”[1] here) I found myself random googling for plant names etc. Especially more permaculture focused info like layer, companion planting or even guilds were very hard to find / non-existent. I fell back on using a spreadsheet where I gathered all the info I researched and can search through all of it easily. It looks basically like the tables at the end of Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s garden.

Now I had the idea what if there would be some kind of online database where everyone can contribute and there would be a good amount of plants in it, searchable and having all the necessary attributes and info to know how to grow them, focused on permaculture attributes. I was thinking of attributes like

- Names (official Latin name, all languages, alternative names)
- Perennial/annual
- Layer (1-7)
- Light (sun/partial shade/shade tolerant)
- Environmental benefits (e.g. nitrogen fixing, …)
- Animal benefits (e.g. insect attracting, …)
- Human benefits (e.g. food, …)
- Companions / guilds
- Anything that helps growing it (hardiness zone, when to seed, when to plant, when to harvest, …)

I tried finding such database with no luck, this is also how I found the Permies forum[2]. I am thinking what if I would use my spreadsheet and try to put it into a website where everyone else is able to add their stuff, so we build some knowledge together and help each other.

Building such thing is not an easy task but also not impossible. I have some time until the end of the year and could try to get something running.

Here are my main questions:

1. Did you experience the same with random googling? How do you plan your garden and research permaculture attributes of plants? Do you have your own spreadsheets with info?
2. Would you be interested in using such database?
3. Would you be interested contributing your knowledge about plants to such database?
4. What else are you most interested in which we could use that database for? (See ideas below)


Other Ideas

If we would get to a good amount of data, we could possibly do something  like
- Personal lists (everyone can create and share their own list, may it “what I plan to grow next year” or “what are the best annuals for sandy soil in Berlin”, much like playlists for music :) )
- “guild planner” where the database is recommending you guild/companions based on the attributes of all the plants.
- “Garden calendar” where after you chose all the plants you want to grow and give your last frost date, you would get a calendar helping you to know when to seed/plant/harvest your selected plants
- A marketplace to trade seeds/seedlings/plants
- Also in later stages I am dreaming about helping permaculture as a whole providing more info like rating plants/guilds and we could share which guilds worked the best in what conditions etc.
- (your idea here :) )

Thanks and have a great day,
Ben

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_Saints
[2] https://permies.com/t/143208/permaculture-plant-database
 
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Hey!
I had the same experiences when looking for such a thing.

Last year during my down-time between jobs, I started putting together such a thing (I'm a designer with some programming skills by trade), and I was calling it Useful Plants, as the focus was on the actual uses of these plants. I ended up putting in several weeks' worth of work, and got a solid start on the application itself (it works, and you can create new users, add/edit plants, even pull from plant profiles from Wikipedia to get you started on a new plant profile).

Your thoughts on the features are very much in line with my own; I had built a small "related plants" section, which could suggest other plants - possibly more suitable or replaceable based on the layer or ecological function. The focus on the personal experience aspect would be huge as well.

Essentially, I have the platform running and the APIs and front-end and server-side stuff all built out, I'm just not hosting it, and it will require data entry.

I would love to collaborate on this if you want to explore this further! You can reply here, or send me an email at simgooder@gmail.com and we can discuss some more details!


Simon
 
Ben Knofe
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Hi Simon,

thanks for your answer. What was/is the reason you don't have it running anymore?

ben
 
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I think this would be very worthwhile.  I have been attempting to raise several perennial vegetables from seed this year, and found it very challenging.  I have scoured the internet for hints and success/failure stories, and shared some of this information on Permies.  How great if that sort of information were collected and organized!

Yes, I support this idea!
 
pollinator
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This sounds like a great idea.  It also sounds like a great deal of the work has been done by Plants for a Future (pfaf.org)  

I don't know much about the people behind PFAF, and how willing/pleasant they are to work with.  I do know they've been doing this a long while and might appreciate new blood and enthusiasm.  Maybe they would just be willing to share an API that a new, more generalized site could be built around (for cash to cover bandwidth).  Or they could share data once with your solution and then query your site to keep their traditional site updated.

I just hate to see everyone reinventing the wheel.  I see it all the time at work, where we can afford some wastage, but permaculture is much more limited in money and enthusiasm.

And if you want to push forward, with or without PFAF I'd be happy to offer ideas, programming, project management and/or money to a fleshed-out plan.
 
Morfydd St. Clair
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To answer your explicit questions, which I think are useful:

1. Did you experience the same with random googling? How do you plan your garden and research permaculture attributes of plants? Do you have your own spreadsheets with info?

I use books, PFAF, posts on Permies, and plantseller websites.
I organize information mostly in Evernote, occasionally with Google spreadsheets.  Both are kind of a mess.

2. Would you be interested in using such database?

Show me how it's better than PFAF and sure

3. Would you be interested contributing your knowledge about plants to such database?

I don't feel like I have personal knowledge about plants sufficient to be useful in that regard.  I would be happy to include links to and summaries of other resources.

4. What else are you most interested in which we could use that database for? (See ideas below)

Your ideas are really cool!  
I like the idea of being able to generate lists, point back to database info, and share them.
I love the ideas of "guild planners" and especially of being able to come back and rate/analyze the guilds.
I would find it really useful to have direct links from plant data to local/local-ish sellers.*  (For instance, when I moved from the US PNW to Germany, all my favorite sellers were useless to me.  Now with Brexit coming, many of my UK sellers may become useless to me.  Setting up a deep integration with German/Dutch/French sellers would be really cool.)

A thing to keep in mind is that once you start having user content you have to have moderation.  That's expensive in time, money, and/or tech.

Overall, this could be a really neat tool.  I feel like you should investigate the rest of the permie online landscape to see how you could work with or around other long-term players, both to reduce re-work and minimize conflict.  What is your plan for that, and of course, the big question, for funding?

*This can, of course, be problematic.  How do you screen sellers for quality?  If they are supporting you financially, how do you keep objectivity?
 
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I use the android app PlantNet to ID unknown plants. It has a summary tab of each plant, and a tab for the wikipedia article entry. Take a look for some neat ideas. It's a community-driven photo ID app.
 
pollinator
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I really like your idea and wish there was such a database. In response to your questions about contributing though, I don't actually feel confidant that I know ANYTHING about growing stuff right yet. Hence my desire for exactly what you are proposing!
 
Ben Knofe
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Hey all,

thank you for all the great answers! This really motivates me to continue working on that idea! I am currently building a prototype and will share something with you soon.

@Anne: What was your biggest problem? For me I guess it was timing. Some things I started too early and planted outside too early, some things all too late. It would be great to have a list of my planned plants with timings!

@Morfydd:

Regarding PFAF: It is a great site and resource and I used myself in the past. I think it has two main problems to be really useful to me:
1) It is only maintained by two people and there is no way to add data to it or organize/personalize in any way for you. I think having a database is nice but having useful tools for hobby gardeners is much more valuable. Also having a lot of people adding their experiences to and about plants, gives you a better idea what is possible in your garden then by just reading the hard facts on plants. But yes, this needs a lot of people to participate :)
2) It is focused on a lot of data and a lot of data per plant. I imagine a database which is focused on helping you grow that thing, preferably you can even add your hardiness zone / soil type and it shows you already what would thrive and what you need to do when. When I open a plant on PFAF it is a lot of information, which is hard to consume or even get an idea what to do out of it. I think a database with 700 plants which give simple to consume and to apply info on plants is more valuable for a gardener (like me) than a 7000 plant database with all the possible info. That's why I would focus on two things: Practical info on plants for permaculture gardeners (e.g. companions!) and tools to organize yourself (like the already mentioned lists like "What I plan to grow in 2021" or things like that)

To your answers
1) I am doing basically the same and this is why I had the idea how could a tool look like helping me organize all this info. It is the classical "scratch my own itch" type of idea.
2) I think I explained it a bit above, but I think useful tools on top of a database is better than a pure fact based database.
3) This is something I totally want to change, since I believe everyone as _some_ experience, may it be not scientific or not professional, which might help others. I would love to read all the experiences from hobby gardeners starting their garden in my area for example.

Regarding tools: Yes that's the idea but rather long term I would say. If it really gets off the ground and a lot of people start using it, then I would explore possibilities how to make this a sustainable thing.

Regarding moderation: I think this is part of contributing and could work like in stackoverflow or similar sites, where experienced users take the role of a moderator. What do you think about that?

Regarding the permie online landscape: I was searching long for similar projects and couldn't find any. What sites/forums/projects do you think are relevant here?

Regarding funding: This is also something for later. Currently I have time to work on it until the end of year and then I will see how it is going!


@Julian: This is a great app I didn't know before. Will try it out! I checked their website and could only find images to plants but no info how to grow etc. Do they have such info somewhere?

@Dan: I mentioned it above but I want to write it again, since I think this is the core why I want to do that. While you might not have scientific or professional experience, you have _some_ experience, which I am sure could be helpful to others already. Imagine everyone who thinks like you (including me) would share their experiences, even if it seems small. I imagine if I would add things like: "My sunchokes actually thrive much better when they have a bit shade and wind protection behind the house than the others in front", that could help already a lot of other people in my area. Compare what you find when you google it: is mostly says just "prefers full sun". Do you know what I mean?


 
Anne Pratt
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Hi Ben -

My Caucasian Mountain Sprinach is currently sprouting in the refrigerator.  Long - very long - story.  Wish me luck!  I have cobbled together instructions from at least 3 sources (after rejecting other sources, that had no helpful detail.)

Good King Henry was planted many, many weeks (with no results) before I read that it needed stratification.  The packet instructions weren't clear, and I ran across this nugget on a different seller's website.  No Good King Henry growing in my shade garden.

I planted sea kale from seed, following directions from two or three sources (including two videos about cracking the hard covering off the seed without damaging the seed.  After what seemed like a year or two, it sprouted.  A month ago it got its first true leaves.  They seem to be growing.  It's so tiny, it's hard to believe it is still alive.  

I've learned that there are nurseries where I can buy these plants next year.  (I tried to buy sea kale this year but everywhere was out of stock, except Monticello, of all places.  They said it was hardy to Zone 6, so I didn't think it was the best choice for Vermont.)  But trying to grow them from seed has been educational, as well as daunting.

But regarding the database!  If I found what I needed about Good King Henry I might have actually gotten the seeds sprouted.  If I had been able to find out all I needed about the Caucasian Mountain Spinach it might be green and growing now instead of infinitesimal white sprouts half way through the growing season!

It's an exciting project.
 
Ben Knofe
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@Anne: Do you know what you did here? You provided the exact information I would like to see in that database. The learnings you had are super valuable to others not making the same mistakes. Or imagine someone else would have added all the info so you would not have to go through all the hoops. I find instructions on the package always not very helpful, mostly it's even just icons and I have no idea how to interpret. I am happy to read that you now have some success. Thank you for your post!
 
Anne Pratt
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Why thank you!

We have been sharing our research and experiences on the Caucasian Mountain Spinach thread, where I picked up some of the information I needed, and shared what I found.  What I wrote above is just a small sample - this can be a tricky plant to get started.  How great it would be to have it organized!
 
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I think this would be really cool too.  To answer your questions:

1.  Yes.  I got a lot of great info from Temperate Climate Permaculture.  Their info is tremendously detailed and covers much (if not all) of what I needed to know.  Another resource was a nursery that had a good search and sort function but I can't find them now :(  I'm collecting my own info but it's never going to be as good as needed for a collaboration (I think)
2.  You bet!
3.  Sure, if it's easy
4.  I'd mainly use it to find other plants I need for a particular spot or to learn details about plants I already have (black currant works over here, can it handle more shade if i put it over there?  Let's look up it's shade tolerance...)
5.  I'd also suggest adding other attributes like:
  • Deer resistance
  • Rabbit resistance
  • Soil type (well drained, soggy, loamy)
  • Niche uses (living fence, espelier, chop and drop, windbreak)
  • Maybe juglone tolerance
  • salt tolerance
  •  
    Ben Knofe
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    @Mike: Thanks for your answer and answering all my questions! This helps me a lot!

    1) This is a great list of plants.
    2) Great!
    3) I am currently working on a prototype which is basically just a website, where you can login and edit plants. If it's not easy enough, then I will fix it!
    4) Sounds like what I am trying to do most of the time.
    5) How I currently build it, is that everyone can add to the available attributes.

    ben
     
    Morfydd St. Clair
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    Mike Haasl wrote:I think this would be really cool too.  To answer your questions:

    1.  Yes.  I got a lot of great info from Temperate Climate Permaculture.  Their info is tremendously detailed and covers much (if not all) of what I needed to know.  Another resource was a nursery that had a good search and sort function but I can't find them now :(  I'm collecting my own info but it's never going to be as good as needed for a collaboration (I think)
    2.  You bet!
    3.  Sure, if it's easy
    4.  I'd mainly use it to find other plants I need for a particular spot or to learn details about plants I already have (black currant works over here, can it handle more shade if i put it over there?  Let's look up it's shade tolerance...)
    5.  I'd also suggest adding other attributes like:

  • Deer resistance
  • Rabbit resistance
  • Soil type (well drained, soggy, loamy)
  • Niche uses (living fence, espelier, chop and drop, windbreak)
  • Maybe juglone tolerance
  • salt tolerance


  • Ooh - add slug resistance!  (I'm 90% sure that's why there's no Caucasian spinach in my garden, despite multiple plantings.)
     
    Morfydd St. Clair
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    Ben Knofe wrote:
    @Morfydd:

    Regarding PFAF: It is a great site and resource and I used myself in the past. I think it has two main problems to be really useful to me:
    1) It is only maintained by two people and there is no way to add data to it or organize/personalize in any way for you. I think having a database is nice but having useful tools for hobby gardeners is much more valuable. Also having a lot of people adding their experiences to and about plants, gives you a better idea what is possible in your garden then by just reading the hard facts on plants. But yes, this needs a lot of people to participate :)
    2) It is focused on a lot of data and a lot of data per plant. I imagine a database which is focused on helping you grow that thing, preferably you can even add your hardiness zone / soil type and it shows you already what would thrive and what you need to do when. When I open a plant on PFAF it is a lot of information, which is hard to consume or even get an idea what to do out of it. I think a database with 700 plants which give simple to consume and to apply info on plants is more valuable for a gardener (like me) than a 7000 plant database with all the possible info. That's why I would focus on two things: Practical info on plants for permaculture gardeners (e.g. companions!) and tools to organize yourself (like the already mentioned lists like "What I plan to grow in 2021" or things like that)

    To your answers
    1) I am doing basically the same and this is why I had the idea how could a tool look like helping me organize all this info. It is the classical "scratch my own itch" type of idea.
    2) I think I explained it a bit above, but I think useful tools on top of a database is better than a pure fact based database.
    3) This is something I totally want to change, since I believe everyone as _some_ experience, may it be not scientific or not professional, which might help others. I would love to read all the experiences from hobby gardeners starting their garden in my area for example.

    Regarding tools: Yes that's the idea but rather long term I would say. If it really gets off the ground and a lot of people start using it, then I would explore possibilities how to make this a sustainable thing.

    Regarding moderation: I think this is part of contributing and could work like in stackoverflow or similar sites, where experienced users take the role of a moderator. What do you think about that?

    Regarding the permie online landscape: I was searching long for similar projects and couldn't find any. What sites/forums/projects do you think are relevant here?

    Regarding funding: This is also something for later. Currently I have time to work on it until the end of year and then I will see how it is going!



    Ok, I think I have a better idea of what you're going for.  It would be totally fun to whiteboard this out sometime!  (I've been wfh since February and the thing I miss most are whiteboards...)

    In no particular order:

    Moderation can be a really hard and time-consuming thing.  Ask the mods here!  As soon as you allow user-generated content, you have to deal with it.  It can be emotionally draining for people, and it's difficult to automate.  The last thing you want is your tool to be used for some jerk to berate and stalk other users, or to host jihadi beheading videos.  (My BF works in the Trust and Safety field.  It's tough.)

    Also, if you're based in Germany you need to be aware of what protections are and aren't available.  Many forums are based in the US and kind of coasting on Section 230 neutrality protections.  I know it's different here but not the details.  And then there's GDPR. :D

    So the budget is you and your time.  Which is cool!  But it matters as to what your scope should be and what tools are available.  Again, a serious whiteboarding session would be fun and helpful here.

    I suggest contacting other long-time Permies because my impression is that many are... idiosyncratic... people who get kind of territorial.  A lot of them have been doing the work for a very long time, are a bit burned out, and might have resentment issues to get over - it makes sense to me to smooth that over as much as possible.  And you want people to help - they know people!

    --I'd start here with Paul, of course.  Uh, not to imply that he is any of the above!  But he HAS OPINIONS.  And he knows the technical side, and why he hasn't done what you want to do, and could give you tips about building a community.
    --PFAF, of course.  Maybe they don't WANT to do it all themselves any more.  I haven't asked.  Has anyone?
    --Permaculture Magazine and their homebase the Sustainability Centre.  They know everyone in Europe and are pretty tech-savvy.

    Anyway, let me know if you want to chat in real-time.  We're in the same time zone even!
     
    Ben Knofe
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    Morfydd St. Clair wrote:
    Ooh - add slug resistance!  (I'm 90% sure that's why there's no Caucasian spinach in my garden, despite multiple plantings.)


    Haha, yes! This is a very important thing to know when living in a bit colder/wetter climate. I lost a lot the slugs this year but I hope the garden will find it's balance next year. I will keep the inputs easy, so you could totally add that attribute to plants!
     
    Ben Knofe
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    Morfydd St. Clair wrote:
    Ok, I think I have a better idea of what you're going for.  It would be totally fun to whiteboard this out sometime!  (I've been wfh since February and the thing I miss most are whiteboards...)

    In no particular order:

    Moderation can be a really hard and time-consuming thing.  Ask the mods here!  As soon as you allow user-generated content, you have to deal with it.  It can be emotionally draining for people, and it's difficult to automate.  The last thing you want is your tool to be used for some jerk to berate and stalk other users, or to host jihadi beheading videos.  (My BF works in the Trust and Safety field.  It's tough.)

    Also, if you're based in Germany you need to be aware of what protections are and aren't available.  Many forums are based in the US and kind of coasting on Section 230 neutrality protections.  I know it's different here but not the details.  And then there's GDPR. :D

    So the budget is you and your time.  Which is cool!  But it matters as to what your scope should be and what tools are available.  Again, a serious whiteboarding session would be fun and helpful here.

    I suggest contacting other long-time Permies because my impression is that many are... idiosyncratic... people who get kind of territorial.  A lot of them have been doing the work for a very long time, are a bit burned out, and might have resentment issues to get over - it makes sense to me to smooth that over as much as possible.  And you want people to help - they know people!

    --I'd start here with Paul, of course.  Uh, not to imply that he is any of the above!  But he HAS OPINIONS.  And he knows the technical side, and why he hasn't done what you want to do, and could give you tips about building a community.
    --PFAF, of course.  Maybe they don't WANT to do it all themselves any more.  I haven't asked.  Has anyone?
    --Permaculture Magazine and their homebase the Sustainability Centre.  They know everyone in Europe and are pretty tech-savvy.

    Anyway, let me know if you want to chat in real-time.  We're in the same time zone even!


    I think you are 100% correct with the moderation part. I am not so worried about this so much right now, because I just want to get a prototype running and see if people actually find it useful and use it. If it grows to a size where I need to spend a lot of time moderating, that would be a nice problem to have ;) and a solution will be found.

    Thanks you so much for the context and contacts, will reach out to them!

    I hope I can share something with all of you soon!
     
    Ben Knofe
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    Just wanted to also post an update here! I have a prototype running online, please check it out and give feedback 🤗 https://permadb.com/
    gift
     
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