Andru Vallance

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since May 26, 2012
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Recent posts by Andru Vallance

Whoops I didn't notice this thread had (old) new responses! Xisca, thanks for all the links - they'll be very useful in the future and I'll add them to the resources page on Practical Plants:

Eric - thanks! It took a lot of work, and at the moment it's taking back seat to another project I'm working on, so I'm mostly just maintaining it. I hope to find more volunteers to work on the technical side someday.

I learned a lot in the process and above all came to realise just how many disparate sources of data there out there for plants. There's so much replication of plant data I hope to slim down Practical Plants a little bit in the future to focus just on uses; and on the technical side provide a way to have a distributed database which can be shared between multiple projects and most importantly allow edits from all of them (much like an open source code project). For now, though, it's getting tens of thousands of visitors a month and occasional contributions so hopefully it's already helping a little in it's current form.
4 years ago
Almost a year ago we launched a collaboratively edited plant database called Practical Plants. For those of you who don't know of the project, we're building a globally relevant plant use database, fully searchable by properties relevant to permies, and also to model plant interactions and build a data-set of successful polycultures/guilds. The database is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license to build a resource owned in common.

We've made some great progress on the database, and we recently moved the website to an EU and University backed server farm, so we are able to stay online without commercial pressure of hosting fees. That's huge news for a project like this, as it means we know we're working on something with a secure future.

It's been a great first year but building an active community to run it has been hard. We've had some great contributors but we've had a hard time building the sense of an active community that keeps people coming back to participate in democratic control of the project, pick up small tasks that need doing, etc.

Helping out doesn't take any special skills, nor necessarily much time; even just a few hours every now and again will be a huge help to a small project like this. We need help with things like:

* Welcoming new members and turning their feedback into points for discussion
* Helping manage community decisions
* Posting content to the Facebook page
* Spreading the word to help grow our community and get the data in more hands!
* Writing documentation to help new users
* ... and most importantly of all, sharing your opinions, being active in making decisions and making the community vibrant!

If you're interested in helping out in some way, join the discussion here: And if you know of anyone who might be, please pass the word along.

If you've any questions, don't hesitate to ask!

Thanks Andru, Practical Plants
4 years ago
I'm not saying it's not sunburn, it most certainly could be, but it could also be a the result of a fungus on the Tomato leaves. Last year we had some plants which exhibited a very similar problem which didn't look like your typical early/late blight. The affected areas died back to a light brown dry, papery texture like the one in your picture.

Tell your father to water the soil, not the plant, and that Tomatoes only need a good soaking weekly even in hot weather. Keep a keen eye on some of those spots: if they grow in size nip off all the affected leaves and consider spraying the remaining good foliage with copper sulfate solution or whatever organic spray you have at your disposal; or if the whole plant is affected pull the whole thing up. You can compost the affected parts, but do so under a layer of other material.
4 years ago
Hi Jay, thanks for the advice. Perhaps I misunderstood your question, or I'm using terms incorrectly. Let me explain some of the techniques we plan on using. If you have any further advice on how we might make our lives easier I'd love to hear it. Likewise, if I'm misusing terminology or misunderstanding concepts, let me know!

We're marking up from a centre line for all timbers. For many of the joints on the primary timbers we'll be squaring faces and using a centre line and templates to mark up. However, we plan to cut and fit each of the joins individually, checking them as we go to ensure a good fit. These primary joints won't be interchangeable; each timber will have a specific place in the frame, and some parts of the join may be scribed so that we are only squaring the surface where one timber meets another. In that sense it's more similar to scribe rule (as I understand it) than square rule, which reduces timbers to a uniform size at the joints in order to make the timbers interchangeable.

We've finished marking up our currently getting ready to cast some concrete plinths on which our sill timbers will sit, since the concrete roof on which we're building is far from level! Once that's done, we're finally onto marking our first sill timbers for cutting, scarfing, and fitting!
Because a lot of the larger timbers have irregularities and imperfections which we will have to work carefully to use to their best, their position in the frame is important, and so major frame timbers will all be marked using the scribe rule system - each joint will be individually marked and cut to fit. Since we're cutting and assembling the bents on-site this makes sense anyway. Some of the smaller timbers placed after the frame is raised will be marked using a square rule system so we can cut a lot of identical joints to save us time.

We'll be raising the frame in two raises. First we'll construct the four square bents which comprise the lower half of the house, raise them, and lay a floor from which we can assemble and raise into place the roof trusses. We'll be raising by hand on top of a stone house on the side of a steep hill (and we can't afford to rent a crane) so this is the only conceivable way we can see to accomplish it!
We're just starting work on a roundwood cape timber frame house, and I thought it'd be good to share the story of our progress here for others interested in doing something similar.

We have a ~10x8m stone cottage with a flat concrete roof somebody put on after rebuilding the cottage from a total ruin in the 70's. The walls are ~1m thick and sturdy, but we don't have much faith in the concrete roof to bear any weight, so we'll be knocking through in a couple of places to place basement poles for the internal sills. After the new story is built, we might bring the concrete roof down from the inside, or we might just knock through for a staircase.

Since we're sourcing all the wood from locally coppiced sweet chestnut, and since we need to handle it all between the two of us, we decided to keep almost all timbers below a length of 4m. The diameters range from about 18cm-25cm for all the principle timbers.

Our first delivery arrived recently and we've been heaving them onto the roof ready to begin work. After months of planning, we're finally just a few days away from marking, cutting, heaving and joining!

Here's a picture of the plans (pictured as squared timber because it's easier to model) and a picture of our sill timbers on the roof ready for marking and cutting!
The leaves contain high levels of Oxalic acid, but the oxalic acid content of the tubers depends on the variety. There are two groups of cultivars: those with sour and those with sweet tubers. The tubers of the sweet cultivars reportedly contain no more soluble oxalates than spinach, beet leaves, chard, etc, and this is contained mostly in the skin. Leaving them in the sun further reduces the oxalic acid content and sweetens them. They can then be eaten raw, or cooking will further reduce oxalic acid levels.

The sour tuber cultivars do indeed require processing: they're soaked for a month, then left in hot sun and freezing nights until entirely dehydrated, at which point they are a storable crop called khaya in Quechua.

We grow a sweet variety and they're really great! They're a pretty happy hands-off crop, and even work well in a no-dig garden since the tubers are all just below the surface and can be harvested with minimal soil disruption. It's very easy to miss some tubers when harvesting, so if you have mild winters they'll all spring up again in the same spot the following year.

I've mostly just summarized the article at Practical Plants, but you can take a look here for more info:
4 years ago
I think there's a problem in the permaculture community that needs fixing (somehow).

I notice recurrent ideas and discussions throughout the various forums, blogs, diggs, and mailing lists that make up our community. I often see someone come up with a bright idea, which perhaps initially gets a lot of positive feedback and then fizzles out. Then someone else has the same bright idea somewhere else, and the same thing happens again. And again, and again, and none of these people seem to be aware of one another, or that there are other people excited about the same idea as them. If they were, perhaps they could work together to bring their idea to reality. Or perhaps not, but at least their enthusiasm would buoy one-another, and the idea would have more of a chance of growing into something concrete.

I think one of the big issues here is the way we communicate - spread across a number of sources, most of which have a very general purpose. Ideas and planning are occurring in all those places, divided from and unaware of one another.

I can think of a way to fix this, but it just involves making yet-another-place for those ideas. It would be somewhere much like the Open Knowledge Foundation working groups: which help keep people interested in a topic intouch with oneanother. But perhaps that's a bad solution; perhaps it wouldn't change a thing anyway, and people would continue to post to a variety of disparate sources, unaware of the existence of the working groups! It would require the full weight of the permaculture community behind it, and that's probably unrealistic given what a disparate bunch we are.

Nonetheless, I think it's an idea worth discussion. Does anyone have any bright ideas on how we can improve the ways we work together on new ideas?
4 years ago
Paul, that's an awesome paper, thanks! Practical Plants has a mechanism to model plant interactions, with an outcome (positive, neutral, negative) and a type (just a text field), but I've always felt the type needed to be more specific and for the interaction to be defined both ways (eg positive for one, but negative for the other). I'll use the terms defined in that paper: Amensalism, Commensalism, Competition, Mutualism/Synergism, Neutralism & Predation/Parasitism as the possibilities for the type data.

Chris, AFAIK the hardiness zone is actually pretty flexible if you ignore the geographic component of the system and just pay attention to the minimum temperatures defined by each number. That said, it does lack a time component which is a shame. Do you know of a better system with a solid amount of data behind it? I'd love to get at the data used to calculate the hardiness zone for plants, that's where the real value lies! We're working on integrating degree-day data for fruit ripening as a replacement for the useless heat zone system; and we'd like to integrate chilling hour requirement data too. Ideally we'd like to have maximum heat tolerance data, but I don't know of a system that models this, let alone data for it.

4 years ago
I've been meaning to drop in on this thread ever since Juliet brought my attention to it. I'm the principal developer behind Practical Plants, and over there we're working hard on building a globally relevant plant use database.

The most important thing we learned is building a database like this is hard. Technologically it's easy... designing a database schema and thinking about what terms and properties you want to define in an abstract sense is both easy and fun. Once you start actually having to collect and build data, it gets difficult. It's hard to find reliable sources of data; it's super hard to merge that diverse data well; and it's harder still to build and maintain an active community to look after that data.

The difficulty in maintaining a community effort to build this kind of resource is one of the key points for me. The permaculture community is a passionate one, but it's not huge, and I don't believe it has the resources to maintain multiple databases without harming the effectiveness of each. Most of the work on Practical Plants is really being done by a very small number of committed individuals, with a large number of others making very occasional corrections. I'd urge any new database project with similar aims to Practical Plants to define how it might differ, and to open a dialogue with us - we're a totally open community, and very open to new ideas of what data we should define, how we should collect and share it, and so on!

We're really actively developing things further right now, and we've got some big changes in the pipeline. It's a great time to get involved and help steer and established database in new positive directions; then we all, as a community, are building a database we can use for any other projects we want to create... Right now we're working on:

- Moving to a server farm backed by major university funds, to guarantee we stay online without bills for the forseeable future
- Removing the Non-Commercial license restriction (the NC isn't as "nice" as it sounds, and can actually non profit organisations from using the data if they operate commercially in any way)
- Integrating new data sources from the biodiversity community for species distribution maps
- Importing established ontology terms to provide a more compatible API endpoint, and working on defining a plant use ontology for others to use (we haven't found an established one yet!)
- Integrating external data sources for plant pest information and plant interactions
- Experimenting with new methods of storing multi-factual data
- Data dumps in XML, CSV and JSON
- Improved API documentation

I would personally love to see Practical Plants working as a source of data powering applications which empower the permaculture community - applications which help people plan, design and maintain their eco systems. We're working on ways to export our data into a number of formats to power just this kind of thing. But it would make me really sad to see the data moved to a system which modified the data (sharing modifications between databases one they fork is SUPER hard), and we end up with two databases trying to achieve the same goal, dividing the community between them.

I think the most important thing in a community of this size is that we're all talking. There's not many people here with both the time and capability to build something like this, so our resources are precious. Duplication should be avoided at all costs. I invite you to join us at Practical Plants if you think there's an aspect we can improve, or failing that create a database which just covers areas we miss, and perhaps we can just display a read-only representation of each others data for everything else. I'd be really interested to see a list of ways in which your proposed database differs from Practical Plants, and to discuss if that's something we can work together to improve, or to discuss how best to minimise duplication of efforts if it's not something we can integrate.

Now, all that said, I am a dreamer. I look forward to a day when something like Practical Plants can be part of a network of distributed atomised databases which can share their modifications easily between them, much like a distributed version control system like GIT. In that future Practical Plants might just be a composite of numerous atomised databases (plant uses, plant interactions, biodiversity distribution data, pest data, and so on) and any other website can use the same data and allow modifications which are shared throughout the network. Where the data can be used offline and changes can be synchronized when online. A system to support something like that doesn't exist yet, but there ARE people working on systems to support those ideas. In the meantime I'm working hard on incremental improvements to Practical Plants, to build a data-source now which can be even more awesome in that kind of a future
4 years ago