The Atriplex Project: A Permaculture Database for the Front Range

One of permaculture’s hallmarks is polyculture: the mixed cultivation of a wide variety of bioregionally-appropriate species. In a process called “guild building”, permaculture designers select plants that will mutually enhance each others’ growth while providing their human stewards with a yield. In the classic Native American polyculture of maize, beans, and squash, for instance, the beans add nitrogen to the soil and use the corn stalks for support, while the squash act as a groundcover preventing weeds from competing with the other plants. The resulting yields of these “three sisters” are greater than if each were grown on their own.

Fortunately, a wealth of information exists in print and online for researching and selecting guilds – check out Plants For a Future and the University of Minnesota’s nursery database for starters. Still, this species information is spread across several websites, it’s difficult to sort through, and it’s rarely specific to the climate you’re in. As a result, guild building isn’t always as user-friendly as it ought to be.

In response to this challenge, I’ve begun the Atriplex Project – an attempt to create a comprehensive open-source database of useful plant species for Denver’s bioregion of the shortgrass steppe. Its current incarnation is a google spreadsheet that anyone can edit and export, although down the line it would be great to develop it into a more user-friendly standalone website.

Modeled after Dave Jacke’s exhaustive plant species matrix in the back of Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2, Atriplex is sortable by climate zone, light/soil preferences, size, and a host of other attributes. So far I’ve got about 100 species listed, though not all have complete information. Because the google spreadsheet link is rather cumbersome, there’s a url alias at http://tinyurl.com/atriplex for your sharing convenience.

Forestgarden screenshot

As an open-source document, I intend for Atriplex to eventually reflect the collective wisdom of all growers in this bioregion. The more data that comes from our direct experience, the more accurate and useful it will be. Here are a few ways you can help:

  • If you’ve grown or observed any of the listed species, add locations to the “Local Examples” column.
  • If you know of a reliable local source of a species (whether a nursery, a yard, or a wild patch) write it in the “Seed/stock Sources” column.
  • If you have tips on how to grow or eat a species, or just want to give it a thumbs up/thumbs down, add your thoughts in the last column and be sure to write your name afterwards.
  • If there’s something you think is missing from the list, add a new species by right-clicking on a number on the far left side and selecting “Insert 1 below”. No need to fill out every column or worry about the order.

Thanks for your support – and good luck guild-building!

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8 thoughts on “The Atriplex Project: A Permaculture Database for the Front Range

  1. anthromes says:

    Great idea. If you’re interested in tropical agroforestry I keep a fairly extensive database of information here: http://www.anthrome.wordpress.com. Mostly focused on useful tree species, medicinal plants and edible perennials. You can use the search bar or link to individual articles from the Species list.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    What I can’t see, and miss, in this otherwise fantastic database is companion planting information. Surely that’s essential to coming up with good guilds within particular zones? Did I just not read properly?

    With companion planting guidelines included, this would be a brilliant resource for any region – mind if we copy the template for South African regions? Whom should wwe credit and how? There’s a great new veg gardening movement on the go here… http://www.jasonsgarden.wetpaint.com.

  3. Brock says:

    You’re absolutely right – companion planting is the whole purpose of developing guilds. The structure of the database is basically supposed to help you determine custom guilds for your situation. A nitrogen-fixing groundcover that likes partial shade, for instance, could be an ideal companion plant for a nitrogen-loving shrub that needs full sun.

    The next step, as you suggest, would be to make those natural fits explicit in the database, either by writing it in the notes, coming up with a separate column, or even developing some kind of algorithm to select companion plants for a given species. The Atriplex project isn’t there yet – but I encourage you to attempt it!

    If you decide to copy the template, you can credit Dave Jacke ( edibleforestgardens.com) via Adam Brock (thewildgreenyonder.com).

  4. gelletto1138 says:

    I too am having this same idea, which is what brings me to this article. please let me know if you’re still interested in further developing this database, as i’m a web/database developer and have some time to devote!

  5. Alan Sloan says:

    This is an interesting thread.

    I’d like to see a data-pool to drop real life (both + & -ve) experiences into, for example a self sown parsnip grew without rust (endemic in my soil) right next to a sunflower this year. Is this just chance or some cause-effect? An epidemiological approach to plant health.

    If enough data was dropped into the pool useful patterns may emerge.

    A standard format may be enforced by using form entry with what happened, where, who submits info, when and maybe more detail on why submitter thinks it is significant.

    I can see problems, but does anyone think there is potential in this approach which make it worth developing?

  6. Olga says:

    Ahaa, its fastidious dialogue regarding this post here at this blog, I have read all that,
    so at this time me also commenting here.

  7. tallonstales says:

    hey, I just found your resource here and I appreciate it as I have been trying to make something similar relevant to where I am working. I am wondering about some interpretation of your descriptions in the database such as moisture, soil texture, etc. Thanks!

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