A Wikipedia for plants?

Plants.am aims to become the Wikipedia of the world of horticulture.

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Editor's note: The website mentioned in this post, Plants.am, changed its name to Gardenology and may be reached by clicking here.

Everyone who uses the Internet knows of Wikipedia. Whether you have reservations about it or not, it's become a useful tool for millions. What if there was something similar for plants and gardening?

Actually, there is. Plants.am isn't as well known yet and, because visitors are numbered in the thousands instead of millions, the contents are still growing. But the idea is great and it's up to the garden community to decide if it can be a helpful resource and, if so, add to it and shape it into something beneficial for all.

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I did an e-mail interview with Raffi Kojian, the founder of the site, to learn more about how Plants.am came to be and what he hopes for its future:

Q. How did you come up with this idea?
A. When I discovered Wikipedia in 2004, I quickly saw the immense value of a wiki site, which allows anyone to edit any page or add a new one. Within one month of this discovery, I transferred the entire content from a website I had on Armenian topics to a wiki format, so that anybody could help expand it and contribute edits, all the while keeping the articles cohesive. Even as I started work on my Armenian wiki, every time I did a search on a plant for some information, I'd immediately think about the idea of a gardening wiki.

After finally getting my Armenian wiki where I wanted it, I turned next to my favorite hobby, gardening. Because there are tens of thousands of plants in the world that gardeners grow, it is virtually impossible for any one person or organization to bring together all
the information available on them all in one place. There are some great plant encyclopedias and resources, but they are all still limited A wiki is the perfect way to bring all the existing information on plants together, into a cohesive, infinitely expandable
database.

Q. When did it get online?
A. In March 2007 I registered Plants.am, and immediately set up the framework for the site. That, of course, was the easy part. Next came the chicken and the egg problem - a wiki has to have information to attract users, and it has to have users, for the information to really grow!

Q. How does the idea work?
A. When someone visits a page on say, carnations, they might see that there is no zone information. They simply have to click on the "edit" tab on the top of the page and add the missing information. It should be pretty obvious where certain types of information goes, but if not, it's usually ok to put it anywhere, since other people will come along and move it to the right place. That's all there is to it, and it is because of this simplicity that the site has the potential to grow very quickly. Visitors can just jump in and add information,
or reformat/edit it in order to make the articles more cohesive and standardized. Once a little bit of information is added, it's a permanent addition to this body of knowledge.

I think the most important thing to remember when editing is to have no fear, because you can never "break" anything. Every little change is saved by the site, and others can always reformat or bring back an older version of a page in a matter of seconds, if need be.

It's also important to note that nobody needs to feel an obligation to edit! The information is being gathered for the world to use as a free resource, and the more people that use it, the better. I'm guessing that less than 1 percent of visitors to Wikipedia have ever edited a
page there, and expect the same will be the case on Plants.am. Just using the information and hopefully telling your friends is great.

Q. Is it mostly you at this point, until the word gets out to many others?
A. The vast majority of the additions are still up to me, but there has been a noticeable bump in the number of visitors in the last two months, which I'm hoping will result in a few more volunteers. As it is, I love adding information to wikis. Often when I read something
really interesting, I'll check to see if it's already on some of the wikis I like to contribute to, and add it if necessary.

Once the site surpassed a thousand pages, the number of visitors started to grow quite quickly, and now the site is attracting its fair share of visits, with a few of the visitors editing pages and uploading their personal photos.

Q. Where is most of your info currently coming from?
A. Three primary sources. 1) Rewriting and compiling information from a personal stack of gardening books, dictionaries and encyclopedias, 2) Using text or photos from sites and individuals who give permission, and, 3) Open license information or photos.

Q. What are your biggest challenges so far?
A. Simply the scope of the project. So far the site has grown to over 3,000 articles and nearly 7,000 photos, which include most of the things people tend to grow in their home gardens. Eventually, I'd like to see tens of thousands of articles, plus expand upon the existing articles. So the challenge is very clear, and I think that getting the word out is the most important step in achieving growth.

Q. What's been the response from gardeners and others who have found the site?
A. So far the response has been very positive. They really like how easy it is to search for the plants they're interested in, and how the articles organize the information: Plant Description (including zones,watering, sun exposure, etc.) followed by information on Cultivation, Propagation, Pests and Diseases, a Photo Gallery, Species/Cultivar information and Links.

Q. What's your dream for it?
A. I would love to see the day where whenever someone wants to know literally anything about growing a specific plant, they know they can find it on Plants.am. Whenever they want to learn about composting, whenever they want to search for what kind of plant to grow in the shade, whenever they need information on how to get rid of aphids without pesticides, they turn to Plants.am.

Q. Do you see this growing into a community?
A. That is definitely something I foresee for Plants.am. Gardeners sharing stories, tips, information and just connecting with other gardeners around the world, or down the street. It is already possible to communicate with other users on their talk page, or the discussion page of any article on the site. When I find a message forum I like, I will add that as a general talk zone.

Q. Your background is Web with an interest in gardening. How does that help, or hurt?
A. Having a Web background has been a huge help. It only took a few days to get the entire site operational, and I've been able to take extra measures to prevent spammers from attacking the site, and make photo uploads and flickr imports almost automatic. If I had to outsource these sorts of projects, maintaining the site would get expensive. I don't ever want to have a "donate" button on the site, and have no intention of charging for using the site, so it's important to keep operating costs low.

Q. Do you live in Armenia?
A. My grandparents are from Armenia, and I took my first trip there after its independence in 1991. Since then, I've split my time about evenly between California and Armenia, so I always have a hard time answering that question.

Q. Anything else you'd like to share about yourself, the site, or gardening?
A. I've been gardening since I was six years old. I got hooked when I first ate a home-grown cherry tomato. I was so amazed that I could grow that and eat it right at home, and didn't have to go to a store. My interests grew to other fruits and vegetables, to cacti and succulents, to tropicals, and when in Armenia to much more hardy plants.

The one thing I've always loved though is to discover something different, something exotic. From colorful heirloom tomatoes, which have now become much more standard, to things like the Giant Dutchman's Pipe, Limequats, Hardy Kiwis and the Tropical Hydrangea Tree. I'd love to see these and many other less common plants start appearing more in people's gardens as more people find information about them and start to grow them. I hope of course that the place people go to find this information is Plants.am!

Q. You mention Zones, but I'm assuming that you're hoping to attract a world audience, not just the U.S. and Canada.
A. I am indeed aiming for a world audience, and have information and links to plant zone maps of Europe and Australia as well. The standard zone breakout is actually just a measure of how cold a temperature a plant can withstand without dying, so gardeners can
refer to the zone chart and if their coldest winter night can hit say 15 degrees Fahrenheit, they fall into Zone 8 (10-20 degrees Fahrenheit).

Q. Why the name Plants.am? Did you consider others?
A. I thought of many names, and considered getting a .com, but eventually
went with the really simple, short and easy-to-remember Plants.am.

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