You’ve finally got your hands on the piece of land of your dreams and now you’re looking forward to making the best possible use of it. You want to use a permaculture design but there is a problem, no one has explained to you how the design process actually works and maybe you just don’t have the $1000 to afford a Permaculture Design Certificate.
Permaculture design is a mysterious concept that everyone’s talking about but it’s hard to convey the underlying process without taking a PDC. One could well say permaculture design is elusive and enigmatic form of alchemy.
Recently I finished Geoff Lawton’s Online PDC, yet was caught off-guard when it came to the actual design. When I searched the web for a tutorial about the process of the design I found it very hard to visualise it clearly: there were books out there and encyclopaedias such as Designers’ Manual but what I needed was a straightforward guide with simple steps.
What I discovered is, when we take apart an idealised permaculture design, we can see 5 fundamental, interrelated actions:
- People Analysis and Assessment
- Site Analysis and Assessment
- Design Concept Development
- Detailed Design
- Implementation & Evaluation
In this article I will provide a step-by-step guide to the phases that lead to the final design and design itself, as well as touch on the implementation phase. Although there might be other people involved in the project, today I will focus only on you.
Before we dig any deeper, just note that I cannot teach you design, you are much better off taking a PDC and discovering your design process for yourself. Nonetheless here is a guideline, though without going too deep into each stage of the process. For further reading, there are are good books out there, such as Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, Gaia’s Garden, Edible Forest Gardens, The Basics of Permaculture Design…. from which I derived much of the info.
Analysis and Assessment of You
Before we go any further, let’s consider fundamentals. That means taking some time and getting to know YOU, and if needed, perhaps use this for others too. Why is this important? Read on!
1. Know Yourself Because You Can Only Build On Your Strengths
Everything starts with you, so who are you? David Holmgren claims: “When I was designing for a client before anything I wanted to know what kind of person are they; are they an animal, plant, technical or people person.”
You need a clear idea of what you are capable of and what relevant skills and knowledge you can offer.
What are your personal strengths that you can use to your advantage? If you want to succeed you have to build on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Remember what Aristotle said: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
2. Identify Your Vision And Goals To Speed Both Design And Implementation
Envisage your future, what do you want? This is the why of your project – your vision. This will be your north star, guiding you towards successful achievement of your goals. Eventually, someplace down the line when to the going gets tough it will remind you of why all of this matters.
In his book, Gaia’s Garden A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway suggests how to do this: “The visioning phase begins with a no-holds-barred brainstorm, limited to some degree by finances and really only by ecological and ethical constraints”.
Next articulate your goals, what specifically you want to achieve, what you need that your property or farm to provide for you (what kind of food, herbs, medicinal plants, firewood, timber, or other products would you like to have?), what do you want your property to be (how it would look and feel like, and what could be happening there?)
In their book Edible Forest Gardens Eric Tonsmeier and Dave Jacke suggest that: “Articulating your answers to those questions, represents a foundational task of the design process”. This is the stage where you identify what will be the focus of the design. These goals will help direct attention to the most important aspects of the site, acting like a filter when analysing and assessing the site in the next step. The best way to articulate your ultimate objectives to write them down. By the end you should have a written statement that clearly defines what you wish to achieve.
3. List Your Personal Resources And Limitations To Know What You’re Bringing To The Table
How much time, money, and energy can you devote to the design, implementation, and maintenance of the landscape? Which of these resources could come from your family, friends, neighbours, or community?
Assess the resources on-hand for the project. What personal resources, supplies and tools do you have? What money is available for investing in the project? Is it available in a lump sum or small amounts over a longer duration? Are there any outside funding options available?
Additionally, consider potentially limiting personal factors; health, age, social issues or any other you can think of might restrict you in some way.
Site Analysis and Assessment
Any landscape is a whole system, yet one composed of elements or parts, in this phase you should analyse them. The first thing that you’ll need is a map.
1. Get A Base Map Or Make One To Have A Basis For Your Design
A base map forms the basis for the design. Maps are easily acquired using Google Earth, Google Maps or other similar online tools. If you also can acquire a contour map showing the terrain, it will prove extremely useful during the next step.
If you can’t get a map for whatever reason, maybe you could sketch one, creating a rough base map that shows the site’s most critical features and what is currently on it. I would suggest to include names, north indicator, location, scale, and anything that cannot be changed.
Remember, the map is the most important, it’s a base layer upon which you place other layers of your design and any observations you make on the field.
2.Collect The Info About The Site Through Observation And Research
-Direct observation on the field
Key to permaculture is good observation. Ideally you should do nothing for a year or so and simply grow familiar with the four seasons, the existing weather and environmental patterns; where’s the wind blowing, water flowing, pollution drifting, neighbours walking, exposure to sun and wind, and so on…..
Walk the site and conduct surveys. What wildlife is there? What is the soil like and does it vary across the site? What plants are growing on the site and in the wild? Identify any free or cheap resources available on or close to the site, along with water possibilities and sources on the land. What are the boundaries of the site, note the existing buildings and paths. Make lists of what you see.
-Info from other off site resources
Toby Hemenway recommends: “After making the initial observations, do research via books, local experts, or the Internet to learn more about characteristics that can’t be observed directly”.
Most information comes from direct observation, but data from other sources can also be of aid. Search the internet for more detail about rainfall, hydrology, insolation, and wind speeds. Read up on the context of the site: regional (geographic) and bioregional (flora and fauna), site history and development patterns of the locality.
Talk with neighbours and people from the local community to gather invaluable intelligence that may not be available from any other source.
3. Analyse And Assess The Site To Understand What You Got
You have collected the bulk of information you need, now you are ready to analyse the data and see what it reveals.
Eric and Dave note: “Analysis and assessment breaks the site apart so you can gain deep understanding of each piece of it”. At this point, you should organise your observations and identify the strongest influences that you need to design for by exploring all of the landscape’s components.
Start with climate first, this will exert the strongest influence on your site and can’t be altered. Analyse the info about rainfall, insolation, frost dates and plant hardiness.
Next, get your base map of the site and mark the boundaries (site dimensions), chart the existing infrastructure – buildings, roads, paths and fencing.
Analyse geography, slope and aspects, major land features such as ridges and valleys. Water drainage and watercourses, water sources such as creeks, dams, and ponds.
Existing trees and other principal plants growing at the site. Soil types (clay, sand, gravel, rock) and conditions (wet, dry, boggy…) across the site.
Do a sector analysis and map the forces coming from outside the site, factors such as sun, wind, flooding, fire, pollution, and wildlife. By locating and mapping out the various sectors you can later place your pieces of design in proper relationship to the outside forces entering the site.
Define microclimates or differences around the site based on topography, slope aspect, overall land configuration. This will influence your plant species selection and location and enable you to plan for greater crop diversity.
4. Summarise And Evaluate To See If Your Goals Are Achievable
Summarise the info in a drawing, a rough sketched summary of the site analysis diagrammed as overlapping bubble diagrams, focusing on relevant forms of incoming energy (wind, views, sun) and the microclimates or differences across the site.
Derive directives for the process of evaluation from your goals and the land. Make a bullet-point list and identify your site’s natural characteristics, any potential key limiting factors of the site and evaluate your resources to see if they will make your project feasable.
This is a summary of your current reality, and will you help to see the big picture and give your design a direction.
The Process of Design
Designing is all about connecting your vision with the observations made. Here you should determine what goes where using the design methods and being guided by the permaculture principles. Each of the methods offer a way to help you draw connections between elements of the design. There are many methods of design outlined by Bill Mollison in his Designers Manual, and for more info I would recommend reading his chapter on the design methods. Nonetheless, here I will focus on several of the most commonplace ones. And don’t forget those permaculture principles.!
1. Create A Concept Design And Integrate Your Inquiry Results Into A Coherent Whole
The core part of the design lies in the relative placement and proportioning of the areas. The details of the size and shape of individual elements then later evolve into the detailed design phase. Here is Dave and Eric’s perspective:” Main purpose is to work out rough layout, focusing on the relationships amongst major features, elements, functions, as well as approximate sizes, shapes, and locations.”
So, start by locating, shaping and sizing the required areas, as opposed to the individual bits and pieces, and use rough bubble diagrams with notes. The ‘design’ is actually a map or plan showing the placement of elements or components, so use your base map as your base layer and draw.
To help you determine the rough layout and design connections in this phase use the info from the analysis and assessment phase in combination with zone and sector planning; one of the master methods of design. Toby explains: “Zones organize the pieces of a design by how often they are used or need attention, and sectors help locate the pieces so they manage the forces that come from outside the site. Using zones and sectors together, we can make the best use of the connections within a design. ”
To make things easier use components of the Scale of Permanence and layer each component of the scale upon the last one. There are variations of this scale that different teachers have developed, but, for now, just be aware that in the design phase going down the scale is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it can help you organise your design thinking.
It’s best to begin with essentials, start with infrastructure: water systems (water storage, harvesting, irrigation), access (farm roads, tracks, paths), structures (house, outbuildings, portable structures) what Geoff Lawton terms ‘mainframe permaculture’.
After experimenting the with infrastructure layout distinguish main areas based on microclimates and determine planting areas for gardens, crops, orchards, and forestry.
Define fencing (permanent, living, electric) around the site and consider how animals will integrate into the system, as they are essential to the maturation of any permaculture system.
2. Create A Detailed Design And Go Into The Details Of Everything
Concept design drawings are sketchy and not very accurate, mainly taking the form of bubble diagrams. Principally, they deal with relationships between functions and spaces. Detailed design drawings are harder-edged, clearer, drawn with accuracy. Here you can start to more precisely define about all the features and characteristics you earlier laid out roughly in the conceptual design, moving from the placement of overlapping areas to the placement of distinct things and making as many positive connections as possible.
To see how the pieces of our design can be connected to create a living landscape and make those positive connections Toby suggests that: “we need to think about how each piece of the design behaves and what its relationships are with the other pieces of the landscape and with us, the human inhabitants.” He recommends using a linking process, often termed a “needs and yields analysis”, whereby each plant, structure, or other element in a design should ideally have its needs provided for by other design elements, and offer yields that themselves nurture other elements.
If you find yourself stuck with finding connections you can use another creative method of analysis: “random assembly” where you list major elements and explore the effects of combining them randomly. Creative thinking can lead to unexpected positive connections. Random assembly helps bust through creative blocks and rewards us with combinations and connections we probably would never have thought of.
During detailed design you will make a host of decisions regarding a myriad of design particulars and sketch in details of the various planting beds, trees, walls and fences, patios and decks, and any other design elements. Go down the Scale of Permanence again and map out in detail your water layer, roads and building. For planting areas determine the desired species, scrutinize your site preparation and map out your strategy development strategy.
Ultimately you should aim to create hard line drawings detailing the exact size, shape and location of every element. Bill Mollison in his Designers Manual also suggests attaching appendices such as maps, drawings, plans, layouts, details, part lists, and photos. Therefore, make construction diagrams with notes, species and material lists, estimate the cost of various stages of development, and list strategies for generating income.
Implementation Timeline – Make A Plan Of Action To Follow
If you want turn your paper dream into concrete reality you need to have a plan. Depending on your situation you might be able to start implementing straight away, or you may have to wait until you have enough capital to start, either way making a plan of action saves time and makes things easier further down the road.
In the implementation phase you will actually install your design in the field and evaluate as you go. The installation often occurs in phases, depending on a combination of personal, environmental, technical, seasonal and financial factors. I will leave discussing the installing phase for a comprehensive post later and for now just focus on making a plan because implementing a design is crucial and it requires planning in logical order.
At this stage just make a plan what you’re going to do, a timeline of establishment, something like a ‘to do’ list that you can follow when you forget what the next step will be. Lay out a basic timeline with suggested tasks. Make a plan what you be doing in years 1, 2, 3… based on your priorities and your budget, determine how much you can afford to pay out in the establishment phase.
Remember to plan according to the scale of permanence and start with infrastructure. If there is an existing house plan to begin the installation at your doorstep and work outwards. The logical order for implementation is: look after what you have first, restore what you can next and then finally introduce new elements into the system.
Design is an integrated process, whereby every piece relates to and feeds the others. The stages of the process, analysing & assessing you and the site constitute the foundation, following this you integrate your inqury results into a coherent whole – a design concept. Moreover, you must design the details of that whole to a point where you can gather all that is necessary to create it. Then you must implement the design on the ground and evaluate it regularly.
A detailed design will look more impressive for sure, but the true gem is actually the concept and the rest merely variations on an underlying theme.
- Start with yourself and get a clear idea of what relevant skills and knowledge you have along with your strengths.
- Identify your vision and goals because clear intentions speed both design and implementation, prevent wasted effort and save time.
- List your personal resources and limitations to know how much time, money, and energy you can devote to the project.
- Get a base map, it’s the base layer and it forms the basis for the design – acquire one easily from Google Earth or Google Maps.
- Collect info about your site from direct observations on the field and off- site resources such as books, local experts and the internet.
- Conduct an analysis and assessment of your site to gain a deeper understanding of each aspect of it.
- Summarise the info from the site analysis and assessment into a rough sketch to see if your goals are attainable.
- Begin designing with a concept design and determine the relative placement and proportioning of the areas, use zone & sector planning and work through the scale of permanence.
- Go into details with the detail design – determining size, shapes and locations of individual elements, use needs & yields and random assembly methods to determine how to connect pieces of design.
- Make a plan for implementation; a plan of action to follow based on your priorities, budget and logical order of establishment, remember to plan in accordance to the scale of permanence.
To be honest this subject was a tough one, with all the info scattered across the web and all the details in the books it was really hard cohere it into something simple to follow, but I’ve given gave it my best shot!
Let me know what you think in the comments below!