Let’s be honest, farming is hard; it’s one of the most difficult careers one can undertake. It’s hard physically, it’s hard mentally, there is a great deal of uncertainty and, if this wasn’t enough, people are constantly judging you and questioning your life choice.
So, how can you succeed as a farmer despite these pressures coming from all directions without going crazy and eventually throwing in the towel? Well, unlike conventional agriculture, as a permaculture farmer you have the advantage of being able to work smarter.
You see, in conventional agriculture, nature is treated like a slave. Conventional farmers always try to impose what they want to see on the landscape without consulting the natural environment first. There is a certain quota that nature must produce without complaining. This is very disrespectful, but this is how it’s been for hundreds of years now, and it’s no wonder nature gives them a hard time making a living…
Now, I’m not saying that being a permaculture farmer is the easy option, but it can be far less demanding in some respects…You know why? Well, because one of the main principles of permaculture is working with nature rather than against it. This means playing by the rules of nature, harnessing the power within natural systems and directing them rather than trying to force nature to artificially bend to your will…
But to understand what the rules of the game are, you need to be able to, as Sepp Holzer would say, “read from the book of nature”. Essentially, you’ll have to learn how to interpret the landscape. Once you can decipher nature’s patterns, you can use this information in designing systems that can replicate nature and your local ecosystems.
These systems are far easier to maintain and much more productive per acre than wasteful, toxic monoculture deserts devoid of any life and diversity. The bottom line is you will save time, money and unnecessary labor and set a good example for your conventional farmer neighbor… Right, let’s see how to read from the book of nature!
The Beauty of the Landscape
If you go outside and look around you, everything you see, all the visible features of an area of land, is the landscape. This includes the physical elements like mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover, vegetation and wildlife (including humans) along with seasonally affected elements such as lighting and weather conditions.
Although humans are the keystone species on this planet and have been leaving a permanent mark on the landscape for more than 10,000 years now, in this post I won’t focus on man-made elements (buildings and structures). Instead, I’ll look at nature itself and some aspects of different forms of land use. Had nature been left to its own devices, virtually all of the land would be woodlands, savannah, or forests, but we’re doing our utmost to prevent their attempts at world domination…
According to Robert G. Bailey and his book Ecosystem Geography: From Ecoregions to Sites, the landscape and its resulting ecosystems are formed from the interaction of climate (weather patterns, water), landform (rocks and terrain shape), soils and living things (vegetation, wildlife). Any landscape is a complete system composed of these elements, or parts of them, and we are now going to analyze these one by one…
We have all heard that the key to permaculture is good observation, and ideally, you should do nothing for a year or so. Instead, you should merely grow familiar with the four seasons, their transition, and learn the existing weather and environmental patterns. Nonetheless, in understanding your landscape, it’s also important that you’re actively involved and walking the site, conducting surveys, looking at what the soil is like, what plants are growing on the site and in the wild, and so on…
So, with that in mind, let’s dive in…
The primary, and easiest, landscape component to analyze is the weather and its patterns. Weather, one of the most superficially commented upon topics in the world, is defined as the current state of the atmosphere – the degree to which it is hot or cold, wet or dry, calm or stormy, clear or cloudy. Climate, on the other hand, is the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period (usually over a 30-year interval), but here we’ll focus on weather alone.
Weather is driven by air pressure, temperature and moisture differences between one place and another. These differences occur due to our sun or, more correctly, the sun’s angle at any particular point, which varies by latitude from the equator. It might sound surprising, but this is why we have winds, storms, snow and the huge diversity in patterns that makes the world such a varied place, if the earth were flat, none of these dynamics would be possible.
- Analyze the solar exposure a site receives throughout each season
It’s our sun that is the reason that we have climate, weather, the water cycle and life in general. Accordingly, the sun is very important in the analysis of the land and its weather patterns. The first step in reading the landscape is to look at the solar exposure a site receives throughout each season. This means observing how many hours of sun it gets throughout the year, and to follow the path of the sun’s rays across the site.
- Observe the dominant seasonal wind directions and types
Next, you also want to be aware of dominant seasonal wind directions and types. Generally speaking, bad weather comes from the same direction preceded by wind. For example, here where I live in south-east Europe, winds that bring rain predominately come from the north-west. Equally, cold winds during the winter show the same repeated occurrence. By understanding these wind patterns, you’ll often be able to tell what is about to happen days in advance.
- Observe how the precipitation is distributed through the year
Finally, precipitation (rain, snow, dew), or their lack thereof, is another important pattern of which you’ll need to be aware. Observe how the precipitation is distributed through the year, this is often measured in mm/inches. What you want to pay special attention to are the occurrences of extreme weather events such as heavy rain, thunderstorms, and droughts. These are the events that make a significant contribution to shaping the landscape…
At ground level, it’s the shape of the landscape that has an effect on the microclimate, water drainage patterns, soil, and access.
The easiest way to get an idea of a site’s terrain features is to get yourself a topographic map. This will give you a bird’s-eye view of the terrain, and by looking at the contour lines, you’ll gain an insight into the different elevations and how they change. It’s from these contour lines you can analyze the terrain by recognizing six major terrain features: slopes, hills, saddles, ridges, valleys, and depressions. There are already good resources available to learn how to read topographic maps, so I won’t go into this here.
- Analyze the landscape and its shape – is it mostly plains, or plains with mountains, or gentle hills…?
With a good topographic map in your hands, when you’re reading the terrain first observe its shape – is it flat, are there hills, valleys, depressions? Landforms, unless they are flat, are divided into valleys and ridges, the ridges represent the highest point in the landscape, and the valleys are the areas between the ridges. So look at the landscape and its shape, is it mostly plains, or plains with mountains, or gentle hills…?
- Find out the general elevation of the land
Following this, look at the general elevation of the land. The elevation is an important microclimatic factor – for every hundred meters you go up, the temperature falls by one degree Celsius. If the landscape you’re observing stretches several hundred meters up or down, it will thus have differing temperature zones. One way you can spot this temperature change is by comparing the annual cycle of a single plant type growing at different altitudes, you’ll see that spring starts to arrive later the further you go up the terrain.
- Look at this elevation changes; the sloping of the land
Next, look at how this elevation changes, the sloping of the land – are the slopes steep or gentle? The steepness of the slopes will be a critical factor in determining their ultimate purpose. For example, slopes that are steeper than 18% are best left for forests, slopes, in between (10-18%) should be under some sort of perennial cover and not cultivated annually, while you can use swales and annual agriculture without significant danger of erosion for anything below 10%. The slope will also influence soil depth and soil moisture regimes, the steeper the soil, the shallower and drier it will be.
- Note the slope aspect, how slopes are oriented in relation to the sun
Finally, note the slope aspect, how slopes are oriented in relation to the sun, do they face north, south, east or west? This affects site conditions due to the amount of direct sun they will receive. Slopes facing sunward receive the most sun: if they are facing east the maximum temperature is reached in the morning, if they are facing west then it will be reached in the afternoon. A slope facing the shady side will receive very little solar radiation.
Rocks are the spine of the landscape. If you truly want to understand your landscape, you need to know what kind of rocks underlie it. By understanding the rocks, you’ll gain a better understanding of your underground water aquifer, overall geology, and soil characteristics. The nature of the rock has a significant effect on the nature of the soil which, in turn, has an effect on the vegetation. So, in a sense, the vegetation you see growing is an expression of the underlying rocks…
The primary shape, the outline of the landscape, is the consequence of the Earth’s tectonic forces. The origin of these forces, i.e. the energy that fuels them, comes from deep down, at our planet’s molten core. All the mountains and flat areas of land you see today are, in some form, the direct result of the tectonic forces that have constantly shape the earth over the course of millions of years.
These geological processes give us rocks, the original matter from which the landscape was formed; however, through the process of erosion, we have got to the point where we, in some places, barely see the rocks at all because they are now largely covered in soil. There are three types of rocks (igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic) that get constantly created, eroded and recycled in the neverending rock cycle…
- Find rocky outcrops and look at the type of bedrock material
Now, although I’m a geologist I won’t be giving you a geology lesson here, all you need to know is that, from a practical perspective, rocks have a huge influence on the landscape. What you can do as an amateur is try to find rocky outcrops and look at the type of bedrock material that’s present.
By analyzing this bedrock material and the type of rocks it’s made of you might get a better understanding of the landscape around you and below your feet. As I said rocks have a huge influence on the landscape and this is expressed in three main ways.
Harder rocks make hills and softer rocks make valleys, this is a direct consequence of geological forces and weathering. We find softer rocks along fault lines where they have crumbled and then transported by water, thus forming a valley. Harder rocks, in contrast, are slow to erode and thus make hills, generally speaking…
Some rocks hold water and others don’t. A landscape that is on impermeable rocks will have water runoff and surface flows, while those that have permeable rocks will generally be dry with sinkholes… For example, limestone is a very porous rock and can hold a considerable amount of water. If your site has a limestone bedrock, there is a good chance that there are many aquifers underground of which you’ll not be aware.
Some rocks create soil that is poor in plant nutrients, while others create soil that is rich. For example, volcanic rocks from “recent” volcanic activities are very rich in nutrients, ancient rocks will be very poor…
- Analyze how the overall rocky landscape looks like
Rocks can tell stories that are hundreds of millions of years old but, unless you’re a trained professional, a rock is a rock is a rock. Even the trained geologist can feel somewhat lost when first encountering a new area, while for many people outside the profession, millions of years is simply too much to wrap their head around. It is, however, the weathering of the rocks that can tell you about “more recent” events such as rivers making their way and eroding a canyon, rains rounding the limestone peaks or desert conditions making a jagged-looking landscape…
The next significant landscape component, water, is without a doubt a major force shaping the environment. Water is in a continuous movement both above and below the surface of the Earth, in what we term the water cycle. Here, for the sake of keeping things simple, we’re going to focus on the surface runoff and groundwater part of the cycle…
- Find out where you’re located in the watershed
The first step in understanding water movement in the landscape to look at the big picture, the watershed. You see, every piece of land belongs to a watershed and this is defined as an area of land that drains runoff from rain or snow downhill from the highest geographical barriers such as hills, ridges, and mountains to a specific low point, generally a tributary outlet to a larger river or a lake.
How you’re going to experience that water cycle on your land is dependent on where you’re located in the watershed. High in the hill, you’ll have a small flow of water, low in the landscape you’ll end up with significantly more. So, think about where the landscape fits in the overall image of the watershed, refer to topographic maps and find the water dividing lines, i.e. the main ridges of the landscape, and you’ll see the boundary of the watershed.
With that image of your watershed in mind, let’s move on to specific site water features, groundwater and surface runoff… During rainfall, water droplets fall onto the soil, the soil and plants growing in that soil happily soak up that water and, after their water requirements are satisfied, any excess water infiltrates to the water table.
- Get a general idea about groundwater
Below this water table, all the openings in the rocks are full of water, above the water table, there is a transition zone that periodically gets saturated or waterlogged depending on the precipitation. Once water has reached the water table, it is then moved through the aquifer to streams, springs, or wells from which water is being withdrawn…
How this groundwater is present underground depends on the rock properties, as different rocks have different water-holding capacity. For example, in karst environments, you could have underground rivers, but in more or less permeable rocks such as granite, only fractures caused by faults will hold water. Now, while it’s not easy to tell where and how deep that groundwater exactly is unless we drill a well, we can look for the occurrences of water in the landscape.
- Try to spot seeps and springs in the landscape
So, look for seeps and springs in the landscape, as they will be present where groundwater reaches the Earth’s surface from an underground aquifer. Essentially, both seeps and springs are springs, but a seep has a very small flow rate compared to spring. Regardless of this, the groundwater will travel though permeable earth or the natural course of voids or weaknesses in the bedrock to reach the surface. By checking out where this happens, you’ll gain some idea about the groundwater.
- Locate other natural sources of water such as ponds or lakes
Looking for other natural sources of water such as ponds or lakes may also reveal something about the landscape. Now, truth be told it can be hard to tell an artificial pond from a purely natural one, but maybe that pond or a lake is so low in the landscape that what you’re seeing is a groundwater table. Natural ponds and lakes are actually quite rare, if there is a pond in the landscape then the chances are it’s manmade and filled with surface water runoff or a well…
- Look for any small streams, creeks or rivers
Once the rainfall has exceeded the field capacity of the soil (e.g. the soil and plants have sufficient water, and the excess has infiltrated to become the ground water) we get the surface runoff. This runoff can be in the form of small streams, creeks or rivers, etc… all depending on the site’s location on the watershed along with its sub-watershed (watershed of the site itself). As mentioned earlier, you might have a creek or a river, or perhaps nothing if you’re at the top of the mountain.
- Analyze the water drainage pattern overall
Unless you’re on a river plain in a totally flat area, you’ll probably have small streams and creeks running through the landscape. If this is the case, observe their pattern, are they perennial or just seasonal? What is the water drainage pattern overall, how is the runoff taking place? Look at whether it stagnates, flows slowly or causes erosion, where are the dry spots or boggy areas, where are the areas prone to flooding…?
Most plants obtain their nutrients from the soil, then these plants become the main source of food for humans, animals, and birds. Therefore, most living things on land depend on soil for their existence. The soil is the thin layer of material covering the earth’s surface and is formed from the weathering of rocks. This weathering can be a physical (breakdown of rocks because of temperature changes, abrasion, or frost), chemical (changes in their chemical makeup) or biological process (the breakdown of rocks by living things).
This weathered material is then accumulated, where it’s created or transported by the action of water, wind and gravity somewhere else and accumulated far away from where it originally came. These soil formation processes can be very slow, taking many tens of thousands of years and, as soils develop over time, layers (or horizons) form. Together, we call these horizons a soil profile (more on that later).
The soil is primarily made up of mineral particles, but there are organic materials, air, water and living organisms – all of which interact slowly yet constantly. Surprisingly, a good healthy soil is 25% just thin air…
Now, the type and quantity of the soil depends on many factors such as the type of the parent rock, whether or not there are living organisms, type of climate and terrain shape. Interactions between all of these factors through the span of time produce an infinite variety of soils so, in order to get an idea about the soil characteristics, you’ll need to get your hands dirty…
- Dig soil pits and evaluate the soil profile
The easiest way to check your soil is to dig soil pits across the land, so I’d encourage you to get out your pick and a shovel and start digging… Once you start digging down deep into the soil, you’ll see that it is composed of layers or horizons that together form a soil profile. You want to check that soil profile first…
Each profile tells a story about the life of the soil, and although some soils may have soil horizons that are easy or difficult to distinguish, most soil profiles cover the earth as two main layers: topsoil and subsoil. So, evaluate the soil profile, which horizons are there, how deep is the parent rock, is there a subsoil at all….
- Check the soil’s texture and consistency
Next, grab some soil and squeeze it, how does it feel, is it loose, soft or hard? What about its texture is it sandy, loamy, clayey? The best way to tell soil texture and to work out what it comprises is to put some into a jar of water, shake it up and let it settle out. The heaviest soil particles, like sand, will settle first, then silt, then clay. By marking each level with a texter you can work out the percentage of sand to silt to clay and, by using this chart, you can classify the soil. Read the full process here…
- Determine how porous is the soil
Finally, while you have that soil pit dug out there, you can do a simple test to check for soil drainage. All you do is to pour water into the soil pit you’ve dug and check how quickly the water is absorbed into the ground. This will tell you how porous the soil is along with its water holding capacity. For me, on my limestone bedrock, the water disappeared as quickly as it was poured in some places…in others where I had more clay, it took a while.
- Take some soil samples for laboratory analysis
Once you’re done with analyzing the soil’s physical characteristics, you’ll also want to take at least one soil test sample to send to the laboratory for analysis.
There are different kinds of tests you can perform and, if you want, you can check your topsoil for fertility, any signs of contamination, biological activity, soil food web. PH, organic matter content and so on… You can also do some simple tests yourself and access your soil’s pH, microbiology in the soil…
Finally, we get to the vegetation and wildlife, the uppermost layer of life. Your local biome, vegetation and wildlife, is primarily going to be a direct product of your climate and local topography. Here’s what I mean. Temperature and moisture are the biggest influences on the biome, and these two most influential factors are the direct consequence of your climate. This climate is further modified by the elevation and the terrain shape, creating different moisture and temperature regimes.
As we discussed, as you move up the mountain the temperature drops, but the precipitation patterns also change. Going up the mountain is effectively the same thing as moving from the equator towards the poles… Look at the Kilimanjaro for example, located in a tropical area, the mountain has glaciers at the top of the mountain – this polar region of the mountain is entirely due to its elevation.
- Determine what biome you’re in
Now, when conducting an audit of the vegetation, the local biome is the first thing of which you should be aware. This can, for example, be a tropical rainforest, temperate forests, taiga, grassland, and so on. Once you know what the local biome is you’ll know what type of vegetation you can expect to find in the landscape.
- Classify vegetation cover types you’re seeing
Once you’re visually inspecting your land for the vegetation, take a look at what vegetation cover type you have on your property, i.e. its overall general horizontal patterns of distribution. Classify what you see into natural forests that have interlocking crowns of trees, woodlands with trees without interlocking crowns, shrub land with mostly shrubs, savanna that would be a transition between forest and grassland, or just grasslands, pasture….
- Look at how diverse is the vegetation and how many vertical layers are there
…then look at vegetation layers and diversity, the vertical structure of the vegetation. Layers are an aspect of a plant niche – different plants display various different strategies for making a living, and which layer plant inhabits is a basic part of its niche, the way it fits into the ecosystem. In observing this, look at the level of diversity of the vegetation, and how many layers are present. Are there overstory trees and shrubs that are forming a canopy, understory trees, and shrubs that occupy the space below, different herbs and ground layer plants on the ground level, vines that entwine themselves along trunks and branches…?
- Observe the current succession stage
These vegetation layers represent the plants’ niche in space, but this is only part of the story. You see, our landscapes are constantly changing through a process called succession, and if layers are a niche in space, succession is a niche in time.
Here’s how Patrick Whitefield describes the succession playing out over time: if you imagine a field that is ploughed and then abandoned, the bare soil is first colonized by pioneer plants, including many annuals and biennials, which spread their seeds into any unoccupied space. Once they have taken over all the available growing space, they find it rather difficult to re-seed and then perennials take over; this is the beginning of the herbaceous perennial stage. Eventually, trees and shrubs begin to emerge, and succession moves to the scrub stage, a mixture of herbaceous and woody plants. Once the tree canopy starts to shade the ground, the land has reached the woodland stage that eventually reaches its climax with the trees that are here to stay for a long time…
By understanding the current succession stage (grassland, scrubland, new woods, old mature woodland), you’ll know indirectly about the history of the cultivation of your land and guesstimate how it has been in cultivation.
- Note existing plant species you can recognize
Finally, note existing plant species you can recognize. Pay special attention to any plants that are growing particularly well, because they, or their relatives, might be good candidates for your future food forest, or maybe your crops’ competitors! Identifying these species will help you to gain a greater understanding of your local biome and what will grow easily. Replicating your local biome is the foundation of Restoration Agriculture that Mark Shepard teaches!
Finally, let’s talk about the living things that both inhabit the landscape and help to form it. Whether they are small invertebrates recycling the soil and pollinating plants, herbivores grazing and browsing, or predators that control the population of herbivores, the vegetation you see around you is very much a product of wildlife interacting with the landscape.
Almost all wild animals will try to get away from us but some of them, the apex predators, will sometimes show some hesitation in running away. While I’m walking in my neck of the woods, I’m always on the lookout for the mama bear with cubs, because this bear is not easily intimidated…
The meetings we might have with such larger animals can be moments of delight or panic, but to see a wild mammal that’s not running away is indeed a rare experience. Generally, they’ll go out of their way to avoid us so don’t worry… But this is an important aspect to consider, is there a top predator of which you should be wary? If there is, then this, in actuality is a good thing, because it’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
- Find out if there is a top predator in the ecosystem
Apex, or top, predators are at the top of the food chain, i.e. they have no enemies except humans. They are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem because the keep the numbers of herbivores in check. They do so by weeding out the slow, weak, and dying animals, and, by doing so, they increase the health of the population as a whole. But also, by forcing them to move around to look for cover, and generally trying not to get eaten, the top predators improve the health of the ecosystem as a whole. Smaller plants and grasses are left for smaller herbivores, there is less erosion, and more saplings mature into trees. So, top predators are really important…
- Analyze the animal habitat, its diversity and population size
The second thing to understand is that the diversity of animals and their population size is heavily determined by the vegetation patterns we’ve been talking about up to this point. Obviously, you can expect a different type of animal in the mature closed canopy forest than in the open barren field. Many animals are largely dependent on one stage of succession and, in a similar manner to plants, there are also pioneer animal species.
- Look for any signs of footprints, droppings, and homes animals make
Since wild animals generally go out of their way to avoid us, you can’t rely on actually seeing them directly, you’ll have to look for their signs. The footprints, droppings and the homes they make can all be distinctive. If you’re willing to do some research and learn what animals you can expect in your area and what signs they’re most likely to leave behind, you’ll be able to tell what’s round and how they behave.
- Identify wildlife feeding signs
The most common and most visible signs are usually those of feeding. For example, the most characteristic sign of a resident deer population is a browse line, which they make by eating all the leaves and small twigs they can reach. Above the line, there may be dense foliage, but below it there is nothing but bare poles and trunks. The more deer there are in the wood, the more evident the browse line becomes.
Putting it all together
When you’re reading the landscape, you want to combine all of your findings and formulate a more detailed picture of the site’s different microclimates, land systems (areas with recurring patterns of terrain, bedrock and soils and vegetation) and its history. Everything I have described above should be of assistance in helping with this.
Although I’ve tried to reduce the landscape to its components, you can’t simply reduce nature to its parts and then just look at one component in isolation, without taking into consideration the influence of others.
The reductionist way of thinking that rules the world today is dangerous and, although it might’ve helped to advance science, in permaculture one has to embrace a holistic way of thinking and see the big picture and how it all fits together. This is especially true when it comes to understanding the landscape around us, in which everything constantly interacts with each other.
With that in mind, in summary, to read the landscape look at:
- Weather patterns: the solar exposure, dominant seasonal wind directions and types, precipitation patterns
- Terrain: its shape, elevation, slope, slope aspects
- Rocks: types, shapes, outcrops
- Water: watershed, groundwater, surface flows and drainage patterns
- Soil: its profile (layers), texture, drainage, pH…
- Vegetation: biome, vegetation cover type, layers and diversity, succession stage, existing species
- Wildlife: the presence of apex predator, diversity and size of wildlife population, footprints, droppings, feeding signs…
For a more detailed checklist that you can use when reading your landscape, click here.