Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design: For Rural Only? Not in the slightest! – Part 1

Phew…. So sorry for such a long pause.  However, I hope I will adequately reward you for your patience!  In this series we’ll hold each other’s hands through an example of the Permaculture Design process….

72 hours over two weeks in the Terra Perma Design Permaculture Design Course and I have PDC MANUALpopped out the end with a certificate (was there ever any doubt!), some extra kilos (brain cells only, I promise!), a new way of looking at the space/opportunities around me and a desire to share this potential with others.  And you guys thought I was passionate before…..  Sorry for the break in communication, but I had to settle down before putting pen to paper (as it were) for fear of completely (in the words of one of my worst ever lecturers….) discombobulating you with my explanations and enthusiasm….

The course started with the Principles and Ethics (which we’ve been through already – See Previous Blog – so far I was keeping up!) to set the foundations, but before we knew it we were onto Elements and Systems (all the bits in a design (elements) and how their interaction with one another needs to be considered – so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (system)); then Zones (setting different goals for different areas of the garden based on their location and hence placing the right Elements into that Zone – Lingo 101!); and then Sector Analysis (What is outside the design but has an impact on it – I.e. the channeling or alternately protection from natural energies – wind, sun, fire, water, frost.  One of these will often represents a dominant force in a design – e.g. the sun – pretty dominant in Perth! )….and that was just day 1!

Day two started with soil being studied in depth (ahaaa, now I’m back on familiar turf….excuse the puns), with the entry of Recurrent Theme Number 1 – No matter what the situation – Build the soil – sounds like my kind of mantra!  Then onto looking at how nature has optimised gardening into tried-and-tested effective patterns – from maximising surface area on a leaf to capture the most energy from the sun… to the creation of a forest gradually with the evolution of multiple layers – the high canopy needing sunlight, protecting those below who need less, but who might provide more leaf litter for compost to feed the canopy – complimenting rather than competing.  Recurrent Theme Number 2 – Utilise nature’s years of learning – set up a design to work with nature and reduce your own energy/work input requirement (sounds like my kind of objective!).  Then onto the Climate – how to design a garden and the systems in it for the dominant climate impacts, as well as implications on the home – energy passive home designs, different building techniques, and simple changes on existing structures.  In this topic we also explored our ability to:

  1. create Micro-climates –  the little pockets that differ in temp/moisture/air movement/etc due to the items around it.  E.g. a rock in the sun has a micro climate which might suit lizards (potential pest predators!) versus the soil surface under a dense low shrub which caters to completely different creatures;
  2. understand the slope’s effects on climate – the steepness and hence water run off; cooler air falling, hot air rising; which way the slope is facing – all impacting the different climates on a property and what can be done to influence them to suit the ongoing production of edibles without depleting the soil; and
  3. co-ordinate the grouping (or Guilding) of plants, plants and animals, or either with inanimate features to benefit all with the growing environment produced.

Recurrent Theme Number 3 – Design for sun on urban blocks and water on rural block.

And that was just days 2 and 3….and on it went – more intriguing as we delved deeper; more enlightening as those significant (but somehow obvious, if I had ever bothered to think about it!) pennies dropped; and getting more excited about being out there, stealing a space in our garden and giving it a bloody good go at “observing” my own mistakes….(a very important Permaculture Principle!)  but all the time I had that ever helpful inner voice saying “you’re never going to remember all this!”

So this series of Permaculture Blogs will be me “remembering”, with a little help from my guru, and trying to relay the design process as I understand it.  It will not be from the perspective we did it in within the course (partially outlined above), which was by working with the global messages which apply across all situations and are specific from the design principals perspective, but are not specific to one property, one recipe or one client…. Recurrent And MOST IMPORTANT Theme Number 4 – It Depends.  As merely touched on above, there are so many factors to consider for each and every element of each guild in each zone of the garden, that it is easy to get lost if that global view is not already pumping through your veins.  So we’ll take the less global path by picking a residence and working through the process from scratch (as promised previously), but with a paragraph (who am I kidding…or four) at the end of each bit to consider the principles and design methods we have “accidentally” considered along the way (as well as a little commentary mixed in when appropriate!).

There will also be a bit of lingo and few tips I have picked up, mainly for the impressing of friends rather than to reflect your worth as a budding designer, but it will help us when exploring the books or the brains of like minded folks on the topics in the future!

Within the course we were lucky enough to look at 3 property for potential designs – which were fascinatingly different and resonated in very different ways with each of us.  And it is here that I want to emphasis that, when planning a productive, low maintenance, relatively self evolving garden (which is really what Permaculture Design is all about), Recurrent Theme Number 5 – Size Doesn’t Matter.

  1. One was rural, sloped property with so much potential for production that Recurrent Theme Number 6 – Avoid Analysis Paralysis could so easily inhibit kicking off anything for fear of stifling any of that potential into the future.
  2. The second was a circa 700m2 urban block which was a blank canvas out the back (except for a glorious Carob tree right in the middle) and out the front was a micro climate creators dream.
  3. Thirdly (and where we implemented some of our newly learnt skills) was a small rental unit with very limited space, but even then, with clever use of design techniques, we could provide huge benefits to the occupier.

Even this last unit did not represent the minimum space / minimum soil in which Permaculture Designing could be applied….but that, as they say, is another story.

And so, onto our new project, Casa De Soil Hugger …..

Permaculture 102 – Part 1 – Where to start…..

Step 1 – The Prior Planning Prevents P Poor Performance (A) – Mapping the Space

(a) What is the aim of this step:

Before you arrive at the location it is good to understand a few details about a property so you can understand what your in for and not waste the valuable time when you are on site.

For example, are we looking at hectares or paved courtyards, flat or steep, bare landscape or established trees or where north is….? (As an aside, you’d be surprised how many people live on winding streets and north is not where they or you think it is!) All these give you an idea of what to expect when you arrive, to arrive at the right home and to understand some of the external influences that might impact your design.  An example might also be that you identify they are on a main road and their largest potential production area is in their front yard – you might be thinking noise and visual screening (or they may want a community garden in their front yard!), alternately they might be two streets from the beach so you might be thinking about salt tolerance and wind buffering.

You also have a diagram of the property as you walk through it, allowing you to mark up the diagram as you go for future reference.

Now you may notice I am talking about arriving at a location, understanding a foreign landscape, and looking at the area around the property – I.e. you are working for a client.  But what if you’re just doing your own block?  The best advice is Recurrent Theme Number 7 – “take off the owner’s hat and put on the designer’s hat” and approach the design exactly this way.  Pretend you have not seen it before, put away the desires, sentiments and nice-to-haves (we’ll bring them back in later – the client interview!).  It is easier and more effective for the system to design it objectively first and then adjust (with attention to the Permaculture Principles!) later to incorporate the hopes of the “client”, than doing it the other way around. So, put that designer hat on, and take a look at your space with a Permaculture eye!

(b) What you need to start this step:

  1. A computer with internet access or an aerial plan of the property (not just so you can refer to this blog!).
  2. A computer drawing package (I use inkscape – free online; but there are several available to choose from – autocad or photoshop are also good, but expensive-; or even just a printer and some tracing paper will do the trick – getting fancy is not the goal of the exercise!)

(c) What you’ve got when you finish this step:

You know the home/space you are going to design for, you have an aerial diagram to help you prepare for the visit and you have a coarse idea of the scale, slope and surroundings.


Options on how to get from (b) to (c):

To get your property map to get started, you can use google maps, but most Perth councils offer a service called intramaps – in our design case City of Stirling.  Whilst the options differ depending on what council you belong to, this free information normally allows you to find the property quite accurately, super-impose contour line (indicating slope), property boundary lengths and demarcation, and often include a scale.

Do a web search “City of Stirling Intramaps”; click on the intramaps link and the below window will open; click on “Start Intramaps”.

Design Step 1 copy Intramaps 2

On the bottom left, you will see the search option tabs – I use “Address Search”, but you might be looking to do a community garden and so use the reserve search, or elect to just zoom in and find the location manually. You might end up with a picture like the following:

Property Located copy

Once here, the number of games you can play with the property are endless.  There is a side bar on the left which you need to hover your mouse over – this lets you turn on indicators like street trees, bicycle routes, contours (less relevant – and often less accurate! – for urban blocks; critical for rural blocks) and zoning.  There is also the option to add the aerial picture for different times in our council software.  Some councils have the aerial photo on an opacity scale, which is very helpful.  You will also notice that my council has a scale in the bottom right hand corner – very handy – , but if you don’t have this, then you might have the option of boundary dimensions from which you have make up a reasonable scale.  There are measuring options at the top (length and area) which can help you confirm the scale and get some details about the yard size directly off the software.  Note that north is sometimes indicated on the intramap, but if not generally you can assume it is up the screen – however it might be wise to check a known landmark – e.g. the ocean, the river, a park you know…  North is a pretty critical item to know as you will see as we progress through the design.

Remember these maps are approximate, and even the numbering of the house has been known to be wrong, let along the contours or other features.  Always make sure you have the right place before getting to far down the path….

Back on track, SH – This is what I have found to be a useful diagram to kick off with….

Urban Design House Aerial 2 copy

As you can see, I have zoomed in, taken a screen snapshot (alt+PrtScn) and pasted it into my trusting Drawing Package.  I have zoomed in further to make the space easier to work with (don’t worry about the resolution, we only need the basic outlines for this view), but have also ensured that I have grabbed the scale and north off the same screen snapshot to make sure it is approximately “to scale” and hence limit the inaccuracy.

Whilst the neighbourhood looks so realistic that you might not have noticed…. to protect the identity of the owner, I have made a few adjustments, but please bearing in mind I would (a) include these surrounding houses in my mapping of the space to get an idea of their impact on the area within the property we are focused on, (b) have the scale (as I said from the same screen dump), (c) ensured/confirm North is up and (d) know which way the contour lines are indicating slope and the interval (steepness).

Its good to send an email confirming you have the right house, along with a client interview for them to fill out (we’ll talk through that in due course)…. that way we know we are looking at the right spot before taking things further…..

Now we can start looking closer.  What can we infer from the photo…

  1. Its a full block – approx 700m2 (using my fancy intramaps measuring tool), good potential for an ecosystem to be created (i.e. a good design will enable the garden to support itself to a large degree).
  2. The house’s frontage is north, but has long sides on the east and west.
  3. The slope is gentle and upward towards the south end (if you believe the contours).
  4. There are some significant trees on site (based on the look of the shadow).
  5. There is lots of roof space…. rain water capture??
  6. They seem pretty set on solar power!
  7. The driveway is front and left of centre. (Google maps might have a street view of the frontage which will help you locate the front door – normally car to house is a key path for the client)
  8. There are some pretty significant structures (two storey homes) adjacent to the block especially at the rear which need to be considered for their shading effect.
  9. The block is about 3.5km from the beach (using my fancy intramaps measuring tool)….sea breeze cooling is likely….
  10. There is no pedestrian path on this side of street – i.e. no division of the growing space at the front of the property.

What other info is useful? 

Whilst not as critical for the urban block, looking at rainfall data for any block is useful for water capture/audit type calculations (we’ll get to that) as well as understanding maximums for erosion potentials.  As usual the Bureau of Meteorology has interesting info to get you started.  In this case, choosing Swanbourne – Monthly data, Monthly Graphs, Annual Graphs. Similarly there is wind, temp, humidity information in the same search area.  As the wind information is very much influenced by local structures, its good to know the general information, but the specific location’s breezeways can only really be confirmed by the client.

You might also like to have a quick squizz at the council regulations – i.e. the allowance or not of difference animals / birds being kept (bearing in mind if you treat them well and they don’t upset the neighbours – eg noise, smell, etc- then normally the council will not be to fussed, they have better things to worry about!); limits on re-purposing the front verge (away from the water and artificial nutrient hungry lawn); opportunties for influence the type or pruning of the street trees….etc.  All these “potential opportunties” vary from council to council and, whilst it is up to the client to interpret the rules and be responsible for what is put in, recommending an elephant as your main nutrient recycler, chop-and-dropper, compactor and heavy labourer when the council has a statement in their by-laws to the effect of “no elephants may ever be kept on urban blocks” would be a mistake!

So now we know the home we are going to design for, we have an aerial diagram to help you prepare for the visit and we have some initial interpretations based on the diagram, the general area’s climate and even the attitude of the council towards elephants.  Step 1 completed – CHECK!


The next step (and blog) – Step 2 – The Prior Planning Prevents P Poor Performance (B) – Mapping the Natural Energies (or using lingo “Preliminary Sector Analysis”)

Introduce the Recurrent (AND HARDEST TO STICK TO) Theme Number 8 – Patterns to Details, Patterns to Details, Patterns to Details.

Along the way we’ll explore more recurrent themes like “Seeing Problems as Opportunities”,  “Look to Add Life Rather than Take it Away”, “Cover the Soil” – as an expansion on “Build the soil”…. Some new, some touched on before, but all with the potential to improve our planning process and get us one step closer to a productive space that helps itself to prosper.

Until then, enjoy.

5 thoughts on “Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design: For Rural Only? Not in the slightest! – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design Part 2: Assessing an Urban Garden’s Potential Based on Sun Angles, and other Sources of Natural Energy. | The Soil Hugger's Journey

  2. Pingback: Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design Part 3: The Client Interview Sheet. | The Soil Hugger's Journey

  3. Pingback: Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design Part 3: The Client Interview Sheet – Part 2. | The Soil Hugger's Journey

  4. Pingback: QUICK REVIEW – Amazing Stuff Happening – Early April 2015 | The Soil Hugger's Journey

  5. Pingback: The Permaculture Design Course – To Do or Not To Do? On the 1st Day of the PDC…. | The Soil Hugger's Journey

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