Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design Part 3: The Client Interview Sheet – Part 1.

Carrying on our adventure….. now we know the layout of the property, have an aerial diagram, some initial interpretations and have performed an assessment of the Sun’s impact (along with the other natural energies).  Step 1 completedStep 2 completed – CHECK!

Permaculture 102 – Step 3 – The Client Interview Sheet

(a) What is the aim of this step:

This step gives us the first look at the other major natural force in the garden – the GARDENER.  Having talked all about the importance of Sun in an urban design and Water in a rural design, gauging this particular force trumps all.  It is perhaps the most critical element in the planning of the garden, primarily to allow us to facilitate the work performed by the gardener into being a supportive force for nature’s evolution in the space.  The aim of this step is to trigger the thoughts of the client on items they might not have considered in their wants / needs and to highlight future discussion topics in order to get the most out of the site visit.

You’ll remember in Step 1 that we sent an email confirming we had the right house and that with this we sent a client interview sheet for them to fill out. In this step we’ll start to walk through the questions and provide a little background as to the reasoning behind each query.

Its critical throughout this step to keep in mind the Permaculture Principles – both with respect to ourselves and to the client.  For example:

Observe and Interact – “Observation and interaction of the designer within the system (and assisting its carer to do the same) enables the development of a design which builds the relationship between nature and people.”

Obtain a Yield – “If nitrogen fixing planting is done to improve the soil (in preparation for that gorgeous long term fruit tree forest!) in one area, then in another position, a yield for the household will be required in the short term to keep the attention on the garden as a whole – i.e. planting some seasonal, quick and prolific food producers.”

(b) What you need to start this step:

  1. The questionnaire returned by the client (or completed by yourself with your “owner’s hat on” if it is your garden we are talking about).
  2. The diagram from Step 1 – either on a computer, printed out, self drawn or what ever works for you to refer to as you read through the questionnaire.
  3. Some pencils/pens/textas (or virtual options if you are working on a computer) of different colours.
  4. Empathy – Your clients (and indeed us at this point – but just you wait…) will have varying degrees of understanding of what they want and need.  They are often are a little embarrassed about how much (or little) they know and that their expectations must be a mile off what is possible.  Psychology 101 – The more comfortable people are, the more they will talk (even off topic is sometimes helpful) and the more information you will gain into setting up a system that will compliment the owner and be capable of long term success.

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

By the end we’ll have a good feel to the Client’s hopes for the location and know a little about the opportunities and challenges of the site and its (mental and physical) climate.  All set to pack our kit bag, have a last minute soil resuscitation refresh and then head to site.


Okay, completed questionnaire in one hand, diagram from Step 1 in front of us and pencil in the other hand.  Bear in mind that when you got to site, it is recommended that you take a copy of the completed (if available and possibly with “notes to self”) plus a blank questionnaire so as to prompt discussion and fill in your own assessment of the answers from the discussions held.  Lets step through typical questionnaire…. if you want to view it in its native form as we use it, head to the TP Website – Free Notes Section.

A. The Formalities

Date, Client Name, Phone, Property Address and Consultant – all essential to keep filing in order and enable revisiting when future queries arrive – and they will!  Also great for client to look back on start date, and the opinions they had to see how far they have come at a later date.

1. The Client

1.1 Client’s understanding of Permaculture Design –

If this is answered with educational references, then you may have found yourself a “questioning, but in-sync” client who needs little convincing once a design’s motives have been explained.

If there is no or “NIL” response, then you need to consider that they are at least asking the right initial question (by seeking help along the Permaculture lines), but you may need to plan a brief introduction to Permaculture to ensure you are on the same track before progressing too far down the track.  You might want to split the job into two stages prior to getting to heading to site:

(a) the walk and talk option where there is the completion of the prior planning (which we are in the heart of) plus the site visit with discussion of some identified opportunity and touching on the Permaculture Ethics and Principles. This may then be followed by

(b), once they are confident that this style of garden design and implementation is for them, the second (and more time consuming stage) of documentation and construction of drawings for the design can be agreed upon.

As an aside, and general comment on human nature – call it ancient Soil Hugger Wisdom….. often it is the client who thinks they know less, that understands better how much there is yet to know.

1.2 Occupancy (Years to date / Future Plans) –

This query gives you a feel for the history of experience – do they know about the year round climate specific to their yard, will they have problems identified (eg run off of water in large downpours), have they tried gardening already and had specific issues we might find solutions for, do they know what has been done to the soil so far, do they know the history of chemical usage etc – If they have only been there 6 months then no, if 6 years then likely yes.

This also give you a feel for the future you need to cater to – are they renting only (or returning to the UK in 2 years) and so need quick wins with minimal long term dollar investment.  Or are they retiring and wanting a garden that produces for years to come. In this case, there may be a location identified for the short term seasonal production whilst another area will be in a phase of soil resuscitation in preparation for young trees in the future.  Brilliant soil and most young trees will out produce and out last developed trees placed in sand within a few years.

1.3 Number of People on Site –

How many are we aiming to support? How much productivity is needed? And what can be done with the excess? (Perhaps equally importantly: how many opinions/motives for investing in a garden design are needing to be catered to?)

Although it is important to note that many clients will have community interests where garden produce may be a valuable commodity – gifts for neighbours at Christmas, produce swaps, small incomes from local green grocer or just conversation starters at the dinner table.  In line with the Act Belong Commit initiative (being pushed in Perth to create less lonely soles and better mental health across the board), this garden may be the first step into Community Gardens, local growing groups or other social arenas …. so excess production need never be a waste product, if not used to invest in the soil’s future, it can be used to invest in a social future.

And here you have discovered a small passion of mine summed up by the absolutely brilliant Terry Pratchett as Miss Level (a witch) and Tiffany (a witch in training) wander through the local villages and farms “doing medicine” –

“Tiffany couldn’t quite work out how Miss Level got paid…..Hat full of skya woman would scurry out with a fresh-baked loaf or a jar of pickles, even though Miss Level hadn’t stopped. But they’d spend an hour somewhere else, stitching up the leg of a farmer…and get a cup of tea and a stale biscuit.  It didn’t seem fair. 

‘Oh, it evens out,’ said Miss Level…’You do what you can. People give what they can when they can.  Old Slapwick there, with the leg, he’s as mean as a cat, but there’ll be a big cut of beef on my doorstep before the week’s end, you can bet on it…..Pretty soon people will be killing their pigs for the winter, and I’ll get more brawn, ham, bacon and sausages turning up than a family could eat in a year.’  

‘You do? What do you do with all that food?’  

‘Store it,’ said Miss Level. 

‘But you-‘

‘I store it in other people.  It’s amazing what you can store in other people…..I take what I don’t need round to those who don’t have a pig, or who’re going through a bad patch, or who don’t have anyone to remember them.’

‘But that means they’ll owe you a favour!’

‘Right! And so it just keeps on going round.  It all works out”  (A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett, 2004).

Now I read these books many years ago, but it is only going back with a new perspective that I see his comments on life, human nature and perhaps how much knowledge of each of these we have forgotten in our modern busy world.  As well as an entertaining read – but find the book that works for you, some are for the young reader whilst others have many levels which will entice young and older kids alike.  Back to the topic….

1.4 Age (s) –

Each household member should be included in decision making to ensure they are engaged and gain value from the garden.  This is very important for spouses, but also for engaging kids into learning the value of observing how a garden can provide for the household and that not all products are “picked” in plastic containers off the supermarket shelf.  It also brings a little eco-system into the everyday lives which, if developed well, will teach all household members the balance of production between now and the future; pests and predators; fauna and flora etc.

Recall we previously talked about “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)”  The family must be considered as elements within the garden and the garden designed to ensure that both benefit from the relationship.  With a little questioning on the day, designs can be developed with features to work towards ongoing interest…. even if sometimes play needs to be mixed in with work:

Encourage others _ Kids 6 small  Encourage others _ Kids 8 small From Crazy Carrot Man to seed saving!

Tip of the Day – Always encourage the children (of any age) to be involved.

1.5 Occupation (s) –

Now you will start to see the strategy of questioning where different questions cover similar topics and hence draw out more information than might be gained by a single direct query.

Feedback on occupation can indicate a skill which might be employed as part of the garden’s evolution and maintenance (e.g. carpenter, welder, or an 80:20 personality versus a 100:99); the amount of time available to spend in the garden (e.g. home parent of young child – unlikely to have spare time versus clock on clock off individual who has outside work hours and less demand upon them!); the duration of absences that the garden will have to cope with (e.g. FIFO workers); the existing level of knowledge and interest in edible gardening (e.g. a chef); and much much more.  Bear in mind that this however is only one piece of the proverbial puzzle.

1.6 Eating Habits –

This question can be (and has been!) answered in a number ways, giving different degrees of insight into the lifestyle of the household.  Typically here we see the information of a specific style of cooking (e.g. Thai, Indian, Vegetarian, Meat and three vege) OR comments on home-made versus take away OR we host lots of dinner parties OR we eat a lot of X, Y and Z at meal times OR we graze on fruit all day.

These provide good tips about the style of seasonal garden that might be considered, but also whether there may be a degree of education involved in the planting plan.  For example (and linking into the occupation comments above), if there is a lot of take away due to having no time for meal preparation or limited grocery storage, then if greens (and other colours) are just outside the back door and real flavours are experienced, habits (and health) may be adjusted.   Alternately they may eat a lot of cabbage – less easily grown for ongoing supply within an urban yard, but it might be replaced with greens like Kale, Broccoli,  Spinach.  Iceberg Lettuce has a million options for replacement in salads which will change the texture and visual effect of a salad.

The long term planning to meet the tree based needs can also be based on information here – our fruit-atarians.

1.7 Likes, dislikes and allergies –

This query, unlike the one above which identifies current habits, is more focused on the future.  It tends to bring our the stories of a tree or vine at our Grandmother’s house when we were small and how the fruit (normally stone fruits feature!) from the shop has never lived up to this memory.  Alternately it might be the other end of the spectrum where years of being force fed broccoli has the client banning it from the design….. this may be appropriate, or it might be that the leaves of the broccoli can be suggested as edibles (young in salad, older as spinach or cabbage substitute), OR that a different variety or perhaps younger (assuming the “hated” broccoli was a supermarket standard) could sway the taste buds?

Pets/livestock can also crop up here if the idea of things like chooks have been an incentive to look to into Permaculture.  We’ll come back to them later.

Obviously it is very important to understand allergies, both the trigger and the extent of the reaction.  If there is slight hay fever during spring, then it is unlikely to be beneficial to adjust the garden design, but you may consider the main breeze way through the house and avoid planting “profuse flowering pollen makers” immediately outside that door.  However having a design feature of an enormous mango tree in the yard of a family who are all severely allergic – should be a criminal offense – for the wasted precious mangoes and the endangerment of life!

1.8 Routine Habits –

This question could have more information with it, but sometimes less is more.  It is important to identify the paths that the client takes often throughout their garden.  Adjacent to these paths are the garden areas most likely to receive attention on a regular basis.  Perhaps the front door to car walk or the back door to the clothes line.  Identifying the locations of the main house exits will also help with the supply of garden produce to the kitchen – i.e. frequency of use versus distance to kitchen – herbs and leafy greens might need to be close, where as fruit trees who produce seasonally can be further away.

Other routines which might crop up with a query less specifically focused on paths might be more cooking habits, grey water considerations, disposal of scraps/composting, etc

1.9 Lifestyle – Current and Desired –

Busy and wanting to slow down, indoor and wanting to make the outdoors inviting, self-sufficiency drive…. although comments here are less common, those with real passion and vision go to town.  Its a lovely positive look at the drive motivating the client to have a design done for them.  It is another question which can be answered similarly to many others – time wise, work wise etc – but brings out the gut feel for gardening.  Its a good first look for the client at the end goal they want.

Thinking about it, even if not put down on paper, will help the members of the household get onto the same page or at least understand how far apart those pages are.  Getting all elements of a human nature understanding each other’s perspective, even if not agreeing, is critical in the early stages of the design process.  There is a risk of surprises leading to requests being posed part way through the design process which trigger a recycle loop and more time being spent.  There is also the risk of the time being wasted altogether when the design does not get implemented due to all parties not being satisfied

1.10 Time to Spend Working Onsite – Current and Future –

??????????????????????????????? This was covered in discussion on occupation, but in both the daily availability of gardeners and the long term off site activities which will impact the design of the area.  This query can also help identify those that might need that “Obtain a Yield” bigger and sooner than others…..

The quick visual feedback of a greening and producing space to allow the less committed amongst us to sit back, relax and bask (like Tinkerbell and Fawn) in the glory of a garden we are proud to share.

I.e. we get to know a little about the work ethics and enthusiasm of the household.

Conversely, if it is a FIFO household and the garden will be loved for X weeks and then left to fend for itself for Y weeks, consideration should be given to the kick off of planting to enable plants to get established during winter when the breaks in attention will be during mild conditions.  It may also be more critical to set up the micro-climates and shade systems before planting the high productivity plants, giving them the best opportunity to survive within a guild (co-ordinated group of plants, plants and animals, or either with inanimate features to benefit all with the growing environment produced).  Specific attention to the Summer versus Winter spaces will help plants establish and structured reticulation will obviously also feature heavily in the design to bridge the summer gaps.

1.11 Budget for Design / Site Works –

Very few will answer this question.  Its like buying a car and announcing you’re willing to pay the asking price before you’ve seen the car or know the asking price.  However, coming from a family that thinks it is vulgar to talk about money, it is important that the client considers in their own mind what they are willing to spend.  Gardening on sand can be expensive, so it is just something to keep in the back of the mind as we describe importing clay, kelp etc

I.e. if the budget is tiny for a 600m2 block, then you might need to focus on one specific area and grow the confidence from there.  Alternately if there is a large budget with long term initiatives in mind, then a much better bang for their buck is possible by investing in soil resuscitation than seasonal shortterm growers.

1.12 Skills (Building / Gardening / Craft) –

We discussed this earlier, but here is the option of looking outside the occupation and into the hobbies.  It is amazing the suggestions put in here that you would not associate with designing a garden and yet turn out to be valuable inputs if approached/incorporated carefully – the best fruit fly protection bags come from the sewing gurus amongst us, not the mass producers!

1.13 Disabilities –

Disabilities need not limit the garden’s impact on the household or the enjoyment found within the edible landscape.  Depending on the disability and your perspective consideration may need to be given to path widths, raised narrow beds for less bending and easy reach, maintenance requirements may need consideration, the practical positioning of seats or the size of each stage of the garden’s development to ensure gains are achieved without exhausting or frustrating a member of the household – Obtain that yield.  At the same time specific features such as water gardens and fish can be a focus area which grabs everyone’s attention and just about look after themselves.

With disabilities, long term illness or the quickly exhausted (for what ever reason), the design implications are very specific to the needs of the client, but sticking with the theory that we must involve all members of the household in order to consider a garden to be successful and to have longevity, this is an area which should have significant thought and smart ideas.

To Be Continued….. don’t you hate that!

Apologies, but Christmas is calling and I want to send this out with a huge thanks to you all for your acceptance of me into this world of blogging and for joining me along the road of what is an eventful journey.  I wish you and your loved ones a smile-filled festive season and (now I have to confess another imperfection in the Soil Hugger!) an interruption-free Boxing Day Test!

I have a special Happy New Year gift in store for you….. I’ll say it with flowers….. yes, I confess I’m a sucker for flowers, but they have to have to be fascinating or awe inspiring, pretty just ain’t gonna cut it!

Until then, Enjoy.




3 thoughts on “Permaculture 102 – Permaculture Design Part 3: The Client Interview Sheet – Part 1.

  1. Carole Gorby

    How can you be so organised late on Christmas Eve that you can send out a blog?.. even if it is To Be Continued? I salute your efficiency and dedication!

    Happy holiday to you all, with a special thanks to the kids for recycling their teddy bears …. my son was in a hyperbearic state – will probably take him a while to depressurise



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

  3. 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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