Plug The Losses – Improve Permaculture Design Flow Tools

April Sampson-Kelly and Nick Radford, discuss how good designs plug losses. Like closing a door on a cold day, these actions build efficiency with very little effort.

Creatively Cut Losses

My first response to a design when I’m called in to consult is to look at where the losses are on a site and try to plug the losses. Not completely so that water floods the site. But sufficiently so that the site is not losing nutrients and losing water that it may need. So, I guess you identify the needs of the site. And then I go about plugging the losses. This could be the losses of nutrients water and organic matter that can flow away from the site. Or in a social context, the losses could be people we fail to include.

Water used to stream down the path

Leaky Weirs

Nick gives an example of about a fresh site that is often degraded., “There’s too fast a movement of that water. It will be moving too fast. And it will be carrying with it soil. And you’ll see erosion. Lee Davidson was a teacher of mine he’s this amazing Wastewater Guru from Lismore Uni and he had the 80/20 rule where he said you can do 80% of the job with 20% of the resources. Plugging – leaky plugging the big leaks is a classic example of that. And you can often just put stuff in the way to slow things down.

redirect path water to reduce erosion

Peter Andrews (author of Back from the Brink: How Australia’s Landscape Can Be Saved) , would have his water system at a creek where it would be dry. But then it would flood. But briefly. And then dry out again. And he would just put stuff in the way. He used logs and plants and he didn’t care if they were weeds or rocks or whatever. And it would slow things down. That’s what a leaky plug does.

Erosive waters in Suburbia

For students who want to just get started – they can recognize where is there erosion. Where can you see soil? are there bare spots? Is that unnatural? Sometimes nature is trying to convert this place into a thicker covered land. And so you can just help it along by plugging the leaks and putting stuff in the way. Whether it’s a pile of mulch or rocks or logs or whatever”. Nick notes “A good leaky plug will operate under all different flow regimes.

Aboriginal Flow Control Techniques

The Brewarrina Fish Traps central pools use low flow. There’s little fish traps in there. And then, when you got floods it doesn’t wash away. And further afield, there’s higher ground shaped for the traps. Nick says “It would be amazing to learn from for our water management. I’m deliberately making pipes leak in certain situations. So, when you’ve got gentle flow most of what is coming through is going to drip out of the pipe and into a garden bed. But when you got full-on flood flowing most of that water is going to get carried through the pipe.

Angles not Barriers

And when if you’re arranging logs to support soil you don’t want to make a barrier.

“Bill Mollison said “when you if you put a a barrier in the way of flow it will break” so there a bit of technique for how do you make this leaky plug do its job without being destroyed in the peak times. And often you angle it. So, if you put in a log in the way of a water flow, you’ll angle it. The slow flow will nestle up against the log and just slowly pass across it. And when water slows it drops silt and you get soil buildup. During an intense flow you’re not blocking the flow. The water keeps going.

Dianella plant: a bush tucker and soil conserver

Plants Adapt to Flow Change

Ultimately, plants are the masters of this dilemma. I was talking of Lee Davidson before he went to all these storm water drains and where they were just smooth concrete and they were polluting the the ocean because everything was going in the drain such as car oil and all sorts of toxic stuff. And they just going straight into the into the sea. And so they deliberately planted reeds in the base of these big concrete drains and during slow flow the reads would just filter out all of the particles. And they sit there and the reeds would hold this together and gradually build the floor of the the concrete drain. But then when you’ve got full-on flood they just lie down and cover that soil and and protect themselves. We’ve got many allies out there in nature.

Thank you to Home and Garden Designer Nick Radford of Bellingen Permaculture.
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Reading Landscape with David Holmgren 

Reading Landscape with David Holmgren is online and free to watch for everyone.

“We hope that Reading Landscape gently fans those ancestral embers of deep, creaturely connection to place. You are free (and encouraged!) to share this film with others by sending them here. Don’t miss the live panel Q & A with David (Holmgren), David (Meagher), Honor, Meg and Woody that sparked a great conversation at the Reading Landscape premiere in Castlemaine. Watch the playback here.

The film notes “Walk with David Holmgren (co-originator of the permaculture concept) across Djaara Country, as he shares his insights and discusses his unique approach to reading landscape, a wealth of knowledge and wisdom developed over forty years.

David’s approach contributes to re-embedding reading landscape into our cultures as a known and fundamental human capacity, providing an opportunity for humans everywhere to deepen their connection to place.”

Observe and Interact

David encourages to build our observation skills. Learn by doing, not simply by being told what to do. Acknowledge these are sources of knowledge and information are not replaceable by academic learning.

David says Permaculture comes from two models. Firstly, we can learn from patterns in nature and secondly we can learn from indigenous people’s skills. We need to get people out looking at landscape and recording what they can see. Through this process people recognise that they can learn a whole lot for themselves.

Time Worth Spending

“You’ve got to spend time on this…observe and interact” (such as gardening or walking) “unmediated”, without other distractions. So we can be present in the moment. Then, we give full attention to everything that is going on. Sue mentions how she loves their outhouse because it forces them to go outside along a long path and through the garden. Sue “doesn’t consider the task as reading the landscape but more as absorbing the landscape and being absorbed by the landscape”. She believes that “Nature is the best teacher.” Sue aspires for all children to be part of this land.

Reading Before Settling Down

When David and Sue chose their property site they used social and physical knowledge of the region. They considered geology, different types of biological factors and soil, protection from fire and sense of community and the history of the site.

The existing old pear on his property “signifies deep moisture for over a hundred years and the climate suitability of the species to the site”. In their selection for a suitable site they also considered the effects of climate change.

Succession – See Landscape as Snapshot of the Whole Process

We can read the patterns on the landscape, how seedlings can thrive where they are sheltered by thorny plants like blackberries. And how these plants grow to shade out the thorny blackberries. We can play along with this, leverage the action, nudge the system in the right direction. And the exciting part of reading landscape is being able to predict the future.

Beyond Dreaming

Bec, a Djaara women in the film tells us Indigenous people talk about process. And they pass on laws and teachings on how to manage the land. They walk in flow with its changes.

Macroscope (big picture) and microscope (detailed) viewing needs to both done at once. The small details can help inform our understanding of the wider landscape. To be able to step back we need a sense of the scale of the space and time. Also, David implores us to search for the signs of things that may only happen occasionally, but can be very powerful. Climate, geology and hydrology can overpower nature.

Also, revel in the power of the edges, David says “Look closely at edges”. The edge is “where one things turns into another”. Reading landscape is a great way to find opportunities.

Finally, be prepared to be wrong. Build your skills and start to recognise patterns that suit your region. But then find where the rules no longer apply. Learn from elders. When reading the landscape, resist the temptation to judge. Strive to keep your curiosity and the joy of enquiry.

Bite-sized Design Essentials – Climate, Sectors and Risk

spoof on whistlers mother

Face your risk from climate change with guided planning. You can then feel more secure, comfortable and fruitful.

We are powerful, creative individuals. But do we know how to be effective changemakers? Each day that we avoid thinking about the design of our lifestyle we are probably living by someone else’s design. This post offers worksheets at the end to help you design to reduce the impact of climate change and enhance the best features of any space.

permaculture visions design


Climate change is no longer up for debate. For many of us, it is real and now. And for many more people it is urgent. The risk is not evenly spread. One region will suffer far worse than another. There are inexpensive actions that make us more comfortable and safe.

Firstly, assess your overall risk. Then find what you can change and what can’t be changed. Rather than waiting for things to happen to us, lets plan some improvements and prepare for a dignified exist if required.

Plans can enhance the microclimates (using an awareness of energy sectors). But ultimately, calculating the risk informs the design and helps our community prepare better for future catastrophes.


Design cannot change the regional climate but it can create more liveable microclimates.
There are goldilocks “Life zones” that support living systems. But even Goldilocks needs to become adaptable because we are living through a period of rapid climate change. And not everywhere is changing in the same way or at the same rate. Every space is unique and the design team can assess what the space has and how it can be enhanced. 

Action: Research the climate site and map existing microclimates. Determine likely climate changes and how this informs the design. Finally, design to reduce the impact from a range of climate extremes.


Sector analysis determines the direction, frequency, intensity and effects of both welcome and unwelcome energies. Designs that work with energies provided by nature require less imported energy and are more climate resilient.  To create a design that harmonies with the site we observe and measure the various energies, identify where they come from, their potential impact and how we can use or deflect this energy at different times of the year.
First we identify and map existing external and internal natural energy sources. We also consider predicted changes from climate worksheet. Next, we determine what design interventions could optimise the use these energies.

Action: Create a sector analysis for the space and propose modifications.

Dragon of climate change


Design to reduce risk in order to save habitat, lives, effort and resources as well as minimising pollution. “Risk is the balance of consequence and likelihood .”  Lizzy Smith. Risk can be a negative or positive opportunity. An example of a (hopefully) positive risk occurs when we set out on an adventure.  Whereas a negative risk common occurs when someone moves onto a property that is subject to flooding then finds out they are not insured and can not afford to relocate.

Our risk analysis develops design strategies to prepare for and overcome risks. We determine the likely risks through a SWOT analysis. Then we design to mitigate the risk. 

Actions: Identify Strengths, Weaknesses. Opportunities and Threats or Constraints then Identify ways to reduce the risks and enhance the strengths. One of the actions that we can adopt is to keep some of the plants in relocatable wicking vessels. In the event of any type of emergency, or an opportunity to relocate, you can take young plants with you.

Earthcare secretary, Amanda Argent seeks to connect people to environmental stewardship, increase people’s skills and knowledge on how to regenerate food growing spaces following a natural disaster, and prepare for future climate extremes. This will strengthen flood affected communities collective resilience.



Here are the worksheets we are presenting at Earthcare to help participants develop their design skills. The files are pilot samples from our upcoming Permaculture course and book called the FIELD GUIDE TO PERMACULTURE DESIGN. If you are keen to join our upcoming course to develop your design skills, write to us.

  1. Climate
  2. Sectors
  3. Risk
  4. Zones

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Plan a Natural Irrigation System

It is easy to move water across the landscape without pipes or hoses. Natural irrigation simply uses gravity. This video tutorial shows us making an irrigation channel on site. Lets dig in and move the conversation beyond swales and trenches.

We used a simple A frame to map out the contours. Yes, you can buy equipment to do this, but A frames can be made with very little expense. And when you use the A frame regularly you get good at it.

You also get a feel for the slope and have a visual estimation of what you think each contour line should look like. Rowena explained how she saw how the contour hugged the landscape. “Well, I’ve just gotten down low, closer to the the ground so that I can visualize it. I’m visualizing the slope of the land and where the water is running and perhaps where we could capture it. It feels like it’s wrapping around um at the base of a hill.

Moving the topic of swales, trenches and channels along

In previous tutorials I have explained the difference between a trench a ditch. And how a swale is a similar to a ditch that sits perfectly on the contour. It catches water and it allows it to seep deeper into the soil.

On the other hand, a keyline irrigation channel can look almost the same but it it’s used to move the water slowly out from the wetter areas to the drier areas. So, the swale a trench a bit like a long bucket with holes in it we don’t have any plastic lining in it we need to be really precise because the swale sits level on the Contour it catches the water and it allows it to seep through the soil. Sometimes I check if the swale is level and not leaking by filling it with water or checking it on raining days.

Grant Lubyckij testing then re-digging the swales to create irrigation channels at Gillys Kitchen Garden in Otford
Grant Lubyckij testing then re-digging the swales to create irrigation channels

Check and Plug Leakage Points

Rainy days are perfect for checking for leakage points. Sometimes I check if the swale is level by filling it with water or checking it on raining days. Digging a channel requires a little bit of preparation. You don’t just mark the contours. You need to do the mathematics and mark a fall from that contour. [I’ll show you how to do that]. But the good news is that extra bit of preparation means that the irrigation is self-cleaning. This is because as the surface water moves along, it washes out loose debris.

Comparison of Swales and Irrigation channels

Swales hold the water but channels move water from wet gullies to dry ridges. This is a small part of the key line a method that was pioneered by PA Yeomans Snr during the 1950s. His method has rehabilitated many large farms around the world. At the end of the video I showed ways to apply this gravity fed irrigation system to regenerate a site.

Two Ways to Move Water in a Channel

The two ways to use gravity to move water across the landscape are: 1. having the trench with a slightly downhill direction and 2. Digging deeper to get to where you want to go. Grant Lubyckij is re-digging the swales here at Gilly’s Kitchen Garden in Otford. One area of the garden was always dry. We plugged up the leakage point on that garden and Grant re-dug the swale deeper to convert it into a channel and get the water to move in the opposite direction.

Exercise Your Mathematics Mind

Simplified Mathematics for Channel Irrigation

Imagine you’ve walked across the slope of a hill when you walk across the contour. One foot is slightly lower than the other. But, we’re feeling pretty balanced. Whereas, when you walk uphill you can feel pressure in the heel of your boots. And when you walk downhill you’ll feel pressure on the soles of your feet.

A Steep Slope

When we drop downhill by 1 m in height for every meter that we’ve gone across the slope we’re walking down a steep path. Most landscape standards call this a slippery slope and you would be advised to install hand rails, retaining walls and steps prevents people falling.

A 1/3 Slope

Now, let’s imagine you’re walking across open fields going downhill as you walk. You’re walking across a slope but you go down only 2/3 of a meter instead of the whole meter. It still feels like a slope but by landscaping standards it doesn’t require steps or a retaining wall that’s called the 1/3 drop. This is a slope of 30°.

The Goldilocks Slope 15°

We all know that the easiest way to get down a steep hill in a very open space is to go slightly downhill as we travel across. Now imagine you drop downhill by only a third of a meter or yard for every meter that you walk across. This gets us the magical 15° off contour. You feel like you are gently gliding.

This gentle slope is sufficient to enable rain water to travel along without causing erosion.

Overcoming Obstacles

If you find that there are trees or rocks in your way you might need to do a combination of deeper digging and going off contour.

keyline channels and bare garden beds
Grant and Tim market garden

Grant and Tim have now developed a productive market farm using these natural irrigation technique skills.

When we work with nature, we are giving nature a chance to recover and repair.

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