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.

Learn more about Permaculture with us at

Building in Light Earth

There are more earth buildings in the world than concrete. And the world is fast running out of the resources for concrete. So it takes humility, courage and wisdom to adopt one of the oldest building materials on earth. Building in earth is our brave new future.

“The main earth building techniques include: Mudbrick (Mud Brick, Adobe),  Rammed Earth (Pise),  CobPressed Earth Brick (CEB-Compressed Earth Brick /Block, Cinva Ram),   Poured Earth,    Super Adobe (Earth Bag),  Wattle & Daub,   Light Earth (Light Straw Clay, Slip Straw),    Earth Renders (Earthen Render), Earth Plasters (Earthen Plaster).
Earth Builders Association Australia

This video demonstrates Will and Kenny’s newly developed machinery for making light earth. It is lightweight, affordable, insulating and can work with nearly all types of clay subsoils.

Four Foundations for Better Future

Climate action requires us to stop polluting, think and learn from the past, plan and then make real changes. Here are the four ways our buildings can make a better future.

1. Buildings can be designed or redesigned to be climate responsive
2. Materials can have low negative impact on the environment and some can even absorb greenhouse gases
3. We can own up to the failings of the cities and suburban mega-mansions of the western world
4. We can recognise the beauty and function of earth buildings and help make them fashionable so the 2/3rds world continues the earth building practice with pride

Stunning Musgum huts in the shape of a shell in Far North province, Cameroon
CC BY-SA 3.0,

Workshop with Will and Kenny

Will Eastlake and Kenny LeMire run MUDTECH and Integrated Biotecture Design. They are environmentally conscious architects and earth builders. Here they show us how to use clay coated straw to build a light earth wall. In addition to the light earth wall, they also supplied the clay coated straw for an experimental composite wall designed by Ray Trappel which had the addition cob slapped onto the sides of the framework.

Will and Kenny usually make a lot of compressed mud bricks. But they’re also building designers. They work a lot with owner builders and run workshops. The workshop featured in this film is light earth wall technique. These workshops have been great bring people together and build things relatively quickly.

Tamping the light earth into the formwork

Light Earth – Adaptable

Will says “I like that it pretty much can use any clays. Even high reactive clays are even better cause it glues it better. So, we can get site soil, and mix it up into a clay slip.. You can get bags of clay from the hardware store but you can also dig down and try and find clay. Usually we would use the clay on site. We dig down to a clay seam.

Then we get the the pure clay and soak it in tubs for weeks leading up to the day of the build. And then you have someone breaking up that clay which goes into the mixer. Then that disperses. And it can be difficult to deal with. You aim to minimize the thermal mass components – like the sands and silt. We want to get just a thin bit of clay slip on the straw. There is no stabilizer cement or lime to worry about. We check the straw has a good coverage of slip on it. Then, we take it to the wall and do the tamping process.

How high can build in light earth?

During this workshop someone asked “How high can you build the wall?” A good timber frame with studs at 600mm makes it more secure. The span in the demonstration framework was much longer than Kenny and Will normally use. Will said “we’ve done double story walls quite easily.” Another questions was “Why do you have to Tamp? because we need to make the wall materials the right density. So we pack more into the edges and none (almost) in the middle.

Finished demonstration light earth wall – Photo by Will Eastlake

Why build?

Learning to build with mud empowers people. Better still, light earth is quick, light and cheap. The wall good insulation properties. And the process is not back breaking! Children were able to get involved. You can build in light earth with machinery. Will and Kenny developed the machinery to speed up the process for commercial applications. But it is easy to convert an old wall with light straw.

Mud Stomping preparing clay for building in cob takes a bit more effort

Best of all, all the ingredients in the wall are reusable. Will explains that because the clay is “unstabilized, you can reuse and capture everything”. This fits well with Permaculture design for reuse, cycling nutrients and minimising inputs.

You can learn more about Permaculture Design with us. And you can learn more about natural building at Earth Builders Association of Australia.


Permaculture is continually expanding. It is building skills, experience, knowledge, tools, strategies and design thinking. As we learn from and collaborate with nature we get smarter. And we explore systems for a truly sustainable future that allow systems to regenerate. In this interview with Richard Telford, creator of the permaculture principles icons and leading publisher, discusses the future of permaculture.

Interest Changes but our Knowledge Keeps Expanding

Interest in permaculture waxes and wanes with the need for it. During the pandemic there was a really strong need for permaculture. Then it changed. Richard explained “I think people felt Permaculture wasn’t so relevant because the system was coming back together…or it appeared so. People felt, I guess, more secure and then the demand for permaculture.. waned.”

In fact, Permaculture has pioneered many things from compost toilet systems to the powerful Transition Town movement. What will the future bring?

Our Knowhow is growing

Richard continues “the future for Permaculture is brightest when the system is shaky. But I think for people who really want to live a life that’s rewarding. hands-on, connecting with nature and the Earth, and to community then there’s a lot that permaculture has to offer. But I don’t see that the majority of people are particularly interested in that. So, for those of the of us that are on that path it’s fairly steady. And I think we’ll see big fluctuations when the need arises” says Richard.

Resources for a Better Future

But you know we’ve been creating these amazing seed banks and developing these systems for a long time I’ve been doing it for years. There’s a valuable source of information and experience that can be shared with other people when it’s needed when it’s valued.

Give it a Go!

Richard has been a Jack/Jill of all trades. “I built this house and had no idea how to build a house. It was that whole thing about wanting something to happen. And being passionate and making it happen. Even though you don’t know how to do it. And [it’s about ] finding the right people to work with. We’ve got a couple of boys that were home-schooled most of their time when they were younger. And we found the only way they really learn is when they’re interested in something. And I think it’s the same with me. When I’m interested in building a house – I’ll build a house. I restored a car (the old Kombi). I did the fibre-glassing and mechanics and upholstery. And all those things because I wanted to make it happen. And same with creating the permaculture principles website and designing the icons. Any of these things. I was really driven by seeing a need. And I wanted to make that happen.

Stepping Into the Unknown

I feel like I can do anything that I’m really passionate about now. At least give it a really red hot go. So, I really want to encourage people to have a go. The best way to do it is to find somebody local and work with them…. I’ve got a number of different mentors around town. And I ask questions! We used to talk about empowering people helping them feel that they could give it a go. And then people are starting to say ‘oh you know they really need to get an expert for this’.

I think it’s important to be good at something that you can earn a living from. Get really good at something that other people will value. And for everything else – just have a go yourself. Because if you if you don’t have to pay someone else for doing it – often you’ll do a better job. And it’s money you don’t have to earn yourself. And you come out of it with skills and experience. Often, it’s very rewarding.” [Richard Telford]

Step into your better future. Learn more with us at PermacultureVisions.

Transition Design – Cameron Tonkinwise

Cameron Tonkinwise is a Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. He addresses transition to a more sustainable future. In this interview, Cameron knows design is powerful when collaborative and ongoing. He invites us to see that each permaculture site is part of a wider system. And imagineer our future.

Interview with Cameron Tonkinwise on Transition Design

Cameron says “Design is often seen as the Art and Science of creating mass-produced Goods. Which is definitely part of the problem. But the understanding of the way in which people and things relate, which is required to do that designing, is a very particular skill. And as I say, an art form that we now need to transition to more sustainable ways of being on the planet.

And in particular…between being able to shepherd natural beings into a productive relation with each other. Definitely there are things that can be learned from the natural world to develop the artificial.”

Transition via principles

“If we adopt the same kinds of principles as permaculture, then you begin to create very different humans, very different built environments and very different built environment and natural environment relations.

So, even though I spend all my time teaching designers to make artificial things, to make technological products, my primary purpose has been to make sure that that is not approached [simply] in terms of mass production efficiency and convenience. But thought about in a very relational way.

Is having the user design their own space a setback for permaculture?

Cameron answered “That’s an interesting provocation. Obviously, the history of design (outside of design) is normally thought of as strong-willed individuals working alone to come up with magical forms. That, then, are mass-produced and imposed upon the population, often through some kind of persuasive marketing etc.

Perth City Farm volunteers work station, always in anonymous design transition

Anonymous design

But, in fact, most of the objects that we rely on, and depend upon, in every everyday life are the product of what’s called Anonymous design. A lot of it is silent design by people who are not designers. And the designers who work well, work collaboratively. That collaboration is not only with other designers and others on the supply side. They are trying to convince other people to make available certain materials and techniques.

So, that’s a kind of collaboration. And not even a collaboration with the users. Definitely design now is a much more collaborative activity with the people who will [and this is a terrible way to put it] but I think it it it goes to the responsibility of a designer – who will suffer what it is that somebody else designs.

social permaculture elements
components of social permaculture design are set by the members and in constant transition

Co-Design for Transition

There’s a lot of emphasis on co-design these days and making sure that the the people who will have the lived experience of working with this thing, this environment, this communication, this platform that is created – have had input into it. So, it’s a very collaborative process in that way.

Designers are all the time collaborating with materials. The designer is trying to coax materials to hold in particular, reliable forms. Designers are crafts people. They spend a lot of time coming to understand different types of materials. Every material is alive in a way. So, even if you are alone making a garden you’re not alone. You are trying to coax and curate, or choreograph many different species, many different alive and inert so-called ‘inert’ systems to come into dynamic relation. And unfold over changing conditions of weather and season etc.

Designing at Different Scales

Design forces collaboration beyond the scale. For example, on thinking about shade trees as ways of beginning to respond to the coming climate in urban environments. If you’re going to coax a tree into maturity so it can provide some assistance with how we’re going to live in a heating Planet, you cannot do that alone. It’s not just between you and the tree. It’s also between you and the tree and the neighbours – what they’re doing you know the kind of flow of water across their property breezes, shading, being able to convince them to tolerate leaf drop [if it’s deciduous] all these kinds of things.

So, even when you garden, it is also a social interaction. It has a processes of collaborating upstream and downstream, and supply side and with with users and then with the materials themselves.”

Permaculture Principle to ‘Observe’

In Permaculture we build observation. This form awareness of those ‘non-verbal collaborators’ Cameron mentioned such as the landscape itself and the organisms. And then, when we use machines, we are aware that we are forcing the landscape and the plants to be mechanized or to respond to machinery.

Creative Transition Designers

Cameron continues: ‘the kind of person who becomes a designer is the kind of person who likes to solve problems. They like to be creative. And sometimes people criticize that. I don’t mind that. I quite like that we have some people out there who are happy to take on other people’s problems.

But one of the consequences is that is that the mentality is often “oh good! I’ve done that, I’ve done a project, I’ve fixed that that’s done, what’s next? Give me another problem.. here’s another problem I’m going to spend some time, okay, done, fixed! I made a solution it’s in the market people are using it” That’s it! “

Staying with the Challenge

Cameron goes further “Donna Haraway wrote a book recently about ‘Staying with the Trouble’. Designers do not like to stay with the trouble. They do not like to to suffer the consequences of their design. They do not like to as you say, ‘observe, observe, observe’ Not just before they make a move, but also after they make a move. And watch what happens as that thing is out there in the world.

Designers don’t tend to stay with a project they tend to have what I call ‘serial monogamy’. They do a project then, that one, now do another one, do another one. I think one of the things that designers need to learn is to recognize that the designing doesn’t stop once they’ve managed to come to a solution that a bunch of people have agreed to manufacture and sell. And then a bunch of other people have agreed to use. You need to stay with it.

We need to stop thinking about tree planting as a solution to climate change. [Instead], we need to think about trees maturing. It’s no good sticking a million trees in the ground if half of them die. You want to get a million trees beyond sapling. that should be the KPI for all these groups. And I think it’s the same thing with a designer.”

Bottle trees in Derby, Western Australia

Ongoing Design

A designer needs to not think ‘I managed to sell this product’ but to say “five to 10 years after people using this product, I will still be learning from them about what this thing could be. And I’m continuing to develop it’.

Now, this is in fact, the way digital designers have to think. A digital designer make something and literally watch the users – watching it in real time using it in real time and can make updates as we all hate. You wake up one morning and an app is a completely different configuration because some designer is staying with the trouble.

But product designers don’t do that. Fashion designers don’t do that. Even architect, spatial designers don’t tend to do that. Very few Architects, other than wanting to preserve their design exactly as is, are prepared to come back and help it modify and learn. As Stuart Brand once said, in his book ‘How Buildings Learn’ They don’t stay with their [design].

So, I think this idea that you are observing in order to see the processes unfold over time, to work out how you can then design with that flow – that is something that designers really need to learn. Most people think of design as having a frustratingly short time frame – that it it tends to be ‘what is the problem? rush to market, problem done and then don’t think about the disposal of that product in one year or 10 years. And it’s very rare for anybody to explicitly design anything deliberately to last more than a decade.

Shell etchings by patients at the old Derby Leprosarium

How do you design something to make sure it lasts a decade?

You can’t just do that by ruggedizing it and making it into a great big military thing. Because nobody’s going to use it. If I told you to make a coffee cup that’s going to be used every single day for possibly a 100 years, you can’t just make it this great big military beast. It has to be beautiful to use. That’s how you get people to use it. That means you have to design something that people are going to care for and hold. So the solution to this problem is something incredibly delicate. [That’s] the complete opposite. Something that really requires a whole system of care.

Long-Term Thinking

Transition design works on culture change. But also change over time. So, it’s not just one thing does the change. The designed changes “begin to connect up and over time. The culture shifts”. It has the potential to evolving from an “inherited, toxic ecosystem into something that could be more the basis of permaculture. It’s a series of interventions. It’s not like you can just go in one summer and there it’s all fixed from now on it’s ‘Perma’,

Design for long-term change via multiple interventional acts over decades .

Cameron Tonkinwise

Evolution of Positive Interventions

In Permaculture, we design and work for positive interventions in the landscape and in the community. To create a truly sustainable culture that the future generations would be more comfortable,

Cameron adds “I think this tension between sustainability is a permanent state and a sort of more meta understanding that sustainability. [It] is a set of relations that will be dynamic in their manifestation at [the] everyday level. That they are permanent at a meta level.

But, the actual experience is of continuing change. Sustainability is more about something being able to change so that all the entities in that system have some autonomy about the direction of change. Rather than this idea that that ‘we are suffering change’ and that we either ‘respond or die’…. ‘You just have to go with the markets – change!’…or…’You can’t predict the future!’… ‘be flexible be adaptable – you have to suffer change’… ‘change is inevitable!’ these are slogans in workplaces.

Sustainability Seeks Positive Interventions

It’s not that sustainability wants no change. It just wants versions of change that suggest ‘I can participate, make some decision, contribute to’. It’s a collective decision making or I have some autonomy with regard to how the change happens. And sustainability is the meta-framework that allows that ongoing change. Rather than being slammed by some catastrophic change which will destroy the ecosystem or a whole species or or life on a planet.”

Termite mounds at Litchfield National Park NT

Flexible, Organic, Permanence

Cameron Tonkinwise illustrates “Transition design is trying to empower people to have a vision for the future. [It’s] trying to make it again fashionable, or at least tolerable to fantasize that things could be better. And you’re allowed to,for as long as you can, convince other people ‘it would be better if we live that way’. Because that’s exactly what we’re told you can’t do right now, like ‘you can’t predict the future who knows could be fantastic could be terrible, just hang in there’. Nobody’s doing this kind of imagining anymore. If they do, they don’t great resources for doing it.

We have quite a crowded space of ideas they all just look like dystopian films or, you know, Black Mirror On television or or they tend to just look like some little agrarian fantasy from 19th century Europe and so we we just don’t have good ways of imagining what John Thackara  once called social fictions rather than science fictions.”

Contestant at 2023 SWAG Sydney Wearable Art Eco-Warrior

Learn to Dream Again

In order to achieve transition, Cameron urges us “to recover the capacity to imagine. And dream. Identify the preferable. It is much more interesting to imagine that we could design something. Not because it’s problematic now. But, because we just imagine what would be preferable. We imagine that there are other things that could be more desirable. And if you have that attractor, that kind of future attractor, that you’re trying to get towards, it’s continuous change.

It’s not going to be a one-off solution that’s going to get us there. It’s not a one-off transition. And as you work with people collaboratively on that vision and how to kind of get towards it the vision itself might modify as you go it becomes… It changes over time. You don’t have a fixed thing that you’re trying to get to.

Transition design solves the problem at hand in a way that also continues system change, seeds system change, connects to something somebody else is doing somewhere else, creates a platform that could enable change to begin. So, every problem is also an opportunity for getting out of the ‘business as usual’ and finding something different.

Designers have to be system observers and instead of just seeing a problem and thinking ‘oh great I’ve got something to do for the next six months. Let’s go solve that thing’ They’re thinking, okay I’m solving that, but I’m also mindful of this other polycrisis.”