The Essence of Permaculture

Design at the Core

The essence of our sustainable existence lies in our design. Because all elements within a system crave efficient and meaningful connections.

Emeritus Prof Stuart Hill reminds us that the essence of permaculture is design. He remarked “It really struck me being in an agriculture faculty in a major university there was no teaching about design”.

In this interview, Stuart reflects on the core power of Permaculture. The essence of makes Permaculture unique. Permaculture focuses on design and drives us to build knowledge about all the components within the design and how they interact. We start to see ourselves in the picture, as part of the system. We can also learn from traditional farmers, researchers and build our own observations.

The future of permaculture is in all of our hands. Stuart urges us to expand our knowledge by adding social understanding to our ‘tried and tested work’ on permaculture design.

Epping forest where delegates from Africa and Hong Kong
marvel at the wasted abundance in a major city

Design requires knowledge

In Stuart’s early teaching years “design was taken as given” and practiced as simplified monoculture with some very simple rotations based on inputs and extraction. Instead we need to give attention to the maintenance of the system. He remarks “When I first saw about permaculture and not just permaculture but also the new alchemy institute [who] had also put out a book and report about what was needed in agriculture. And it was the same concept of design.”

What is design?

Stuart explains “So the question about design is what do you include in the design? And where do you put it? When do you put it? How do you manage it? All that requires a considerable amount of knowledge. Whereas when you’re just practicing monoculture you don’t actually need that sort of same level of knowledge.

And design encompasses an understanding of ecological processes. As well as the functions that the different organisms carry out. Also we need an understanding of what these organisms need. As well as understanding about what their interrelationships are and how that varies over time and space. So, there’s not an assumption that you can do anything anywhere, anytime. Instead, we get an understanding that there are things you can do optimally in certain places and at certain times”.

An Ancient Essence

“This appreciation for design takes a certain amount of experience and knowledge to know when and where those those things are. What has particularly what impressed Stuart about permaculture…is that design is the central issue. Other organizations such as biological agriculture, ecological agriculture, organic farming, biodynamic farming, regenerative farming and convergence farming etc. acknowledge the importance of design. But not with the same understanding and central focus that permaculture does.

David Holmgren‘s list of principles demonstrates the essential core of design. And Stuart notes that we “would only add to his list in terms of the psychological so my take is that our internal permaculture is a foundation for external permaculture. And that has been neglected I think in conventional permaculture until fairly recently. A few people have been acknowledging this you know the whole concept of polyculture systems and succession.”

Design is an Ancient Practice

Indigenous cultures, particularly in the tropics, understand the power of design. Stuart recalls “When I when I worked in Trinidad coffee and cocoa was grown under flame trees which provided shade for them. And they got more optimal production when they had a certain amount of shade. And north American Indians planted squash and beans and corn together. So the beans captured Nitrogen for the corn and the squash grew up the corn as a support. There are lots and lots of those sort of examples. And also, in terms of rotations, moving crops so you don’t follow the same crop year after year. And there are certain things that you can’t follow because something leaves a toxin in the soil that affects the subsequent crop. So, all that sort of knowledge is quite essential.” This creates the essence of sustainable design.

Use Triangles To Create Your Base Map

Tiffany-HENBURN

Two-dimensional triangulation and drawing to scale are the two most useful skills to create the base map for your permaculture design.

Making Your Base Map

let’s look at the challenge of drawing up a map on a small scale. Imagine I want to map my desk. I’ve got a book a glass of water and a pencil cup. So, they’re the three key points I’m going to try and map. I’m measuring the distance between each one. I really need to think about scale at this point because to draw it at the real size I would need a desk size piece of paper.

Map in Proportion

So, it’s better to shrink the measurements by cutting them into half or into quarters. You choose your own formula. And apply the same formula to all the measurements. I chose to work to do a sketch at a fifth of the size of my real life desk.

getting base map to scale
getting base map to scale

Trouble Getting Measurements to Meet

At first, I thought I’d draw up the glass the pencil pot and the book but I made a mistake. Because the book is in the wrong place according to the measurements I took. My base map is out. So, how can I work out where the book should be drawn?

using arcs to correct draft base map

What I do is make arcs. Alternatively you could use string of the right length to work out where the two measurements would join. This feels a bit like the meeting of two dogs on tight leads. They’re going to keep swinging around until they can touch noses.

creating arcs, like two dogs on tight leashes

So, we move the end points along these the arcs of reach. We keep following the arc. And eventually we get the meeting point. Initially, we had the glass the pencil pot. They were two fixed points. And now we know where the book should go.

Applying this to landscape

Rowena wants to put in a paddock border but the water is running the wrong way. So, she also needs to put in a swale or a key line irrigation channel. This will make sure that all the plants along the paddock border can grow at the same rate with the same amount of water. We need to map out where the paddock border should go and where the swale should go. Rowena took measurements of 21 meters from the corner of the house to a significant tree and then she also took measurements out to an area that is now a fire pit. So, this is the triangle that she measured. That’s really easy when the triangle is overlaid of an aerial shot because we can see where the triangle should fit.

confusion

But imagine if the site was covered in trees and our triangle could have been angled wrong. We can’t check it by looking at the aerial map. In the end, the best way to know that you’ve got your triangle in the right spot is to make a more interconnected triangles. Each based off the first one. Then you will be able to map out more key elements in the design. And you will end up with a web of triangles. nd a pretty good base map.

Drawing triangles to create base map
Drawing triangles to create base map

Process of Permaculture Design

The basic stages in the design process are research, creating ideas, creating the design, and presenting it. But this is not a linear process. The process is more like a spiral. Deeper understanding and more ideas come as you dive in. Each time we take a step back we build a better design.

Research, Ideate, Create, Present – Four stages of Design Process

To be honest, one of the biggest sections of your design process will be the research. In the research phase, we collect the goals of the clients and ourselves and the ethics. And then we look at the data. Like: all the different types of maps and the permissions that you need to apply for. And the sectors of natural energies that are reaching the site. And then we look at the capability of this site and the people that are going to be involved in changing that site.

identifying elements (component) of the design is an important part of the process

So, we have goals, your objectives and the client’s objectives. We have ethics and sometimes, there can be a conflict of ethics. And we have dreams.

Process Starts Boring, Gets Exciting

In the data we’re going to be looking for permissions required. And different types of maps. To be honest, we will need to do some mapping it ourselves to get the finer details. From this, we will identify the sectors: all the different natural energies that come to the site. When we’re looking at the social aspects of a design, we’re going to look at the historical use of that site. And then, the community values.

By listening to the community, we connect with them. The capability assessment of a site will look at the different assets that are on the site: the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. And the risks. And then the skills and the interests of the people involved.

stages of design process - research, ideate, create, present

IDEATE – Understand Components

When we get to the ideation stage (where we put ideas onto paper), we’re going to look at the different elements that we can use (or the different components in the design). We identify the different components wanted by the client. And those needed. And we analyze them. Then we look at the function.

Look at Functions

And we look at different functions from each element. And different elements or components that will meet those functions. ‘Sort of like having safeguards. Then we put this all together in an array a pattern or a shape.

So getting to the elements: we list them. And we analyze them for how useful they are going to be. And how useful connections. There’s a whole bunch of elements you can use in a design. But let’s just take one. For instance the bee. We know what its needs are. We identify the level of expertise

required. And we know it produces or what its function can be. And the main function of the bee is to actually pollinate crops. Not just give us honey.

analyse components such as bees as part of the process

Process of Functional Connections

We use three factors to work out the best placement for an element these three factors are the sectors, zoning and the integration with other elements. So, let’s take an example of the worm farm. The worm farm benefits from shade. It also benefits from being in a nearby zone.

So, it’s not difficult for the user to carry waste food waste from the kitchen to that worm farm. Then, we integrated them. We ask: “What other elements can benefit from the worm farm? The castings and the water from the worm farm is fertilizer for delicate plants in the nursery. So, we position it between the kitchen and the nursery and in the shade.”

integration of worm farm and kitchen and plant nursery is part of the process

The Design Creation

Then we move on to that stage of creating the design. We’ve got some ideas for the strategies that we can use to achieve the function. Remember, that strategy of using and cycling the waste by using chickens? But, we know we can also use worms and compost piles. Our strategy is to cycle the nutrients. But, the different ways to do that with chickens or compost pile are the techniques. The third thing within the creation stage is looking at patterns – where things will flow.

finding resources, different techniques and strategies is part of the process

Feedback Enriches Process

In the discussion stage you’ll be talking to your client about the concepts. And you’ll be setting about to make a staging plan: what should come now, what can wait until later. And finally, you want to think about how you can accept feedback. How it can improve your work every stage in this process. We can have little feedback loops. Oh! that’s a good idea. I’m going to put that into my next plan!

The ultimate goal of your design is to empower the client. Maybe the client is yourself. By finding ways to empower the client you will find a way to bring the design to life. And by having that design implemented you get to assess how good it is.

Finding joy in the creation process

Living By Design – Not Default

“We can either live life through design or through default” Say Dr Charlie Brennan and Bridget O’Brien of Garden Juju Collective.  In our interview, Charlie discusses ethics in Permaculture and his involvement in group projects to help us design a better future’.

Design or Default – The Choice to be Active or Passive

Charlie came from Dartmoor, UK to Australia as a young man. His family also lived in Singapore during his teens. “One of the things I studied in my doctorate was eco-psychology. I feel like a sense of place became a big thing”. Because of the moves in his youth “which were both very exciting but also kind of dislocating”. In his research Charlie uncovered eugenic narratives by Joseph Campbell. “we need to understand the stories we’re living or the stories will live us”

One the things that came out of Charlie’s study was that the importance of a critical approach. That doesn’t mean criticizing it means looking at the arrangements we enter ourselves into. And learning from practice.

Permaculture Design is a Practice Not a Doctrine

“it’s very much about practice. It’s not about some doctrine. Permaculture isn’t a doctrine. It’s a set of practices which are exciting and fantastic. And they need to be evolving all the time… Anything can be treated as a doctrine. Permaculture can be, so can football training…but that’s not necessarily useful. It’s useful to keep things as an active set of practices.

Photo by ALEXANDRE DINAUT on Unsplash

Ethical Framework of Permaculture

“Permaculture is fantastic. It also is problematic sometimes. But it’s probably the only framework to address everything that’s going on. So it’s incredibly valuable. And it’s fantastic especially for holistic systemic thinking. It’s fantastic for engaging with the organic world and as a practical guide to getting things done. It’s for people who want to do something different, sustainable, regenerative and healing.”

“Ethics drives permaculture and what we’re all trying to do. Because we’re always evaluating the you know how effective or good or better this action is over that action.

Permaculture has Ethics but isn’t an Ethical System

The three ethics of permaculture (Care of Planet, Care of People and Fair Share) are more an ethic rather than a set of ethics, But they’re not ethical systems. Ethical systems offer a way of evaluating complex dilemmas that are incredibly hard to work out. For instance, we might ask: ‘do these trees stay in or do these trees come out? Do we involve these people or not? What do we do with the produce? Where do we share it? Where do we put boundaries around our knowledge versus sharing?’ All these things incredibly complicated.

Ethical Systems

Ethical systems include utilitarianism, care ethics or deontology. Charlie thinks these traditional forms of ethical approach are still really important. “We ask is it your sacred duty to live your life as close to your values as you can?

It’s challenging. But it’s also very exciting. We can suggest systems that people get a chance to explore for themselves. We ask people to look at Carol Gilligan’s care ethics. This is about 30 years old. It is sometimes seen as a feminist approach to ethics. It is unlike a bunch of old white men being quite abstract (which has its place)”. Ethics by Carol Gilligan questions the qualities of the relationship around you. And of course, there are many valuable “ethical systems from indigenous values and practices”.

Design Wisdom of Our Elders

Sometimes permaculture would challenge traditional methods. But Charlie has talked with a lot of older farmers. “They all have a set of ethics. They all have ethical aims to be the best farmer you can. Or to produce the best produce or the best soil… It involves ethical decisions on an ongoing basis. So you’re evaluating whether you use one weed method of removal or another. Or whether you even leave the weeds or not. Whether you employ certain labour. Or whether people can walk through your land. If it’s private or not. There is a constant set of ethical evaluations

adapt card game

ADAPT Card Game for Design

Charlie and Bridget O’Brien are keen for permaculture to be applied to everything. In fact, that’s how Bridget came up with the adapt game. It is now available and for sale. It is permaculture design boiled down to a design process. Adapt helps adapt without being narcissistic and selfish. “We’re doing things as a collective. And we’re doing things in service. We’re asking the question ‘what are we in service of? we’re in the service of the planet or really important causes”. To be ethical, creative and positive.

We can either live life through design
or through default.

Charlie Brennan

Life presents us with values. And we adopt these. Often we’re “scared to change from them. We live by not designing anything. Some are scared to design things. Also, what a lot of people do is design by impulse. They say !#$% it: ‘I’m doing my own thing now. And they make choices which are impulsive.

Our Adapt game is a holistic systemic approach to the design. It supports and encourages you to explore other options. It asks you to answer some difficult questions. Because a card will come up and say ‘what are the ethics of this? Or, how are you going to put this into action?

We don’t always like to go to the difficult places in designing approaches. Yet the difficult places are also often the fertile places. And so, by the end of a round of Adapt, you’ll come up with a much more involved plan. You will be putting your dream or desire or need into action.”

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