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Permaculture - design from patterns to details

I'm up to the 7th principle in David Holmgren's book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, "design from patterns to details", and I think its a good time to reflect on the principles as a collective.  The first principle was "Observe and Interact".  The first five principles after that were, more about what we want to get out of our permaculture system.  We want a system that can "Catch and Store Energy", "Obtain a Yield", "Apply self-regulation and accept feedback", "Use and value renewable resources", and "Produce no Waste".  The next six principles are more about how to achieve these aims and come to sensible design.  This month I'll discuss "design from patterns to details", and the remaining principles are "integrate rather than segregate", "use small and slow solutions", "use and value diversity", "use edges and value the marginal" and "creatively use and respond to change", which I will discuss in future months.

Designing from patterns to details is broadly about looking for patterns that already exist on the site and patterns in nature that may be useful in the final design.  This is one of the principles that I have to admit to not completely understanding.  I understand how to apply zone and sector techniques and how a food forest mimics a natural forest, but I'm not sure that I see the broader application of this principle, even though I've read the chapter several times now.  I'm really not sure how to use this principle apart from just following the typical permaculture design process, I just don't have that intrinsic understanding yet, but maybe it will come eventually (any suggestions?).

Permaculture Zones
In permaculture, zones are used to describe areas of a property that have different intensity of use.  The house is Zone 0, and moving away from the house, the zones decrease in intensity.  The idea is to have the activities that need to be visited daily closer than the ones that may only be visited weekly or monthly.  For example at Cheslyn Rise the property can be divided into the following zones, which are also shown in the image below:

1 (visited regularly) – House yard – shed, annual garden, aquaponics
2 – Food forest, chickens and other poultry
3 – Managed pastures and forage/hay crops, dairy cows, dams, beef cattle in rotational grazing
4 – Pasture and woodland for beef cattle and free-range pigs

5 (visited infrequently) – Dense forest and creek area for wildlife

A smaller property may not have all 5 zones.  I think Eight Acres has the following zones:
1 – House yard - shed, annual garden
2 – Inner paddock - Dairy cow paddock and calf yard, chickens and other poultry
3 – Outer paddocks - Managed pastures (slashed occasionally), dam, beef cattle

5 – Small dense forest area for wildlife

Note that zone 4 is missing because we only have eight acres, however we have left a wild rocky area of trees, which is effectively a Zone 5 wildlife zone that we pretty much leave alone.  A suburban block may only have Zone 1 and possibly 2, depending on how often the area is visited and how much maintenance is required, although you could design to have other zones.

Permaculture Sectors
Sectors are used to define the generally direction of external forces such as sun, wind, fire and flood.  The sector analysis informs the placement of elements within the system.  I think its more appropriate to consider the effect of sectors on Zone 1 and maybe 2, but not so much on the less managed zones.  I find it very difficult to draw a plan of the house yard, the distances are too large to estimate or measure, and even though I have marked points on the GPS, they are too close together on the GPS map to be useful!  However, the point of this exercise is to think about the impact of the external energies, and whether my map is perfectly to scale or not, it did get me (and Pete) thinking.

Firstly about sun, and most importantly how to place the house to make the most of passive solar design.  We have orientated our secondhand house facing north so that it will get full sun in winter, but the veranda will protect from sun in summer.  And from there we could see where the planned house and shed will cast shadows throughout the day, and where to place the garden and food forest so that they benefit from full sun.

When considering wind and fire, we plan to build another dam in a hollow between the house and the main fire risk.  We will also have a clear area of road base around the house and a hedge of fire resistant bushes (not sure what yet).  The grass in that area will be kept short by the dairy cows and we will clear the undergrowth from beneath the tall trees.  Fire is not such a risk for us in QLD as for the southern states, and we have the cultivated area on the other side of the house as another fire break in the other direction.  The hedge on the other side of the house will block our view of the neighbour's house (I know, on 258 A, we put our house near the neighbours, but they had the electrical connection we needed!).  Both hedges will help to reduce wind, although we do actually want that wind to cool us on hot summer days, that's why we put the house on top of the hill.

For us, flooding is more of a threat than fire, so I am very happy to be high and dry on the top of the hill, even though it is the worst place to be in a fire.  At least we know that the house will never wash away, and we have some contour banks already constructed to help manage water flow in the house yard.

I didn't like drawing the circles for the sectors, because I couldn't see where the "outside" of the design was, as this is just a small area of the property.  I just used arrows instead.  In the drawing below, the red arrows are the external energies and I know there's a lot of scribbles, but I tried to highlight the main points I discussed above.  This is not our final design, but its just a rough summary of ideas about how the energies will affect us.

Permaculture Slope
Slope is very important in permaculture and an example that's often used is locating a water tank up the hill from the house.  Our house will be on the top of the hill, but we have two other ideas for using the slope instead, one is to drain our grey water directly from the house to the garden without using a pump, this means we don't need to store it anywhere.  The other idea is to build an old-fashioned pump stand and use a solar pump to fill a small header tank from our main tank, that way we always have water pressure without a pressure pump cutting in and out.  This second idea may take longer to implement!

We also have a few ideas about developing more dams and bores and moving water around for the stock in the other zones, which I will discuss in a later post.

Select Appropriate Plants and Animals
Another theme of this chapter was the selection of appropriate plants and animals for the situation.  Matching the plants and animals to the fertility and climate available will reduce the need for outside inputs.  This can be done by looking for patterns in nature.  I think that our Braford cattle are a good example of appropriate selection, as this breed is well-suited to our climate and are good foragers in poor pasture.  This is also something to consider in selecting food plants for the food forest, it will be best to start with plants that are well suited to the climate and gradually transition to more sensitive plants as the forest is established.

How do you design from patterns to details?  Have you applied zone, sector and slope design at your property?  Do you select breeds that are appropriate to your climate and soil fertility?  Does this principle make any sense to you??


  1. Hi Liz, I love your explanation of the Permaculture principles.
    We use sheep as our major fire sector plan; we fenced a strip about 30m wide all around the house (well half way around, fencing is expensive, we are working on the other half) and crash graze the sheep in it. We also live on the top of a ridge (the worst place for fire safety). We built the 'temporary' shed there because there was a clearing already and I didn't want to clear anything until I understood the site.

  2. Built our house pre PDC! So many elements don't work for us. New areas are planned better, like our new orchard. I don't get some of the principles either but imagine this one broadly means get the big picture first, then work on the smaller details that make it up.

    Eg. You want veggies. You don't just plant them, put plan where it's best sited,the slope for water, shade etc., (the pattern) then dig the bed, incorporate ma nure, plant the veggies (the details) makes sense coz it's the planning we didn't do when we built and now regret coz we can see the pattern now!

    1. Yes that does help. Almost like saying that you need to have an overarching strategy before you get into a how to achieve each detail.

  3. 'Designing from patterns to details is broadly about looking for patterns that already exist on the site and patterns in nature that may be useful in the final design.' I think patterns that already exist on the site could include things like water flow and cold pockets; so for example if you want to plant an apple tree that needs a larger amount of chill hours than is common in your area, you can look for those little areas where frost settles on a not-so-cold morning and build a frost-trap there instead of planting it anywhere and then trying to build a frost-trap. Or maybe; if you want to build a bog garden, look for where the water naturally sits on your site, then augment the 'bogability' of the site by adding a border and dug in tyre ponds and such.
    I don't know if I am right or not, that's just how I interpret it; how about you?

    1. Yes that helps, thanks, I think I am confused about how this principles crosses over with "Observe and Interact". I am probably trying to compartmentalise the principles, which is precisely what I shouldn't be doing! There is a fair bit of overlap and I need to accept that.

  4. Have you tried Goggle earth or goggle maps to make a base plan of your property? My local council also has online map showing property boundaries, or use the DP (deposited plan). I found a website that would calculate sun angles and draw a sun map for your latitude (computer died so no link). I also used sketch up (free version) to make a 3d model of my house and yard, but there is a learning curve to use it well.


  5. 'Value the edge', the place where things overlap is always more fertile than the surroundings, ha ha.

  6. I often think of the detail as being the ways the larger chunks of your design interact. So like over there you might have your veggie garden and over there you might have your goat. The way they are laid out on your property is the pattern. The detail is the little ways they feed into each other, so the tops off your harvested root crops might be thrown over the fence to the goats, and some of the goat manure goes into the compost for the garden. Once you have the main pattern in place (using zones etc) its amazing how many smaller ways you can find to have them interact with and enhance each other.

  7. I like that interpretation too Ian; the ways a system interacts is amazing and that certainly does explain big picture to little picture.
    It's a basic ecological fact that the more complicated and varied a system is the more stable it is; to me that means that we have to build redundancies into our systems to make them stable. for example, who gets my carrots if I don't want them? the rabbits, the chooks? the sheep? that means that the carrots never go to waste. Although I have yet to discover an animal that will only harvest what and when you want them to, even people.

  8. I've heard about the book but I haven't had a chance to read it. It's pretty intense right?
    Thanks for sharing at Tuesdays with a Twist! Hope to see you again this week.

  9. This is a principle we will be looking at in more depth as we start to design our land in NZ. Like you I sometimes struggle to understand how to apply it in principle.

  10. thanks for all your comments, I love the discussion, only five principles to go, phew!

  11. Liz,

    I have been following Eight Acres for ages. And it was only today that I realised how great a permaculture resource it is. Your writing is modern, practical and inspiring. I'm soon to embark on my own permaculture design in rural Victoria and haven't yet got my hands on a copy of Holmgren or Mollison - they are as rare as hensteeth in physical bookshops, so online I go. Your blog is tiding my over nicely until I receive the package in the mail.


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