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Planning a property using permaculture

Every property is different and every person has different hopes and dreams for their property and different abilities to achieve them, too, but I think there are some general ideas from permaculture that could help you get started with a new property.

First, do nothing (or do very little anyway).

That’s right, do nothing for months. Well don’t do nothing, but don’t jump in and start any major projects until you’ve spent some time observing your property. In permaculture, this is the “Observe and Interact” principle. You need to understand as much as possible about your property before you make any major decision. This is also a good time to use the principle “Use small and slow solutions” because they are much easier to change if you realise you missed something later on, compared to big and expensive projects which you will be effectively stuck with.

Things you should be observing during this time include:

Water flow, rainfall (when and how much), frost/snow times and severity, high temperatures (when and how high), wind direction and speed, vegetation types, soil types, local animals (native and feral), slope/terrain, sun position at different times of day and times of year.

Obviously during this time you need to maintain what you already have on the property, but if you have a few months or even a year before you HAVE to make major changes, this is a fantastic opportunity to observe your property and decide what you want to do in a way that works with the property and the natural resources available.

Next, plan, design, envision what you want for your property.

 Again, permaculture can help you, especially the principle “design from patterns to details” and provide some design tools, but the most important thing is to keep an open mind. There is an excellent example of a permaculture design process on the blog permacurious which explains both the observation phase and the functional analysis, and then how to put this all together into a plan. Functional analysis is where you consider all the functions that you might need on your property, like “dispose of waste” and “source of protein” and then you list all the elements that could supply those functions. For example, compost, worm farm and council collection are all elements that could dispose of waste, and chickens (eggs and meat), legumes and cows (milk and meat) are all sources of protein.

A worm farm generates compost, worm wee and worms
Then you can work through and make sure you have at least one (preferably two or more) elements to satisfy each function, and you aim to have elements that satisfy more than one function, each element may also have needs that must be considered as well. A worm farm produces compost, worm wee, worms to feed the chickens and a method of waste disposal, but it also needs a shady position and plenty of waste to feed the worms. Chickens can provide meat, eggs, bug eating and scratching services, but they also need food, water and shelter. A garden can provide food and herbs, it need a source of fertility, water and maybe shade as well.

This is where you start combining elements that work together, and then you can start thinking about how to locate those elements so that they are at a sensible distance to reduce the work that you have to do on a regular basis. Perhaps you intend to use the chickens to fertilise the garden – then you need to design a way that they chickens can be IN the garden so you don’t have to move chicken manure. Or if the worm farm is going to take your garden waste, put the worm farm in the garden. Not everything is going to work out perfectly and there are going to be other factors that prevent your optimal configuration from working, but it is worth taking the time to plan. This is where you should also start to think about permaculture zones and sectors, but this post is getting too long already! I got into this a bit in another post last year.

Splitting Cheslyn Rise into zones for land use
When you are considering your elements and functions, keep in mind some of the other permaculture principles – how will you catch and store energy? Obtain a yield? Use renewable resources? Produce no waste? Integrate rather than segregate? Create diversity in your system? Use edges and marginal resources? And how will you create a system that is flexible enough to respond to change, including the gradual development of your system?

A word of caution though, don’t get stuck in this phase, you can over plan and never get anything done, give yourself a time limit, work through everything a couple of times, and then get started. If you use slow and small solutions, and keep observing your plan, you can change things as you go. Also, make sure you include future elements in your plan, if you know you want to keep goats, think about how they will fit in and where you will keep them, so that you can integrate them into the system more easily when you are ready.

The dairy cow provides milk for the dogs, the dogs provide... security duty and cuddles

Get started!  But don’t start everything at once! 

 Just pick one thing to focus on and do it well. When that is sorted, start the next thing. Sure your system is all interdependent, but you can have some temporary systems in place as you develop everything. If you have inputs or outputs from an element that you haven’t developed yet, you may have to temporarily do things a different way until that element is ready. For example, I got my worm farm ready in preparation for feeding aquaponics fish. We don’t have the aquaponics set up yet, but I can feed worms to the chickens in the meantime. At our new property, I want to have the chickens free-ranging in the orchard when the trees are big enough, but while that is getting established, we will have to buy chicken food (to supplement the worms). In the example on the blog above, Calamity Jane actually worked out a rough schedule of when each element would be introduced, this would really help with the planning. Don’t get stressed if things don’t go to schedule either, sometimes it will take longer than you expect, just try to enjoy the learning experience!

On our property at Cheslyn Rise we have been really lucky to have so much TIME to observe. We had the property for 9 months before we started organising our house, so that was plenty of time to think about where to put it and how to position it (and it was kind of a relief to have the removal house as we didn’t have to consider the layout of the house as well!). We did a rough plan of the house yard so we could decide where to put rainwater tanks, septic trench and driveway around the house immediately, and also pencilled in where the shed, garden, orchard and “dairy land” would go in future, so it can all work together. Unfortunately our local electricity utility put the power pole in the wrong place, so we had to respond to change and move the house pad over a bit! Luckily it was a few weeks BEFORE the house arrived! And we have continued to observe the property and think about what we are going to do next.

Very generally, that is how I think you should go about planning a property from scratch. If you want to know more about permaculture, try the books I recommended in this post, or book yourself into a permaculture design certificate and start giving it a try.

What do you think?  How do you design a new property?


  1. Sensible advice Farmer Liz, thank you. We are in an enforced 'do nothing' phase at present, waiting to sell our Boonah house before completely moving to the Allora house. I will have to hold hubby back for the 'don't start everything at once' phase! He gets very enthusiastic. At least we have plenty of time to plan. Thanks again, this is just the thing I needed to read.

    1. no problem Barb, glad you found it useful, it can be difficult to control these enthusiastic husbands at times!

  2. I should have done all of the above, but didn't know much about permaculture until after we built our house. I will say for those who are itching to plant before they get their designs finalised - go for temporary permaculture plants, such a pigeon pea tree or the various nitrogen fixing ground covers. You can see things growing, build soil you can move to another location if necessary and the plants are easily propagated if you ever need to clear an area to use.

    We left ground we thought we would come back to for other things, but in the meantime, the ground stayed fallow, unimproved and low yielding. By the time we did come back to it, it required massive inputs to do what we wanted. So I don't think you can go wrong, by planting temporary plants willy-nilly. It will be better for your plans in the long run, even if just to get a good supply of permaculture seeds to spread around the rest of the property, where you want them to grow.

    You can also get a feel for what plants do best in the natural climate. No point buying and planting large seedlings, when you can experiment with cheap seed instead.

    1. Thanks Chris, I agree, if you can think of a temporary solution that you can adjust later, at least you can get started, and you will never regret planting legumes! I also just leave weeds or grass to grow, at least that's something growing rather than bare land.

  3. My big one would appreciate and devote time to pioneer plant/trees and creating micro climates. So many dead and struggling trees on my place because I couldn't wait to grow the "productive" stuff, years wasted in some cases. The same thing for pasture, we couldn't wait to have animals, but we should have had a better set up for looking after our soil and grass first. I've heard Geoff Lawton interview where he says the biggest mistake he make when starting out was not understanding the need for pioneer species as well, I think it is a common mistake.

    1. Good point Ian, the support trees are as important as the productive ones, especially if you are starting with less than perfect soil and climate!

  4. I think waiting before getting started on your dream is the hardest thing. When we moved to our little holding in 1981 we wanted to do everything and be self sufficient as soon as possible. it's natural I suppose when you have waited and saved and dreamed for so long! (Un)fortunately we didn't have enough money to embark on some of our plans, which did soon change once we understood where the water stood and where the frost pockets were for instance. However I can still be impetuous and enthusiastic and make mistakes... and long may it be so!
    Love your posts they are so informative.

    1. Hi Gill, yes there will always be mistakes! Just try not to make them too expensive and impossible to undo :)

  5. Great advice.. I wish when we had moved here that I had known about permaculture, I would have done so much differently. :)

    1. Its a great tool isn't it, but its also never too late to apply permaculture and make small changes to an existing property.

  6. Very good advice. We moved here before learning about permaculture, but on the whole, I made some good decisions, or at least ones that were easily changed. :-) Thank you for sharing this at the HomeAcre Hop; I hope you'll join us again this Thursday.
    Kathi at Oak Hill Homestead

  7. Great post and very timely for us!


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