How to Learn Permaculture for Free, a handy guide from somebody who learned permaculture for free...
by Heather Jo Flores, author of Food Not Lawns and director of the Permaculture Women’s Guild
My goal with the #freepermaculture project is to give people access to the resources I wish had been available when I first started learning permaculture, way back in the 1990’s. We didn’t have much in the way of internet then, and Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet. So we used the library and good old fashioned hands-on trial and error to figure stuff out.
If humanity has a snowball’s chance at survival in the coming climate cataclysm, it will be permaculture tools and techniques that get us out of this mess. But we need to get on it, NOW, and it pains me to see finances preventing people from experiencing the joy and fascination that comes with learning permaculture. So I’m doing something about it.
Here you’ll find suggestions for learning permaculture for free, and also for finding ways to fund your permaculture education. I only make suggestions based on what I, myself have done and continue to do.
I hope you enjoy the work, and thanks for being here,
7 ways to learn permaculture for free
Want a PDF version of this entire article? Go here.
1. Enroll in our yearlong online permaculture course.
Designed specifically for folks who don't have a lot of time or money, this course will give you one bite-sized class per week for a full year, taking you step-by-step through a permaculture design process, focused on your own home, garden, and community. Check it out at
www.freepermaculturecourse.com. Tell all your friends!
I know, this is so obvious. And you already know there are a bunch of amazing permaculture books that you can get at the library. But did you know you can download a ton of excellent reading material, including some full-text PDFs of the best books about permaculture? Ok maybe you know that too. But where do you start? It’s overwhelming.
To help cut out the noise, I’ve selected a handful of super-value texts to get you started.
3. Form a study group.
Food Not Lawns was born out of the “Sustainable Horticulture” study group we had going at our house in Eugene. We met up every week and discussed texts--like a book club, but with more dirt! We often had our meetings in somebody’s garden, where we could discuss ideas while pulling weeds. Stacking functions! Now that we have the internet, there are so many excellent study groups online. Again, it’s overwhelming, and some of the Facebook permaculture groups aren’t really that helpful. (In fact, as bizarre as it seems, several of the largest Facebook permaculture groups are run by internet trolls, unfortunately! So be careful!)
Here are the ones I recommend (and help moderate!)
4. Find a local mentor.
If there is someone in your community whose work you admire, approach them and volunteer to help. We can learn so much from help each other, and through respecting and seeking out the wisdom of our elders.
And, if you are are a wise elder, consider looking for an young’un to pass your skills on to.
Maybe you know alot about something besides permaculture, but you want to learn permaculture? How about setting up a skillshare with somebody?
Most of the permaculture teachers I know LOVE doing exchanges like this. If you can’t think of anyone in your own area, start hanging out at the farmer’s market. Or, check out our faculty and see if one of those folks inspires you to reach out.
5. Trial and error.
This one is obvious too, but it cannot be overstated. You can take a dozen expensive design courses and still have no idea what you’re talking about. You have to get out there and start designing! Beyond designing, it’s important that you get dirty and do some serious implementation. Only through years of hard-won experiential knowledge will you ever truly master the fine art and science of permaculture design.
The good news is, implementing permaculture design projects is pretty much the funnest thing ever! This #freepermaculture blog is packed full of hands-on ideas to help you find new ways to get your hands dirty with permaculture. Type any keyword into the search box and see what you find!
6. Raise funds in your community to do a Permaculture Design Certification Course together.
In 2001 the Food Not Lawns collective raised enough money to pay Toby Hemenway and Jude Hobbs to teach a permaculture course for our whole neighborhood. It wasn’t very hard to raise up the money, and the results were completely awesome.
Ok, I know this whole article is supposed to be about learning permaculture without having to attend an expensive design course. And I’m a very critical, skeptical person myself. But I have to say, a good permaculture design course, taught by knowledgeable people who have taken the time to learn not just how to do permaculture but also how to teach it...well it can completely change your life.
And there are ways to pay for it. I’ve known tons of students who did a gofundme with friends and family to come up with tuition money, offering the reward of teaching free workshops to funders afterwards.
Others, like myself, leveraged existing community projects to get funding from the local municipality. Back in 2001, after two years of being super visible and growing gorgeous gardens all over the neighborhood, Food Not Lawns got a grant from the City of Eugene to pay Jude Hobbs and Toby Hemenway to do a 72-hour certification course for myself and twenty neighbors. It was awesome!
Most cities have little bits of funding for stuff like this, and if you frame it right, you can raise money to hire top-quality teachers and still be able to offer training for free to yourself and your friends.
What I am saying is: think outside the box!
You’re a designer now, you can do this.
That being said, I recognize that not everybody has access to the time and resources to attend a PDC, regardless of the cost. Not everybody can get ten whole days (plus travel time) to go to an immersion course.
So, just in case you didn’t already know, I’ve collaborated with 40 women to create a low-cost, go at your own pace online permaculture design course that includes an extra certification in advanced social systems design.
We offer the entire first module for free, PLUS, we offer discounts for survivors of abuse and for women of color, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support and want to get serious about becoming a certified permaculture designer.
7. Write for the #freepermaculture blog.
This blog is a hub of skills, resources, and information, brought to you by a collaboration of some of the brightest minds in the movement, and it might just help save the world.
And, as you learn, what better way to solidify your knowledge than by writing about your experiments?!?
We’d love to feature you on our blog and get to know you better through your designs. So, if you fancy yourself a writer, come on! And if you already have your own blog, I’d love to do a guest post there as well.
Also, connect with me directly if you’d like to do a writing work-trade for a partial tuition waiver in our online permaculture design course.
And check out this program for Permaculture Women Writers. It’s not free, but it’s focused on helping you turn your garden writing into a cash crop!
P.S. Does the idea of writing for publication terrify you?
If it helps, I can share that when I wrote Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, I had never published a single article! And honestly, sometimes I cringe when I read my writing in that old book (it was published back in ‘06), but it has changed a lot of people’s lives and empowered them to grow food and build community, so I am glad I pushed through the apprehension and just shared what I had with the world. And now that I’ve spent the last 13 years honing my professional skills as a writer, we’re doing a new revised edition! It’s due out in Spring 2021.
Alrighty? I hope that’s enough to keep you busy, and if not, then check out more resources for learning permaculture for free, right here.
An easy, circular process for designing gardens, community projects, creative work, and so much more.
by Heather Jo Flores
(excerpted and fully revised from by 2006 book, Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community.)
Whether we realize it or not, all of us are designers; for good or ill, much of what we do is design work. And all design is ecological design in that it either hurts or helps nature, whether it was intended to or not. As gardeners, whether forging paths, building beds, or pruning trees, we are always designing.
Every choice we make affects the whole, and when we become conscious of that fact, we can engage in the process in ways that make our gardens more beautiful, easier to maintain, more abundant, and, ultimately, better connected to the larger ecosystem in which we live.
A design process clarifies our goals and ideas, gets them on paper, and provides a road map for implementation. A carefully thought-out ,written design saves time and money, prevents mistakes, and helps communicate ideas to others. It is much easier to correct mistakes on paper than on land. Of course, your long-term needs and goals will change, and a good design leaves plenty of room for those changes.
This is an acronym for Goals, Observation, Boundaries, Resources, Analysis, Design, Implementation–Maintenance/Monitoring, and Evaluate/Enjoy. Since 1999, I have spent a lot of time studying and practicing permaculture. Defined as “a design system for sustainable living.” A detailed overview of permaculture is more than we have space for in this column, but it was through these experiences that I developed GOBRADIME, which is a concise, step-by-step process for making a clear, tangible plan for your garden. And while I could easily write an entire book on GOBRADIME, I can also offer you this quick introduction, with confidence that it will help you make leaps and bounds through that “what do I do now” feeling that so many of us experience at the beginning of the garden season.
So take some time on one of these rainy days to work through it. Whether you choose to grow just a few small beds of annual vegetables or turn your entire site into a perennial food forest, this will help. Work through the first half of the steps on paper and in your mind, then, when you get to Implementation, you’ll have a clear, deliberate action plan ready to go.
Goals. The first step in any design is to identify personal and collective goals. What do you want to accomplish and why? Write down a list of goals and prioritize them by going down the list and rating each goal on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing the highest priority. Then sort the list so that the things you want to accomplish first are at the top. This will help you develop a timeline later on.
Observation. This is the heart of ecological design, and the key to finding and cooperating with nature’s patterns and cycles. Learn to read the land. Watch where the water drains, and where it collects. Notice subtle changes in your soil, see where the shade falls, where the moss grows, where the mushrooms come. Learn the names of all of your weeds, and learn what they do for the soil. Lie down on the ground and look up at the world around you. What do you see? How do you want to change it? What is the most effective and most ecological way to proceed? Take your time, make educated choices, try to avoid irreparable errors, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment or make little mistakes. That’s how you learn!
Boundaries. Find and establish boundaries. Draw a base map of the site. Pace or measure each distance on the ground and do your best to develop a map that is to scale. Note the following things on the map: buildings, irrigation, doors, decks, patios, driveways, fences, hedges, trees, gardens, and any other physical objects. Add in permanent and temporary paths, and make note of any objects that may be temporarily missing, such as parked cars or seasonal motor-home storage. Now document the flows of water and of humans and animals through the site, using dashed lines and arrows. This will establish the main paths through your design. Moving a well-trodden path is rarely a good idea; it is much easier to adapt the design to behavior patterns, rather than the opposite, so go with the flow. Other types of boundaries might include legal or social issues such as land-use laws or potential problems with the neighbors. Try to foresee any barriers. Also, define and document your own personal boundaries. What exactly do you want to grow? How many hours a week do you want to garden? How much money will you spend? All of these factors should affect how you design your garden. You wouldn’t design a huge garden if you only have an hour a week to maintain it. Be realistic. Make clear, deliberate choices.
Resources. Go back through your observations and start making lists of the resources available. Types of resources might include money, plants, labor, garden supplies, building materials, access to facilities, and information from experts. Make an overlay or copy of your base map and note every potential resource, such as water, sun, compost, manure, wood piles, and neighbors who might like to volunteer. What do you have? What do you need? What do you need to acquire and what can you do without? As you assemble lists of what you have and what you need, it will become apparent that you don’t need everything all at once. Rather, there will be a flow of resources in and out of the project, the nature of which will change and evolve over time. And before you go out and spend your hard earned money on resources you think you need, try to innovate something that will fulfill the same function. Your imagination is renewable, easy to find, and free.
Analysis. Now for the fun part! Analysis helps define weaknesses and brings random ideas together to form a cohesive plan. Go back through your notes and re-read everything. Envision how you can use the boundaries and resources you have available to meet the goals you have in mind.
As you start to hone your plan, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:
Don’t overlook the value of intuition, aesthetics, and random assembly as design tools. Sometimes just putting a plant where you think it looks nice, or where you happened to set it down first, works better than anything else. If you get stuck, try using a process of elimination: ask, “Where shouldn’t this go?” and see where that takes you.
I’d love to get in deeper with the massive range of strategies for analyzing goals, observations, boundaries and resources, but for now I’ll just say that you simply MUST go on the internet and look up “permaculture zones and sectors” for a major geek-out and irreplaceable tool.
Design & Documentation.
Make a bunch of photocopies of your base map and do a handful of completely different designs to warm up your imagination. Now go through everything again and write a list of actions that will bring your visions into reality. Prioritize these actions by sorting them according to goals, budgets, seasons, etc. Write down how many labor-hours you estimate for each step. Think in terms of phases, and make realistic plans according to your boundaries. which goal they help to meet and how important that goal is to you. From here you should be able to develop a timeline that makes sense, attached to visual maps of what your garden will look like in a month, three months, six months, two years, and as far out as you want.
Implementation. This is the time to stop writing and start actually moving stuff around. Get busy! Continue to jot down notes as you develop new ideas or make changes to the original design — this will save time later when you evaluate your work. But also, pace yourself so you stay sane and are able to follow through with the rest of the plan. Don’t burn yourself out. Take your time and focus on doing less right, rather than more wrong. And be sure to take plenty of time to step back, rest, and reflect on your progress.
Maintenance and Monitoring. All gardens need maintenance. When clients tell me they want a “no-maintenance” garden design, I tell them to plant gravel. But it’s true that some gardens need less care than others, and it’s the space between that provides us with information and opportunity for improvement. That’s why maintenance and monitoring are interconnected, inseparable steps. Ideally, in a home system you will be living in and interacting with the design as it comes about. Pay attention to the ways in which your life improves or becomes more difficult through these changes. Some people develop detailed forms to document the data generated by their projects, such as growth rates, yields and potential yields, and climatic patterns. Others might keep a more simple garden journal, or maybe just take photos and mental notes. However much detail you choose, the point of monitoring your progress is to find and record successes and problems (including potential problems) with the design, so you can either repeat effective patterns or go back and redesign failed ones.
Evaluate and Enjoy! Identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges. Attach these notes to the maps and journals. As you evaluate, you will discover new goals, new ideas, and new ways to improve the efficiency and ecological integrity of your design. When you are ready, start again at the beginning, establish new goals, and spiral around to the next phase of your project. But first, hit the hammock! Rest, read, relax and enjoy your bountiful, beautiful garden! You earned it!
Finally, remember that your project, if it involves people and especially if it involves plants, is an organism rather than a mechanism. The GOBRADIME design system, like any other, is most effective when coupled with a good degree of common sense and natural intuition. Trust your instincts and use the formula to help you refine them. But be careful not to become obsessed with controlling every aspect of the design. Mistakes are tools for learning! Take notes, laugh often, and use GOBRADIME as a circular pattern, rather than a linear process.
We use the GOBRADIME process in my online course, Design Your Daily Practice, and we use it as the basis for our entire double-certificate online permaculture design course as well.
Have fun with it! And let me know how it works for you.
#gobradime #foodnotlawns #designprocess #permaculturewomen #freepermaculture
This resource is brought to you by
Food Not Lawns,
Permaculture Women's Guild, and Heather Jo Flores.
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