Help! I’ve got to do a Permaculture Design Project!

A quick overview of how to start a permaculture design project.

By Marit Parker

Where do I start?

Don’t panic — it’s ok! I’m going to give you a quick overview of how to start.

Let’s imagine that we’ve just met outside the local community centre. There’s a bit of ground here that’s usually a bit muddy and has litter on it.

But today the sun is shining and one of us says ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bench here?’

Someone else says ‘Some flowers would brighten it up.’

Then someone says ‘If we made a raised bed, we could grow all sorts of things!’

And before you know it we’re starting a project…

So how would we create a permaculture design for this?

Well first of all, if you are following the Permaculture Women’s Guild online Permaculture Design Course, then I recommend you start by copying and pasting all the design requirements from each module. I suggest you use the Student Zone on the website where the modules are divided neatly into Foundations, Design Phases, and the three ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Future Care. I find it easier to make a separate page for each of these sections.

Once you’ve done that, scroll up the Student Zone to the list of the Design Phases, and follow the link to Phase 1: Goals and Observations. A short way down this page you will find a section entitled Design Components, which gives you list of steps to take:

Step 1: pick a design site. Well here we are — looking at the patch of ground outside the community centre. That’s step 1 — done!

Step 2: List your goals. What do we want to do here? Just jot down the first ideas you have. Here, we’ve already said we want a bench and a raised bed.

The big question you need to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’

The answers may include things like:

  • Making the community centre more attractive and welcoming.
  • Creating a space outside to meet people.
  • Growing food together.

That’s enough to start with — this list will change as the ideas grow and the project develops but it’s really useful to have something to start with to focus on.

The next step in the first design phase is to make a mission and vision statement and a list of SMART goals.

If your brain goes into meltdown when it sees words like that, don’t panic!

You can come back to these when you’ve got more of an idea about the whole picture, or better still once other people are involved so you can create the vision and goals together.

The next step is observations, and to start doing this you need to go and look at the design project requirements in some of the modules.

The first module in Earth Care is Local Ecosystems, and the design project requirements in this module are all about noticing what is already here in this patch of ground.

So let’s imagine we’re looking at this rough patch of ground together. Look what’s growing by the old door:

…and on the fence:

…and in the path:

And that’s just the plants. What about the creatures living in amongst them? Or the larger animals and birds that also use this space?

The more we notice, the more we can start making links between different species, so instead of seeing just isolated or individual plants and animals, we start to see an interconnected ecosystem.

Seasonal temperatures, rainfall, how much sun it gets, other species that pass through — we’re going to have to spend some time here, visiting at different times of day and of the year, and in different weathers. In fact, the rule of thumb in a new garden is to observe for a whole year. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make plans and a design in the meantime — it just may need adapting as you learn more about your site and get to know it better.

What’s next?

Climates, Microclimates and Biogeography. This builds on the observations we’ve already started about the weather. Now we’re looking in a bit more detail and adding in wind and frost, and also noticing variations across the site. Even on a small patch like this, there will be microclimates. Look at what grows right next to the wall, and what grows out in the open. It’s dry by the wall, but it’s also sheltered from the wind.

Next is Water: where it is in the landscape, and where it flows. Now at this point it’s a good idea to start thinking about drawing a map if you haven’t already. Or rather a series of maps. You can do this with a pen and paper, or you can do it on a computer. The simplest thing is to create a base map first, with the basic outline, and then to make copies of this that you can overlay on top of each other. Already you can create 2 or 3 maps from your observations of the ecosystems that already exist, the weather and microclimates and now water.

The other Earth Care module that is pure observation is Soil, and then you can jump sideways across to People Care and think about the zones and sectors of the site. As this is a community site in an urban area, I would combine the design requirements of the Home System and Urban Permaculture modules for this as they are both looking at zones and sectors.

Remember that zones can be quite personal, and that how you see the space may be different from how people coming here for the youth club or yoga class or the food bank see it. For you, this new garden is going to be the centre of the earth! But for the youth club, this patch may be where they dump their bikes, while for some adults it may be where they can have a cigarette break or use their phone. Observing different uses and current zones is important because if the design is going to be accepted and successful, it needs to incorporate all these current uses, not just create new ones. So you may need more than one zone layer.

And that’s the first stage, the purely observation stage, done! Once you’ve made the maps for each layer, the next stage is where you start designing, adding new layers to the map as you go through each module. You won’t stop observing, but now you get to play with design ideas… Doing it layer by layer means you can go back and make changes without having to start from scratch.

Have fun!

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