permaculture_flowerI need to share this link to “the first totally free online permaculture design class” offered through the Regenerative Leadership Institute.   I haven’t reviewed  the materials myself, but be sure to supplement the class with some field trips and hands on activities to maximize your learning experience.

Welcome to the World’s First Free Online Permaculture Design Course

The complete 72+ hour curriculum is now available completely without charge together with some amazing interviews on sustainable living and intentional community design from some of the world’s greatest educators. There is no catch here — the course is completely free. Just enter your name and e-mail address above, and click start course button. Start watching the lectures, and be sure to post an introduction in the student forum… more


Two Quick Links and a Plug (or two)

The first plug is for the Linked In Permaculture Group. If you are already part of Linked In, you might enjoy participating in this group.

In their group digest, I ran across links to two organizations that I want to share, Tree Yo Permaculture and Earthmetrics

First Tree Yo Permaculture  (from their home page):

Tree Yo - Swale building in Singapore

Tree Yo – Swale building in Singapore

Tree Yo is a co-creative collective of people engaged and connected in the Permaculture Community. They  design for resiliency, they teach environmental literacy, they build with the earth beneath or feet, they use technology that is appropriate, and they travel the world to spread the word!

I’m not sure where the authors are based, but they sure do travel the world.  Their upcoming permaculture design classes  will take place in Portugal, the Dominican Republic and Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s some real diversity!   Take a look at these shared resources. These are links to several PowerPoint presentations they’ve compiled as part of the PDC they offer.  These are accessible through Slideshare and include such topics as patterns, aquaculture, tropical permaculture and mapping. Also bookmark their EDU webpage that is an open source communal education resource.

Speaking of mapping, the second link I wanted to share was to Ecometrics, specifically to their online course in Digital Mapping and GIS for Small Landowners and Permaculture Design. (From the Course Summary): marina view drive parcels

This self-paced course introduces digital mapping tools and techniques (Geographic Information Systems or GIS), and how small landowners and permaculture designers can use these tools with freely available data for site planning.

This seems like a valuable course, particularly if one intends to be engaged in permaculture design.  I first used public GIS maps available to residents of my county in my first permaculture design project. I fumbled through the GIS software but was able to manage the basics of locating the parcel, printing out the map and obtaining basic dimensions and areas. Having a resource that can walk you through the basics seems useful.

The second plug is for WordPress.  Both of these websites are driven by WordPress.WCBadge2013-Attending

And finally, if you live in the Atlanta area, be sure to get your ticket for the WordCamp Atlanta that is coming up on March 15th and 16th.  The event sold out last year and organizers expect the event to do so again this year. Come expecting to be inspired by all that you can do with WordPress from blogging to  developing websites in general.  See you there!

The Path of Least Resistance

I just finished reading The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz. Robert is a systems thinker whose work was profiled in the blog Leverage Points as one of the path of least resistance10 best systems thinking books of the past 10 years (or so).  He presents systems concepts in a very non-technical way demonstrating them as an artist-like way of creation.

Anyway, after reading the path of Least Resistance I am really struck with the frequency with which we in general see things as problems, such as:

  • the problem of global warming
  • the problem of ecological disconnection
  • The problem of unhealthy food
  • The problem of ineffective action.

Fritz argues that an orientation that tries to attack and eliminate the “problem”  leads to system oscillation. One takes action for a little while and once the pain becomes less intense, one relaxes and the problem returns.  This is happening because while you attack the problem, you really haven’t done anything to change the system underlying the problem.

He suggests that creating a totally new vision independent of the constraints of the existing system is a much more effective approach.

This reminds me of Donella Meadows’ work, Places to intervene in a System where she ranks 12 ways to bring about change in a system be it a life activity, group, organization or business from least to most effective.  Most of the problem solving efforts that we take fall into the least effective categories, typically throwing money and resources at the “problem” or “repairing the physical infrastructure”.  Fritz’s approach falls into one of the more effective categories, changing the fundamental goal of the system.Thinking in Systems

When one sets the permaculture goal, one creates a fundamental goal of the system that engages the values of earth care, people care and resource share.

I’ve followed many a permaculture blog since starting this blog and completing the PDC. I’ve found myself being exposed to thousands of little “solutions;”  thousands of little elements that supposedly fit within a larger permaculture project.  I’m not sure if it”s the blogging or facebooking writing framework or the biases of our culture that encourages these little solution snippets but we seem to be stuck on describing these least effective ways of effecting the system rather than the higher level ones.

The model Fritz presents starts with the vision and current reality and then presents three stages of the creative cycle, germination, assimilation and completion. The PDC process I participated in emphasized vision and current reality and then presented a ton of information but really didn’t present the “how to” of the process of germination, assimilation or completion.  As this blog continues to explore permaculture beyond the garden I hope I can find more resources that focus on these creative stages.  Or maybe I can create them myself.

Have you seen other permaculture design resources that focus on these aspects?

See also Moving from Patterns to Details part 2

PDC Learnings – techniques

The last aspect of the element/pattern/technique triad is  the specific technique used to meet one’s overall goals. Permaculture techniques tend to involve low or appropriate technology solutions which maximize the use of natural, recycled or recyclable materials.  Some of the techniques we looked at were:

photo: Greenminds Ecological Design

  • sheet mulching – a technique to build soil
  • swale construction – a technique to prevent runoff)
  • composting – a technique to decompose and recycle organic matter
  • rainwater catchment – a technique to catch and store water
  • cobb construction – a building technique

Techniques abound and are well discussed on other websites. It’s not my intent to reinvent the wheel; just to complete the picture.  For more information see these resources:

  • This section of Heathcote Community’s Online Permaculture Course provides more suggestions.
  • Also see Appropedia, an appropriate technology wiki and
  • Natural Homes a website providing picture of the home with a short description and links to the owner’s or the builders website for over 400 homes constructed with natural building materials,

Holistic Management – A review

I’m about 3/4 of the way through a new book, Holistic Management and I’ve gained so many insights that have been beneficial to my permaculture practice, I wanted to write a preview article about them.

The primary author is Allan Savory, a former wildlife biologist, game department ranger, farmer, and ranching consultant.  Mr. Savory was born in Zimbabwe, and it seems the majority of his life experience is in creating and maintaining sustainable animal/plant systems in arid, brittle environments.  About half of the book focuses on defining brittle environments and how successful management  in these brittle environments differs from those for non-brittle (humid) environments (such as those in GA where I live.)

These insights would be particularly of interest to those living in brittle (seasonally humid) environments where most above ground vegetation dies at a certain point and year and simultaneously insects and microorganisms that would aid in recycling or decomposing this dead vegetation also become dormant.

Photo by: Offwell Woodland & Wildlife Trust

Though I found this very interesting,  the fascinating part of the book  is his goal setting and decision-making process.  The first edition of the book titled Holistic Land Management focused solely on management of land. The second edition expands the decision-making process to cover personal goal setting and decision-making for any type of home or business goal or decision. This process is particularly applicable to setting the goals and evaluating the planned actions of a permaculture design.

The goal setting process is more rigorous than the permaculture goal setting method I learned. It is totally applicable to permaculture goal setting and by nature incorporates the 3 ethics of earth care, people care and resource share. Goal setting  consists of :

  • identifying the key decision makers, resource base,and available funds
  • developing a joint quality of life statement with the other decision makers
  • identifying the proposed forms of production for the enterprise  and
  • articulating a future resource base.

See an earlier post Permaculture Goal Setting for more information about more about permaculture goal articulation. For a better understanding of the difference between these two approaches see:

The second major contribution I found beneficial to permaculture is the decision-making framework the author proposes. He suggests that one use 7 testing questions and your holistic goal to evaluate each decision. The names of the seven questions appear below, you need to read the book to get a full understanding of them.  He devotes a chapter to each question.

  1. Cause and effect.
  2. Weak link (social, biological and financial)
  3. Marginal reaction
  4. Gross profit analysis.
  5. Energy/money source and use.
  6. Sustainability.
  7. Society and culture.

In developing my permaculture design, I identified a list of proposed actions all which I incorporated into the design. Running my list of actions through the Holistic management testing questions:

  • I eliminated 2 of my rain barrel installation actions as low priorities (they were less than critical problems),
  • I decided to make simple mycorrhizal improvements of my soil and not install mushroom spawning beds.  (it achieves my goals at a lower cost; lack of mushrooms to eat really wasn’t a problem for me
  • I added one action, to plant polycultures into the lawn to reduce the need for chemical spraying (question 5)
  • I changed the priorities of my activities based on questions 3 and 4 to focus first on activities requiring less time and less money and contributing more to my “profit”.

I found the testing methods proposed were a very systematic and comprehensive way of testing how well an activity will meet my overall goals. I can see over time how consistently applying this approach will lead to goal achievement.

Also see blog post from Holistic Management website, Taking the Mystery out of Holistic Management

I’ll talk more about the insights from the book in a second post (after I finish it off) but so far, I find this information is a beneficial addition to my permaculture library.

PDC Learnings – Patterns

I think of both patterns and techniques as the ways that elements interact with each other.  The patterns are the strategies that produce an overall outcome while the techniques are the specific tactics that refine this outcome. The intrinsic characteristics of the specific elements selected offer a custom “solution to the design problem”. In this way, the design moves from patterns to details. This post will focus on patterns; the next on techniques.

A pattern is essentially a ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or in space.As we create a new system or modify an existing one, we create or change the rules that order the arrangement. Some of the physical patterns typically discussed in permaculture are:

  • waves
  • scattered distribution
  • branches
  • lobes or keyholes
  • spirals
  • nets
  • tiles

Photo of Cornucopia Community Garden Calgary Canada courtesy of ItzaFineDay

We like to marvel and reflect on these patterns, but many of them are not really implemented meaningfully into design. One sees many scatter, branch, flow and lobe patterns in design but very few waves, spirals, nets or tiles. 99% of the time when I’ve seen spiral, it been an herb spiral.  i think we have a way to go to fully understand the benefits and methods of incorporating these patterns into our designs.

Another type of “pattern” is the practice of taking action first at the highest levels of permanence discussed in two earlier posts. In my PDC these levels of permanence were presented as:

  • climate
  • landform
  • water and erosion
  • zoning and legal systems
  • buildings and infrastructure
  • access and circulation
  • zones of use
  • wildlife and vegetation
  • soil
  • microclimates
  • aesthetics

Changing features at the “top” of the list produces greater impacts than those at the bottom, so a thoughtful design will find and address landform issues for example before  tacking vegetation issues. Changing features at the “top” of the list also takes more effort or resources, so one may choose to leave them as they are and select elements better suited for the environment as is.

Another type of “pattern” is the method of completing the design process.  This is circular pattern that moves through time (or maybe a better description is a coil or a spiral).  Reciprocity between elements typified in guild design is another circular pattern where the circulation occurs between elements in physical space.  Yet another is the repeatable pattern that an ecosystem exhibits as it changes over time from a immature to a mature one.

Branching river, South Eastern Australia. Photo: Peter Markowich

Here some of the more typical sources of information on patterns:

  • A Pattern Language is a 1977 book by Christopher Alexander and others on architecture, urban design and community.  Permacultursts are trying to expand the concept of patterns as described in this work to define ecological design patterns:
  • The book Edible Forest Garden volume 2 presents 57 patterns for use in developing the forest garden.
  • Also see link to Forest Gardening: Vision and Patterns that provides a map of these pattern as a pdf to download.  Thanks Appleseed Permaculture LLC.
  • Decoding Pattern Part 1 is a great article from Big Sky Permaculture. Unfortunately, there is no part two.

I think of these as the primary permaculture principles that deal with patterns, system behavior and reciprocity.

  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to make sure that systems can continue to function well.
  • Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  • Design from patterns to details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  • Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

PDC Learnings – Elements

Well, I’ve finally finished the PDC. I think I  have the big picture.

Based on what I finally learned, I’m going to revise my most recent post.  I still have 4 main areas of study but I intend to break them up differently:

  1. The process of design using a permaculture approach.  This consists of the steps of:
    1. setting the goals for the design (which has already been discussed in this blog),permaculture design process
    2. completing the site assessment (which I discussed last week),
    3. the actual process of completing the design and
    4. implementing the design
    5. and finally, evaluating the design
  2. The elements of a design. These are both the elements that are present on the site and elements (the animals, plants, insects, buildings, equipment etc.) that you as designer add as part of the design.
  3. The patterns, both those inherent in an ecosystem and the physical patterns inherent in nature. In nature, elements interact in specific patterns.
  4. The techniques that you as designer use to mimic or duplicate the natural patterns.

In this post I wanted to cover elements. Elements have needs (inputs) and yields (outputs). One of the key patterns inherent in the ecosystem is that the outputs of one element supply the inputs of another.  Elements are connected in reciprocity.  Elements are living things or equipment that convert the nutrients or water from one form to another either 1) using them to either create a yield or 2) breaking them down to more basic components.

I don’t need to reinvent the wheel and repeat things that others have said about elements. Here some of the more typical things that permaculture says about elements:

  • First, the classic permaculture diagram showing inputs, outputs and intrinsic characteristics of …a chicken from Permaculture Free Library.

A couple extra points that I found important as I did my design.

  • I found it helpful to actually write out the inputs and outputs of the existing elements on my site and see what I was missing. For a typical suburban home,  resources come in and out of the site from far away . Water, for example is conveyed from offsite and used to water plants onsite. Water is an input to plants, while stormwater is taken offsite. There is very little reciprocity on the site.  My design captured and reused more of the resources onsite, locally.
  • Look at elements in the big picture categories of plants, animals/insects, structures and events.  Be aware that your site will need animals (sources of beneficial insects, manure and insect predators) and decomposing organisms (compost, mushrooms) to connect inputs and outputs into a complete cycle.
  • Finally elements play into these basic permaculture principles:
    • Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing
    • Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
    • Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.