Permaculture Series: Design Fundamentals

This week, we’re going to explore the fundamental elements of permaculture design. At all times during the process, we’re going to refer back to the ethics and principles to check we’re properly aligned.

Base Map

Permaculture Series: Design Fundamentals

You will begin with a base map of the site to be designed. Maps can be obtained through a variety of sources, online and hard copy. It is helpful to scale up the base map to fit a large piece of paper. I recommend 18″x24″ or A2. You can do this at a copy shop or manually using graph/grid paper.

The base map will be used again and again in the design process. You will want this to be drawn or printed on good, sturdy paper. You will also need tracing paper of the same dimensions.

ALWAYS include a compass on your maps and layers.

Sector Analysis

We’re now going to consider the flows of energies into and through our site. This is typically represented as a circle with its center matching the center of our base map. You will use a tracing paper for this laid over the base map. First, we will consider sun exposure on the longest day and also on the shortest day of the year. Next we consider such things as wind exposure, fire risk, wildlife corridors, noise and other pollution, water flows, traffic, access, views, etc. Mark each of those as they come into your system from the periphery to the center. Use a different colour for each force or energy studied.


Permaculture Series Design Fundamentals

This is where we create the master pattern for our design. By considering all of the elements needed and the intensity of energy input, we can make a pattern that conserves energy (labour, water, nutrients) and maximises production. If you are working a site that already has a dwelling and outbuildings, you will need to consider these in your zoning. If you are working with an unimproved piece of land, you can plan to place everything in their most ideal spots.

Zone 0

Home – usually the most energy intensive, energy consumptive, has the most potential for pollution. Consequently, it is the most vulnerable zone in the built/managed environment.

Zone 1

Intensive food production. This is where the veg garden would go. Also good for ‘snack tracks’. This zone benefits from small animal impact like chickens and ducks, especially if they are producing eggs. However, you can do without them here if you have wildlife that come in to eat insects and leave manure. Generally, we consider anything that needs to be tended multiple times each day.

Zone 2

The orchard/food forest. Fruit production goes here as well as perennial food crops. Bees are excellent here, particularly on the boundary between zones 1 and 2. They provide pollination services as well as hive products.

Small livestock can be run through strips of pasture between plantings. Consider poultry/fowl for meat and eggs, sheep, goats. The poultry will also provide pest control and tilthing. Larger animals like sheep and goats will improve the diversity of plants and leave fertilizer as well as providing meat, milk, and fiber. Typically, the crops here don’t need such intensive tending. They often produce more than what a family can consume alone and provide an opportunity for sharing with neighbours or for a small cottage business.

Put your workshops, milking facility, wash and pack, barn, etc. in this zone.

Zone 3

Main cropping area. This is where we would grow cereal crops and market crops. It’s also where we would pasture larger livestock or larger groups of smaller livestock. Be sure to consider proximity to needed outbuildings, especially if you need to milk animals or wash and pack vegetables for marketing.

Zone 4

Managed woodland. Produce wood products for fuel and building here. Also an opportunity for syrup, more honeybees, mushrooms, woodland culinary and medicinal herbs. You can raise pigs and chickens on the margin between zones 3 and 4 so long as you consider water access. Pigs drink a LOT of water.

Zone 5

Wildlife corridors, buffer zone. This piece we leave to the wild. If we manage it at all, it might be to create a trail for hiking. This is also a space for foraging during key times each year. But those things are better done in Zone 4.

Design from Zone 0 outward to zone 5. Take your time and play with placement of elements as much as your site allows. You might choose to use bits of paper or game pieces to represent different elements of the design and move them about until you have what feels like a good, workable flow.

Refer back to your Sector analysis to ensure that you are also considering the various energy flows to advantage and mitigating potential trouble spots. Consider the needs of people, plants, animals, and buildings as well as wildlife when planning to place elements and choosing zones.

Take your time with this piece of the design and really observe nature on the site. You might be surprised with new insights and opportunities!

Once you’ve got what feels like a workable plan, draw it right onto a piece of tracing paper, label it “Zones”. Now you’ve got a pattern from which to work. Remember, we work from patterns to details (Holmgren 7).

What Next?

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to my farm newsletter, The Buzzso that the link to each post in the series lands in your inbox every Friday. Lots of other goodies are included in the newsletter as well.

Have a look at the previous posts in the series:

Permaculture Series: Introduction

Permaculture Series: Ethics and Principles

Permaculture Series: More on Mollison’s Principles

Permaculture Series: More on Holmgren’s Principles

Please feel free to comment on the posts with any questions you have. I’m happy to clarify my reasoning or a concept that I’m covering.

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Up Next…

Map Reading (geology, hydrology, topology)

Permaculture Series: Design Fundamentals


Just a woman trying to leave this place better than she found it. Farmer. Teacher. Creator. Cook.

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