Permaculture: Methods of Design

“Permaculture emphasises the pattern of landscape, function and species assembly”.

I’m a few days into a permcaulture design course and we’re really getting into it now. The theme of the day is Methods of Design. Here’s a summary of the processes often followed.


When getting down to a design, the first step is Mapping, taking into account the landscape topography, the hardscape, soil data, plant data, orientations, patterns of slope and so on. We did some practice of this using an A-frame. Another low-budget technique I’ve come across for surveying sites is a plane table. A GPS device also comes in handy here, but isn’t so good getting a detailed map of elevation.


In permaculture, you consider the elements in your system. An element might be a pig, a water tank, a house, the soil – most “things” are “elements”. With each element, you want to ask the questions: where does each element go? And what is the maximum benefit I can get from each element?

It’s best illustrated with examples. Let’s take cow manure, an excellent fertilizer that is often spread on fields to help crops grow. Firstly, cow manure can provide several more functions than working as a fertiliser. For example, it can be fed into a biogas digester, a vermiculture or aquaculture system. By doing this in the right order, the residency time of its usage is increased, and you soak the full potential out of the cow manure. This is the application of one of permaculture’s core principles: that each element must perform several functions.

Another good example is a water tank. Not only can it store water, it can also serve as a structure for growing creepers up the side, provide shade, harvest extra water on the top, a thermal energy storage, a structural support for other elements and so on.

The other side to element analysis is the principle that each function must be supported by many elements. So a required function such as shade could also be provided by elements such as fences, trellises, the house itself, and trees.


Zonation is about where the different elements in your system sit so that you have an energy efficient design. You consider issues such as the number of times you have to visit an element each day and the importance and priority of it. For example, when keeping chickens, you may have to visit them twice daily – so having the chickens 10 meters closer to your home can save you over 14km of walking each year. But of course, you don’t want your chickens to close to home, as they may smell or disturb your morning sleep!

Zones don’t have to be concentric and of specific sizes, they will depend on the shape of the landscape, the climates and the needs of the system. Here’s a diagram showing the different things you might find in each zone:


This is about designing to optimise, work with, and benefit from the the external energies in the design. For example, the sun, wind, pollution, sound, flooding and dust.


Slopes are much more complicated than they first appear. Other than just the shape, you plan around nutrient flows, temperature gradients, thermal bands, the keypoint, different soil stratas and shading, to name just a few. This is essential for designing and particularly capturing water and preventing soil erosion.