August 7, 2021

Pattern in Permaculture Design

I've mentioned that I'm taking Bill Mollison's online Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at But, I also had the opportunity to get Geoff Lawton's 2013 PDC on DVD for just the price of postage(!) So, Dan and I have been watching that one together, while I fit in the online course as spare time allows. I'm going to have to say here, that until these courses, I didn't understand what permaculture actually is. Most of what I knew about permaculture was various gardening and landscaping techniques, or a business with services to purchase. From, I've started seeing permaculture as a lifestyle. But while there are many definitions to permaculture, it's always best to go to source material, in this case, Bill Mollison himself.

"Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. . . The philosophy behind permacultre is one of working with, rather than against, nature."
Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, page ix.

One of the key elements of conscience design, is pattern. Pattern exists everywhere in nature. Here are my notes from the PDC lectures:
  • Patterns are events of form.
  • We're surrounded by the natural patterns of the universe, from micro to macro.
  • Design that follows natural patterns is productive, design that doesn't, isn't.
  • There are very few pattern form types but infinite variations.
  • Partial list of pattern forms:
    • waves such as water waves and sand dune ripples
    • spirals - snail shells, whirlpools, sunflower seeds in the flower head
    • lobes - reefs, lichens
    • branches - rives and tributaries, tree branches or roots
    • nets - cracks in mud or skin, honeycombs
    • scatters - algae, lichen on rocks
    • cloud forms - clouds or tree crowns
    • tessellations - turtle shells
    • Fibonacci sequences - found in the number of sunflower seeds in a flower head or number of pine seeds in a pine cone.

So, some simple examples of using pattern in design would be an herb spiral, making swales that follow land contours, making an herb garden with branching pathways, or circular greywater mulch pits. I guess, contrast with this with how most farming and gardening is done - squares, rectangles, and rows of straight lines, none of which is found in nature!

One way of discovering pattern is with a topographical map. The contours can reveal a specific pattern of one's property.

Contour lines are in green and spaced every four feet.
Yellow X's mark the highest elevation on the property.

Our house and Dan's workshop are located at the highest elevation of our property. This will be important when we begin working on implementing permaculture water conservation. (More on that one of these days.) Interestingly, the tree lines follow the contours, and our existing fences follow the trees. What hasn't fit this pattern, however, has been my paddock system for rotating goat grazing. Here's the plan I came up with several years ago.

As I contemplate pattern, I've tried to re-envision this with what I'm learning about permaculture design. I started to play around a bit, to see what I could come up with. First, I superimposed the contour lines onto my drawing.

Not perfect, but close enough!

Then I drew in paddock fencelines that follow the contour lines.

Will we actually do this? For now, it's just an exercise in thinking. But what we're also considering is digging swales on contour. Capturing and retaining water is a primary permaculture goal, one that I really get. Most of our growing struggles point back to our long, hot, droughty spells most summers. Our current idea is that swales will follow the contour, we'll plant the swales with edible hedgerows, and grazing paddocks will follow these. 

All of this is in the contemplation stage at this point, with many details to work out. Like how to get/pay for the equipment to make the swales! However, one step at a time. First, we strive to understand the concept, then we explore ways to implement it. Hopefully, this is just the beginning. 


Nancy In Boise said...

I love mollison's work! I first read about permaculture years ago but got overwhelmed since I was just a urbanb dweller. I bought the retrosuburbia book which I highly recommend and that really helped me see some of the ways to implement more permaculture ideas even in a urban area. While the book is Australian most of the retrofitting homes and properties certainly have really great encompassing components

Ed said...

I've seen quite a lot of swales out west where moisture is at a premium but really don't see them where I live. I guess because often our springs have excess moisture, like this one, and the swales would just make things worse. I guess we still have something similar but in the form of terraces, where the design isn't to retain water but to retard erosion and insure the water runs off quickly in a non-erosive manner.

Leigh said...

Nancy, it's great to see urban permaculture becoming popular. There's an entire DVD on it in my Geoff Lawton set. It does seem that Australia is mostly subtropical type climate, so most of the plants won't work in my part of the world. Plus, they have stuff available there for water catchment, etc., that we don't have here. Still, lots of good ideas.

Leigh said...

Ed, what's been fascinating to me in watching these series, is the amazing variations there are in the three distinct ecosystem types: tropical, temperate, and arid. Even though two of those areas don't apply to me, it's been quite fascinating to learn how they adapt techniques to grow an amazing amount of food. You're fortunate to have so much ground moisture year around!

wyomingheart said...

Fascinating! Growing up on the ranch, we had to use the drench method of irrigation, because it was so dry in Wyoming. Here on the ridge, we only need to spray to get good irrigation. It is interesting how many differences there are per location. We are definitely getting some awesome info from you Leigh, and can’t wait to see what you figure out for your pasture paddock areas. Thanks so much!

Leigh said...

Wyomingheart, I'm pretty hopeful about adding some swales here. Most of our rainfall just continues on down the hill and off the property. If we can retain it for longer, I think we'll see some happy progress in what our pasture and food crops.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

How interesting! Thank you for relating your experiences (and on Udemy. Well, I have an account there too, so I shall look into it!).

The pastures at The Ranch - the Upper, Middle, and Lower - are all on hillsides so the water does flow down into a small seasonal stream. You can see that the hill also slowly browns from top to bottom as well - accidentally swaling, but there it is.

On the part past our property, but which belongs to my uncle, is an earth dam with a sluice gate that I think my Uncle used at one point of irrigation. It may be worth looking into (assuming, of course, I can find the money to buy another 120 acres of property...).

Leigh said...

TB, the long-term results they're telling about the swales in various design projects is truly amazing. Most of our problems are related to drying soil, so I'm sincerely hoping we can try some of this as well.

Goatldi said...

Well you have spawned a new generation! Jess my friend whose family is a long time part of the last 35 years is loving this post. She has signed up for the course and has a acre plus lot which holds a home . The kids , Jess and her husband Nash are doing some amazing things on their little homestead and are now armed with both your books and my copy of Gardening With Less Water she is going forward ! She is a shinning example of when we can share a homestead way of life as she grew up in the dream continues.

Leigh said...

Goatldi, that is wonderful! This is what we all should be doing, if we had the opportunity. There is so much I wish I had learned decades ago. But, better late than never!

Goatldi said...