A mini-conversation with Jason Gerhardt

Hey all, for reasons I’m sure will be obvious I’ve decided to promote this insightful comment on the last post from Jason Gerhardt into a post. Meantime, the blog will be coming back to life soon, and I can’t wait to start rolling out the next leg of the MPS journey come 2019. In my humble opinion, we’ve nearly completed our warm-up exercises and things are about to start getting interesting :-). Over to Jason with my reply below:

Hi Dan, this is exactly what I thought you’d arrive at, that is, design as an evolutionary process. It’s kind of the only logical outcome, to build living systems by processes of evolution (the guiding principle of life), which is what happens in design regardless, even though it may not yield the desired outcomes. On some level I think Mollison had it right with “allow systems to demonstrate their own evolution”. Humans tend toward control and have a very hard time when things don’t go to plan, so we need to ease up on our expectations (and our plans), not become more and more rigid about getting exactly what we want. At least to some degree I hear this in your conclusion. However, we definitely need things to not fail. There is a difference between failure and deviation.

Don’t make too big a leap in minimizing the importance of designing upfront, however. It is integral to the overall process, just not the end (because there is no end!), and not more important than any other stage. The design process is circuitous and loops back on itself continually, never ending, and it includes implementation and management, which are equally important design stages to send one back through every other stage. This is an affront to the image of the know-all architect while mere laborers put the pieces together. And it is why the mere laborers always grunt and grumble behind the architects back because they are the ones that save the day when things deviate from plan, as they always do. So we need to be careful in codifying a new process that favors the on-the-ground work over any other piece because eventually we will end up right back at the same place with a lopsided design process. This will be especially true on large projects with multiple elements being designed, implemented, and managed by multiple teams, which is the way most of the design world works outside of residential landscape design. So on some level, we simply need a leveling of the playing field in the design trade, and we need to educate everyone as if they were a designer (because everyone is). No player’s role is more important than any other. This might get us even closer to permanent culture 

I do want to be clear that I think your articulation is the way the design process has always been. I also think a good designer is able to decipher when even a fabricating approach is the best method (because sometimes it is!) considering the greater context of the ongoing evolution of a clients paradigm and/or project. It takes a lot of time and gradual paradigm shifting to achieve wholism, which is why most people who are fresh out of a PDC can’t design for squat, nor should they be expected to, able to, or allowed to (especially when the stakes are high).

You have articulated this thoroughly and more fully than previous articulations of the design process, and I applaud your hard work, Dan. I’m excited to see your thoughts on how we share this with students and advance it in the design trade (beyond the confines of permaculture).

And my reply:

Thanks so much for your comment Jason! Everything you say resonates with where I am coming from and nicely recaps many of the main points I’ve been exploring (which, as you say, at the highest level includes framing “design as an evolutionary process”). A few little reflections in response:

As regards easing up on our expectations, and not becoming “more and more rigid about getting exactly what we want,” I think there is a crucial (and under-appreciated) distinction here between what you could say is what we think we want (which is usually a superficial wishlist of desired elements or outcomes) and what we reallywant (which is around deeper intention & quality of life). I mention this because when reality either invites, or, if we don’t accept the invitation, forces us to deviate from imposing our wishlist according to our plan, we can deem this failure. But when we get clear on the above distinction suddenly the degree that the details of what happens where when and how can vary enormously, indeed need to vary enormously in order to deliver on the deeper intention or reason for getting involved in some project in the first place. Where yesterday’s failure is transformed into today’s success (even if it means moving to another property or project or whatever) :-).

I love your

So on some level, we simply need a leveling of the playing field in the design trade, and we need to educate everyone as if they were a designer (because everyone is). No player’s role is more important than any other. This might get us even closer to permanent culture

As these inquiries proceed1 I’ll be looking closely and critically at the whole idea of framing design as a circuit of separate stages occurring one-after-the-other (design-implement-manage or whatever variation) and developing an alternative framing where these are more accurately construed as contemporary aspects inside a healthy process (where the usual understanding of what defines the line where design stops and implementation starts becomes completely redefined). But I absolutely agree that any way of dealing with lopsidedness that simply moves the lopsidedness somewhere else is not transforming the underlying pattern (and is a trap I have to avoid falling into, or even coming across as having fallen into).

This is also so well said (and could become the beginning of a whole thread in itself!):

It takes a lot of time and gradual paradigm shifting to achieve wholism, which is why most people who are fresh out of a PDC can’t design for squat, nor should they be expected to, able to, or allowed to (especially when the stakes are high).

Also, in an upcoming post I’ll try and get across the confusing fact that fabricating and generating are more attitudes than technical facts about this or that process. I know of projects that, though they involve much fabrication, are in spirit and practice highly generative, and vice versa!

Thanks again Jason – it is gratifying to be in conversation with experienced colleagues such as yourself, who not only get what the hell I’m going on about, but enrich and enlarge the conversation by sharing from their own experiences.

I might have to hit you up about recording a podcast interview sometime!


Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Three of Five)

A couple of posts back I introduced a diagrammatic snapshot of where Making Permaculture Stronger has arrived after over two years conducting two in-depth inquiries into the design process understandings at permaculture’s core.

The diagram contains a tentative framework for understanding how different kinds of design processes are constitutionally more or less able to enhance life.1 It has two axes. The last post explained the y-axis. There I laid out the difference between assembling, partitioning, and transforming as three distinct ways to think about how whole-part relations can be understood  whenever we do stuff or create stuff.

Here I’ll move to the x-axis and review the difference between fabricating, hybrid, and generating as three different ways that designing (or thinking) and implementing (or doing) can be related whenever we do stuff or create stuff.

Long-term readers of this blog will have seen this three-way distinction before, but I wanted to have a fresh go at presenting it for readers who might only be reading this current four-part series (which is being reproduced on at least one other site).

We’ll start with fabricating, then consider generating, then come back to the hybrid middle ground.

Fabricating (Master Planning)

fabricating approach completes an up-front design or master plan and only then starts implementation.

Here are a few early examples of fabricated master plans I played a leading role in:

fabricated assembly

fabricated partition-then-assembly

Aren’t they pretty! They also bring together thousands of mistakes in the sense that many of these decisions would be made much better in sequence and in context as the site was being developed, rather than being dreamed up and crammed into a pretty picture up front. This is not to suggest that there is not a time and place for such pictures, by the way (something we’ll discuss more in the next post). It is to say we get in trouble when we forget what they are – diagrammatic guesses that can never, ever capture or respond to all the new details that only and inevitably emerge as soon as you start to intervene in any complex system or ecosystem.

Ben Falk has put this very nicely:

It’s easy to just take paper too seriously and have too many decisions based on what is or isn’t on a piece of paper. It can be great to guide overall decisions and to know starting points and know general steps but if it’s not coupled with the active hands on that constantly changes what’s on that paper master plan/site design it can be very misleading and very dangerous.


A generating approach focuses on a rigorous process for repeatedly honing in on the best next step then taking it. Here we generate a design layout or pattern in the very process of actively modifying whatever we are working with. Any design sketches are at best servants of the way things are unfolding on the ground, rather than upfront masters (as in master plans) where pre-cooked guesses are imposed.

Though I first learned about generating from Christopher Alexander, I was subsequently delighted to discover that permaculture co-originator David Holmgren had been exploring something similar for many decades. Check out David’s 1994 words where he contrasts master planning (fabricating) with strategic planning (which is something very similar to what we’re calling generating).2

Master planning, (where detailed plans are implemented producing a final fixed state which is a copy of what is on paper) has been discredited in the planning profession due to its failure to deal with complex evolving systems…

In strategic planning, the emphasis is on processes of development which are on-going and respond to changing circumstances. It recognises that complex systems can never be completely described, predicted or controlled but that forces can be identified and worked with to develop a more balanced and productive system. Most importantly, strategic planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (David Holmgren, 1994, p. 21)

In a master planning or fabricating approach, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to avoid making premature decisions and then imposing them on reality. You thereby end up taking steps that are not the best suited to what is actually going on at that stage in the unfolding process.

In a generating process, on the other hand, we move from imposing on reality to unfolding out of reality. As a result, the decisions we make along they way are non-arbitrary. They are made at the right time in the presence of the right information meaning we have at least a chance of getting them right. When by fabricating we make our decisions before we even start, it is like we are turning on this massive tap of arbitrariness where the quality of the outcome rests on the nature of the guesses we made at the start.3

Furthermore, if we seek to mimic natural process, nature generates – it never fabricates! As a result, an authentic generating process is much better able to connect in with and enhance life. It just. makes. sense.

Here’s a few images and a recent bit of drone footage from the 10-acre Mayberry Woodend project in Victoria, Australia, where the lovely residents and I have been experimenting with a generating process. In terms of our diagram this was actually an example of generative transformation – something I’ll explore and explain further in the next post.

This next diagram shows all we drew before we started to ground-test and do – a diagram that includes only what we’d decided was the best next step – a new driveway:Here a photo of the works underway:

and the patterns that were generated, here in a photo…

…here in a video:

The point I want to make is that not only are functionally and aesthetically harmonious layouts achievable without drawing upfront plans, what emerges is in my early experience so much better (as in more functional, more connected, and more beautiful) that what could have been captured in any upfront plan.

For the record, I am not saying that there is no place for drawing on pieces of paper or computer screens. Indeed, as I’ve shown above, part of the planning process for the driveway in the above video was drawing possible driveway layouts on paper. But the focus was honing in on and crash testing the best next step, not creating a ‘plan’ to impose.


The hybrid approach is now easy to explain. It mixes together equal parts fabrication and generating. In particular, it involves completing a high-level, broad strokes concept plan ahead of starting to implement, but then lets all the details fall out of the creating/doing/implementing process as it rolls forward.

My friend and renowned ecological designer Dave Jacke describes what I’m calling a hybrid approach well in this personal communication:

In reality, I design the overall pattern, implement key pieces after designing them, then redesign as more parts of the system get implemented. I have never had a client where I could implement all at once as a grand expedition! It’s always been piecemeal implementation with design along the way, responding to changes in goals, site and emergent reality as the design goes into place. But having a big picture view, that is, an overall site design to at least a schematic level, is critical to help one work out where to begin the implementation. Then I would design the relevant patches, including their site prep and implementation strategies, and then proceed on the ground. Staking out is a critical part of the process!  Field testing the design in reality, essentially (from a personal email communication received January 28, 2017)

Here’s a simple example of a rough concept design I sketched with my parents for the layout of their new house garden:

Here’s us (my dad and I, although my mum was right there too!) getting to it and figuring out the details with rakes and shovel rather than pencils and computer mice:

and here’s the resulting layout from above…

…and from the front:

Winging it

You’ll note a little asterisk in the diagram next to the generating label.

here’s what it says:

Not to be confused with winging it (ill-considered random/ haphazard implementation generating no coherent design)

I mention this to ward off the misunderstanding that a generating process is somehow less rigorous, logical, evidence-based, or documented/documentable than a fabricating approach. In my experience it is much more of all these things!

It is also harder work. You cannot just draw a nice picture, hand it over to the implementation team, then slack off as the territory gets rudely affronted with your map. You need to stay fully engaged as you make changes, immerse in the outcome, and figure out the best next move from there.

Point made. Generating is a world apart from winging it.

From Less to More Life Enhancing

An authentic generating process is infinitely more able to honour and enhance the life in a given system than a fabricating process (and obviously a hybrid process its in between).  This is an important point I want to flesh out a little more.

Life and adaptation are not separable concepts. In other words, all life involves, requires, maybe even is adaptation. To enhance life, therefore, is to enhance adaptedness. Enhancing adaptedness, by the way, is another way of saying enhancing fitness – fitness in the sense of the fitted-ness of a whole’s parts to each other, and the fitted-ness of that whole to the larger wholes it sits within. The moment an organism doesn’t fit its environment, for instance, it doesn’t live.

Now here’s the thing. Adaptation cannot be fabricated or master planned, period. I believe it to be an essential truth that adapted systems can only emerge or be generated iteratively, in an ongoing dance between a system’s form and its context.

This is why in the diagram we are here exploring, I contend that a generating process is more able to enhance life than a fabricating process.

I’m going to let Christopher Alexander (2002) drive the point home:

…there is a fundamental law about the creation of complexity, which is visible and obvious to everyone – yet this law is, to all intents and purposes, ignored in 99% of the daily fabrication processes of society. The law states simply this: ALL the well-ordered complex systems we know in the world, all those anyway that we view as highly successful, are GENERATED structures, not fabricated structures.

The human brain, that most complex neural network, like other neural networks, is generated, not assembled or fabricated. The forests of the Amazon are generated, not fabricated. The tiger, beautiful creature, generated, not fabricated. The sunset over the western ocean with its stormy clouds, that too is generated, not fabricated. (p. 180)

The significance of generated structure lies in the concept of mistakes. Fabricated plans always have many mistakes — not just a few mistakes but tens of thousands, even millions of mistakes. It is the mistake-ridden character of the plans which marks them as fabricated — and that comes from the way they are actually generated, or made, in time. Generated plans have few mistakes (p. 186)

If an [human] embryo were built from a blueprint of a design, not generated by an adaptive process, there would inevitably be one thousand trillion mistakes. Because of its history as a generated structure, there are virtually none. (p. 188)


I have shared three ways in which designing and implementing can be related inside any creation process: fabricating, generating, or a hybrid including bits of both.

I have shared how I think this distinction matters in that only the generating and certain instances of the hybrid approach are able to deliver on permaculture’s aspiration to partner with and enhance life in whatever contexts it is applied.

In the next post we’ll zoom out and consider the diagram as a whole and various ways it can be usefully employed in understanding, practicing and teaching permaculture design process.


Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.

Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994.


Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Two of Five)

The last post introduced this weird and possibly confusing little diagram:1

The diagram frames a pathway from more conventional design processes toward what I believe permaculture is deep down really about. The conventional starting point I’m calling fabricated assembly. The radical alternative the diagram invites us toward is what I call generative transformation.

Generative transformation is really good stuff. I believe permaculture and generative transformation are meant to be together, just like orchid and wasp, legume and rhizobia, or carbon and nitrogen in the perfect compost. Indeed, I’d argue that generative transformation is in play when any permaculture project really shines.

Which leads us to a question.

WTF is Generative Transformation?

Generative transformation refers to the top-right section in the diagram.

Breaking it down, there’s the generative (or generating) piece and the transformation (or transforming) piece. Let’s start with transformation (and what it is an alternative to). We’ll come back to the meaning of generative in the next post.


Consider the three options along the y-axis of the diagram. Starting with A. Assembling, we move to B. Partitioning, culminating in C. Transforming. I’ll here introduce and explain each as different approach to creating – as in bringing forth new form in the world.

A. Creating by Assembling

From an assembling perspective, how you go about creating (which includes both designing and implementing) is easy: choose some elements then join them into whole systems. Start with parts, stick them together and hey presto, there’s your whole!

So for example you might get a wishlist of desired elements such as pond, chook house, windbreak, and veggie patch and then figure out how to best insert and connect them to create a whole permaculture garden.

A chronic risk with this approach is that in its focus on inserting and arranging elements, it is all too easy to impose solutions (“let’s put the swale here, and then the herb spiral can go there”), even if you don’t realise that is what you are doing.

The upshot is this: When we define and apply permaculture design in this way, as we permaculturalists so widely have, what we are aiming to create, and hence what we do create is assemblages of elements.

B. Creating by Partitioning

As I showed in an early articleliving systems are not assemblages of elements. Indeed, this culturally and permaculturally widespread assembly approach flies in the face of how any living organism comes into being. It was Christopher Alexander that woke me up to this fact:

Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of putting together things, a process of combination.

According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.

But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts (Alexander, 1979, p. 368)

Alexander shows that contrary to viewing design as an assembling process, it is more accurate to say that a person’s parts or organs unfold out of the growing whole cell, embryo, foetus, where the whole comes first and the parts come second.

Taking Alexander’s words at face value, I conducted and documented several practical design examples (here is one and here another) where the whole design process was explicitly about moving from pattern toward detail and gradually partitioning the preexisting whole landscape.

So for instance you might start with an entire backyard, partition it into orchard and veggie areas, then partition the veggie area into annuals and perennials, and so on, right down to where the parsley goes.

One advantage of this approach, alongside more closely mimicking how the rest of life creates itself, is it requiring that you pay more attention to the pre-existing whole you are working with. The risk of imposing pre-formed solutions2 is thus significantly reduced. Hence it being midway on the continuum from less and more life enhancing.3

C. Creating by Transforming

Eventually, after many years designing by assembling, then having played around with designing by partitioning up the whole, the penny dropped for me. Alexander was not talking about flipping from assembling (joining parts into wholes) to partitioning (dividing wholes into parts). This is a false dichotomy. Following in Alexander’s footsteps,4 I now use the words transforming and transformation as a bigger and more inclusive process than merely assembling or partitioning.

Transformation as Seeing

Wrapped up inside what I mean by transforming is a whole different way of seeing what is, let alone doing something with it. This different way of seeing I might call deep systems thinking,5 or even a kind of field theory. I am just starting to really experience this way of seeing personally, which I believe we can all continue to get better at.6

It starts with clarity on two basic terms: whole and part. When it comes to living systems, you cannot have a part unless it is part of a whole. Similarly, there is no such thing as a whole without parts. The two words imply and need each other to make any sense.

What this means for transformation as a way of seeing is that you cannot merely start with the parts and then eventually arrive at the whole (the assembling approach). Conversely, you cannot merely start with the whole and then drill down into the parts (the partitioning approach). As much of a head f@#$ it is for the modern, linear, mechanically-oriented mind to grasp (it is perhaps easier to start by trying to experience this that than to intellectually understand it), whenever you delve into a part, you are going directly into and toward the whole. If this wasn’t true, that thing wouldn’t be a part! Likewise, whenever you are delving deeper into the whole, you are going directly into and toward the parts.7

When I observe David Holmgren reading landscape, for instance, this is exactly what I see him doing. As he reads from a small stone into the geology of the whole site, or from the lean on the trees into dominant wind patterns, he is moving toward the part and toward the whole in one and the same act.

I wont push my luck here any further, but I would love to hear if it resonates with anyone else’s experiences and experiments and I did want to convey that there is a lot of depth in this notion of transformation even if only as an authentically holistic way of seeing.8

Transformation as Doing

When we approach what we do in this way,9 we see what we are doing as always and without exception transforming a whole-and-its-parts. To transform is to make different, to differentiate. When we are transforming a whole-and-its-parts we are making it different. No matter whether we are integrating in new parts, removing old parts, or changing existing parts around. These are all different ways of transforming the system, of differentiating the whole. Yes, it is hard to disagree, I know, and it seems blatantly obvious when I say it. But here’s the thing. Even though we might intellectually grasp and agree with this stuff, the way we then behave as designers and creators very often disagrees with it.10 As much as we might like the sound of this, it is very hard not to fall back into the culturally dominant design-by-imposing-and-assembling rut when the rubber hits the road (as Tom alludes to in this comment).

I use transformation to transcend and include the seemingly contradictory approaches of assembling and partitioning. To transform is to start, always, with a whole that already has parts. Every whole landscape already has parts. Every whole person already has parts. When we surf or dance or co-participate in the evolution of either, the whole and the parts are moving forward together, simultaneously.11

Permaculture is Transformation

Permaculture is never about starting something brand new, or with a blank slate, and dropping something entirely new into a space or place. It is always about stewarding the ongoing transformation of what is already there. In this sense, we are only ever retrofitting what we already have. For there is always, everywhere, something already going on. Which is to say there is already a whole, which already has parts. Our job is to listen to the narrative already unfolding inside any situation, then to harmonise with it and where appropriate perturb it in life-enhancing directions.

When we are in the process of practicing permaculture, furthermore, we are both tuning into and honouring aspects of the pre-existing whole situation, as well as changing some of these aspects. What we are doing, therefore, is simultaneously conservative and creative.12 Transformation in the sense I use it here always includes both.

Tabular Recap

The following table recaps the three-way distinction between assembling, partitioning and transforming. I hope it helps and that you are getting a feel for the distinction and if and how it might shed light on how you see and work with things.


Hopefully this idea of transformation and how it differs from both assembling and partitioning has landed clearly. In the next post we’ll focus on the x-axis and what is meant by the progression from a fabricating through a hybrid to a fully generative approach to designing and implementing.

Meantime, if you’ve any inclination whatsoever, please do leave a comment sharing your honest impressions.


Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press

Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature : Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Lindisfarne, 1996.


Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part One of Five)

The following diagram is a hyper-condensed summary of over two years, 80 posts and 70,000 words worth of this blog’s assorted ramblings about permaculture design. In this three-post series, I’ll try and explain the framework or set of distinctions it shares and what it might (fingers crossed!) have to do with permaculture’s future. 

For those of you who are just passing by, please at least read this one sentence summary:

For the rest of you, thanks for sticking around, and let’s commence a less rushed second pass through a significant moment (and milestone!) in the history of making permaculture stronger. I’ll set the scene with a metaphor.


One way to sum up this project would be to say it’s been an attempt at something like an acupuncture needle. As I understand it, the idea behind such needles goes something like this. First, you start by carefully observing the patient. Then,1 if you stick the right needle in the right place, in the right way, and to the right depth, you can catalyse something good. You can free up blocked or stagnating energy. You can boost the patient toward vibrance and health.

In my own clumsy, sporadic, and making-it-up-as-I-go-along way, I have been trying my hand at sticking a needle into permaculture. Does this imply I think permaculture has scope for more vibrance and health? It surely does. Furthermore, after years of observing and interacting and thinking and feeling and doing and being I’ve decided to focus my energy (and my needle) on the part of permaculture called design process.2

Please don’t switch off when you hear the word design. Part of my aim is to get across that permaculture is about so much more than design in its conventional sense of making clever drawings before we act.

To me, permaculture is an invitation back and forward into a radically retrofitted way of being and doing humanity. Yet I believe that there is one primary blockage or barrier to permaculture realising its power and potential in this broader sense: the lack of a deep and shared understanding of what it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about design process.

Hence my repeated needling of design process as it is currently understood within permaculture. While the jury is out on whether my efforts will have any lasting value, I have been encouraged by the ratio of appreciative murmurs to pained yelps from the patient :-).

This framework I’m unveiling here has come from my experience of having stuck a couple of different needles into different aspects of permaculture design process.

The diagram introduces and suggests a name for a space that I believe is permaculture’s core business, home territory or primary purpose. While no doubt the language can be improved, I’m tentatively calling this space generative transformation. As we’ll see, generative transformation is a way of going about doing or creating anything, be it a garden, farm, organisation, livelihood, or life.


The diagram and the framework it conveys is intended to be like a new and improved acupuncture needle. It is intended to be conducive to permaculture’s good health. These current posts are an attempt to stick this deeper and more comprehensive needle into permaculture and to wriggle it around a little.

Aside from explaining the diagram’s innards, I’ll be arguing that to the extent it identifies with the bottom-left part of the diagram (what I call fabricated assembly) permaculture diminishes its potential. The invitation and the challenge of this framework is actively exploring pathways toward the top-right. Toward generatively transforming whole systems in life-enhancing directions.3

In the next post, I’ll get stuck into a detailed explanation.4


Talking Permaculture and Design Thinking with Gordon from Rune Soup

Thanks to Gordon White for a fascinating chat I look forward to continuing in future. As Gordon put it on his release page:

This week we welcome to the show permaculture designer and theorist, Dan Palmer. Dan is the host of the podcast, Making Permaculture Stronger, where he facilitates fascinating discussions on what’s right and what’s wrong with permaculture and where it might be headed next. And the tl;dr is that what’s wrong with permaculture is, in the main, what’s wrong with everything else.

So we have a great discussion on the theory of design in general, the shortcomings of western categorisations and their dualist implications and, somewhat improbably, merging with a chicken.

It’s a truly fantastic chat. Download the episode directly here or listen along on YouTube above.

Also some really interesting comments have shown up on that release page too. I reproduce this one from Haig only in that it is not so often that you see Alfred North Whitehead and Bruce Lee referenced in the same paragraph!

As a Processian (Processist?), I’m compelled to at least chime in with a word of approval anytime Whitehead is mentioned! Whitehead moved into philosophy and formulated his metaphysics out of the failure of trying to mechanize mathematics; he saw deep and far what the implications of that failure really meant, and the metaphysics that came out of his searches just so happens to have rediscovered so much of what ancient esoteric traditions have been telling us all along. It’s a shame contemporary science and philosophy have ignored him (and them).

From this “flow model” as you call it, we see why the design process is irreplaceable, we can’t just shut up and calculate our way into new modes of being, the edge of the process wave is pure creative potential that refuses to be tamed into a deterministic mechanism until it’s settled past the peak into the trough. This design process at the edge of reality is formless, and does not submit to a particular style, it’s what Bruce Lee aspired to, form without form, style without style, when creating his martial arts system Jeet Kune Do. I bring Lee up because he was in the same situation, birthing a system that aimed to detach itself from all the rest that came before it by pruning away the built-up detritus which was constricting potential. Jeet Kune Do never became too popular, it was more of a conceptual success than a practical one, but it did help create the mixed martial arts movement, a fighting system that has seen enormous success, mainly because it eschews theories and styles for what actually works, and that is only known through real-world feedback and interaction.

Feedback and interaction over a priori theory points us back to an intellectual movement in science which can be viewed as a parallel to Whitehead’s work in philosophy called cybernetics, but, as with Whitehead, it’s become all but forgotten except for the superficial pop culture prefix cyber. Cybernetics uses a flow-model of science (though still mostly materialistic) and prioritizes pragmatism over theorizing (except when trying to theorize pragmatism!). You really can never remove theory completely, even if it’s just a sublingual intuition, or a subconscious drive, theory is the membrane surrounding our ordered mental model, keeping it safe from the chaos of the environment. The problem with theory, like all problems of extremes, is when it is too undeveloped or too calcified, the trick is to remain balanced, to be semipermeable (as nature understands), and to have it evolve ecologically.

I guess then the proper advice, it would seem, is Bruce Lee’s admonition to “become like water my friend.”

What is Design, Anyway?

I wanted to bring together a bit of recent facebook discussion about what design is and what design might have to do with permaculture.

What is Design?

First up, this question was recently posted on the MPS facebook page:

A question. What does the word “design” connote for you? How would you answer a child who asked you what it was?

Here are the different comments folk were kind enough to contribute (gratitude!):

Linnet Good: Making deliberate decisions about how to create something.

Melissa Chambers: Got to say I don’t dislike the dictionary definition [see pic below]. But for me it is more about creativity and personality.

Ivanka AustralianaYou spend time figuring out how you want everything to look and function… use your plan to complete your mission

Marguerite de Mosa: Christopher Alexander

Renee Kelcey: Making a plan for how to do something

Greg O’Keefe: A design (noun) is a model or description of something that could be created. Design (verb) is the act of producing a design. The design (adjective) of something is its abstract form, whether or not it was created according to an explicit design (And yes, I would give that answer to a child. I’m not very good with kids)

Justine Taylor: Form + function…… or aesthetic + function: same. Sometimes function is more important (e.g office desk chair) sometimes form/aesthetic is (e.g Ghost Chair by Phillipe Stark). Either way ‘design’ is the combination of both!

Meg McGowan: I hand them an egg beater and a whisk and ask them what they think these tools could be used for. I would then have a conversation with them about why you wouldn’t just use a fork to do the same job. This would lead into a conversation about how design involves creating some kind of benefit for someone, or it solves some kind of problem. Then would ask them to look around them and see if they can find anything that someone else might have designed. They would probably start with the obvious, and ultimately realise that every single human-made thing or system has been designed by a person or a group of people.
Kids get to ‘everything human made’ faster than adults but the epiphany is just as much fun. 

Then I would have a conversation with them about what makes for a good design and what makes for a bad design

My other fun activity is to ask people to describe any system they own; the way they organise their kitchen, wardrobe, school bag, back pack, swag….
Why did they choose this particular pattern rather than another? What other patterns might they have chosen? Did they spend time intentionally designing a pattern or did they allow a pattern to evolve over time? Or do they just have a random collection with no design? What are the pros and cons of these three alternatives (while acknowledging that some people use a combination of two or three and inviting comment on other patterns). Did anyone choose a pattern based on something they have observed in nature? 

This exercise is about teaching people system design and it’s also about helping them to recognise that they are already designers. For those that struggle to identify a physical thing, like a wardrobe, their morning routine is a good standby. Why do they do things in that order and not another? What are the benefits of having an established pattern and what are the benefits of breaking it?

With very little kids I ask “Why does a toothbrush look like a toothbrush?”
They are brilliant at this.
“It needs the hairy bit to hold the toothpaste and rub my teeth”
“It needs the handle so I can get to the back of my mouth”
“It needs the scraper so I can scrape my tongue clean”
What do you think people used before they had toothbrushes?
Is a toothbrush better? Why?

Jenny Kato: An activity of thinking, imagining and testing to create something so that it is useful, practical, beautiful, economic and able to be made.

Raye Hodgson: A picture of how it looks when it is just right.

Hans E. Deern: a drawing of the Place where your deepest dreams come true

Tim Hill: A design is kind of like an imaginary friend….

Mirla Lacen de Murillo: A design is the choices you make to place everything in the most perfect place. And the more education the more perfect the design 

Stephanie Mette Harbo: In a broad sense, design connotes to me an overall scheme that pertains to evaluating and intentionally adding value to an entire project or area

With regard to Permaculture, Design involves creativity to incorporate visual interest or appeal with practical or functional accessibility; consideration of past, present and future uses; knowledge of logistics and installation, not to mention working with time or budgetary limits

Is Design Process a sensible Focus for Permaculture?

In April 2018, David Holmgren was asked “What is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?” Here is how he started his reply.
Well in that most general sense, in the sense of what is universal – what should permaculture collectively be asking – I think it is a deeper and hopefully more shared understanding of design process.
In subsequently sharing the longer reply on facebook I was fascinated by two comments which, on the face of things, expressed strong resistance to David’s suggestion. I think both are useful indications of deeper issues or themes with permaculture and in particular with its relation to design process. See what you reckon!:

Peter Brandis: It’s a pity that the answer is so limited to the design process (but so is Making Permaculture Stronger I guess, so it’s understandable). As Rafter Sass Ferguson wrote somewhere (I recall) that permaculture is a combination of a design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement (and I know people disagree with this, incl Toby Hemenway, and others). But if permaculture is more than design, why focus on just the design aspect? Why not (for example) talk about the question of a movement (to overthrow the industrial, consumptive, degrading way of life), or the shift required in a worldview to reach a more regenerative way of life? Or why not focus on getting a definition (of permaculture) we can all agree with? After all after 40 years or so, we are no closer to having a generally agreed definition of permaculture, and we have myriad definitions. Why isn’t there a push to redesign the PDC /education process? There’s so many important “questions (the) permaculture (movement) should be asking itself over the next few years.”

Stephen Bailes: I feel that this obsession with the design process will yield very little in the way of fruit . What is really needed is a better understanding of the processes operating within the systems that we are trying to design . Observing systems and their associated functional processes can be tricky in real time which is why we want to understand patterns . Observable patterns are the current manifestation / state of the system at the moment of observation. These may change over time when observed from the same location . Designs tend to be for a designated place and its fixed boundaries and as such cannot ” follow” the pattern . So over time at a given location patterns will change . We need to know the current state of the system into which we are trying to apply our new design , not easy I would suggest . Any implementation of a new design is a in effect a pertubation within the old system which in itself may have ” moved on ” , no longer bounded by the design constraints . Have we any idea how the new combined system will react ? Does the design process reflect any of these ideas ?

Brendan Morse: this is exactly what David means by focusing on the process. an appropriate and mature design process will ensure that this observation, in relation to local contexts, doesn’t get ignored.

Stephen Bailes: I am not sure that we are talking about the same thing here or not . This for me demonstrates fully the dilemma that we face , are we suffering from some kind of equivocation here . Are we saying that there is a direct one to one relationship between the words “design process” and ” natural process ” . For sure they are both processes and permaculture plays within the same domain as natural processes . Are we suggesting that the design process goes on in the same physical and mental space as the natural processes ? I think generally this is not the case and that designs are imposed upon a space and that the design processes goes on else where . 

Lets say though that for the sake of argument David did mean that the two ideas were one of the same we are still in difficulties . That is the number of agents involved . The designer is but one person maybe two at most . Complex systems are made up of countless numbers of agents. Do these other agents have a say in the design side of things ? If we say that they do , then their ” democratic ” agency should overwhelm the will of the the permaculture designer . This is can often be the case , the system turns wild. 

So I am not sure that we can bunch the two processes under the one roof. The designer in the permaculture sense becomes an observer of natural processes , a learner , a ” taker in-er ” . The question then remains is this what we would call design in any normal meaning of the word ? There has to be a difference and that difference has to be explicit . This takes me back to my opening line. 

Are we talking about the same thing ?

Spiced Gora: Stephen Bailes by and large, your first comment seems to discuss things that I feel would by most be considered part of design process

Regarding your second comment, much of the dialogue within the first inquiries of MPS to date has been about exploring evolving design process toward something that more authentically mimics natural creation processes – one the more wholesomely mitigates the imposition that you mention

Review and Refresh of Inquiry One

I recently concluded my second inquiry which considered the relation between designing and implementing within permaculture.

In this post I’ll revisit, review and refresh you with the outcomes of my first inquiry.1 Inquiry numero uno looked at this common idea inside (and outside) permaculture that design is primarily a process of assembling elements to form up whole systems.

For you cut-to-the-chase types, this diagram is where this post ends up, so if you only have a minute, do check it out (and ask questions in a comment below if anything is unclear or seems misguided to you):

For the rest of you, please read on, and let me retrace the steps along the journey that culminated in this diagram.

A Post-by-Post Review of Inquiry One

Post One: Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture

The first post was called Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture. This post drew attention to the fact that, by and large, the permaculture design literature defines design as a process of combining elements into whole systems. The wording changes, but the core idea remains that:

  1. the elements exist prior to their connection, and
  2. the crux of design is joining, assembling, or integrating these elements (into systems, patterns or wholes delivering on the permaculture principles).

This claim was not something I cooked up and projected, but a direct description of what I saw when I looked closely at well-known definitions and descriptions of permaculture design. I quoted Bill Mollison. I quoted Toby Hemenway. I quoted Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein.

In doing so, I showed how the permaculture design literature typically generates sentences about what design is via a simple formula: selecting an item from each of these three columns and stringing them together:

start with then them to form a
elements assemble whole
parts connect system
components integrate pattern
things relate assembly
join plan
arrange design
place relationship
create relationships between

Integrating elements into patterns, connecting components into whole systems, organising parts into relationship, and so on, are all different expressions of permaculture’s unambiguously dominant understanding of what permaculture design is.  Here it is in a simple diagram:

So far, so good. But things then started to get interesting when I shared Christopher Alexander’s contention that:

Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of putting together things, a process of combination.

According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.

But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts (Alexander, 1979, p. 368)

I then presented Alexander’s alternative as proceeding in the 100% completely opposite direction to permaculture, where the whole precedes and unfolds or in a sense gives birth to the parts:

I then concluded by suggesting that Alexander’s view that…

The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole (Alexander, 2002b, p. 197)

…challenges a core idea in permaculture.

There were lots of comments. Perhaps my favourite came from the late, great Toby Hemenway:

I think Alexander’s concept is much closer to how permaculturists actually design, by starting with something that is already a whole and then differentiating and integrating additional factors into it. The issue is mostly that our language has not caught up to our practice. Thanks, Dan, for the inspiration. I always enjoy revising my thinking to more accurately bring theory and practice into better congruency.

Post Two: A Conversation with David Holmgren

I had sent a draft of the first post to permaculture co-originator David Holmgren. David replied and we had an email conversation about it. David not only appreciated the distinction I had made between “differentiated wholes vs assembled parts distinction in applying the principles,” but to my delight welcomed “critique on the lack of design process” in permaculture. He also acknowledged that, in his words…

  1. there is a huge cultural bias towards details to pattern understanding and designing [i.e., parts toward wholes]
  2. nature works from pattern to details [i.e., wholes toward parts]
  3. we need most effort into creating design processes that effectively achieve this second pathway

David has since (in his latest book Retrosuburbia) put it this way:

Permaculture designer, teacher and activist Dan Palmer has drawn on Alexander’s work to critique what doesn’t work in permaculture design.

It seems even permaculture needs a retrofit for the energy descent future!

The essence of that critique is that permaculture design has attempted to create functional whole systems by assembling elements like a Lego construction. Application of design solutions in sites and situations where they are inappropriate can follow and even when the particular elements used are potentially appropriate, the assembly design process fails to create a complex system that works. In nature, complex systems that work evolve from simple ones that work. For example an embryo is a whole system from the beginning that differentiates to create the greater functional diversity and strength that becomes the newborn animal.

Importantly, coming back to our email conversation, David stressed that “it is also important not to deny any utility in what we seek to critique,” suggesting that whole-to-parts and parts-to-whole modes of design might be construed as complementary but asymmetric aspects of a broader and more holistic understanding of design process including and valuing them both. Asymmetric in the sense that the overall direction is from patterns toward details, but where at times and as appropriate there is also a movement from details toward patterns.

Post Three

This was a quick summary of progress made before we moved onto…

Post Four – The Exceptional Case of Dave Jacke

In the fourth post I looked at the design process writings of Dave Jacke and showed that:

Dave Jacke has contributed the most comprehensive, conscious and clear treatment of sound design process yet seen in the permaculture literature. His ecological design process moves primarily from patterns towards details via the sequential differentiation of wholes into parts. This resonates with and indeed was to some degree inspired by the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Interestingly, one of Dave Jacke’s responses to this post was:

You are convincing me that I am more embedded in Alexander’s perspective than I thought I was!

Posts Four & Five: Exploring these ideas in the work of Darren J. Doherty

These posts were quite long. The upshot was this suggestion of a more accurate and comprehensive way of characterising design process:

  • Starting with an existing configuration of a whole-space-comprising-a-configuration-of-already-differentiated-parts…
  • …further differentiating this whole…
  • …fluidly moving down, up, and sideways as necessary…
  • …both modifying what is there and conceiving (as potential) then introducing (as actual) new parts…
  • …that grow out of and hence harmonise with the whole…
  • …to support the evolution of that whole…
  • …as a rich network of interelated parts…
  • …toward our desired outcomes of a resilient, abundant, human-supporting ecosystem (or whichever wording floats your boat).

Amongst the various comments on these posts, Benamin Tayler’s really stood out:

I was discussing this with my partner who’s a holistic health practitioner to see how she (and another naturopaths) handle this whole/parts directional conundrum. She said their basic approach is to start with whole, then move into parts, and situate them within the whole again. When a patient/client first comes in, the whole is the first priority of the practitioner. What is their first impression? What is their skin colour like? Is their hand warm when we shake it? Do they grip firmly or kind of just flop limply? What is their posture like? How do they project their voice? etc.

Then they give time to the patient/client to talk about why it is they have come there and to learn a little about them. And only after that, does the naturopath start to look into patterns and particular bodily systems in greater detail. At the end of that process, they represent the parts graphically, draw connections between details and then take an overall sense of what is happening across the entire bodymind. From whole to parts to whole. My partner said, which I thought was pretty sage, that by starting off with the whole, it’s simplier to envelop the parts back into the whole at the end, as you’ve retain a sense of what it was like in the first place.

Another interesting point I picked up was that she – and I think most naturopaths – has a philosophy of what the whole is, to make it easier to actually envision the whole in the first place. In her field, the body has a living intelligence, the vital force, that constantly acts within the body’s systems to overcome obstacles, vitalise the body and address imbalances. Therefore, reflecting back to how these changes aid and abet the particular person’s vital force and its unique challenges, supports keeping this reference point of the whole to look back to.

This made me wonder whether there would be such a reference point for permaculture? And even if there was, would this help keeping the whole in sight or hinder it by superimposing an idea on the whole which would be better kept clear and undefined? If I had to have a swing at what that would be for permaculture it would go something like this: each landscape is constantly adapting to the unique forms, forces of play, energy and resources that is within its domain. The land is doing something based on what it has and what it is exposed to. Therefore the land has direction and has movement – could we almost say it has a plan. As permaculture designers on the land we are tuning into what the land is doing, or what happens on the land – on this unique space that is nowhere else – and working with the direction it is already taking, the forces that are already at play. We dance with the land leading. So perhaps our reference point to the whole is: are we moving with the natural intelligence and forces of this land?

Post Six

The sixth post segued into a couple of examples of trying out a design-as-moving-from-patterns-to-details approach.

Post Seven

The seventh post gave the example of the differentiation-based design process resulting in this concept plan…

…which guided this actual reworking of the landscape:

Post Eight

The eighth post gave a second example sharing the process of getting to this concept design through an explicit process of moving from the whole toward parts (from patterns to details):

Post Nine

The ninth post summed up the first inquiry (yes, much like this post is doing).

The Breakthrough

Now it was some time after I’d supposedly finished Inquiry One that the penny really dropped for me. The clue had been there in the chat with David Holmgren, the comment from Benjamin, and in other places. But it was a wonderful comment from Abraham Coetzee that prompted me to clearly articulate where I’d arrived with all this:

Differentiation just means to make different. Whether you use the word differentiatetransformmake differentchangemodifyreconfigure, etc etc, the upshot is any process of design and/or creation is a sequence of [insert your preferred word here]. Each of these changes might involve addition (I bring home an apple tree to plant), multiplication (I decide to times that by ten), subtraction (I get rid of the rose bush), division (I partition the yard into two terraces), or morphing or merging or otherwise rearranging what is already there, or any number of other change types. In all cases you have differentiated the whole you are working with. You have made it different. In most cases, each change or differentiation simultaneously involves many of these things. I divide a room in two by adding and assembling some bits of wood and screws. And so on. The take away point is that we tend in our culture to display an unconscious bias in our designing and creating toward adding/assembly, when this is not only missing most of the tool box, but it is out of alignment with the fact that in nature things tend to grow where addition/assembly is an underling of division (e.g., in order for a cell to divide various molecules etc must come in from outside the system, and, sure, if you like, be assembled). It is also going to get harder and harder to do in an energy decent future. But most importantly, it is not the whole shebang. Hopefully over time we’ll all enlarge the vocabulary with which we describe the changes going on inside permaculture design process (where a problematically strong bias toward addition/assembly has been evident).

The second part of it for me is that if we more accurately contrast assembly (or adding) with division or delineation (instead of differentiation which we’ve just seen is more general of a concept) then neither of these contain any inherent directional commitment in terms of up or down in the holarchy. You might import a whole portable house to your place then bring in and layout kitchen counters and cupboards then move to select, import and assemble your knifes and forks. You are assembling from patterns to details. You might delineate a little pond in the middle of your place, then delineate a wetland it’ll sit within, and so on. You are delineating from details to patterns. Permaculturalists agree that an overall motion from patterns toward details is a good idea. So in light of the above the idea is that you gradually and sequentially differentiate a space, using many different kinds of differentiation (including but very much not limited to assembly and I note sometimes not involving any assembly whatsoever), moving upwards, downwards, and sideways, but with an overall movement downwards, from patterns toward details.

So I think as you do any either-or argument between addition/assembly and division/delineation is not a fruitful use of time…

In other words, I’d realised that any argument about whether it was better to design by integrating elements or by partitioning up wholes was a symptom of a flawed way of framing the whole situation.

This was not an either-or situation! It is a both-and kind of thing. Hence the latest diagram.

The Latest Diagram

The idea or contention here is that whenever anyone designs or implements or creates anything, they can understand what they are doing from any one of these three spaces (consciously or unconsciously).  You can think of what you are doing as assembling, as partitioning, or as transforming. What you are actually doing, however, in every case, is transforming (or differentiating) something (be it a garden, or farm, or workshop, or day in your life, or whatever). You are making something different. There are a variety of ways of making something different. These include integrating additional parts,2 and partitioning or introducing new distinctions.

Furthermore, that something is already a whole. As a whole, it already has parts. It sounds almost silly to have to spell it out. Yet almost our entire civilisation has somehow missed this memo. Whenever do anything, including designing, implementing, and creating, we start with a whole-and-its-parts and end with a different version of that whole-and-its-parts. Period.

As David Holmgren has put it during one of the courses in which we’ve been exploring this stuff together:

what we are doing is not working with blank slate planning – we’re retrofitting something that already exists, and it’s a different paradigm when you say everything already is a whole place, it all has a history, and there’s no such thing as starting from scratch anyway…

Okay, there it is, the grand finale of Inquiry One. In the next post, I’ll be bringing the outcomes of inquiry one and the outcomes of inquiry together as aspects of a single diagram. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. I’d be curious to know whether anyone agrees, but to me all this guff contains the seeds of a potential design process revolution within permaculture.3


Where Making Permaculture Stronger came from – A talk by Dan Palmer

This video is of a short talk I gave over two years ago. It was June 2016, just as the whole Making Permaculture Stronger project was germinating and emerging into being.

Some permaculture colleagues in New Zealand had put me on the spot and requested an impromptu explanation of what the heck I was going on about.

I want to stress that my thinking and feeling and experiencing of all of this stuff has evolved dramatically over the last few years. I would phrase much of this differently today. Back then I was oblivious to many nuances which have subsequently come to light. Indeed, the ideas I shared in this clip sparked and have led to much further inquiry, experimentation, dialogue, and collaboration. Making Permaculture Stronger is a fast-moving moving target!

Nonetheless, the overall gist and the underlying volition continues to resonate with what Making Permaculture Stronger is all about for me.

I share this video in the interests of stirring up healthy, vigorous discussion, so please don’t hold back from sharing your honest impressions in the comments below. What, if anything, resonates for you? What, if anything, doesn’t?

Positive, negative and neutral design – guest post by Shane Simonsen

At its heart permaculture is a design oriented philosophy. When we go through the design process we normally take note of the local landforms and resources as if they are a blank page to which we then add the elements that we desire. In order to try and maximise our chances of getting a favourable outcome we invest time in researching and thinking about the possible elements and their organisation in order to decide what resources to invest in making the dream a reality. This top down, aspirational way of approaching design can fail to work in a multitude of different ways, or fail to be maintained for long enough to reach its full potential. This approach to design I like to think of as being positive design – the act of adding to and building up the world around us.

Goats grazing Tithonia established from unrooted cuttings less than a year ago, a relatively weak form of positive design.

Humans by our animal nature are not naturally positive influences in the landscape. Animals are best at consuming and disrupting the world around them – think how much easier and faster it is to cut down a tree compared to growing one. Plants are the builders in the ecosystem and it is only very recently in human history that we have learned to cooperate with them to co-create (and to be honest we are still not very good at it even after about five thousand years of practice). For humans at least it seems one of the most natural things for us to do is to behave in previously unnatural ways. When humans attempt to apply positive design to the landscape we find it involves enormous investments of time, energy and resources and high levels of risk. Until recently in history the vast majority of the population had to devote most of their lives to growing food by imposing positive design on the landscape and yet still live in constant fear of crop failure and famine. Fossil fuels dramatically changed this balance but their utility will run out one day.

Trees propagated in tubes then transplanted into tree guards, a more positive design approach that required more resources, with more restricted scale.

The obvious flip side to positive design is negative design. This approach is more in sync with the natural strengths of human animals and focuses more on shaping the environment by cutting out unwanted elements rather than creating wanted ones. For example negative design would involve taking a natural forest and selectively cutting down trees to create a pasture for animals. Woody plants could be left strategically to create hedges, wind breaks and shade zones. Pasture species would arise spontaneously in the disturbed spaces and would not need to be deliberately imposed by human efforts. The positive approach would be starting with relatively bare ground then introducing new pasture species to improve forage quality (often requiring added seed, minerals, possibly using machines for sowing), growing trees and hedges in pots then transplanting into tree guards with fertiliser and irrigation to support them. The former approach describes the successful spread of agriculture across the planet. The latter approach describes the mostly unprofitable behaviour of humans acting with the assistance of abundant fossil fuels. In today’s world the approach of negative design is limited by the lack of plant material to cut away to shape the landscape, while positive design is limited by the limited amount of resources available for humans to direct.

A more positive design approach where geese create a disturbed space with concentrated nutrients, allowing the maize to get a head start on the weeds. This space isn’t weeded, only harvested when ready. 

The final way of looking at how people can approach the landscape is the idea of neutral design. This is similar to Fukuoka’s principle of “do nothing”. Choosing to do nothing is an essential element of the design toolkit (usually accompanied by ongoing observation). Much of the eventual economic recovery after the fall of the Roman Empire can be linked to regrowth of forest resources and restoration of soil fertility by abandonment of fields. For example, looking around my own property that I have been planting at every opportunity for the last decade I estimate less than 5% of the plant biomass is from things I have planted myself- the ecosystem, including those parts most useful to me, grew and evolved on their own. The way that 95% of my biomass has developed has been influenced a lot by my own decisions and the actions of my livestock but most of the positive changes occurred without my deliberate intentions. Species composition has changed to increase photosynthesis as much as possible, including a shift to nominally weedy species that have nevertheless proven to be more useful than the species they replaced.

My most positively designed space that requires regular inputs of goat manure, hand weeding and resowing of seasonal crops. If I had to buy the goat manure the profitability of this venture would be marginal. The high input demand of this space greatly limits the scale of this approach.

These three design mindsets are not absolutes. Instead they exist on a continuous spectrum from extremely positive approaches to extremely negative ones. For example when growing food crops at the most positive end would be hydroponics, then greenhouse cultivation, then a vegetable patch with added irrigation and fertiliser, then hardy field crops that only need moderate disturbance such as penned livestock, and finally to wild edibles that only need broad ecosystem management (for example periodic burning on the more destructive end). For growing trees at the positive end would involve transplanting a mature tree and supporting it physically, to transplanting a small tree in a tree guard, to direct sowing, to scattering seed, to naturally seeding trees (again often needing some negative disturbance). For raising animals the extreme positive end might be lab grown meat, then a battery hen, then ranged beef provided pumped bore water and vaccinations, to managed wild bison, finally to completely wild animals maintained with controlled hunting.

To me the most successful approach lies in using the most weakly positive approaches to enhancing plant growth to maximise the effectiveness of limited resources, then applying negative design to shape the vegetation across the landscape. For example I started establishing fodder trees and shrubs on my property by growing seedlings in tube pots then transplanting them into tree guards when quite small into the exact spot that worked around my cattle rotational grazing. With some species I found I could directly plant unrooted cuttings, reducing the amount of work per plant and allowing me to establish larger pioneer plant stands. These early plantings allowed other species to be direct sowed in their shade, reducing resources for growing and transplanting and allowing more plants to be established with the available resources. I was initially concerned about some of these pioneer species spreading everywhere and getting “out of control”. I have now seen how much my goats love eating them, and realised how long it will take me to plant enough of them even by direct cuttings, so I have shifted to scattering their seed over large tracts of the property. Rather than relying on positive design to put them exactly where I want them I decided to embrace negative design, allowing them to spread more widely then using the energy saved planting them to instead remove them where I don’t want them, for example to maintain open walk ways. Seedlings are easily hand pulled up to about six months of age. The more weakly positive approaches of plant establishment has a hidden benefit- plants often want to grow in one place but not another, and just reading about their preferences in a book is never enough to figure this out in advance. By scattering seed widely you allow plants to grow where they grow best. You can then apply negative selection to balance the diversity or refine the positioning as needed. A similar benefit can be realised if direct sowing where each tiny hole you dig gets a wide range of seed planted in it, and whichever plant grows best claims the space. Similarly multiple tree tubes can be planted in one hole, though the resources invested in each tube is a lot higher.

This new mindset is allowing me to see the landscape and how I relate to it differently and hopefully make better design decisions going forward.

Shane Simonsen

Note from Dan: I happened across this post on facebook by Shane a few days back (thanks to Meg McCowan for alerting me to it). It is always a treat to find fellow permaculturalists reflecting on their practical experiences with design process and developing new distinctions therein. Thanks to Shane for permission to repost his words and photos here. I look forward to seeing your comments below.