A Delightful Day of Designing with Dave Jacke

Greetings all. Today, given I’m currently amidst recording and releasing some podcast conversations with Dave Jacke (starting here), I thought I’d dust off and finish a post I drafted over a year ago. I hope you enjoy!

As permaculture designers striving to continually lift our game, us VEGers are quite partial to professional development opportunities. Such opportunities don’t get juicier than getting to tag along on the design consultancies of more experienced practitioners. So when Michael and Lisa from Yandoit Farm invited me to join them for a day of designing with Dave Jacke, I said yes. Yes please I said.

For those that aren’t aware, Dave Jacke is a world class ecological designer, writer, and teacher. Lead author of the acclaimed two-volume Edible Forest Gardens books, I have long respected Dave’s sophisticated and comprehensive grasp of design process. While he prefers the phrase ecological design process1 over permaculture design process, he unquestionably has helped / is helping permaculture lift its game in terms of a design process that not only starts by deeply tuning into people and place, but embodies the principle of starting with patterns and ending up with details (as shown here).

One sweet read

As for Yandoit Farm, not only are owners Michael and Lisa amongst the most lovely human beings one could hope to get to hang out with, I’ve had the honour of participating in the journey of their evolving partnership with this landscape since they first discovered and decided to follow a permaculture-flavoured pathway. My main role in addition to regularly arriving, eating their food, sleeping in their bed (as in their spare bed – we’re not that close), sharing my opinion freely then leaving has been to connect them with the right people at the right time.

First up it was Darren J. Doherty, who lead the keyline inspired whole-farm water, access, tree system and paddock design and a round of road and dam-building earthworks that changed Yandoit Farm forever, as I explain in this little clip (see also this post and this podcast episode):

With his Regrarians platform, Darren has evolved a farm-scale design process that cuts-to-the-chase and efficiently reveals a mainframe farm layout equally conducive to ecological regeneration and financial viable farm-scale production. Check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a hot potato.

Then it was David Holmgren, who, shortly prior to the first round of earthworks, lead Michael and I on a seven-hour reading-the-landscape walk that left my spinal cord quivering with information overload for several days afterward. David’s ability to read landscape, particularly in his native habitat (he lives just around the corner), is body-mind blowing and takes you from the tiniest gum nut or stone right here and now to the massive basalt plateau that flowed down over the sedimentary base layer 4 million years ago all within a couple of minutes. It is like one second, you’re looking through a magnifying glass, now from a hot air ballon 1000 metres up, now you’re lying on an ancestral gold-line riverbed 40 feet underground, and now you’re 400 million years in the past under a kilometre deep ocean watching the future sedimentary soils get laid down as floods seasonally spew materials out from the river ends. I better move on. My spinal cord in starting to quiver again.

Actually here, why should my and Michael’s spinal cords suffer in silence? Watch this and tell me if you don’t get a few quivers too.2

Anyways, Michael had just completed Dave Jacke’s nine-day edible forest garden intensive organised by Steve Burns just out of Ballarat. Michael recently shared that:

I can say without any doubt that Dave’s course gave me a deeper understanding of forest ecology which radically changed my thinking of all life, the way I see nature, all of nature, and most importantly our place in the scheme of everything. Its drawn me into a much deeper understanding of the human condition and limits and helped provide meaningful answers to the two big questions of human existence, ‘What is the meaning of Life?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ all it takes is some perspective beyond individual human timescales. We’re all fertiliser in the end, the trick is to feel good about that.

Dave Jacke and Michael Jackson during the course

Understandingly, therefore, Michael was keen to invite Dave Jacke’s input on the planned next phase of development at Yandoit Farm. This was a large area within the main homestead envelope earmarked for fruit and nut production. Luckily Dave said yes, and luckily I was there as Dave, Steve, Yonke and Bridget (these last three who had also completed the course and tagged along to observe) arrived.

What I want to do here is document my reflections and impressions from the day, which started about 9:30am and finished eleven hours later at 8:30pm. Lisa got some great photos, which I mix up below with several of my own and a couple from Steve Burns.

Arrival, Introductions, General Objective and Roles

So arrived April 6, 2016.

After the team arrived, everyone was introduced, and cups of teas were in hand, Michael suggested a short meditation, which I understand was an aspect of Dave’s just-finished course that was much appreciated and enjoyed.

So Dave led a lovely short meditation which marked the transition into the day’s focus, and let us all become more present and centred. Not something I’d suggest to every client, but in this case it was invited by the client and totally hit the spot for everyone.

As we sipped our tea Michael then outlined his broad objectives for the day, which centred on getting to a solid scheme or layout for the valley area above the new house dam:

Yandoit Caldera

Dave then prompted a quick chat about roles, given this was what he calls an open consultancy. The way he explained it was that if a consultancy and a workshop got together and had a baby, an open consultancy would be the baby. Michael and Lisa’s role was clients. Dave’s role was designer. Steve, Yonke and Bridget’s role was observers (though they all ended up having valuable input into into the design too). My role was mostly observer but with a tiny bit of client (or client representative) and a tiny bit of designer (as a project manager of the larger design and development of the site – though really these days I’m really just more a supportive friend of the project) mixed in. Something like that anyway. I mostly was intending to keep my mouth shut, watch, and learn. But Dave ended up being so inclusive (which is also Michael and Lisa’s middle name) such that the process evolved into a really pleasant conversation between us all.

Dave’s Process

Like the forest, the design process is complex and multilayered, yet both have structure. Certain principles and “archetypal” activities undergird every effective design process, yet each trip through it is unique.3

Now it was time for Dave to enter his design process proper, which in his terminology goes a little something like this:

  • First impressions
  • Goals articulation
  • Site analysis & assessment
  • Design proper
    • Concept design
    • Schematic design
    • Detailed / patch design

Keep in mind that Dave was in a foreign landscape, was between two almost back-to-back workshops, and had a single day to try and get some design done of a large and complex site with multiple objectives. A tough gig, to say the least! It was utterly impossible to apply the process in an ideal and comprehensive way, given this would have taken many days and ideally many months. As a result, part of what I observed Dave doing during the day was mixing things up in a way focused on giving Michael and Lisa the most bang for buck by the end of the day. That said, he did an extremely impressive job of it, got to a really solid design, where and all steps in the process were still present to some degree. Let me step through them now, while the day (I wrote most of this the day after) is still fresh in my mind.

First Impressions

When doing professional design, it is good to observe undirectedly first thing, before you know much about a client’s site or goals. You can have such valuable first impressions only once!

First Michael clarified the boundaries of the focus area inside… 

From left: Bridget, Yonke, Steve, Michael, Dave

and outside…


Then Dave and all of us scattered and took a leisurely stroll around the space. Viewing it from all different places and generally soaking it up. I want to share a few of Lisa’s photos here to get across the fact that this step is really important in Dave’s process. It is not to be rushed, and as I understand it is not thematic/themed, but about inviting the space to start revealing itself to you.

DaveDam DaveNotes DaveWalnut

Here and there Dave would ask a question, or a few of us would chat about something, but mostly we were simply soaking up the site.

One aspect of what Dave did that I noticed, in addition to making a few notes and quietly contemplating the space, was tuning into his gut feelings about different areas, the way a fence cut through one ridge, and so on.

As someone who increasingly appreciates the power of human feeling to detect subtle but critical aspects of a site, I was stoked to see someone else acknowledging the value of this source of information as equally if not more important than what the analysing intellect can detect. As my currently favourite design writer, Christopher Alexander, has put it, the intellect is too crude of a net to catch the whole.

Goals Articulation

 Design your forest garden in the context of clear self-understanding concerning what you seek to create…

We now headed back inside to enter the goals articulation phase. Michael and Lisa had carefully prepared a two-page statement under the titles or subareas Dave uses:

  • Value statement
  • Goals
  • Opportunities
  • Criteria

Which as you can see move from the general to the specific.

Something Dave said about here stayed with me as another indicator of someone who has been in the game for a while. I paraphrase, but it was something like “We can develop an inspiring vision for this forest garden but without spending time on the labour, maintenance and implementation I would be doing you a disservice.”

Another major point that came up was about scale. Dave observed after taking in Michael and Lisa’s value statement that “you could achieve this value statement in a much smaller space.”

A final note before we move on is to do with the word “articulation.” Dave uses this word at the top level for this whole bit of the process rather than “statement” or something else and I had been aware that a reason for this was that the word “articulate” somehow brings more of the whole body-mind into the process. “Statement” on the other hand feels like in can flow straight from the conscious mind, thereby missing a very important source (i.e., gut/heart feeling).

But in chatting with Dave later in the day I mentioned the way in which, thanks to Christopher Alexander, I have been using “articulate” lately, which is in the sense of making a design more nuanced and detailed. He then explained that this meaning of articulate is equally integral to his sense of goals articulation, where part of what you are doing is not just tapping into the whole body-mind (what do the clients really want, deep down), but working with what comes out to refine and clarify its structure and organisation. Not just running with what comes out on the first pass but probing it, removing redundancy, sorting the wheat from the chaff (or the apples from the coddling moth larvae, as the case may be).

An example of this articulation work was when Dave started unpacking the value statement and goals, again tuning into his feeling (in his words using his whole body-mind) as a way of finding inconsistencies or conflicts. Here’s one exercise we started – a process for refining the goals by putting like with like, and clarifying relations. For instance sometimes one goal is high level and implies or includes others.


Now we headed back out, for a sort of dance between site analysis and high-level concept design. I felt the phase of the process that took the biggest hit due to the extreme time constraints was themed and rigorous site analysis and assessment (again carefully chosen language from Dave here – analysing and assessing are different but complementary), though that said the fact that Michael and I had been observing the space closely over several years as well as the eyes of locals Yonke and Steve as well as the experience at this stuff of Dave and Bridget meant we did pretty darn well given the circumstances. One thing I didn’t ask Dave was how long he would have had in an ideal world, but I reckon it would have been at least a few days or a week just for site analysis and assessment.

Concept Design

Resolve the basic patterns and large-scale issues first.

For Dave the concept design is kind of the first glimmer that arises of a high-level whole-site pattern or layout. As I recall it Dave actually first shared his first hint of this earlier on at the end of the first impressions walk (in which site analysis and assessment was happening also).

I had myself a bit of a moment, as, sitting atop the little dam wall and surveying the space, Dave articulated what was arising for him at that moment as regards the first vague hints of a concept design arising in this space for these clients. The reason I was blissing out as he shared it was it was identical in every important detail to what had been arising in me over some time and years of interacting with the space.

I can’t remember his exact wording but it centred on more extensive and management-friendly camp-underable nut groves in the bulk of the valley base including an open glade in there somewhere and more intensive fruit-focused edible forest gardening styles on the footslopes.


I was really impressed that in about an hour Dave was able to arrive at a place that was crystallising for me only after several years of contact with the site and clients!

It is also deeply affirming when more experienced designers come up with similar ideas to oneself in terms of feeling more confident in whatever process you used to get there.

Schematic Design

Schematic design expands the seed of the design concept to see how it manifests in somewhat greater detail… (Edible Forest Gardens, VII, p. 233)

I’m inserting a bit of an arbitrary boundary between concept and schematic design here, as we were well and truly free-forming by this stage, but I want to convey a feel for the directions the conversation/consultancy now headed as we headed from patterns to details. Really, as opposed to saying this is what we were doing and then doing the opposite, as all too much permaculture design continues to do.

Design is fundamentally messy. We learn useful things when we take it apart and put order to it, but we also risk fooling ourselves into thinking that the process is clean, linear, and organized.

So in addition to refining the points of distinction between the main areas in the concept design (camping, nut grove, clearing, edible forest garden/s) we started tuning into a couple of critical high-level decisions/distinctions as to the way that the future driveway will wrap through the space, and the location of the planned future teaching building.

We spent a lot of time on these two things, rightly, given that they together were a big part of defining the context of all the rest. We walked, we sat, we felt, we talked.

One aspect of this bit I want to share was that Dave/we did a very good job of not locking anything in prematurely. Here’s how he explains why:

the worst design mistakes are ALWAYS made at the schematic level.  Getting the rough relationships right there is critical.  This is the stage where Type 1 errors are made, and no amount of fiddling at the detailed level will fix them.  Particularly in the short time I had, I wanted to make sure the patterns were good.  The details would evolve a lot over time anyway.

For example we got to a point where there where three main spots the teaching building felt like it could sit. We visited them all and discussed pros and cons as well as how it felt to each of us. Slowly we converged on one tentative area that felt best.

With the road it was even better. I really liked how Dave demonstrated mental freedom and flexibility to cast the net of ideas widely before filtering them against the goals and site and how they felt.

For instance we went inside and Dave pulled out his old-school drafting tools. Pencils and stencils and stuff came out of his bag – it was cool. I also appreciated the time and care he took to get the scales and stuff really close to right. I am generally a hell of a lot more slap-dash but I liked the vibe of let’s take our time here and make a nice job of this, even if it be a draft we might throw out in ten minutes.


So he laid out the drive in one configuration and then the tree and other systems to harmonise with it, discussing as we went, rubbing out and modifying as we went.

I like how though he was drawing it really felt like the ideas were crystallising communally and collaboratively before and as he sketched them in.

Then he suddenly said okay and cast that sketch aside and tried a completely different way of wrapping the drive in. And another. And another. I love this stuff and I do this all the time. Where the overarching volition is “let’s assume that we might not have got it right or best yet and poke and prod and try alternatives before we get all attached to anything.”

I want to see this attitude grow and infuse, permeate permaculture design as it is taught and practiced everywhere. For I know, without a shadow of doubt, that being biased toward ideas we come up with just because we came up with them and unconsciously assuming they are right is to healthy design as herbicide is to a herb. Kills it dead. I want to see design process live and assuming we are wrong and taking steps to reduce the wrongness before moving on is one critical key step toward such.

Sorry, getting off topic here. Let’s get back to the storyline.

Limiting Factors

Oh yes, this I also wanted to mention. I know from experience that every client-site ensemble has one or three primary limiting factors that each step of the design process has to take into consideration. So I was really happy to find Dave spending plenty of time and focus on things like wind, frost, & maintenance.

(Sort of but not really) Detailed Design

We next dove into more detail and passed through each area of the emerging configuration numbering and specifying plant details.


Here is where the design diagram got to:

As you’ll see it’s not a detailed design in the sense of Dave’s book…

This diagram is from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume II by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier (October 2005) and is reprinted with permission from ChelseaGreen Publishing.

…but really a schematic (or what some people might call a concept-level) design laying out key areas and then listing possible plant species to include in each. So, just for the record, what Dave delivered for Yandoit Farm was more akin to what in the below diagram I’ve been calling the hybrid approach rather than fabricating (or at least is consistent with it). Tick! I really like how it is in pencil and feels fluid and unfinished. I’m also looking forward to exploring these topics in my next podcast interview with Dave.

By this stage, as is clear in this photo, I was getting tired. I mean by now we’d been at it for 11 hours!


So, there you go. I’m sure you can appreciate why I called the day delicious, and I hope this has been interesting/helpful to you. If so, why not leave a comment below sharing any thoughts or reflections it brings up for you. I close with a pic of Dave with the day’s design (which he generously had all of us co-sign)…



In Dialogue with Dave Jacke (E06)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a high-energy, cut to the chase dialogue with Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens. Dave and Dan explore:

  • Dave’s 38+ year journey with design process and permaculture including:
    • his first design project at Simon’s Rock College
    • his initial contact with permaculture and then Bill Mollison
    • his initial contact with the writings of Christopher Alexander (especially Alexander’s 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form)
    • his experience studying at the Conway School of Landscape Design
    • his relationship to permaculture
    • his ecological design process
  • Permaculture’s design process enigma (has a lot to say about ecological design but not a lot to say about ecological design process)
  • The relation between the designer, the designing, and the designed
  • Problems with the expert/hero approach to design
  • The relation between rationality and feeling/emotion inside ecological design process
  • So much else…

Dave Jacke’s work has been referenced many times in previous posts, and was the sole focus of this one.

We really hope you enjoy the episode, which is feeling like beginning of a longer conversation, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dave doing site analysis at Yandoit Farm, Victoria, Australia, 2016

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 24

About six months back my friends and permaculture design colleagues Finn Mackesy and Gary Marshall got in touch. They were keen for peer feedback on a beautifully presented short document laying out the design process framework underlying their work as part of Resilio Studio (Auckland, NZ).

You can download and view the entire (21 page) document in PDF format here or here. Here is a taste:

Now at first glance, this is yet another variation on the linear fabricating approach I found standard across all permaculture design process descriptions I could find in my earlier literature review:

Here, design process is conceptualised and written down or diagrammatically summarised as a linear sequence of steps in which a design is put together to a relatively complete level and only then implemented. A bunch of arrows is then added to try and do justice to the fact that in reality the different steps tend to get all mixed up with other (in space and time).1

However, flipping through the document the above image sits within, I was pleasantly surprised to notice mention of generative processes – which apart from by myself and these legends I had never before seen mentioned in the permaculture literature.2

The document explicitly differentiates what they call sequential processes (or implementation strategies):

from a particular take on generative ones:

Gary confirmed my suspicion that this inclusion was at least in part a result of his keeping an eye on goings-on here at Making Permaculture Stronger.3

I immediately realised that their document would serve as a fantastic example of how others have incorporated some of the discoveries of this latest inquiry into their basic understandings of sound design process. Indeed, in the very last post of this inquiry I shared how the permaculture design company I run alongside Adam Grubb has gone about this.

In this post I thank Finn, Gary and the rest of the Resilio Studio team for giving  me permission to share their process here (be sure also to check out their projects page including this example of them applying their process in a real-world context).

As Gary put it when he originally shared this with me:

this is a ‘live document’ we are keen to get input from a wide range of people to feed into the next iteration.  With no expectation, if you have the time, energy and inclination, it would be great to get your feedback – any and all feedback welcome.

What a great attitude – I’m honoured to count Gary & Finn as colleagues in the space of clarifying and sharing their evolving understandings in the genuine interest of strengthening them.4

Okay, more than enough from me. I’ll now hand over to Gary to introduce the Resilio Studio Design Primer, and I will share my feedback in the comments below.

We designed the primer as a high level, loose fit guide to the design process for the purpose of applying it to a wide range of design challenges and contexts. We designed it for ourselves as design practitioners trying to work across a range of fields and as a resource for our design education and training work.

The primer describes both agile/iterative/generative processes as well as sequential/waterfall/fabricated processes. In our experience design processes and implementation strategies need to match the design context. Depending on the project, we find that sometimes an iterative approach is most appropriate and at other times more sequential processes are better suited. For larger and/or more complex projects there is usually elements of both.

As an emerging design practice we have applied this design process and the sequential, generative as well as hybrid implementation strategies to a range of projects. These include purely social interventions through to physical infrastructure as well as ‘placemaking’ projects that involve both community development as well as built outcomes.

Gary Marshall
Auckland, New Zealand.


Darren J. Doherty on Design Process, the Regrarians Approach, and Making Permaculture Stronger (E05)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a wide-ranging conversation with Darren J. Doherty from Regrarians.org. Darren and Dan explore:

  • Darren’s 25-year journey with design process including:
    • how he got started
    • key influences along the way
    • key realisations along the way
  • The Regrarians Works Pattern and the Regrarians Platform
  • The current state and trajectory of permaculture including why good people so often seem to leave
  • The relationship of Darren and the Regrarians approach to permaculture
  • much else, including the new 10 week REX® Online Farm Planning Program (that Dan is looking forward to participating in as a student)

We really hope you enjoy the episode, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dan and Darren recording this episode last week in Bendigo, Australia

Oh yes, one more thing – during the closing comments at the episode’s end, Dan refers to this video clip:

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 23

Two posts back I summarised the key discoveries of an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside healthy permaculture design process (starting here).

In the last post I shared a podcast with Ben Falk in which we chatted about this relation (as well as a bunch of other stuff).

In the next couple of posts I want to share a few examples of how a couple of different permaculture designers have responded to or adapted some of the outcomes of this inquiry into their own design process understandings, models, or diagrams.

I would love to hear from others about this too. The way I see it, either you already had something quite different to what is available in the existing permaculture design literature, or, if the conclusions of this inquiry have any validity, a wee bit of revision is in order!

In this post I’ll share an example from the permaculture design firm I run with my friend Adam Grubb. We call it VEG or Very Edible Gardens. In the next post I’ll share an example from some colleagues who run Resilio Studio over in New Zealand. Then, if you’d care to submit something, perhaps in the next post I’ll share your take.

VEG’s Design Process Diagram

Okay, let’s look at VEG’s example.

After many years of trying to diagrammatically summarise the design process we were using and evolving we ended up with this1

…which we were most proud of, and used to train quite a few workshop participants. Yet in the terms of the foregoing inquiry, just like all the other examples I have reviewed, this is a clean example of fabricating, in which designing up to a detailed level precedes implementation.

As the results of this inquiry started to illuminate crippling deficiencies with fabricating as an appropriate approach to permaculture design, I realised that things had to change. The above diagram just didn’t sit right no more. It felt like I was misleading people if I suggested this was the most effective way to go about organising one’s process. Furthermore, it was losing its correlation with my own processes of designing and developing, both personally and professionally.

So in a spare minute before a course I changed it2

…so that it at least now reflects what I’ve been calling a hybrid process (if not going as far as fully fledged generating). In a hybrid process, you get as far as a concept design before launching into implementation and let all the detail emerge from an iterative dance between reflecting, acting, and evaluating. Head, hand, and heart, all moving forward together. See an example here.

Personally I’m only just edging into the territory of feeling comfortable of bringing fresh designers straight into a fully generative process.3 I’m there with my own process, but in terms of an on-ramp for others, the above diagram is about as far as I’ve pushed it. But I can feel a completely fresh diagram emerging, starting from scratch rather than trying to retrofit what started out as yet another linear fabricating sequence, with the addition of more and more little feedback arrows trying helplessly to hold it all together. More on that in due course, no doubt.

Anyways, that’s it folks – one example of translating the outcomes of this inquiry into our work as designers and design educators.

In the next post I’ll share another example. Meantime, a good day to you.

ps. Again, if you also care to share your current best effort at a diagrammatic summary of your take on sound permaculture design process, then right about now is a particularly good time to give me a nudge. I mean I’ve just shown you mine, right? Surely a little reciprocation is in order?

More broadly, I’d be thrilled if this site became some kind of sharing place where permaculture design educators from around the world could share and co-evolve design process understandings. Permaculture’s lone wolf era is over, people, let’s catch up with the times here! Any ideas on how this might be facilitated (and in particular anyone with energy to help make it so) are welcome!


In Dialogue with Ben Falk (E04)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a rich dialogue with Ben Falk from Whole Systems Design. Dan and Ben explore issues and themes around:

  • heathy living processes of design and creation
  • working with clients
  • the relation of necessity to beauty
  • part of what it might mean to enjoy an authentic, healthy, connected life.

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 22

Okay, we are on the home straight here in what is the twenty-second post in an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside permaculture design process. It is time to somehow sum all these adventures up and bring home the key discoveries. Here goes.

The Standard Permaculture Approach

I started this inquiry by showing that differences aside, every description of a coherent permaculture design process I could find (including my own) treats design and implementation as two separate phases. I mean two separate phases in the sense that you complete the entire design, typically to a high degree of detail, and only then implement it. After Christopher Alexander, we’ve been calling this widespread view of design1 process a fabricating approach.

Here it is diagrammatically (click here for the key to this and the similarly formatted diagrams below):

Design happens first. Implementation happens second. You come up with the design. You actualise the design.

In a fabricating process the rhythm is decide-draw-decide-draw-decide-draw before moving on to a big chunk of (post-design) DOING

Implementation brings up new information that feeds back into the design, yes. Some writers emphasise this fact less, others more. None deny that such iteration happens. That the design evolves based on what happens as it is sequentially actualised. But this feedback-driven evolution kicks in only after the design has been completed.

Issues with this Standard Approach

In this inquiry I’ve shared some compelling arguments2 that this fabricating approach cannot fail to compromise the quality of our design work, and of the gardens or whatever else coming out of that design work.

Indeed, drawing on the work of Christopher Alexander, I’ve tried to show how any attempt to complete a detailed design before implementation involves so much premature and hence arbitrary guesswork and imposition that the quality of the design process is almost necessarily crippled. Though Alexander was mostly interested in buildings, his point applies equally to everything permaculturists design and create. In Alexander’s approach to making things:

…it is theoretically impossible for a successful [thing] to be built from a set of drawings which specify every detail, because that would cripple the capacity of feedback to help shape the elements as they are built (Christopher Alexander 2005, p. 485)

Indeed, as we gleaned from a brief chat with an acorn, the idea of a separate up-front detailed design before implementation flies in the face of how living systems themselves come into being and grow. This is a little bit embarrassing for a design approach supposedly committed to mimicking natural systems!3

These are not the sort of issues to be downplayed, ignored, swept under the rug. They are issues worthy of shining a spotlight on, of bringing out onto the table. Of sorting out.

So where to from here?

Unsatisfactory ways of Resolving these Issues

One approach is to try and patch things up.

We can add more arrows. We can continue propagating idealised linear sequences requiring multiple disclaimers about how non-idealised, how messy, iterative, interrelated the reality of using them is.

I don’t find that approach satisfactory.

Neither is the alternative of what I’ve been calling winging it. While one might use phrases such as “going with the flow”, “being organic” and so on, in this context such phrases are euphemisms for doing shit semi-randomly and generally steering oneself directly into chaos.

The upshot is that we have found both winging it and fabricating to be fundamentally flawed ways of understanding the essence of a sound permaculture design process. Hence the big red crosses. Thumbs down, dude.

Two Promising Leads

The bulk of this inquiry has been an investigation of two alternative framings of permaculture design process. Framings which avoid the issues inherent in both fabricating and winging it. I have been calling these two alternatives the hybrid and the generating approaches, as shown to the right of this diagram:

In exploring this space, in addition to the voices shared below, I owe a debt of gratitude to the action-centric and specifically the agile movements in software development, inside which much development in these directions has been going on for decades.4

The Hybrid Approach

In the hybrid approach, which I happened onto thanks to a nudge from Bill Mollison, you complete a concept-level design only before commencing implementation. The detailed design then emerges from within the implementation. As Bill put it in the Designer’s Manual:5

Break up the job into small, easily achievable, basic stages and complete these one at a time. Never draw up long lists of tasks, just the next stage. It is only in the design phase that we plan the system as a whole, so that our smaller nucleus plans are always in relation to a larger plan.

In the below diagram the hybrid approach entails a little run of decide-draw-decide-draw up front and then jumps across to decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do for the bulk of the journey (The idea being that you do just enough fabricating to make sure you’re not about to get yourself in trouble, and then it’s generating time):

I shared an example of a hybrid approach starting here.

In this example, we only got as far as this concept design before commencing implementation:

Guess what? It worked a treat. Nothing went wrong. In fact a lot more went right than my hundreds of past experiences trying to make a fabricating approach work. The outcome fits its context beautifully, and really feels like it belongs:

It was also just really nice, to the point of being relaxing, to not have to worry about making detailed decisions ahead of time with a pencil. By making them inside the moment of implementing them, we instead used the bobcat, shovel and rake. This way, each detailed decision was so fully informed by the actual 100% real reality of where the system was at, that it was unquestionably better than we could ever have predicted up front.

Needless to say, I left the experience all but convinced that the way designing and implementing are related is absolutely crucial to the quality of the outcome.

I also left with the question of what would it feel like to start implementing before even a whole site or area concept plan was done.

The Generating Approach

In a generating process, such as that shared here, not even a whole-site concept plan is drawn up before implementation begins.

Here, even more differently to the standard permaculture mantra of:

  • observe (people and place or whatever)
  • concept design
  • detailed design
  • implement
  • evaluate/tweak

The process, as exemplified in this practical example, is instead something like:

  • Immerse in the overall context of the design
  • Decide on what high-level features or aspects to tackle first
  • Rapidly generate then iteratively test or prototype a first step until something feels solid and relatively certain
  • Adaptively implement that step
  • Re-immerse in the new reality of the just-transformed whole

Furthermore, all these things end up overlapping in time, with the idea of a linear sequence losing all relevance.6

This is the process as used to generate the emerging Mayberry Woodend landscape:

Here the rhythm is decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do such that the designing and drawing only get ahead of doing by a decision or two:

In a generating process, apart from the first decision, all key decisions are directly prompted by the just-updated reality of the actual real situation.

Christopher Alexander equates a generating process with an unfolding process, arguing that:

The more one understands the idea of unfolding, and the more one understands the key role which sequence plays in the unfolding process, the more it becomes clear that the process of design and the process of construction are inseparable” (2002, p. 322)7

Generative Whisperings from Within Permaculture

Because a generating approach appears at first glance to be the most radical departure from what the permaculture books say, I want to share here some fascinating statements from well-known and respected permaculture design authors in which a generating approach is clearly (to me at least) being hinted at, if not explicitly spelled out as such:

David Holmgren

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 such as cities. Many attempts at farm planning by consultants, including soil conservation officers and landscape architects, have tended to be master plans which encourage the notion of a final state for the landscape and farm. It might be noted that the final state for everything is death.

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, strategy planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (1994, p. 21)

The living, evolving system which we call permaculture can only come about as a result of the continuous interaction between the client as designer/practitioner and the elements of climate, soil, plants, animals, buildings and people (p. iii) Melliodora: Hepburn Permaculture Gardens (1995, republished as ebook 2005)

Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead

Early in his design process and site establishment chapter, Ben shares a simple diagram showing the planning and design process as an endless cyclic interplay between analysis (see, observe, study), interpretation (consider, decide, affect, apply, mimic) and action (disturb, construct, implement, manage). The diagram blurb reads:

site planning should be continuously fed by a never-ending process of analysing, interpreting, and acting.

In a 2013 podcast with interviewer Scott Man, Ben said:

More and more every year I rely on the planning process as identifying general steps and starting points and trying to visualise … an idealisation of what a place might be in 10 -20 – 50 years, but really using the planning process to identify starting points and letting those starting points then organically drive the actions following those starting points.

If this is not a generating process, I don’t know what is!8

Note: See also this more recent podcast in which Ben and I probe these issues directly and deeply.

Toby Hemenway

Although in his book The Permaculture City Toby recommends a fabricating approach, I was struck with this statement which to me is as, if not more, consistent with a generating process:

The point of any design is to move toward some desired outcome-a productive garden, a rewarding business-with as much certainty as possible, some sureness that we’re taking the right steps. … The design process, then, is a program for articulating that purpose and for giving us a sure set of procedures for choosing steps toward it (pp. 25-26)

Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster (The Field-Process Model)

It would be an unforgivable oversight not to pay respects here to Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster who in this important article not only make the distinction between fabricating (or what they call procedures) and generating processes but explore the characteristics of generating processes in much more detail than I have got to here. Hopefully some day the rest of permaculture will catch up to these exciting thinkers and design practitioners!


Here is the upshot. In terms of a sound approach to permaculture design process capable of reliably achieving the adapted, nature-mimicking systems permaculture aspires toward, winging it and fabricating get a big thumbs down.

The hybrid and generating approaches get a thumbs up (or big red tick, as the case may be).

In future discussions about permaculture design process, I would love to start seeing the hybrid and generating approaches at the very least being offered as equally viable approaches to permaculture design process.

It is my firm conclusion, however, that the hybrid and generating approaches are not only more viable. They simply are viable, whereas the fabricating approach is unviable as far as reliably realising permaculture’s promise in the world.

I sincerely hope that this effort contributes, even if it is a tiny little nudge, toward a stronger permaculture.


I would love to hear what you make of all this, either as a comment below, as an email through the contact form, or, even better, as a guest post which I invite anyone to submit.


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.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Three: A Vision of a Living World. Vol. 3. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2005.
Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm & Homestead, 2013.
Hemenway, Toby. The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green, 2015.
Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994.
Holmgren, David. Melliodora: Hepburn Permaculture Gardens. Holmgren Design Services, 1995.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.


Thanks to James Andrews and Alexander Olsson for their feedback on a draft of this post.


On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 21

I’ll here keep sharing an example of permaculture design and development as a generating process. In the last post we saw the first round of reflection and action.1 Here I share the second.


Having made the first move the process now really kicked into a generative rhythm or dance between designing (or thinking and feeling into the best next move) implementing (or making it), and evaluating where things were at now.

We moved our focus to what now felt like the right next step – a configuration of perimeter tree plantings towards addressing tensions around exposure generally and wind specifically.

As with the earthworks planning, the process here was led by being out on the site, marking out and tweaking from many angles.

We (the four clients, the tree planting contractor, and myself) started with some very high-level musings on a whiteboard…

Which was spontaneously made a little tiny bit more real by having some little paint pots pretend to be trees. We fiddling and jiggled before…

…heading outside (into a rare snow fall happening at that moment) to walk and look for issues. The next session we marked and stringed out the edge of the proposed main shelter belt planting around the entire ten-acres. Here Anna captures part of that process:

Here during another session Adam Grubb and I play with possible high-level configurations:

Here I talk through what had been happening (referring also to how we went about differentiating the whole space into treed and non-treed parts ah la our first inquiry):

Eventually we got a sketch of what was emerging onto a computer. Here is version one (each ‘m’ is a request for the Mayberry crew to measure from the fence to the stake-and-tape line so I could update the image based on the real design sketch which was drawn out 1:1 across the whole site with pigtail stakes and fencing tape):

and two:


The first round of trees now went in (this shot from the south-western corner of the property), thanks to local tree-establishment legend David Griffiths:

Leaving the site looking like this:

Earthworks Round Two

A bit later, in March 2017, machines came back to finish what they had started, including cutting the new entrance driveway (the location of which in the meantime had been further finessed).

Leaving the site (during a post-machine phase of evaluating and soaking up what had happened, exactly) looking like this…

…or from the other direction:

The development process at Mayberry continues today. It is not finished and of course really never will be. But I hope this has been enough of a chunk of it to achieve its purpose.


This concludes what is hopefully a clear example of an attempt at a generating process. Not even a whole-site concept plan was devised or drawn before implementation began. The patterns (both concept and detailed) emerged or unfolded out of the whole process rather than being predicted on a piece of paper up front.

This is not to say that pieces of paper were not involved, but that they were very much secondary in importance to the process of laying out and making changes on the ground.

So we have, I hope you’ll agree, just turned this question mark…

…into a tick.



Thanks heaps to the Mayberry crew (Anna, LJ, Tom, Menno, Rhys and Ren) for taking and sharing most of the above footage and photos – very much appreciated.


On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 20

Continuing on from the last, this post continues sharing the early stages of the (ongoing) Mayberry Woodend project.

In the last post I showed that having immersed in people and place, the focus was not on developing even a concept-level design for the whole site, but simply clarifying and crash testing the right first move.

Drawing on Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence, and with parallels to the agile/lean concepts of TSTTCPW (“the simplest thing that could possibly work”) and MVP (“minimal viable product”) the process honed in on an update to the existing driveway and dam configuration.

There are a couple of points I want to emphasise here.

The first is that at this stage there was no whole-site concept design.

Apart from passing allusions here and there, we hadn’t systematically considered tree systems, animal systems, irrigation systems, vegetable gardens, etc at even the concept design level, let alone in any kind of detail. It was almost like we forgot that stuff existed. For now. In order to focus 100% on the next best task at hand. All we had was clarity to the point of feeling all-but-certain that we had honed in on the best first move.1

The second is that we didn’t get to this point lightly or flippantly. As you saw in the last post, this clarity was hard-earned!

It was now time for a bit of…


At this stage implementation commenced, bulldozer style:

Earth being taken to a better place:

Before the works the main house dam looked like this:

After like this:

Here is a shot from a bit later again, thanks to the increased catchment via diversion drains:

During these earthworks implementation and design were co-evolving in tight partnership. With input and feedback from the clients and project co-manager David Griffiths, the earthworker (Graeme Jennings) was making thousands of decisions whereby the detailed design and layout of the works arose only from within the process of completing them.

As you have seen there was only the vaguest picture of what it was all going to look like before hand. Afterwards we updated the picture to reflect how it all turned out. So the on-ground development preceded and dictated the after-the-fact drawing up of the details.

Due to the wet weather the earthworks stopped at this stage and were completed about eight months later when soil moisture levels were again conducive.

To find out what happened next, well, you’ll just have to wait for the next post, won’t you!


On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 19

In the last post I summarised the processes of tuning or immersing into the people and place aspects of a particular design and development project (Mayberry Woodend).

I shared how we clarified the overall vision for the project, the areas and activities initially envisaged as contributing to this vision, and the existing structure or layout of the site and its surrounds.

In this post I continue the story of this process as it steps into the question of what move to make first?

For this is a story of experimenting in the space of generating, where rather than fabricating a whole-site design up front (whether to the concept or detailed stage) the focus is on clarifying a sensible first move, making that move, clarifying the next best move, making it, and so on.

Here, in Christopher Alexander’s words,

Each … decision,1 is made in sequence and in context. It is worked and reworked right then and there until it is mistake-free, i.e., it takes into account all the connecting relationships. This must be done in sequence and in context because the necessary information for a successful decision is not available prior to that step in the unfolding. (2002, p. 201)

The idea is that, taking natural processes as our model, we don’t bother trying to predict the future in the sense of making premature decisions about what happens down the line. We instead focus everything on being present to where we are now and what the right next step is from here.

In this sense a generating process is an unfolding process, where design and implementation are inextricably intertwined, and once things are in motion, co-exist as co-partners in an ongoing dance.

Getting High-Level Tensions on the Table

Some of the highest-level tensions to emerge during the analysis and assessment phase were to do with:

Water (lack thereof)

The site was very dry over the summer months and the two existing dams (ponds) were not holding water well at all, evidently due in part part to very limited catchments. Helping those dams better catch water falling as rain during winter and then store it for summer irrigation was an obvious design priority.

Wind (excess thereof)

The site was very windy to the extent of often unpleasant for food-producing plants, people, and other animals. In summer the strong winds exacerbated this tension around dryness. One could feel one’s skin desiccating, during a short walk, so one can imagine the effect of the skin of the earth (topsoil)

Visual Privacy and Property Integrity

Related to wind was the tension one felt around being fully exposed in all directions not just to wind but to neighbour’s eyeballs (including the neighbours yet to move into a large adjoining suburban development). Part of this two was the feeling of the place sort of bleeding into the surrounds without any kind of framing, any indication (apart from just anther fence) as to where the place started and stopped.


The existing driveway and main entrance to the houses was chronically tension-ridden. Here it is indicated on the aerial photo then with a photo of walking in:

Some of the tensions were:

  • as a guest arriving it felt very uncomfortable in that the driveway shot you into the most sheltered, private area tucked in behind the houses such that you couldn’t see where you were heading until you where there and it felt inappropriate as if you were bursting into the resident’s private space unannounced
  • on top of this as a guest arriving it felt very unclear where you should park both as you approached the homes and after you had entered the private-feeling space around the back
  • as a resident it felt uncomfortable to not be aware of a car arriving until it was at the back door, and sometimes not even until the guest knocked on the back door.
  • as a resident it felt unsafe to let the young children play in the most obvious, sheltered, shaded and accessible place given that at any moment a car could come flying into the space
  • the driveway was pushed up against one boundary meaning you didn’t get any kind of feel or view of the property you were entering
  • the driveway felt unbalanced in that on one side there was a semi-dense cypress hedge and on the other a line of large blue-gum eucalyptus & pine trees at much wider spacings meaning the driveway felt like a lop-sided, incomplete avenue (not to mention that the gums and pines were like a massive wick leading from the direction of highest fire-risk directly toward the homes)
  • the semi-dense cypress hedge on the boundary still allowed very partial vision through into the neighbour’s place which because it was mostly concealed felt somehow inappropriate
  • The Mayberry crew had from early on envisaged an additional dwelling of some kind, such as a bed and breakfast, on the property, and it seemed likely this would end up down he back. The current driveway meant guests would have to drive almost right through the main houses to get to their getaway – not ideal!

The First Move: honing in on, clarifying, and crash-testing from multiple angles

Now it was clear, a no-brainer if you will, that trees would be involved in addressing the tensions around wind. However, drawing on the idea underlying Percival Yeoman’s scale of permanence, we knew that the changes we made around water sat at a higher and more permanent level than trees. Same for the primary access ways into and through the property.

For after Climate and geology/landform, which we’d tuned into earlier, Percy’s2 scale run water, access, trees, and on from there.

So though we knew trees would be in the mix, we forgot about them for now. We knew we could get them fitting in with the higher-level water and access program later on.

This left us with water and access, which we also knew tend to work together to define a sort of skeleton for the site, that you subsequently can flesh out with trees and all the rest.

So we now focused 100% of our energy on this question:

how might we reconfigure the existing dams and access in order to fully resolve (or dissolve) the high-level tensions currently felt of each, and in a way that takes us toward the project (place and people) vision, and harmonises with and extends the existing deep structure of whole site?

It was game on and the ideas started flow.

One idea that emerged early on, and that emerged independently for a few of us, was the idea of re-routing the driveway such that it wound through the centre of the front of the property in such a way as to also define a drain enlarging the catchment for the largest dam.

Thanks to Tom for penning this recollection of how the idea arose for him:

One thing I was reflecting on last night was how the idea of the driveway came to me from the client perspective.  On top of all of the analysis work there was an important factor in all of it – which was just ‘time’.
To use a cooking analogy – We threw all of the raw ingredients (area mapping, topo maps, tensions we felt, holistic context, wishlist, walking the property over and over and mentally noting certain observations) into a big pot and let it warm up, simmer (for a few months at least) and eventually it bubbled over.  I stood in the back paddock on that high convex platform and without forcing it, the idea of a private, ‘away from the homestead’ guesthouse arose – it felt like it couldn’t be anywhere else.  So then I wondered ‘how you would get to it without going through our private house area?’ – which was one of our big existing tensions anyway.  And almost immediately (thanks to countless walks around the dam wall) I saw this new driveway taking us around the dam, away from the houses and connecting us to the back of the property.  In that moment so many tensions related to Access just evaporated and I thought ‘Wow – this is the answer!’
Here is the sketch Tom drew after this moment (the large oval representing a vaguely-defined possible area for the b&b idea they wanted to keep open as a future possibility):

I should mention here a critical aspect of the attitude to new ideas as they arose: we assumed that everything we came up with could be wrong, and set out immediately to seek and find evidence that it was was wrong.

It was walked. It was driven. It was discussed. More sketches were made. Here is an early version in which you can see noted two remaining issues/tensions:

Here’s a version with a suggested resolution of those two residual tensions. This was sent through to the earth worker (Graeme Jennings)3 and tree systems guru and project co-manager (David Griffiths)4 for feedback:

But it didn’t stop there. Oh no. We sought to put the decisions we were testing through every grinder imaginable. While staking out and tweaking over and over with a lazer level was part of the mix, so was the Mayberry crew building a clay model of the property and crash testing different driveway and dam configurations this way:

At one point I enjoyed watching this youtube of a driveway test from the comfort my house bus in New Zealand:

Here is a video of one of the many testdrives:

Time for Action

Here’s a hint of what happened next:

More in a week. Catch you then.


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.