On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 2

Though the high-level side-by-side comparisons I shared in the last post have their place, it would feel inappropriate to reduce each of the design process treatments we looked at in the last post to only one column in a table. Here, in the second post of our second inquiry, I review each treatment in more detail, attempting to do at least some justice to the nuances of the thinking behind each process description, and focusing in particular on the author’s presentation of the relation between the designing and implementing phases of the process.

A More Detailed Breakdown of Current Permaculture Understandings of Design Process

As per the table, I’ll start with books, consider one article, then look through several easy-to-find online treatments.1 Here is a table of contents to help you see the line-up and get around:

If you’re short on time or interest, or just want to see if this joke is funny or not, be my guest and jump right on down to the punch line in the post summary below, or across to the next post (which will be published within a week of this one)

Dave Jacke (Edible Forest Gardens VII)

Chapters Three and Four of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens Volume Two (2005) contain what is perhaps the permaculture literature’s most profound and influential presentation of design process, even if Dave, who wrote these chapters, referred to it there as a forest-garden design process, and nowadays prefers to call it an ecological design process.

Early on Dave warns against treating design process as “clean, linear, and organised” and as “rigidly following an idealised design-process outline, even ours” (p. 142). As he puts it:

Design is an elusive and enigmatic alchemy. Yet the magic of design lives, not in any design technique we might learn and use, but inside each one of us. The techniques serve only as touchstones to connect each of us to our own living creative process. Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself. (p. 141)

…where, despite this…

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 (p. 142)

…and, despite the way or order in which you engage with them…

When we take apart an idealized forest-garden design process we can see six fundamental, interrelated actions:

  • Goals articulation
  • Site analysis and assessment
  • Design concept development
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

In more detail, Dave breaks the overall design phase into conceptualschematic, detailed, and patch design sub-phases.2

Bringing our focus towards the threshold between design and implementation, in the detailed design phase Dave recommends that:

…ultimately you should aim to create hard-line drawings detailing the exact size, shape, and location of every element (p. 271)

…giving this example…

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

…then, as the last design phase (or sub-phase, if you prefer) before implementing…

In the patch design phase, you determine the species composition, patterning, and spacing of your garden plantings patch by patch to a high degree of specificity (p. 286)

…where, overall, his point is that…

We must design the details of that [design concept] whole to a point where we can gather the materials, energy and money necessary to create it, or at least identify logical first steps (p. 142)

…then, after evaluating your design and the process you’ve used to get to it,3 Dave explains:

Implementation is the next phase of your work, and the last piece of the design process. Site preparation usually comes first, followed by staking out the design on the ground and making final adjustments. Then you can plant. (p. 313)4

In subsequent chapters, Dave addresses Site Preparation, Garden Establishment, and Management, Maintenance and Co-evolution.

To summarise for the purposes of our focus in this inquiry, in the idealised design sequence given in Edible Forest Gardens, you complete a detailed design before implementing it.

Ben Falk (The Resilient Farm and Homestead)

Like that of Dave Jacke, Ben’s take on design process in this 2013 book stands out for its thoughtfulness, originality and high calibre.5 Indeed for Ben, design is more of an ongoing attitude than a process with a defined beginning or end. In his words:

It is essential to remember that this [design] process does not stop once the shovel hits the ground. Designing is a constant state of being, and when engaged in the world as a problem solver, you never turn off the tendency to notice a sub-optimal situation and think systematically about how to improve it. Design process can take many forms, and no one approach can be prescribed as the best for all people and all scales. However, it can be said that any effective design process is rooted in intense engagement with the problem at hand and the world in which that problem resides. (p. 24)

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 another relevant passage, Ben explains that in light of feeling overwhelmed with the unknown at the start of a path toward regeneration and resilience:

A structure for sifting through the seemingly endless variables is needed. Enter a process. Its beauty is its ability to narrow down options; its danger is in missing solutions that may be important. It is important to begin with two foundational elements: (1) you and (2) your place (or intended place). The rest of the design process can flow effectively from these two starting points but only if it is informed by the existing conditions of you and your place. (p. 46)

Like Dave Jacke, after many such insightful introductory comments (including a fascinating list of 72 novel design principles ), Ben proceeds to talk and share an example journey though a sequence of steps starting with the foundational elements mentioned in the above quote and ending with what he calls a working master plan.

Here’s the sequence, noting that he recommends reversing the order of the first two steps if you already have your land:6

  • Goals identification and requirements of the design
  • Assessing the site / land analysis
  • Design criteria
  • Imagination
  • Schematic design
  • Working plans and implementation documents

Ben emphasises the critical importance of treating the master plan, or as he prefers to call it, master working plan or simply working plan as highly malleable in light of what actually happens throughout its implementation:

Master plans are not solid, set-in-stone documents–although everyone wants them to be. Heck, I am hired many times largely because people want a plan that’s solid, unwavering, and something they can follow now and in ten years. Sorry-they don’t exist. Most plans are iterative. And despite the authoritative sounding name, master plans are no exception. A good ‘master’ plan is a working plan-in other words, it’s the latest version of good approaches. It will change: that much is guaranteed. The important part to remember is that it’s a guide for next decisions, not an ultimate life map or site oracle. Land and the lives unfolding for them are far too complex, unpredictable, and mysterious for any vision of a ‘way’ to hold up year after year.

And they have one more primary purpose: to avoid huge mistakes–for instance, not putting the house in the wrong place or putting the orchard where a road for the eventual barn will need to go. Such plans are ‘master’ only in that they locate elements that are thought to be inevitable in locations such that other actions can be made down the line. The paralysis that dominates a place when such a plan doesn’t exist, or conversely, the repeated mistakes made when such a plan is not in effect are spectacular. In this way a master or ‘working’ plan is essential. But don’t abuse it–remember, it’s a living document. It must change to remain valid (Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead, 2013, pp. 72-77)

To sum up, amongst deep insights about the essence of design, and despite emphasising the malleability of a working master plan for a site once implementation commences, in his shared sequence and examples in The Resilient Farm and Homestead, Ben recommends completing such a plan before implementing it.

Aranya (Permaculture Design: A step-by-step guide)

In his 2012 book Permaculture Design: A step by step guide, Aranya accessibly presents his take on permaculture design process in this sequence:

  • Surveying the site / recording site information
  • Client interview
  • Analysis
  • Placement
  • Design proposal
  • Implementation
  • Maintenance and evaluation

When he arrives at the implementation stage of the design, he explains:

So we are almost at the point now where we can impose our design ideas upon the real world, but first we need to create an implementation plan to guide us (p. 152)

The logic here is clear – complete your design, plan its implementation, then start implementing it.

Toby Hemenway (The Permaculture City)

In this highly-regarded 2015 publication, the late, great Toby Hemenway introduces the idea of a design process as follows:

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. Put simply, a design is a plan or set of strategies toward a purpose. 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)

After a rich survey of the various ingredients of what he calls a permaculture design toolkit, Toby explains that we now

…need a process that guides us through design from start to finish. Permaculture designers give their design processes an assortment of names and acronyms, but they all follow the same pattern (p. 45)

Here is the list of steps Toby thinks best captures this pattern:

  • Observation
  • Research
  • Conceptual design
  • Master planning
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation
  • Tweaking

Skipping on down toward our target of the design – implementation threshold, Toby describes master planning as:

…the step that most people think of as design, where the locations and relationships of the systems and elements are put on paper and the organizational structure is laid out (p. 46)

Implementation in turn is where:

…we plan the sequence of tasks that will make the design real, then implement them (p. 46)

Followed by evaluation step, where Toby explains:

In permaculture design [evaluation] is an integral part of the design process. It creates a feedback loop, a defining hallmark of any whole system (p. 46)

Finally, evaluation leads into tweaking, where:

If you did the design well, the changes will be modest, not wholesale revisions (p. 47)

The idea being that you should expect to tweak your earlier design work based on the new information garnered during the process of implementing it. It is interesting here to note Toby’s choice of the word tweak which, as he explains above, implies relatively fine-grained modifications to the already-completed design.

Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein (Practical Permaculture )

In their Practical Permaculture (2015), Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein:

…take a master planning approach to the design process, which means breaking it down into steps that result finally in a master plan. In part 1 of the design process, you will analyze and assess the needs of your site and yourself. By bringing these sets of needs together, in part 2 you will use permaculture design methods to generate ideas that you can evaluate using the principles we discussed earlier. After that, in part 3, you will take the big picture master plan you’ve created and get down to the details of implementing it (p. 59)

In more detail, their design process steps are:

  • initial site observation and getting to know the land
  • development of vision and objectives
  • site analysis and assessment
  • conceptual design
  • schematic design (resulting in master plan)
  • implementation planning
  • detailing and working documents
  • maintenance planning

Again skipping to our point of interest here, Jessi & Dave explain:

During the schematic design step, your goal is to land individual elements on the base map. This means you draw all buildings, roads and paths, water bodies, and other major site features to scale where you intend them to be installed. During this step, it is also important to create multiple iterations of your layouts so you can have several options to choose from (or hybridize) (p. 97)

In terms of the degree of detail, they say that

At the end of this step, you will have a master plan from which to work. (p. 97)


Not all the details of your master plan need to be figured out during this phase, but it should be comprehensive enough to guide you toward your goals (p. 97)

Giving some at least relatively detailed examples of master plans, in the implementation planning step, Jessi & Dave explain:

Once you have you master plan in hand, you’re ready to get to work on the land. (p. 130)

Peter Light (Article in Permaculture Design Magazine)

In his article No Challenge published in the November 2016 issue of Permaculture Design Magazine (downloadable as PDF here),7 permaculturist Peter Light explained:

During the first stage of design… a great deal of time must be spent listening to and asking questions of a client to find out as many details as possible about what the client needs and wants, the functions the building or landscape are meant to fulfill, who will be living, working, or being served by the creation, and so on….

The next step for permaculture is a site analysis…

Once a site analysis is completed… we can begin to start stage three, formulating a design, in head and on paper…

Coming to stage four—the on-ground implementation of the design… (p. 59)

I find this breakdown interesting in Peter’s emphasis that not only are the design and implementation steps separate in time or chronological order, but that for him they also occur in separate places – the design “in head and on paper,” the implementation “on the ground.” Peter refers more than once to the:8

..two separate stages of design work: the on-ground implementation of a design, in the first case; and the formulation of a design in head and on paper, in the second case.9

Given its relevance to our focus on the boundary between designing and implementing, let us explore this a little more. It is interesting to reflect that while this statement is extreme, it is probably not that controversial. The literature of permaculture design does tend to treat design and implementation as not only separate steps in time, but as happening in separate places. Design in the head and on paper, implementation on the ground.

Yet of course no-one would question that the two start dissolving into each other in practice. In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke has a section discussing the pros and con of designing on paper vs designing on-site, in which he states:

Some people prefer to design on-site to the exclusion of designing on paper. That is certainly fine if it works best for you.

…where on the one hand…

…even if you want to do mostly on-site design, we recommend that you create a rough base map for site analysis and then keep the map and a notebook handy to sketch ideas, take notes, and evaluate options during the design phase.

…but on the other…

at some point everyone will have to stop designing in paper and use stakes, string, and other tools to lay things out on the actual landscape before actually planting or building; some will choose to do this soon rather than later

In The Resilient Farm and Homestead, while giving many examples of designing on paper, Ben Falk stresses that:

There’s absolutely no better way to physically hint at and offer insight into the possible changes (and results) to a place than using large objects to lay out in a space for help in envisaging the changes. We use wood, tires, vehicles, people, barrels, potted plants, rope, chalk lines on the ground, and much more to do this (p. 68)

We sum up this unexpected little side discussion in the below diagram,10 which we assume most permaculturalists, including Peter, would be comfortable with (modifying the degree overlap to suit their preference):

As it is presented, discussed, and exemplified across the literature of permaculture design, designing tends to happen more in the mind and on paper, though of course it also involves on-the-ground marking out / mocking up. On the flipside, though implementation happens mostly on the ground, it ideally also involves evaluating and modifying the design as well.

Appleseed Permaculture (website)

On this page the team from Appleseed Permaculture share this “visual map of the process we use with each of our clients”11

Because their description is so concise and helpful, I repeat it in its entirety:

We begin by collecting the goals and vision from our client. We look for both pattern level goals like increasing on-site food production to specific desires like introducing chickens. We use both pattern and detail level goals to inform the rest of the design process. After our first visit with the client a more formal Goals Articulation Statement will be created.

Next we begin to Analyze and Assess the site. This phase of the design process begins before we arrive on the site by researching soil types, printing aerial photographs of the site and establishing a bird’s eye view of the property in relation to it’s surroundings. Site analysis continues through the initial consultation and depending on the size of the property/project additional site visits will be scheduled. This crucial data collection phase is informed by the landscape. We will be looking at slope, soils, aspect and existing vegetation to name just a few of the already existing landscape features that will support the rest of the design process.

These initial phases form the foundation upon which the rest of the design process unfolds. Now we move into Design. We begin by creating a number of Schematic and Concept Designs. These designs are not detailed and act as a creative canvas, throwing all of our ideas on the table. The point at which our ideas are exhausted we distill down all of the right design elements to be included in the Final Design.

Once the design is complete we move into the Implementation phase of the design process. This is where the plants go into the ground, the pond gets dug and the solar panels go onto the roof. AppleSeed Permaculture specializes in certain elements of Implementation and works with trusted professionals to ensure that all of your desired design elements get installed.

The last phase of the design process is Evaluation. This is where we take a step back. The landscape informs us on the validity of our design decisions. From there the Design Process begins anew. New goals might be formed based on the Evaluation phase and so forth.

The statement with the most bearing on our current inquiry is:

Once the design is complete we move into the Implementation phase of the design process

Very Edible Gardens (website)

On this page I have previously shared the diagrammatic portrayal of permaculture design process my colleague/friend Adam Grubb and I have developed together:12

Note in particular the separate boxes used to indicate design and implementation, the darker arrows showing the suggested chronological sequence of steps, and the lighter arrows indicating the return sweep of feedback from each stage of the process back to its beginning.

Here’s an example of a (pre-implementation) detailed design resulting from this approach:

In summary, in the Very Edible Gardens process you complete a detailed design before moving into implementation.

Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (website)

On this page the folk at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center explain that:

The permaculture design process consists of several phases: assessment, visioning, designing, and implementation.

In more detail these phases are presented and summarised:

  • Assessment
  • Visioning
  • Designing
    • Conceptual Planning
    • Master Planning and Design Review
  • Element Specifications and Budgeting
  • Implementation

At the Element Specifications and Budgeting stage, the authors explain that:

Once the master plan is complete, each element is designed in detail. Once the element designs are complete, budgets can be created, funding sought, and permits acquired. The sequencing of the implementation of the design takes places as part of this phase.

Here clearly a detailed design is completed prior to its implementation. Then, reminiscent of the return arrows we saw in all the above design process diagrams, the close with the statement:

The design process is a reiterative process that may move linearly through design steps or may circle from one to another and back again. Depending on the information that arises in each phase, steps may be revisited and the design revised.


This post has examined nine different presentations of permaculture design process as a chronologically sequenced series of steps, stages, or phases.

All these publicly published (and in many cases widely read and respected) presentations are variations on a theme in which:

  • In one order or the other, you tune into people and site.
  • You only then come up with a design, working from patterns (concept/schematic) toward details (master/detailed design).
  • Design completed to a satisfactory degree of detail, you only then implement the design.13
  • You manage/maintain/evaluate the process of implementing the design, going back to tweak, adjust or revise it as necessary.

Many if not all of the treatments emphasise the messiness of the process in reality, the jumping about, the constant iterating back to an earlier phase, and the importance of treating the design as a working plan to keep revising as the project evolves.

In spite of such disclaimers, after what I hope you will appreciate has been a careful and sympathetic reading of each reviewed design process presentation, this post leads me to conclude as follows: A core idea integral to how permaculture design process is understood and communicated in the permaculture literature is that of completing a design to some satisfactory degree of detail and only then implementing it.

In the next post, I’ll look at a problem with this idea.

Book References

Aranya. (2012). Permaculture Design. Permanent Publications.
Bloom, J., & Boehnlein, D. (2015). Practical Permaculture. Timberpress.
Falk, B. (2013). The Resilient Farm & Homestead.
Hemenway, T. (2015). The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green.
Jacke, D., & Toensmeier, E. (2005). Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture (Vol. 2). Chelsea Green.


  1. If you happen to be the author of any of the below summaries, should you find any inaccuracies please let us know so I can set them right. Thanks to Dave Jacke, Ben Falk and Conner from Appleseed Permaculture for reviewing/approving the bits on their approaches
  2. In even more detail, in each of these sub-phases he suggests that the infrastructure, architecture, social structure, and successional aspects of a design need to be worked out and integrated with each other.
  3. where, interestingly, Dave says “you don’t have to modify anything in light of these observations”
  4. In kindly reviewing a draft of this section, Dave explained that this quote “is spoken from the place of assuming a linear process, which almost never actually happens! But in the linear model, that quote is the idealized flow. 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). For the purposes of the current inquiry, this is an incredibly important, revealing, and relevant statement I will draw on extensively in posts to come.
  5. Not to mention its groundedness in real design experience
  6. Note that in wanting to express the gist, I have condensed a little the actual headings Ben uses which are

    • Goals identification and requirements of the design
    • Assessing the site
    • Land analysis
    • Design criteria
    • Imagination: limiting factor to design
    • Schematic design: sorting through multiple development options
    • Adapting land to rapid change
    • Diversity and connectivity
    • Working plans and implementation documents

  7. In a thoughtful critique of a reprint of this post of ours. Thanks to Peter for permission to share it here
  8. though he mentions them here in reverse order
  9. Similarly elsewhere Peter contrasts “…the creative conceptualization stage of designing, and the execution of a design…”
  10. which we thank Peter for prompting!
  11. Asking us in giving permission to reproduce it here to acknowledge Dave Jacke and Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 2 from which it is adapted
  12. You might notice Dave Jacke’s influence visible in some of the wordings
  13. Though in contrast again see Dave Jacke’s fascinating comment in endnote 4 above about how what he calls the “idealised linear sequence” presented in Edible Forest Gardens pans out in reality


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