Carol Sanford on Living Systems Thinking (E19)

The creation of this episode was an incredible experience. Carol is shockingly sharp, disruptive beyond belief, and an absolute thrill to be in a conversation with. This episode is dripping with rich insights into regenerative and living systems thinking and I know you’re going to love it.

Here is Carol’s personal website.

Here is an article Carol wrote about potential that has informed the future direction of Making Permaculture Stronger.

Here is a link to a page with info about Carol’s books. Her latest book is called The Regenerative Human and will be released March 2020. She asked me to mention that she is still looking for people to be involved in the action-learning project she discussed in our chat. See the details of being involved in this here.

Here’s is Carol’s podcast Business Second Opinion. This episode goes through Seven Principles of Regeneration and is is well worth a listen.

Here are the Deep Pacific online workshops. Carol asked me to “Let your listeners know they are welcome. All recorded. No beginning or end. You begin when you Step on the Mat, like I learned in Aikido, and practice with all levels of experience.” I (Dan) am signing up so maybe I’ll see you there.

Here is Regenesis Group that was mentioned. For the interest of folk in the vicinity of Victoria, Australia, Regenesis member Joel Glanzberg will be running a one-day workshop on Regenerative Design in Melbourne July 2019.

Finally, here’s the conversation as a video:

Bringing it all together in one diagram (Part Seven) – Mapping the design process signature of permaculture, culture, and even nature herself (Your turn!)

Okay, let’s bring this little diagram sub-series toward home. I’m feeling that this and a couple more posts ought to do it…

To recap, I have introduced a little diagram, or table, or chart, or whatever the heck it is. I have taken some time to explain each of the three-fold distinctions comprising each axis. I have gone through in some detail the nine spaces the two axes define. The overall idea is that whenever we design or create anything, the process we use can be located somewhere in this chart.

I have shown that each of us as a person has an evolving process signature this chart can help us understand. I have shown that each project we are part of has an evolving process signature this chart can help us understand. BY way of a mini-recap, by process signature is meant the centre of gravity of a person, project or whatever’s design process dynamics.

In this post I want to zoom out. I want to show how we can use the chart to map the process signature of larger things. Things like permaculture itself as a global body of theory and practice. Things like modern culture itself as a global body of theory and practice (that permaculture is nested within). Heck, things like the entire rest of nature herself (which modern culture is nested within).

I am excited about where this exercise might lead us. While I have an inkling of what ballpark that might be, I’m so open to surprises along the way. This is where you come in. For here’s what I suggest. Before I share my attempt to locate the process signature of these three things on the chart based on my (limited/partial) perspective, I’m going to invite you to have a go based on yours. Yes you, you reading this. I invite you to go through the below exercise then to publicly or privately reach out and let me know your results. Come on people, let’s do this! Let’s get excited about some globally distributed on-and-offline permaculture design process participatory research!

Your Mission (if you choose to accept it)

Your mission has three tasks. The first task has two sub-tasks. So that’s four tasks you just signed up for by starting to read this paragraph. Thanks. Now I invite you to read on and to do exactly what I say :-).

Start by getting yourself a version of this chart you can make marks on. Maybe copy it onto some notepaper or something:

Mission 1.1: Where is Permaculture in General At?

Here I invite you to consider the design process signature of permaculture itself and then to place your mark on the chart. Here by permaculture I mean permaculture in general. I mean taking all the permaculture design process descriptions, definitions, demonstrations, examples, experiences you have ever encountered, seen, read about, heard about. Ones you may have personally participated in, for sure. But as importantly all those you’ve read about, seen online, heard about, one way or another are aware of. Imagine gathering them up into one big basket.

Great, now imagine cramming them all into a giant pedal-powered blender. Now imagine yourselves jumping on the bike and pedalling. Really go for it! Whiz those suckers to a paste. Blend all the different process examples, whether one, ten or a thousand, into a smoothie. I’m hoping it will come out something like chlorophyl green, but let it be whatever colour it is. Don’t argue with it or try to tamper with the result in any way. Let it be exactly what it is.

Now imagine tipping a teaspoon or so of smoothie onto this here chart where ever it best belongs:

Come on, come on, make your mark – the suspense is killing me!

In other words, I’m asking you to take the average of all the permaculture design process descriptions, definitions, demonstrations, examples, experiences etc. you are aware of and to place that average on this particular map. It may be a weird shape. It may be inside one square or spread out over a bunch of squares. It may be round and fat. It may be a long thin curving shape. It may have vague boundaries. Whatever. So long is there some kind of blob or smearing of smoothie on the chart I’m happy and you’re done.

Now. For the next step.

Mission 1.2: Where is Permaculture’s Cutting Edge At?

Your next task is to make another smoothie. This time I want you to move your ingredient list from permaculture design process stuff in general to the subset you personally consider to represent permaculture’s cutting edge (as far as design process goes). The stuff that resonates most deeply with you. The stuff that in your experience leads to the outcomes you feel best represent whatever you feel that permaculture is really about. The books about permaculture design process that excite you the most. The permaculture designers you most deeply respect, perhaps those that have been living and breathing and practicing permaculture for the longest. That sort of thing. And regardless what the domain of application is.

Note: I’m assuming here that permaculture is a) evolving and b) evolving toward its cutting edge.

Okay you know what happens next. Rinse out the blender and make another smoothie. Again, tip a bit on the chart and see where it ends up. Make your mark. It may overlap with your prior mark, it may not. Now wash the blender out again (if I would you I’d drink the remainder of the contents first). Onward.

Mission 2: Where is Modern Culture At?

Forget about permaculture for a moment. Zoom your focus out to modern culture as a whole.

You see what I’ve done here – I mean if permaculture’s cutting edge is not actually deforming the boundary of modern culture in beautiful directions then something is badly wrong, right?…

Now same deal. Pedal, smoothie, blob, map. On average, in general, where on the map do the dominant or default creation processes in daily use in modern culture sit? How are buildings, bathrooms, parks, roads, school curriculums, websites and whatever else created in general in modern culture terms of the chart? Make your third mark.

What process created these buildings? Image source.

Onward. One more smoothie to make then you are off the hook (and it’s my turn).

Mission 3: Where is the Rest of Nature At?

Alrighty, one more zoom out. Or zoom in, or zoom sideways. No matter which you’ll soon find the rest of nature there waiting. I want you to take the rest of nature as a whole. Waves, starfish, mountains, frogs, forests, fungi, fingers. All of her.

Through the lens of the chart, how do they get created in general? As you understand it, are frogs fabricated or generated? Are apples assembled or partitioned or transformed into existence? Make your fourth mark on the map. Make sure you colour or label them so you don’t get mixed up later.

How did these fingers and the tendril come to into being? Photo courtesy of Joel Glanzberg.


Thanks in advance for your work. I look forward to receiving your emails and comments and to collating and feeding back the results in the next post. Frankly given this blog is not exactly mainstream if I even get one or two responses I’ll be happy enough. You could either send through a photo of your marked chart or send it through as A2, B3, etc. If you’d like your input to be anonymous that’s fine – send it through and let me know you’d like to remain unnamed. You have two weeks.


For the public record Making Permaculture Stronger now has a patreon page you can hear/read about here.

What is Transformation and how does it differ from Assembly and Partitioning? Response to a reader query

Hey all. So back in April, MPS follower (and as of yesterday patron!) Finn Weddle sent me a message, in which he very kindly took the time to share that:

your podcasts have been a huge contributor to my newly gained confidence to actually design! I have done a few ‘soft’ designs, both in the sense of not being fully written up and in the sense of people social permaculture designs (one design for a community of interest hub, one for a lesson plan), but never had much of a chance to apply myself to a ‘hard’ design. One of the many factors to this has been my tendency towards analysis till paralysis, and the culmination of your inquiry as ‘generative transformation’ has really allowed me to open up my design work much more. I am only half way through, but my ‘client’/sister is bowled away by how adaptive and personalised my plan for her garden is and is singing high praise, so it’s going well. Also of note is that I’ve had a great many eureka moments for this specific project whilst listening to your podcast, so perhaps beyond all the intellectual stuff there’s a hidden truth that just listening to conversations about design process, whilst designing, is the best design process there is? Fractaaaal……

Finn went on to ask a question about what the heck I’m getting at with this concept of transformation in this chart that has unexpectedly popped out the end of Making Permaculture Stronger’s first two inquiries.

Here’s his query, which he kindly agreed to let me share here (perhaps because I implied that was the only way he’d get a decent response out of me :-)):

About the A1-C3 chart, I’m a little bit stuck though. The x-axis is crystal clear to me, and I am very confident in what you call generative design. (With my sister I’m having to use a hybrid, as she lives some 400+ miles from me, and I’m actually marketing it as the ‘least best design’ possible – it is presented as a masterplan, with 5 phases covering 3 years in the garden, and is the best I can do using the concepts and methods I have. BUT I am clear that it is only the best I can do from where I’m standing now and a version of me (or the client) in the future would make a much better design. So Phase 1 is 100% spot on, Phase 2 is very soon after so is 95% spot on, Phase 3 is not for 9 months and much could change by then, including the way in which Phase 1 and 2 were implemented, so actually around 80% spot on. After that it’s barely 50% accuracy i.e. so much could have changed from present day to the end of the project that it’s meaningless for me to go into much detail, but I can explain the concepts/patterns going forward for the client to apply themselves.) However, I’m struggling to get a clear idea of what you describe by ‘transformation’. I can see the clear difference between assembling and partitioning, and I can see that they’re both very useful for different design contexts or even different elements within a particular design, but I can’t find a clear and meaningful definition of what you call Row 3. Would it be right to summarise the y-axis as: Row 1 detail-work, Row 2 pattern-work, Row 3 the ping-pong match between patterns and details?

All the best pal,

First up I have to say I am delighted to hear that the blog and podcast have had a clarifying and opening impact on your design process experiments and adventures Finn – hooray!

Now to the query, which I so appreciate you grappling with. First I’ll say that I continue to grapple with this also. In a real sense this whole blog is me trying to figure stuff like this out in the process of writing and talking about it. So rather than having some perfect answer for you I’m grateful for this opportunity to strive for greater clarity. Given I am quite sure there is a useful distinction to be had here.

First up the answer to the specific question you end with is yes, I see it as very much something like that. To flesh it out a bit I’d say that assembly is details to patterns work, partitioning is patterns to details work, and transformation is both at the same time (the ping pong thing).

As a complement to my previously penned thoughts on this, I’ll have a go at describing it freshly and with the addition of some more recent developments. Okay, I’m taking a deep breath before I discover how this is going to come out :-)…

Assembly starts with parts and strives to achieve wholes by bringing parts together into meaningful configurations. Here the parts come first and the whole comes second. In the Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison was speaking from an assembly perspective when he said “For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.” (p. 70, bold mine). I sometimes refer to assembly as partism, in the sense that the parts are primary, the whole secondary.

What I’m calling partitioning is a reaction to the limitations of assembly/partism (which is not to say it isn’t useful!). Recently I realised that what I call partitioning is what is sometimes referred to with the word holism. In this sense, holism turns partism on its head. Here the whole becomes primary, the parts secondary. We start with a whole then sort of tickle the whole into birthing the parts. It was Arthur Koestler in his phenomenally influential book The Ghost in the Machine that alerted me to this connection between partitioning and holism. Indeed, he invented the concept of a holon (part-whole) to try and resolve the conflict between partism and holism.

For me, having designed by assembly for some years, it felt like an exciting advance to move to starting with the pre-existing whole place or space or whatever and then divide, distinguish, partition it up from there. The outcomes were certainly more adapted, more integrated, and more honouring and enhancing of what was already there. I have shared a few examples of designing in this way here and here.

Enter transformation. Here, any debate between whether it is better to move from parts to whole or from whole to parts becomes completely redundant. Transformation transcends and includes partism and holism by accepting that everywhere and always we are only ever encountering and, if we deem appropriate, transforming an already existing whole-that-already-has-parts. So at the begining there is a whole-with-its-parts. After step one there is a (slightly different) whole-with-its-parts. After step two there is a (slightly different) whole-with-its-parts. And so on, forever. There is never a whole minus parts. There is never a part minus a whole. It is simply nonsense to try and treat them as if the one could somehow exist, even for a moment, without the other.1

Here is how I put it the first time I really realised this and tried to put it into words (where I have since substituted transformation for differentiation):

Thanks in large part to all the discussions and lines of thought this article has catalysed (many of them ongoing, as in the case of your comment), as well as my own experiments in applying these ideas, I’ve come to an updated understanding that works for me (for now) and resonates with much of what you say. Two key steps for me have been realising that assembly and differentiation are different logical types and that neither are committed to either the bottom-up or top-down direction of movement.

Here, I’ll put it into words (for the first time – thanks for the prompt!)

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 spite of my having started a bout of just such arguments – oh well -you live and learn ;-)). My focus is now moving to the question of where are we aiming with these sequences of changes we make? What is the point and purpose and overall destination? How do we know if we’re on track? How do we so often get off track? And what is the most appropriate way of understanding the relation of designing and implementing inside this sequence? 

Now I’m sorry Finn but I cannot resist in closing mentioning one little thing that might mess with your mind, as it continues to mess with mine. Transformation is not just ping pong. It is not just assembly then partitioning then assembly, back and forward. Patterns to details to patterns to details to patterns. Yes, this is part of it. But there is this other weird thing going on. You see we tend to think that as we move toward the parts we are moving away from the whole, and vice versa. For they are in different directions, right? Isn’t that the whole point of the distinction between wholes and parts – that one is up here and one is down there? For me, if I am honest with what I observe when I observe my self in process, it just ain’t that simple.

For me, the way I get closer to the whole is not up and away from the parts but is literally by going further into the parts. Indeed, the only place the whole can be found, if I’m honest to my experience (and not my unconsciously imbibed theories about how the world works), is in the parts! I know, I know – WTF right? Everyone knows that parts are inside wholes and that is how it is. But what I’ve been experimenting and dancing with is the irrefutable fact that it is at least as true, if not more true, that the whole is inside the parts.2 For me, even though logically it is something of a mind f%^&, this has been a beautiful realisation. So I’ll be curious to see what you and others make of it!

Over and out and I hope at least some of this was helpful Finn in feeding into your own sense-making and experience-noticing around this stuff. I believe this topic is a critical stepping stone on permaculture’s path toward a deep and shared understanding of an authentically nature-honouring creation process.


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

Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.

Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. Penguin Group, 1967.


Concept plans vs detailed plans

Guest post by Meg McGowan

Note from Dan: Mega thanks to Meg for permission to republish this from her personal blog. Great exploration of moving from what I call a fabricating toward a hybrid space.

Enough information to see the pattern clearly. Everything should be as simple as possible and not one bit simpler.

I’m a fan of the concept plan. Complete your sector and site analysis, establish your clients’ goals, priorities and vision, and play with all that information using design tools until you’ve come up with some broad brushstrokes across the site. These are sometimes called ‘bubble plans’ because you outline areas where different things will happen within the design but without going into specifics. Sometimes these are zones, and sometimes they are functional areas, like a chicken coop or a wildlife corridor.

Typically, this is the stage that you return to the client to flesh out the details. Then it’s several weeks of detailed drafting, plant lists, costings and recommendations to produce a finished plan. This is what permaculture certificate or degree teaches designers to do. It’s very similar to the process taught to landscape architects. The most notable difference is that a permaculture design incorporates the ethics and principles of the permaculture model. The drafting conventions are the same.

When we teach a permaculture design course (PDC), students are typically asked to produce one individual plan and one group plan. Some courses now include a social permaculture plan as either an alternative or additional project. I don’t require students to go beyond a concept plan. Here’s why:

Most students will not become professional designers

At the PDC level the majority of students will be designing for themselves. Their individual plan will be their own site. The real challenge is to get these students to start implementing permaculture on the ground. I consider this my primary goal. The plans are a means to an end.

A concept plan helps them to design the macro pattern for their site and gives them a clear understanding of how it’s an expression of the permaculture ethics and principles. It divides the site into manageable chunks in a way that a detailed plan often doesn’t.

For those wishing to become professional designers there is a compelling reason to learn detailed drafting. You will probably be dealing with other industry professionals and your plans will need to be accurately costed. They will also need to be read and understood by anyone the client contracts to implement the plan. Detailed plans are essential when dealing with government bodies or groups.

Detailed plans are a valuable communication tool for those that want to discuss a design with professionals, but for someone just starting out in permaculture they can seem overwhelming. Where to start? How to start? Do we wait until we can realise the whole plan in one go or do we randomly select a starting point. I have seen many beautiful plans presented in PDC’s but I’d estimate that less than 10% of them are ever realised. That’s a terrible waste of energy. I also suspect that the expectation to produce detailed plans might discourage some people from ever designing again.

I have commented before that implementation is one of the missing components of many PDCs but that’s a whole other subject. For today’s post it’s enough to say that if our goal is to get more permaculture happening then I fear that a course requirement for detailed plans might actually work against that goal.

If you’re never going to design for other people then a concept plan is likely to be a much better tool. It will help you to keep the pattern of your site in mind as you develop it. When you make changes, a concept plan will help you to stay aligned with the ethics and the principles because it shows you the pattern rather than the detail. I have seen many beautiful plans fall over at the implementation stage because clients didn’t appreciate the underlying pattern, or because the well-intentioned sales rep at the giant hardware store recommended what was ‘fashionable’.

“Nah, luv, you don’t want light pavers. Everyone’s putting in dark pavers this season….”

Student designs are typically implemented over time

While professional designers are usually working to a time frame and a budget, this is not the case for students implementing their own designs. Typically they will be incrementally making their permaculture dreams come true as time and budget allow. In the course of getting things done they will be learning. They will want to change their minds and their plans based on the feedback they receive from the site and from other members of their family or household. As their permaculture knowledge grows they will revise and improve their original ideas.

The trouble with detailed plans is that they are a snapshot in time, and not even an accurate snapshot. In my experience, there is no point in time when the property and the plan with match. There will always be deviation. So why invest all of that energy in a detailed plan in the first place? So much better to encourage students to invest their energy into getting stuck in.

We all know that the minute we break ground the plan is likely to be changed. We discover that the soil has bedrock just below the surface or that the map of the utilities was incorrect. We discover that our soil samples indicate some kind of contamination exactly at the spot we were going to put a food garden. The map is not the territory! Personal plans need to be flexible, so why do we make them detailed in the first place?

Much better to teach to this reality, and to make it safe for students to experiment, make mistakes and make changes. A concept plan invites flexibility and creativity. A detailed plan feels more permanent and changes are more difficult to make. Students might be reluctant to ‘ruin’ a finished plan and more likely to play with a concept plan. A concept plan is also more inclusive of other family members. Nick Ritar from Milkwood once commented that “the permaculture divorce is a thing” and who wouldn’t be put off by a fully realised plan with no opportunity for discussion or change. Okay, sure, you can say that you’re open to changing it, but there is a permanency about a detailed plan that makes others feel excluded, whereas a concept plan says, “Let’s work out the details together!”

We are not all artists

Drafting skills and artistic ability vary among students and the requirement for a detailed plan can leave some feeling embarrassed or incompetent. No matter how many reassurances you give students, there’s a pervading mood of inadequacy when the more creative students unveil their gorgeously presented plans. There’s a natural tendency to equate beauty with qualityeven though we know that a poorly drawn plan might actually be the more closely aligned with the ethics and principles.

There is insufficient time within a PDC to teach professional drafting skills so plans usually reflect the existing skill level of the student. These vary widely. I worry that the less beautiful plans are tucked into bottom draws or consigned to compost heaps with some embarrassment. A concept plan is much easier to draw and allows all students to feel competent in their designing. The pattern is the priority and not the aesthetics.

I also encourage students to include whatever they need to communicate their ideas. Photos with overlays, lists of elements, strategies or goals, pictures of things that have inspired them and even vision boards or pinterest collections. I want students to feel both excited about their designs and capable of achieving them. The plan is not the goal. The creation of a system that meets human needs while increasing ecological health is the goal.

I’m particularly fond of an observation journal where students keep records about their site, ideas for what they are doing and, perhaps most importantly, progress reports on what they have done. I teach part time (typically one day a fortnight) so that there’s plenty of time for students to start doing. This also reflects best practice in adult education; what we don’t use we lose! Theoretical knowledge gets forgotten within a few months if adult students don’t apply it practically. Waiting until a detailed plan is finished before doing anything works against this.

Not everyone understands a two dimensional plan

Plans are a kind of code. We agree that certain types of lines and shapes will represent certain types of things, but not everyone has the ability to imagine what a two dimensional plan will look like in a three dimensional space. It’s like the way a musician can make sense of musical notation, but if you’re a person that doesn’t know musical notation it’s just so many marks on a page.

Students shouldn’t be prevented from designing a permaculture system just because they don’t understand a two dimensional plan. In many parts of the world the only option is to design on the site because they don’t have the luxury of paper and pencils. I’m inspired by Rosemary Morrow’s experiences in some of the harshest environments on earth where people use whatever is at hand to mark out a site. The scale of these designs is 1:1 and they are three dimensional. They are no less a permaculture design than something conceived on paper. Arguably, these designs are superior. They are more likely to intuitively include elements that a paper design can get wrong, like incorporating desirable views, shadow patterns, ergonomics and water flows.

I’m impressed by Dan Palmer’s recent video showing how he marks out a driveway on a property using hay bales. Only on site is it possible to determine that the line of sight from the house makes the old access road unsuitable. It probably looked like a reasonable option drawn on paper. Dan also talks about the benefits of starting with a macro pattern and developing the micro components on site. This seems like a much better use of human energy and has the advantage of engaging clients in a way that a paper plan never will.

The pattern is the design challenge

To my mind, a concept plan tells me everything I need to know as a trainer. It allows students to demonstrate to me that they understand the ethics and principles of permaculture and that they can apply them to designing. Learning outcomes achieved!

I can see the area they have set aside for wild things and they can tell me why it’s critical, but I don’t need to know which native species will grow here. They can show me an appreciation of value and the patterns of trees, with deciduous plants on the sunward side and nitrogen fixing species interplanted with food producing species. Do I need the specifics? Does it impact the quality of the plan if the food tree is a macadamia or a walnut? Or does the detail make it harder for me to assess their pattern?

I want to see a pattern for catching, storing, sinking, slowing and cleaning water before it leaves the site but I don’t need their first idea to be so carefully rendered that they won’t feel empowered to change it if they have a better idea in twelve months time. Students need to be able to answer questions about nutrient cycling, food production and animal systems (where they have them) but it’s their understanding of the functional aspects that matters and not their ability to draw them.

I am interested in seeing the overlays or any other information they collected in their sector and site analysis. I want to know how they got from there to their concept design. This process is the other important pattern, the design pattern, that I will encourage them to use every time they want to apply permaculture ethics and principles to a design task. Knowing this pattern is critical.

As teachers we need evidence of learning. It’s not enough that we are sure we told them. We need proof that our learning was effective. For me, a concept plan provides the best means for students to demonstrate this knowledge. It also makes it much safer for me to ask questions that might result in changes; altering a concept plan is not a big deal but ask “Where is your zone five” of a detailed, hand-painted, beautifully rendered design and you’ve got probably got a resentful student on your hands.

Concept plans might just be the way of the future

I used to do detailed plans for clients. Not so much these days. Permaculture challenges me to keep redesigning my life to bring it into better alignment with the ethics and principles. I made the observation that most of the people I know with established permaculture systems never drew a plan.

I didn’t. I started on a three and a half acre property over 20 years ago and knew that the front acre was going to be restored to zone five and that the house would sit in the middle of the large, bare horse paddock where the least cut-and-fill would give us a sunward aspect. That was enough to start with. We soon added a well positioned access road and used the car to mark it out so that there were no sharp bends or uncomfortable manoeuvres. We thought about water, installed tanks and cut swales.

Over 20 years later we are still making changes. Most of us know that our needs and wishes change over time. The permaculture system I imagined I needed in my twenties is not the permaculture system I imagine I need in my sixties and beyond. Today’s system is both an expression of my growing knowledge and an appreciation of my increasing physical limitations as I age. Both the system and me are dynamic. I once drew a plan of this property as part of a PDC. The current system only resembles it. We’ve made many changes since then.

I realised that most of my friends in permaculture did the same. They started at their back door with herbs and annuals and worked outwards. They started at their boundaries with fire breaks and wind breaks and worked inwards. It seemed a natural pattern; spiral outwards and spiral inwards.

So why have I spent so many hours preparing detailed plans for clients? It’s a case of adopting the existing pattern, as we so often do. Only when we have lived the pattern for a while does it occur to us to check it against the ethics and principles to see how it stacks up. These days I’m much more inclined to provide clients with a concept plan and to coach them on site to make it happen, or even (shock horror!) to just start on the site and help them create their designs without a paper plan.

Most designers have had the experience of clients staring blankly at a two dimensional plan and asking for something obvious to be explained. “So is this the garage?” they say, clearly indicating that the two dimensional plan is not the best way to communicate with them. I’m not seeing this with concept plans. They are easier to read, easier for clients to understand and on that basis, much more likely to result in permaculture actually happening on site.

One of the great benefits of a concept plans is that it allows the clients to be part of the evolution of the system. The implementation phase is like the pattern of succession. Clients start small, improving their knowledge and skills, and then slowly increase complexity. They save energy by making mistakes early and learning from them. It would be a disaster to put a fully ‘blitzed’ permaculture system into the hands of an inexperienced client. We need to make sure that clients are an integral part of their system and that they grow with it.

A concept plan helps clients to design from the macro to the micro. Once they understand the thinking behind the pattern they will be less likely to make expensive mistakes or to swap out elements for something not aligned to permaculture ethics and principles. They are now my preferred service. Clients can always request more detail for a particular area or for the whole site, but in my experience a concept plan encourages them to get out there and start implementing while a detailed plan is often overwhelming.

I like to give clients a blank sheet of tracing paper with their plan. It’s a way to encourage them to interact with it, to play with it and to fill in their own details. I think concept plans are the way of the future for most clients. The results speak for themselves. Typically clients can’t wait to get started.

This means that even for those students that want to design for other people, learning to prepare a concept plan might just be the core skill. It gives clients the pattern for their site in a way that is easy to understand and that means we have helped them to improve their chances for success. Sounds like people care to me.

Jason Gerhardt on allowing permaculture to have its greatest potential (e18)

It is my great honour to share this opening conversation with Jason Gerhardt who directs both the Permaculture Institute and Regenerative Design company Real Earth Design.

Jason recently contributed this guest post to Making Permaculture Stronger, this post shared a snippet from our conversation in the comments of the current inquiry and this one included a diagram sharing the history of Jason’s permaculture design process signature.

In the closing comments to this episode I mention an experiment I’m currently conducting where I want to find out if the universe in general, and perhaps even you in particular, feel moved to give this project a tiny drip of financial support to unleash unimaginably exciting new levels of blog, podcast, video and book action. Only if you’d like, you can read more about this here.

David Holmgren on Making Permaculture Stronger, reading landscape, reading people, and the importance of design process (at the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence)

Greetings all. This week I personally revisited and then thought to share some words spoken a little over a year ago by David Holmgren at the close of the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence on April 9th, 2018.

Rereading these words helped remind and energise me about why I’m doing what I’m doing. So I thought I’d share them with you too. May that more of us get energised and continue to collaborate on this work of exploring and evolving our shared understandings of what permaculture design is, and could be.

After speaking to several other aspects of the convergence,1 David explained:

Another thing that for me was quite strong was the focus on social permaculture, indigenous connections, and design process at this convergence – were just strong themes that came out.

After acknowledging that he couldn’t be at all the sessions he would have liked to have been at he spoke highly of two creative endeavours: the Tropical Permaculture Handbook and the musical work of Charlie Mgee and his Formidable Vegetable Sound System.

He later said:

The last thing I wanted to mention is the disturbance of Dan Palmer’s work which I definitely appreciate, even though there’s aspects of it that I understand might not seem useful to some people. I think that going back to the design process and trying to work on that concept of the weak link in permaculture – and it’s not just permaculture of course, design process is really a mystery. Design education – trying to communicate stuff, you could say has been a global failure. And it’s a bit related to the troubles that I’ve had in the early stages of how do you teach people to read landscape. I’ve been trying for decades – it’s really complex, and just have to say that after trying to understand this process in myself of reading landscape and then how to communicate it and the struggles I’ve had with that it was going out with Dan on a property and him watching me read landscape that gave me more insight into what I was doing, that I hadn’t fully grasped before.

So this thing of actually trying to see what we are doing is very complex.

He then invited a few questions. The first was from Australian permaculture elder and social permaculture pioneer Robyn Clayfield, who asked about how important reading people and the social landscape was relative to reading the physical landscape. David replied:

Equally important to reading landscape. Because Dan and I have been working on a couple of courses now where the primary process is me teaching reading landscape and him teaching reading people. I would say that the teaching of reading people, that looks like it’s about as a designer, as a facilitator, is partially useful as an externalisation so you can actually learn to look the other way and look inside too. So yeah what I’m finding from the process is that they’re not just of equal importance but they are actually similar methods.

Another question, possibly the last, was:

David what is the most important question you think permaculture should be asking itself over the next few years?

His answer:

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. Not in the sense of a narrowing down, or agreement but a deeper exploration of that because that’s what we say we’re doing all the time, everywhere in relation to everything and it’s not the outcomes and the sources it’s what is the actual process we’re using or is that a complete mystery and it doesn’t matter?

So just reflecting on that, exploring that I think is really important because otherwise a lot of the contributions we talk about whether it’s within regenerative agriculture, or community development, or small-scale, is once those things become adopted in society, the label permaculture falls away. Whether it’s rainwater harvesting, or sheet mulching, or whatever. Those become adopted. What do we get left with? We get left with going back out to the fringe and finding the next interesting thing and a baggage of things that didn’t work. That society didn’t adopt.

So, the core thing that the whole society is having trouble with is design process. The design professions are in as bad a situation, you could say worse, than permaculture. We don’t really know what we are doing. And getting a closer sense of that, gives us a very powerful contribution.


Living Design Process at Limestone Road – a Video Letter

Guest post by John Carruthers

Living Design Process (LDP) and Holistic Decision Making (HDM) thinker Dan Palmer asked me last month to put together a short video letter on my recent experience with LDP and HDM. Dan has mentored me and our planning since my partner and I took stewardship 18 months ago of a 70-acre former grazing property in Central Victoria.

In what follows I share some reflections to support the points made in the videos.


Time: it is the energetic tide of humanity. It is much more than that. There is value in its passing; and information in waiting.

Time becomes one of the most useful scales when we look at change or the processes that endeavour to shift it. But calibrating the scale becomes especially important depending on what’s being levered.

For politics it could be as short as a week (as the old aphorism goes), in the cautious science of climate change, a decade can be irrefutably significant (as the IPCC suggests), for a botanist or forester it spans multiple decades (as David Suzuki intones), while for a geologist (as my father was), what is sensible to discern the planet’s natural systems lengthens to hundreds of thousands of years or longer.


But closer to the action, what of our own aspirations to live with the land or make a more positive impact on it? Be it a permaculture-inspired plan for a rural block or city plot, or a whole-of-farm plan for a larger regenerative agriculture enterprise? Over what timescale is it helpful to evaluate what we do?

In pondering this I arrived at three answers. Sensible and nakedly pragmatic. Firstly, we need at least a decade or two, and probably a generation. At that time-scale, significant decisions can be aligned with climate and deeper social currents (like a whole-of-property revegetation program).

The next is at least 3-5 years; over which inter-seasonal variation can flatten and deeper personal capabilities demonstrated. A livestock program, for example.

And at the narrowest, over 12-18 months; because each season has been seen at least once, some early behaviours in us are revealed, and it sustains motivation (which is not unimportant). A shelterbelt preparation, for example.

Because it is that dance between behaviour and place that in so many ways embodies the success or otherwise of permaculture and sustainable agriculture.


So, the working title for this post might have been “Habit: the behaviours we repeat”.

But after barely 18 months, humility suggests that it was enough to ask: “What has been achieved?” and “What lessons stand out so far?”

The answers are, respectively: “Not much, AND a great deal”, and “Quite a few, upon reflection”. And that is the narrative arc of the nine lessons and four locations visited on the property over the video’s 13 minutes.

Eighteen months is long enough to have listened, done some, reflected and readjusted. And that cycle is critical. The popularised rule is that it takes 21 days to form a habit; but the better science projects that achievement as long as 6-months. And make no mistake, that dance of design-and-do on the land IS about habit. That sequence of oh-so-human evaluations and actions that result in design interventions and implementations. Everywhere.


“We cross the river by feeling the stones,” revolutionary Deng Xiaoping observed in the context of nation building. But his metaphor is also axiomatic: we can’t appreciate the decision we are currently making, if we are already rushing beyond it to the next one. Hasten slowly we should.

For example, as I explain in the video part one, in terms of design decision making, learning to identify our biases. Biases can be seen as the product of those set of unconscious filters that enable us to quickly absorb and process information every day. The set of heuristics that (helpfully) allow us to learn to flow through busy traffic, and (unhelpfully) to racially stereotype.

Without those same shortcuts, to paraphrase the neuroscience, none of us would get out the front door in the morning. In my own case, as I reveal in the video, those shortcuts create a bias for action (particularly after period of analysis) – call it conditional patience. We all have our own profile and without self awareness, it can nudge us onto a path we repeat unhelpfully. Knowing that, can help us mitigate for it.

Stoicism isn’t for all of us, but it contains a useful idea when we’re prosecuting something important. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies,” Aristotle said. “For the hardest victory is over self.” The better we know ourselves, the better decision makers we can become. We become less likely, to extend my example, to become crunched into artificially time-critical decisions of our own framing.


Antidotes to (unwanted) decision shortcuts abound, but as I reveal in video two, when it comes to the land, at the early stages, banging stakes in the ground, and painstakingly building models of the land out of beer cartons and steel soap pads can have a remarkable way of slowing down us – and our thinking. In both cases, long enough for kinaesthetics to work their magic, and let our brain’s slower, more thoughtful pre-frontal cortex get hold of the steering wheel (usually with much better results).

And that is immensely encouraging. Because the nub of Dan’s approach to design process seems to be to give “every decision its rightful breathing room.”

Asking the right questions is really what Dan’s living design process seems to be all about. Finding that sweet spot between intentional action and thoughtful reflection.

It is on that cusp of the dance floor of think-and-do that Dan mixes his passionate encouragement, incisive questions and courage to accept the consequences. And perhaps that is the bigger hope for LDP: that we can all become more empowered to find that state of productive liberation.


Bjorneru, M., Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Princeton University Press, NJ, USA, 2018

Farmon, J., Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, Yale University Press, New haven, 2018

Harari, Y. N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper Collins, New York, 2015

Rock, D., Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Harper Collins, New York, 2009

Suzuki, D., and Grady,, W., Tree: A Life Story, Greystone Books, Vancouver, 2007

John Carruthers


Note from Dan: Wow thanks so much for the work of putting these together John! It has been such a pleasure working with you, and for reader/viewer interest here are a few more videos from earlier in this same process:

John Carruthers on the experience of using Holistic Decision Making
Dan Palmer on reading landscape @ John and Rosie’s place
John Carruthers on the magical moment of moving from what is to what might be!

Striking at the Root: A Life in Permaculture Design – by Jason Gerhardt

…guest post by Jason Gerhardt…

I came to Permaculture through a combination of hope and desperation. After growing up with street violence, early death, and urban entropy as central themes of my life, I hoped the rest of life wasn’t going to be such a fleeting affair. With that single point in mind, I became desperate for something that would equip me to alter the trajectory of human culture.

I revisit my original motivation for Permaculture often. For me, it’s not about food production or watershed repair or any of the other “things” I do. It’s about developing a fundamentally different way of being alive. The only way we will develop greater permanence in human culture is by profoundly changing who we are. We know well that we can’t apply the same ways of being to our lives and magically manifest a different result. Paradigm change, then, is our only hope for a better life. How do we make the shift? Fortunately, Permaculture Design provides a pathway.

The Ground

I discovered Permaculture while training at a Zen monastery. Nineteen years ago and then a teenager fresh off the city streets, I found myself surrounded by mountains, rivers, and wildlife in Vermont and immersed in a traditional Vietnamese Buddhist culture at that. Everything was unfamiliar, yet I adapted. I threw myself into snowdrifts, trekked in the forest by moonlight, meditated beside beaver ponds, and foraged mushrooms and fiddleheads with monks. My experiences during these years confirmed the plasticity of my existing paradigm. It also exposed me, through a book on gardening, to the philosophy and methodology of Permaculture that I would carry with me for nearly two decades.

After leaving the monastery, I found my way to an Ecological Design course, and subsequently a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2004. Reading Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (PDM), I wrote critiques in the margins. Steeped in Zen for so long, I was struck by how materialistic Bill seemed. Aside from the first couple of chapters, the PDM read to me at the time as an instruction guide for Earth repair. By contrast, I was interested in culture repair more than forming an army of planetary surgeons running around trying to fix everything. Regardless, there was something embedded within Permaculture that I could not discount.

After my first courses, I wasted no time. I dove into a life of designing and building food gardens, water harvesting systems, and green buildings. Practicing on properties I rented, then friends’ yards, a couple farms, a New York ecovillage, and my college campus in Arizona, I made a lot of mistakes I never would have learned to avoid had I not played and trialed in so many places.

For five years I worked mostly on small sites, never accepting pay for my work. I felt responsible both to Permaculture and to the people and lands I worked with. I couldn’t pretend to be an overnight expert post-PDC. That kind of amateur zeal seemed too shallow. I would work my way through mistakes to get results, and use the results to gain success.

After college, the people who became my first clients approached me as regulars at the sprawling farmers’ market stall I helped run in Boulder, Colorado. They invited me over to an extravagant dinner in exchange for a consultation walk around their yard. I was delighted. I recalled a Zen saying I once heard, “You’ll know you have something to offer when you are asked to offer it.” And so it began.

I quickly went from consultations-for-dinner to other projects, as I saw there was real demand for permaculture-inspired landscaping where I lived. I also needed a new income stream after the farm I worked on caught herbicide drift from a neighboring monoculture, voiding our organic certification, and ending the enterprise in a lawsuit. Almost immediately, I began practicing professional design/build on private residences all over the Front Range. In five years of residential work, I learned a lot about land regeneration techniques commonly espoused in permaculture circles, as well as how a designer typically works with clients. I also learned about the limitations of these approaches. That’s when I felt my Permaculture practice had begun to ripen.

We usually have more to learn in disappointment than in excitement. As we begin to grasp permaculture, there can be a tendency to evangelize. The ideas are heady, but the ardor and zest of youthful confidence aren’t yet rooted in experience. With high hopes, we get to work, and some of those hopes get dashed. Depending on one’s outlook, that can be a beautiful thing.

For me, it fit right into my design for growth. After all, I had set a tall task for myself—regenerating human culture. Nothing less would answer my original quest.

On the one hand, I was building the most beautifully productive landscapes I could imagine, but on the other, I grew to feel that these creations weren’t adequate to transforming life in the ways needed. Food forests, rain gardens, regenerated soil, pollinators buzzing about—these are the tracks of a healthy culture, but they lag behind the actual steps being taken. They are firmly material: prone to degeneration, erosion, and entropy.

For the most part, during my early professional design/build years, I fabricated landscapes out of predetermined visions and techniques. This, I felt at the time, was what the Designers’ Manual directed me to do. I was a landscape pharmacist, filling prescriptions for every site. But just as prescriptive medicine often fails to address the underlying causes of dis-ease, so too, I learned, does the same approach to design.

Please don’t misunderstand me: ecologically designed landscapes are awesome in the truest sense of the word. I’ve found incredible value through them, and I’d never minimize the importance of that work. The fervor I had for Permaculture-inspired landscaping was essential to my becoming a Permaculturist. It was a gateway to further growth, keeping me true to my original intentions, and I still create ecologically designed landscapes all over the country, but my approach has changed.

The People

It took me ten years to figure out that human culture deserves more focus than the land. This goes directly against Mollison’s directive that the Earth is our primary client. In fact, it’s the root of my critique of Mollison’s materialistic focus. I’ve discovered that land has an incredible capacity to regenerate and grow with the intentional actions of people. The reverse is also true—people’s actions have a profound capacity to destroy the land. I began to see culture as the limiting factor in Permaculture.

This all turned for me on a project in 2011. My work was moving to bigger scales, and a suburban project came my way that represented a diversionary scale-back I wasn’t sure about. Walking up to the client’s door in a cookie-cutter subdivision with extreme clay soils and a strict homeowners association, I glanced around the landscape thinking, “What a tiny spit of land they have to work with.” I wasn’t into it.

But when they opened the door to greet me, I was reminded how much I liked these people. The husband and wife had been in my Permaculture classes, so I felt comfortable with them, and they with me. This comfort allowed us to explore more widely than plug and play design. I was able to really see into this family. My most valuable discovery was the whole family was craving to engage with nature, especially their young daughter. In the end, they helped dig water-harvesting earthworks and planted the food forest with my crew. Together, we transformed their small suburban site into a little slice of paradise.

Over the years, I noticed these clients, who became friends, changed through their interaction with the landscape. Their yard was so small that they deeply cherished what we had created. At the least, the family healed from nature deficit disorder. At a wider look, neighbors started emulating the transformation in their yards. The homeowners association gave us the Star Yard of the Year Award, and eventually, the family left the site behind for a home more deeply immersed in nature. These are the beginning tracks of cultural transformation.

I also noticed how I was changing through the project. I saw that my landscape work had a lot less to do with the land than with the people. I got closer to what led me into permaculture in the first place.

The people problems of my childhood which had led me to permaculture weren’t problems with individuals (though they can certainly show up that way)—they were problems with our cultural paradigms. After working with the land for a long time, I realized I could spend my whole life building beautifully engineered ecosystems, but if the dominant paradigm of disconnection and exploitation was still in play, the transformation I wanted to help create would never take root.


My design practice has a lot more intimacy in it these days. I want to know my clients, to pry open their lives a little, gently and patiently, of course. I view my job as equipping people to make the changes they seek in their lives and relationship with the land, while providing encouragement and resources to see beyond the limits of their imposed ideas.

The typical list of “wants” that a client presents has proven to be a light first place to start. These lists show projects are more often about the client’s growth than the land. Even in the design stage, the land is their practice center as they work on themselves.

For example, a client may say, “I really like berries, and it would be great to have berries for breakfast most days of the year.” As a designer, I have to guide them through a series of questions to get from the imposed detail of a berry garden to the bigger pattern. It’s likely they’re seeking health and happiness with a berry breakfast most days. And it’s likely that search is the bigger pattern for the project. With a focus on health and happiness instead of edible landscaping, many more doors for transformation suddenly open. And yes, some people do just want a berry patch, which is better than none at all, but as a Permaculturist, I’m not the person to simply give them what they desire without deeper levels of inquiry.

I now view Permaculture quite literally as meaning greater permanence in human culture. Integrated design is the process and practice to get us there. Our work must go beyond prescriptive landscape design and farm master planning to succeed. Fortunately, many more practitioners now share this view, so Permaculture is expanding beyond basic material solutions.

Small-scale residential projects were the best proving ground I could have practiced on. I’ve been able to take the lessons from working with one or two people at a home and use that to inform my approach to community scales with urban planning projects, educational campus design, cooperative land use, and agricultural enterprise development. The past seven years of this work has involved a lot more education, collaboration, social navigation, and professional-level work—all skills I’ve had to learn as I go, with the goal to impact human culture as a whole.

Today I work with a truly diverse array of clients, from social justice activists in crumbling inner cities to religious farming families struggling in rural America. Each project feels fresh with potential, and each client’s story brings a greater understanding of the lasting culture we are developing.

What’s Next?

Permaculture provides a pathway to transform the world. To realize its potential, we have to use design as an empowering and transformative process for our clients and ourselves, together with the land itself.

We also have to continually upgrade our frameworks, learning from the wider community of practitioners that has grown from the idea of regenerative culture. There is a lot of movement in this space, and we can all learn from each other whether we call our work Permaculture, Regenerative Design, Living Systems Design or draw from any of the many other diverse and contributing fields. To use a metaphor from the Buddha, these are all fingers pointing at the same moon. Let’s keep our eye on the prize.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. I see a long road ahead. In the face of real threats to our survival on Earth and with each other, I hope we can take each step along this road deliberately and have faith that despite the daily chaos in the world, we have a path to follow, and we got this.

Jason Gerhardt serves as director of the 20+-year-old Permaculture Institute Inc. He is the founder of Real Earth Design, where he strives to make Permaculture as accessible and authentic to real life as possible. He can be contacted at

Originally published at the Permaculture Institute of North America and republished here with Jason’s kind permission

Darren J. Doherty on master plans, Keyline design, carbon farming, dung beetles, and much else (e17)

Darren J. Doherty in a misty paddock with some cows

In this episode you get to be a fly on the wall during a farm consultancy conducted by renowned farm planner and Regrarian Darren J. Doherty. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the resonance between Darren’s comments about why he no longer does master plans and the current Making Permaculture Stronger inquiry (where I refer to master planning as fabricating).

Thanks to Darren for his support on jobs like this as well as his kind permission to share his words here.