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)…



  1. He prefers “conscious ecological design process” even more
  2. I used the cleaning up of this post as a motivation to throw this vid together in the concern that if I left it any longer nothing would even happen with it.
  3. all block quotes in this post are from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume Two, Chapters 3-4


  1. Dan, just stumbled across this article while looking for info re Dave J’s work. So inspiring! Will share with others. I wish you had known what a gift you were to the world, and that could have given you whatever it was you would have needed to be able to continue living.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share! I know what it takes to encapsulate such exhilarating and messy processes.

    I love the flexibility of the design process, and in particular, Dave’s work with it. Happy to learn what a whirlwind of a design day might look like.

  3. A really granular description of a process made real. Very helpful for those of us just starting the journey. And timely as I walk around Kyoto’s temple gardens. Thanks Dan.

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