Simultaneous Permaculture Gardening and Design Implementation (Inquiry 2, Post 24)

Author: Alexander Olsson

Note from Dan: In this post Alexander brings us back to our ongoing inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside permaculture design process.

In a previous post Dan encouraged permaculture designers to share how they “have responded to or adapted some of the outcomes of this inquiry into their own design process understandings, models, or diagrams.”

I was encouraged to write something down after hearing Ben Falk talk about good design that emerges out of necessity rather than from a surplus of money in episode 4 of the Making Permaculture Stronger podcast.

Finding myself without a job but with a love for nature and gardening, it was out of necessity that I bought a mower and a bicycle trailer and started servicing my neighbourhood with weed pulling and lawn mowing.

There aren’t a lot of jobs for Permaculture designers who are unknown, something Dan and Darren Doherty talked about in episode 5 of the podcast, and it’s very rare that a person could derive a full-time salary from only doing “the design” of a permaculture project. Most designers need to be part of the actual implementation of the project, teach PDCs or engage in other work to get enough cash to fund their professional plans (as well as their on-line seed shopping habits).

However, in contrast to the number of permaculture design jobs, there are quite a few gardening jobs. Having moved to Melbourne a little more than a year ago I find most of my jobs through the site Airtasker, which is a “sharing economy” website which is aimed at connecting people with a bit of spare-time with people who need a job around the house done. I receive search alerts in my inbox as soon as there is a gardening job available. To illustrate the difference in jobs between the two categories of gardening and designing, it is interesting to see that I have received around 1800 search alerts about gardening and/or lawn mowing within 20 km of my home in the last year, 38 search alerts including the words garden design (and variations thereof) within 100 km of my home and only 2 search alerts with the word permaculture within 100 km. Anyone can mow a lawn, but very few people would let a random guy they found online design their garden.

That’s why my necessity approach has been to take on every possible gardening job I can. For the jobs I do take on, I show my passion for permaculture and eventually after a period of ongoing gardening for a client, they have a permaculture garden without them even really noticing it. It doesn’t matter if the job description says “spray and kill all the weeds” or “clean up my garden”, I’ll be there advocating against roundup and planting vegetables. I’m a guerrilla permaculture designer, who doesn’t ask the client if they want a permaculture design, I (politely) implement one anyway. Well maybe not in such definite terms, but I at least try to encourage things to travel in that general direction…



In a few cases I can at least say that I have started with a simple mowing job and then successfully moved on to implement a permaculture design in a generative fashion. The circumstances I found myself in actually led me to develop this generative design approach, rather than a fabricating approach, without even thinking about it.

At times I made a concerted effort to sit down and draw things down on a base map. I marked out trees with exact measurements between them and I completed sector analysis on paper, but it all felt a bit superfluous. After all, both my client and I already knew where the hot afternoon sun made plants wilt and the soil baking hot. I already knew that the south-westerly wind (reminding northern hemisphere readers that southerly wind is the cold wind in the southern hemisphere) made parts of the garden freezing during early spring. I wrote things down because I wanted to be a permaculture designer – not a simple gardener – and that’s what permaculture designers do; they make maps. My clients liked receiving the maps too. People really enjoy receiving their property on a google earth map with colourful overlays. I still use maps to some extent when explaining different concepts to clients, but I have found that as I’m getting busier in the garden I also like to communicate with the client while walking around in the garden. This allows us to grab a handful of soil and feel the organic matter with our hands, or observe the sun angle in the sky at different times of the year while absorbing the real experience of the scorching rays on our skin.

When I started reading Dan’s blog posts on Making Permaculture Stronger, they strongly resonated with me. All of the sudden, there was someone saying “hey that design approach might not be so bad after all.” Where I thought I was simply trying a few things in my client’s garden while waiting for their feedback on it, I was actually designing generatively. Spending a few hours every fortnight, instead of several days in a row completing an upfront design, allowed me to take small steps in the general direction I thought the garden would benefit from, and the very same evening I would get a text message asking politely what the hell I was doing (!). This would make it possible for me to explain the benefit of using lawn clippings as mulch or of having a compost pile. Most of the time though, people actually like permaculture ideas and smart design solutions, so I can honestly say the word “hell” was rarely used.

How can I be sure that I’m not winging it, you might ask, and this is what has troubled me the most, that the generative approach sometimes feels like it borders on random implementation. I have implemented a few fabricated designs too, and many of them have been implemented within a tight time frame. Perhaps surprisingly, these fabricated designs, if not given plenty of time and flexibility for the implementation, have more elements of winging it than does the generative design approach. When I’m “just gardening”, and not drawing the design down, I can take very small steps forward, accept feedback from the client and the garden, and then watch the next step unfold. This realisation is consistent with the move away from this picture (which was introduced in this post):

which puts chaos next to the generating approach as if Dan was afraid of going too far in the process away from fabricating into the dangerous land of generating (a feeling I totally relate to), to a move towards this picture:

which recognises winging it as extremely arbitrary on the more arbitrary-less arbitrary scale. This picture was first published in an update to a previous blog post and I can recommend the discussion between Dan Palmer, Anthony Briggs and Alex Bayley in the comments section.

The gardening approach to design also helps with the expectations on a designer that they will deliver a master plan as the end result, something that was discussed in episode 4 of the podcast series. A gardener is not expected to deliver a master plan on an A2 sheet of paper, a gardener is expected to squat down to pull out weeds. If a permaculture design has been implemented after a year or two of gardening, then so be it, no one will notice until it is too late to stop it! Death of a lawn by a thousand cuts with a gardening trowel! Note also that during the interactions with the client, the garden acts as the very classroom for teaching ecological literacy. While you might hear many objections to a fabricated design which you present to a client who barely knows what permaculture is, through the gardening approach you will be able to take the client through every step and educate them on the relevant ecology as you go. So when saying “I’m a guerrilla permaculture designer”, I’m actually a “guerrilla permaculture teacher” facilitating the client’s own design process.

I know this gardening approach to design might be limited to an urban context. It would be impossible for a permaculture designer to travel 100 km to do four hours of gardening on a farm every fortnight. That being said, there are a lot of urban designs waiting to happen, and I believe this approach is a great way to start as a new permaculture designer.


To conclude this post I’d like to share a few differences between “normal” gardening and gardening/generative design:

Whereas a gardener might … a permaculture designer will …
try to patch up an ill-functioning garden address the root-cause of the problem.
benefit economically from an uneducated client educate on ecological literacy to make the client more engaged and capable in the garden.
leave the garden as it is structurally suggest restructuring or differentiating the space at given points in time when the understanding is right.
come in and CLEAN UP the garden assess what is the cause of the “mess” (both literally in the garden and in the mind of the owner)
agree on the clients will to do some winging it put the ideas of the client through a decision-making process.

With this table I’m merely reflecting on my own experience, and I’m not saying that gardeners are irresponsible in their profession and consciously act in the way suggested in the left column. However, from personal experience, what I can say is that I have worked in many gardens where I for some reason have given up my attempts on pursuing a design process and instead settle for the approach on the left. Working there is never satisfying and leaving without addressing the underlying tensions present in the garden makes me cry inside. Luckily, over time I have found more and more gardens where I love spending time and have built a good rapport with the client. This in turn has enabled me to develop confidence in my gardening/generative approach and act in accordance with the right column.

Endnote: Alexander has recently moved back from Melbourne to Sweden using a generative process to develop a property there with his partner Courtney. We look forward to progress reports and learnings!

Alexander and Courtney’s current digs (from 35 degree days in Melbourne to -15 in Sweden – brrr!)

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