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Basics of Permaculture Design and Patterns: A Guide

by Jonathan Foley
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Basics of Permaculture Design and Patterns

It begins with a set of three core ethics: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share. These ethics are then underpinned by a series of permaculture principles, design and patterns, most notably those articulated by co-founder David Holmgren, which provide practical guidance for implementing the ethics in real-world situations.

Permaculture is a design philosophy that seeks to emulate the resilience and self-sufficiency of natural ecosystems. It aims to create harmonious and sustainable human habitats that work in harmony with nature rather than against it. This holistic approach encourages the design of systems that are efficient, low-maintenance, and that can meet human needs while enhancing biodiversity.

Guide to Permaculture Design

It’s crucial to remember that it is not a set of rules, but a guiding philosophy. The ethics and principles should be adapted and applied based on the specific context and conditions of each situation. Here is a comprehensive guide to permaculture design:

Step 1: Mainframe Permaculture Design

In permaculture, the mainframe refers to the large-scale layout of a site, considering topography, water bodies, existing vegetation, and built structures. It’s the blueprint upon which all other elements are arranged. The mainframe design should take into account the most permanent and least changeable elements, such as hills, valleys, water sources, and existing buildings.


The concept of ‘working with nature’ is crucial here. For example, water flow should be guided and stored using the natural topography, rather than trying to drastically alter the landscape. This approach not only conserves resources but also helps create a resilient system that can adapt to changing conditions.

The mainframe design must be drawn to scale, with accurate measurements of the site and its features. This requires a thorough site survey and possibly the use of tools like GPS or GIS for larger sites.

It’s important to remember that the mainframe design is the foundation upon which all other design elements are built. Therefore, it should be carefully thought out and not rushed. Changes made after this stage can be costly and time-consuming.



Step 2: Sector Analysis

Sector analysis involves the study of external energies that influence the site, such as sun, wind, water, wildfire, and even social factors like noise and views. It’s essential to understand these influences to make informed decisions about where to place different elements within the design.


For instance, a home might be positioned to maximize passive solar heating, while a windbreak might be planted to protect crops from prevailing winds. Sector analysis can also help identify potential risks, such as areas prone to flooding or fire, so that appropriate mitigation strategies can be implemented.


However, sector analysis requires detailed observation and data collection over an extended period. For example, sunlight and wind patterns might change with the seasons, and understanding these changes is crucial for optimal site design.

Inaccurate sector analysis can lead to design flaws, such as structures that overheat in the summer or gardens that are exposed to harsh winds. Therefore, it’s crucial to be thorough and accurate in this stage of the design process.

Step 3: Zone Planning

Zone planning is a concept in permaculture that involves organizing a site into different zones based on the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. At the center is Zone 0, typically the home, and the zones radiate out from there.

Zone 1 includes areas that require frequent attention, such as kitchen gardens, herb spirals, or chicken coops. Zone 2 might contain perennial plants and small fruit trees, which require less frequent care. Zones 3, 4, and 5 progressively need less human intervention, including larger scale farming, managed forestry, and wild areas for foraging and wildlife habitat.

The size and location of each zone will depend on the specific needs of the elements within it and the overall size and shape of the site. For example, a small urban lot might only include Zones 0 to 2, while a large rural property could include all zones.

However, zone planning should be flexible and adaptable. As conditions change or new elements are added, the zones might need to be adjusted. Furthermore, zones should not be seen as rigid boundaries but rather as a gradient that reflects the intensity of management.

Zone planning is a concept in permaculture

Step 4: Workflows in Permaculture Design

A design should take into account the flow of energy and resources through the system. This involves understanding and designing for the efficient capture, storage, and use of energy—from the sun, wind, water, and more—and the cycling of nutrients and resources.

This means arranging elements so that tasks can be carried out with the least effort. For example, compost piles should be located near the kitchen garden for easy application of compost and disposal of plant waste. Water sources should be positioned uphill from where the water is needed, allowing gravity to do the work of transportation.

However, the specifics of energy and resource flow design will vary widely based on the characteristics of the site and the goals of the design. There are some general measurements and considerations to keep in mind:

  • Water flow: When designing water flow, measurements such as slope, elevation, and water volume need to be considered. Calculating the catchment area and water storage capacity can help determine the appropriate size and location of ponds, swales, and water-harvesting systems.
  • Solar access: Assessing solar access is crucial for designing energy-efficient systems. Measurements such as the angle and duration of sunlight throughout the year can inform decisions about the placement and orientation of buildings, solar panels, and gardens to maximize solar exposure.
  • Nutrient cycling: Understanding nutrient flows and cycling is essential for designing productive and regenerative systems. Soil testing can provide measurements of nutrient levels, pH, and organic matter content, helping to guide composting, mulching, and crop rotation strategies.
  • Resource efficiency: Efficiency in resource use can be measured by evaluating inputs and outputs. Keeping track of inputs such as water, energy, and fertilizers, and monitoring outputs like harvest yields and waste generation, can help identify areas where improvements can be made.

Furthermore, when designing for energy and resource flow, it’s important to consider the specific needs and limitations of the site and its inhabitants. Here are some key precautions:

  • Avoid excessive reliance on non-renewable resources or unsustainable practices. It emphasizes the use of renewable energy sources and sustainable practices to minimize the ecological footprint.
  • Ensure that the design supports a balance between resource availability and resource demand. Overconsumption or underutilization of resources can lead to inefficiencies and ecological imbalances.
  • Take into account the carrying capacity of the site. Design systems that can be sustained within the limits of the available resources, including water availability, soil fertility, and biodiversity.

the flow of energy

Step 5: Analyzing and Connecting Components

This involves identifying all the elements in a system (plants, animals, structures) and determining their needs, yields, and behaviors. The goal is to arrange these elements so that the outputs of one element can meet the needs of another, reducing waste and creating beneficial relationships.

For example, chickens need food and produce eggs, manure, and disturbance through their scratching. These outputs can be utilized by planting a chicken-forage food forest, where the chickens help control pests, fertilize the soil, and even till the ground.

Basic Patterns in Permaculture Design

Patterns in nature are not simply for aesthetic appreciation but also serve functional purposes, ranging from optimization of resources to facilitating movement and interaction. The design utilizes these natural patterns to increase efficiency and productivity in a sustainable manner.

1. Spirals

Spirals are frequently found in nature, for instance, in the pattern of seeds in a sunflower or the shape of a snail’s shell. In permanent agriculture, spirals are often used in herb gardens because they maximize edge space – the interface between different ecosystems where biodiversity and interactions are greatest.

A spiral herb garden, often built with a stone wall for thermal mass, creates many different microclimates. This allows for a variety of herbs to be grown in a relatively small space, each at the location best suited to its needs.

When constructing a spiral garden, ensure it is not too steep to prevent soil erosion. A gentle slope of about 30 degrees is ideal. Also, consider the sun’s path across the sky when orienting your spiral – in the northern hemisphere, the southern side will get more sun.

2. Waves

Wave patterns, observable in sand dunes, water ripples, and even sound waves, are patterns of motion and energy transfer. In permaculture, wave patterns are typically used in water management.

Contour plowing and swales (shallow ditches) follow wave-like patterns across a landscape, helping to slow down, spread, and sink rainwater, preventing soil erosion and ensuring even water distribution.

When implementing wave-like patterns, it’s essential to work with the natural topography of the land. Use a contour map or an A-frame level to accurately determine the contours of your land. Remember, swales should be level to ensure even water distribution.

implementing wave-like patterns permaculture Design

3. Streamlines

Streamline patterns, shaped by the movement of air and water, represent the path of least resistance. They are seen in the shape of fish, birds, and even the structure of an airplane. They reduce resistance and allow for smooth flow, reducing energy usage.

Permaculture uses streamline patterns in designing paths and placement of structures to reduce effort and energy consumption. For example, planting rows of trees or shrubs can be done in a streamline pattern to protect against prevailing winds.

Streamline designs should be oriented according to the direction of prevailing winds, and the shape of the land. Avoid making paths too narrow or twisty, as this can inhibit movement and access.

4. Cloud-Forms

Cloud-forms or fractals are self-replicating patterns seen in ferns, broccoli, blood vessels, and river systems. They represent efficiency in space filling and resource distribution.

In permanent agriculture, fractal patterns can be applied to maximize space and resource use. For example, a branching pattern can be utilized in a water catchment system to capture and distribute rainwater effectively.

When applying fractal designs, it’s crucial to maintain a balance. Excessive replication of an element may lead to redundancy and a waste of resources.

5. Lobes like Permaculture Design

Lobes are an expansion of the edge effect – the principle that there is more diversity and productivity at the intersection of two different ecosystems. These patterns, similar to the spreading roots of a tree or the lobes of our lungs, increase the edge and thus interaction and productivity.

Lobe-like patterns are used in garden bed design to increase edge and thus growing space. Keyhole beds, a common design, is a perfect example where a series of interconnected lobes allow for easy access while maximizing planting area.

While designing lobe patterns, it is crucial to ensure that all parts of the bed are easily reachable for planting, weeding, and harvesting. The recommended width for raised beds is typically no more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) to allow for easy access to the center from either side.

6. Branches

Branching patterns, visible in tree limbs, river deltas, and our circulatory system, represent efficient distribution and collection networks.

Permaculture uses branching patterns in designing of water, energy, or even access pathways. They help distribute resources effectively and can create redundancy, ensuring the system continues to function even if one branch is compromised.

When designing branching systems, it’s essential to maintain balance. Over-complex systems can lead to inefficiency and are harder to maintain. The size and number of branches should correspond to the volume of resource they need to handle.

Branches pattern

7. Nets like Pattern in Permaculture Farming Design

Net patterns, as seen in spider webs, neural networks, or social networks, represent interconnectedness, support, and resilience.

Net patterns can be used in the design of community networks, plant guilds, or polyculture plantings. They allow for multiple connections between elements, increasing stability and resilience.

When designing nets, care should be taken to ensure each node or element in the net can handle the connections it has. Too many connections can lead to over-reliance and instability if a node fails.

8. Scatter

Scatter patterns, as seen in the dispersion of seeds by plants or the scattering of light, ensure diversity, abundance, and coverage.

Scatter patterns are used in permaculture for seed broadcasting, ensuring a diverse and abundant crop. It can also be used for planting trees in a forest garden to mimic natural forest regeneration.

When scattering seeds, care should be taken to ensure seeds are not too densely packed, which could lead to competition for resources. Also, consider the specific germination needs of each type of seed.


Permaculture is a design science that draws inspiration from the wisdom of natural ecosystems. By observing and replicating these natural patterns, we can create human systems that are not only productive and efficient but also harmonious with the Earth and its myriad life forms. From the organization of our gardens to the structuring of our communities, it offers a roadmap towards a sustainable and regenerative future.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Where do you set the shallow pattern?

The shallow pattern is typically set in the initial stages of a task or process. It refers to the basic or surface-level framework that outlines the overall direction and structure of the task.

It helps establish the initial guidelines, boundaries, and objectives to ensure a clear starting point. The shallow pattern provides a foundation upon which deeper, more detailed work can be built, allowing for a systematic and organized approach to accomplishing the task at hand.

2. What is streamline flow?

Streamline flow, also known as laminar flow, refers to the smooth and orderly movement of a fluid, such as air or water, in which adjacent layers of the fluid move parallel to each other.

It is characterized by the absence of turbulence or irregular swirling motions. In streamline flow, the velocity of the fluid remains constant along individual flow paths, creating distinct, well-defined streamlines.

This type of flow typically occurs at low velocities or in situations where the fluid is flowing through narrow channels or smooth surfaces.

3. How to plant a tree on a slope?

To plant a tree on a slope, follow these steps:

  • Choose a tree species that is suitable for the slope, considering factors such as soil conditions, sunlight requirements, and erosion control.
  • Prepare the planting site by removing any grass, weeds, or debris. Create a small terrace or planting pit on the slope to help retain water and prevent soil erosion.
  • Dig a hole that is wide and deep enough to accommodate the tree’s root ball. Place the tree in the hole, ensuring that it is straight and upright.
  • Backfill the hole with soil, gently firming it around the tree’s roots. Water the tree thoroughly and apply a layer of mulch to conserve moisture and suppress weed growth. Regularly monitor and water the tree as needed, especially during its establishment phase.
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