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Observation in Permaculture: Key to Design & Decision Making

by Jonathan Foley
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Observation in Permaculture Key to Design & Decision Making

Observation holds a vital place in the realm of permaculture, serving as a fundamental principle and practice that underpins all design and decision-making processes. It is a design system for creating sustainable human settlements that mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature.

1. What observation means in context of permaculture?

In the context of permaculture, observation refers to the attentive and mindful study of natural patterns, processes, and interactions within a specific site or ecosystem. It forms the foundation upon which sustainable and regenerative systems are built.

In permaculture, it entails a deep and holistic engagement with the environment, going beyond surface-level perception. Permaculturists invest significant time and effort in immersing themselves within the site they intend to design.

It also helps identify opportunities for integration and synergy. By observing the existing patterns, processes, and relationships within a site, permaculturists can design systems that mimic and enhance these natural dynamics.


This approach fosters ecological balance, improves resource utilization, and reduces the reliance on external inputs. Further, it serves as the starting point for effective permaculture design.

By keenly observing sun and wind patterns, permaculturists ascertain the most suitable placement of structures such as buildings and windbreaks.

2. Different types of observation in permaculture

In permaculture, there are different types of observation that collectively contribute to a comprehensive site analysis. It  involve engaging the senses and gathering information through direct experience. Some of the common include:

1.  Sensory Observation: This involves using all the senses to perceive and absorb information about the site. It includes observing the sounds, smells, textures, and colors present in the environment.


What observation means in context of permaculture


For example, the sound of flowing water or the smell of rich soil can provide valuable clues about the site’s characteristics.


2. Pattern Observation: It emphasizes observing and understanding the natural patterns present within a site. This includes patterns of wind movement, water flow, sunlight, and shade.

By recognizing these patterns, permaculturists can optimize the placement of elements within the design to maximize efficiency and productivity.

3. Climate Observation: Understanding the climate of a site is essential for a successful design. This involves observing temperature fluctuations, rainfall patterns, prevailing winds, and seasonal variations. It helps determine suitable plant species, microclimates, and appropriate water management strategies.

4. Topographic: Topography refers to the physical features and contours of the land. By observing slopes, depressions, and the flow of water across the site, permaculture practitioners can identify areas prone to erosion or waterlogging. This information guides decisions about earthworks, water catchment, and drainage systems.

5. Soil Observation: Soil quality is a critical factor in permaculture design. Through this, permaculturists assess soil texture, structure, composition, and fertility.

They observe indicators such as the presence of organic matter, soil color, and the presence of earthworms or beneficial microbes. This information informs decisions regarding soil improvement techniques and suitable plant choices.

6. Ecosystem Observation: Existing ecosystems on the site provide valuable insights into the local ecology. Observing the plant and animal species present, as well as their relationships and interactions, helps them identify opportunities for integration and mimicry of natural processes. It also assists in selecting plants that support biodiversity and ecological balance.

3. What to look for when observing your site?

By carefully observing and analyzing these aspects of a site, them gain a comprehensive understanding of its unique characteristics. This information forms the basis for making informed decisions during the design and implementation phases.

It allows for the creation of permaculture systems that work in harmony with the site’s natural attributes, maximizing productivity, sustainability, and resilience. When observing a permaculture site, these are several key aspects to look for:

  1. Microclimates: Observe variations in temperature, sunlight exposure, and wind patterns throughout the site. This helps identify areas with different microclimates that can support a diverse range of plant species and create favorable conditions for growth.
  2. Water: Observe how water moves and collects on the site. Identify natural water sources, such as springs or streams, as well as potential areas for water catchment and storage. Assess drainage patterns and the potential for water-related challenges or opportunities.
  3. Sun and Shade: Observe the path of the sun across the site at different times of the day and year. Note areas that receive full sun, partial shade, or deep shade. This information helps determine suitable locations for various plants and structures within the design.
  4. Existing Vegetation: Take note of the plant species already present on the site. Consider their growth habits, interactions, and resilience to understand which species are well-suited to the site’s conditions. Identify any invasive or undesirable species that may require management.
  5. Wildlife and Insects: Observe the presence and behavior of wildlife and insects on the site. This provides insight into the biodiversity and ecological health of the site. Identify beneficial insects, pollinators, and pest species. Understanding the interactions between wildlife, insects, and plants can help design systems that support and enhance beneficial relationships while mitigating potential pest issues.

4. Importance of observing natural patterns

Permaculturists meticulously examine and document a range of factors, including but not limited to climate conditions, topography, water dynamics, soil composition, vegetation patterns, wildlife presence, and human interactions. Each of these elements provides valuable information about the site’s potential, constraints, and opportunities.

By working with the inherent qualities of the site, permanent agriculture practitioners can develop designs that are well-suited to the specific context, leading to more successful and sustainable outcomes.

By closely observing and studying natural patterns and processes, they gain valuable insights into the functioning, adaptability, and sustainability of the ecosystem. This knowledge is then utilized as a guiding compass for designing and implementing these systems that harmonize with nature.

This enables them to maximize energy efficiency and minimize potential adverse impacts. By comprehending water flows and drainage patterns, they can design water catchment and management systems that optimize the efficient utilization of this precious resource.

Moreover, it empowers them to identify the strengths and challenges inherent to a site. By closely examining soil composition and evaluating its fertility, permaculturists can determine the most suitable plant species and cultivation techniques for enhancing soil health and productivity.

Furthermore, observation enables them to recognize opportunities for synergy and integration. By observing the interactions between various elements, such as plants, animals, and microorganisms, permaculturists can identify symbiotic relationships.

This, in turn, informs the design of systems that maximize the benefits derived from these interactions. For example, by observing the behavior of pollinators and the flowering patterns of plants, permaculturists can design diverse and mutually beneficial plant guilds.

Furthermore, it empowers its practitioners to anticipate and respond to changes and challenges within the system. Through continuous monitoring of the site, they can detect signs of pests, diseases, or imbalances, and take proactive measures to address them.

5. How to use your observation to create a permaculture design?

Once you have observed your site, you can use your observations to create a permaculture design. A design is a plan for how to use your land in a sustainable way. It should include elements such as food production, water management, and waste disposal.

How to use your observation to create a permaculture design

Your observations will help you to identify the resources that are available on your site and the challenges that you will need to overcome. They will also help you to design a system that is in harmony with nature. Here are some tips for using your observations to create a permaculture design:

1. Start small

When you are first starting out with design, it is important to start small. Don’t try to do too much at once, or you will quickly become overwhelmed. Instead, focus on one area of your property at a time.

This will allow you to focus your energy and resources, and it will also give you the opportunity to learn and grow as a permaculture designer.

2. Be flexible

As you work on your permanent agriculture design, it is important to be flexible. Things will change, so be prepared to adapt your design as needed.

For example, you may need to change the location of a garden bed if you find that it is not getting enough sun. Or, you may need to change the type of plants you are growing if you find that they are not thriving in your climate.

3. Get help

There are many resources available to help you with permanent agriculture design. Talk to other practitioners, take classes, and read books. There are also many online resources that can provide you with information and inspiration.

4. Use your observations

The most important thing to remember when creating a design is to use your observations. What did you learn when you observed your site? What are the resources that are available to you?

What are the challenges that you will need to overcome? The answers to these questions will help you to create a design that is both sustainable and productive. Here are some examples of how you can use your observations to create a permaculture design:

  • If you have a lot of trees on your property, you can use them to create windbreaks or shade structures.
  • If you have a lot of sunlight on your property, you can use it to grow food or flowers.
  • If you have a lot of water on your property, you can use it to irrigate your plants or create a wetland.
  • If you have a lot of wildlife on your property, you can create habitats for them or use them to control pests.

By using your observations and following the tips above, you can create a design that is both sustainable and productive.

It is a powerful tool that can help you to create a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with the natural world. Here are some additional tips for creating a design:

  • Think in terms of systems: It is all about designing systems that work together in harmony. When you are creating your design, think about how the different elements will interact with each other.
  • Use natural materials: Its designs should use natural materials whenever possible. This will help to reduce your impact on the environment.
  • Be creative: There is no right or wrong way to create a design. Be creative and experiment with different ideas.
  • Have fun! It should be enjoyable. If you are not having fun, you are less likely to stick with it.

6. Case Studies and Examples

Real-life examples of successful permaculture projects can serve as inspiration and guidance for those seeking to implement observation-based design principles.

These case studies highlight the transformative power of observation in permanent agriculture, demonstrating the positive outcomes and benefits achieved through careful observation and the implementation of permaculture principles.

1. Solscape – New Zealand

Solscape, situated in Raglan, New Zealand, is an eco-accommodation and permaculture project that showcases the power of observation in design.

Solscape, situated in Raglan, New Zealand, is an eco-accommodation and permaculture project

The founders, Phil and Janine Holden, carefully observed the coastal environment to create an integrated system. By studying wind patterns, they strategically positioned structures and windbreaks, utilizing it to harness natural energy flows.

Additionally, they implemented organic gardening practices, observed soil health, and integrated composting systems. The outcomes included increased self-sufficiency, reduced waste, and a flourishing ecosystem that attracts native wildlife.

2. Finca Luna Nueva – Costa Rica

Finca Luna Nueva, located in the rainforests of Costa Rica, serves as an excellent example of observation-driven permaculture.

The founders, Steven Farrell and Tom Newmark, meticulously observed the diverse ecosystem and local plant knowledge to design a successful permaculture farm. They implemented agroforestry systems, incorporating a variety of fruit trees, medicinal plants, and bamboo, among others.

Through this, they identified natural patterns and successional processes, leading to the creation of functional ecological corridors and the restoration of degraded land. The farm now serves as an educational center, demonstrating its regenerative potential.

Benefits and Outcomes

These case studies demonstrate the numerous benefits and outcomes achieved through careful observation and the implementation of permaculture principles. Some common benefits include:

  • Increased Biodiversity: It create diverse habitats that support a wide range of flora and fauna, contributing to improved biodiversity and ecological resilience.
  • Enhanced Productivity: By observing natural patterns and processes, it optimize resource utilization, leading to increased productivity and yields.
  • Improved Soil and Water Management: Observation-driven designs incorporate strategies that improve soil fertility, enhance water retention, and mitigate erosion, resulting in healthier ecosystems and increased water availability.
  • Regeneration of Degraded Land: Through this, its practitioners identify the potential of degraded land and implement regenerative practices that restore ecological balance and ecosystem functions. This regeneration of degraded land is one of the significant outcomes of observation-driven projects.
  • Community Engagement and Education: Successful projects inspire and engage local communities, fostering a sense of connection to the land and promoting sustainable practices. By sharing their knowledge and experiences, practitioners empower others to implement these designs in their own landscapes.


Observation is a cornerstone of permaculture, providing the necessary understanding and insights to design and implement sustainable and regenerative systems. By closely observing and engaging with the natural environment, its practitioners can make informed decisions and develop designs that align with the patterns and processes of nature.

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