An easy, circular permaculture design process for gardens, community projects, creative work, and so much more.
(excerpted and fully revised from my 2006 book, Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community.)
Whether we realize it or not, all of us are designers; for good or ill, much of what we do is design work. And all design is ecological design in that it either hurts or helps nature, whether it was intended to or not. As gardeners, whether forging paths, building beds, or pruning trees, we are always designing.
Every choice we make affects the whole, and when we become conscious of that fact, we can engage in the process in ways that make our gardens more beautiful, easier to maintain, more abundant, and, ultimately, better connected to the larger ecosystem in which we live.
A permaculture design process clarifies our goals and ideas, gets them on paper, and provides a road map for implementation. A carefully thought-out ,written design saves time and money, prevents mistakes, and helps communicate ideas to others. It is much easier to correct mistakes on paper than on land. Of course, your long-term needs and goals will change, and a good design leaves plenty of room for those changes.
Design for every scale: a GOBRADIME a permaculture process
The GOBRADIME Permaculture Design Process
This is an acronym for Goals, Observation, Boundaries, Resources, Analysis, Design, Implementation–Maintenance/Monitoring, and Evaluate/Enjoy. Since 1999, I have spent a lot of time studying and practicing permaculture. Defined as “a design system for sustainable living.” A detailed overview of permaculture is more than we have space for in this column, but it was through these experiences that I developed GOBRADIME, which is a concise, step-by-step process for making a clear, tangible plan for your garden. And while I could easily write an entire book on GOBRADIME, I can also offer you this quick introduction, with confidence that it will help you make leaps and bounds through that “what do I do now” feeling that so many of us experience at the beginning of the garden season.
So take some time on one of these rainy days to work through it. Whether you choose to grow just a few small beds of annual vegetables or turn your entire site into a perennial food forest, this will help. Work through the first half of the steps on paper and in your mind, then, when you get to Implementation, you’ll have a clear, deliberate action plan ready to go.
Goals. The first step in any design is to identify personal and collective goals. What do you want to accomplish and why? Write down a list of goals and prioritize them by going down the list and rating each goal on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing the highest priority. Then sort the list so that the things you want to accomplish first are at the top. This will help you develop a timeline later on.
Observation. This is the heart of ecological design, and the key to finding and cooperating with nature’s patterns and cycles. Learn to read the land. Watch where the water drains, and where it collects. Notice subtle changes in your soil, see where the shade falls, where the moss grows, where the mushrooms come. Learn the names of all of your weeds, and learn what they do for the soil. Lie down on the ground and look up at the world around you. What do you see? How do you want to change it? What is the most effective and most ecological way to proceed? Take your time, make educated choices, try to avoid irreparable errors, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment or make little mistakes. That’s how you learn!
Boundaries. Find and establish boundaries. Draw a base map of the site. Pace or measure each distance on the ground and do your best to develop a map that is to scale. Note the following things on the map: buildings, irrigation, doors, decks, patios, driveways, fences, hedges, trees, gardens, and any other physical objects. Add in permanent and temporary paths, and make note of any objects that may be temporarily missing, such as parked cars or seasonal motor-home storage.
Now document the flows of water and of humans and animals through the site, using dashed lines and arrows. This will establish the main paths through your design. Moving a well-trodden path is rarely a good idea; it is much easier to adapt the design to behavior patterns, rather than the opposite, so go with the flow. Other types of boundaries might include legal or social issues such as land-use laws or potential problems with the neighbors.
Try to foresee any barriers. Also, define and document your own personal boundaries. What exactly do you want to grow? How many hours a week do you want to garden? How much money will you spend? All of these factors should affect how you design your garden. You wouldn’t design a huge garden if you only have an hour a week to maintain it. Be realistic. Make clear, deliberate choices.
Resources. Go back through your observations and start making lists of the resources available. Types of resources might include money, plants, labor, garden supplies, building materials, access to facilities, and information from experts. Make an overlay or copy of your base map and note every potential resource, such as water, sun, compost, manure, wood piles, and neighbors who might like to volunteer.
What do you have? What do you need? What do you need to acquire and what can you do without? As you assemble lists of what you have and what you need, it will become apparent that you don’t need everything all at once. Rather, there will be a flow of resources in and out of the project, the nature of which will change and evolve over time. And before you go out and spend your hard earned money on resources you think you need, try to innovate something that will fulfill the same function. Your imagination is renewable, easy to find, and free.
Analysis. Now for the fun part! Analysis helps define weaknesses and brings random ideas together to form a cohesive plan. Go back through your notes and re-read everything. Envision how you can use the boundaries and resources you have available to meet the goals you have in mind.
As you start to hone your plan, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:
- What work can I avoid doing?
- How is everything affecting everything else?
- What are the yields and how can they be improved?
- How can I make the least change for the greatest effect?
- Where are the imbalances and how can they be corrected?
- What are the best and worst places for each element/plant/structure?
- How can I use what is available now to turn problems into solutions?
- What are the economic and ecological costs to implement and maintain the design?
- If nothing was here, what would I bring in? What is here now that I need to remove?
- Find connections, think about relationships, and start choosing where and when to make changes.
Don’t overlook the value of intuition, aesthetics, and random assembly as design tools. Sometimes just putting a plant where you think it looks nice, or where you happened to set it down first, works better than anything else. If you get stuck, try using a process of elimination: ask, “Where shouldn’t this go?” and see where that takes you.
I’d love to get in deeper with the massive range of strategies for analyzing goals, observations, boundaries and resources, but for now I’ll just say that you simply MUST go on the internet and look up “permaculture zones and sectors” for a major geek-out and irreplaceable tool.
Design & Documentation.
Make a bunch of photocopies of your base map and do a handful of completely different designs to warm up your imagination. Now go through everything again and write a list of actions that will bring your visions into reality. Prioritize these actions by sorting them according to goals, budgets, seasons, etc.
Write down how many labor-hours you estimate for each step. Think in terms of phases, and make realistic plans according to your boundaries. which goal they help to meet and how important that goal is to you. From here you should be able to develop a timeline that makes sense, attached to visual maps of what your garden will look like in a month, three months, six months, two years, and as far out as you want.
Implementation. This is the time to stop writing and start actually moving stuff around. Get busy! Continue to jot down notes as you develop new ideas or make changes to the original design — this will save time later when you evaluate your work. But also, pace yourself so you stay sane and are able to follow through with the rest of the plan.
Don’t burn yourself out. Take your time and focus on doing less right, rather than more wrong. And be sure to take plenty of time to step back, rest, and reflect on your progress.
Maintenance and Monitoring. All gardens need maintenance. When clients tell me they want a “no-maintenance” garden design, I tell them to plant gravel. But it’s true that some gardens need less care than others, and it’s the space between that provides us with information and opportunity for improvement. That’s why maintenance and monitoring are interconnected, inseparable steps. Ideally, in a home system you will be living in and interacting with the design as it comes about.
Pay attention to the ways in which your life improves or becomes more difficult through these changes. Some people develop detailed forms to document the data generated by their projects, such as growth rates, yields and potential yields, and climatic patterns. Others might keep a more simple garden journal, or maybe just take photos and mental notes. However much detail you choose, the point of monitoring your progress is to find and record successes and problems (including potential problems) with the design, so you can either repeat effective patterns or go back and redesign failed ones.
Evaluate and Enjoy! Identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges. Attach these notes to the maps and journals. As you evaluate, you will discover new goals, new ideas, and new ways to improve the efficiency and ecological integrity of your design. When you are ready, start again at the beginning, establish new goals, and spiral around to the next phase of your project. But first, hit the hammock! Rest, read, relax and enjoy your bountiful, beautiful garden! You earned it!
Finally, remember that your project, if it involves people and especially if it involves plants, is an organism rather than a mechanism. The GOBRADIME design system, like any other, is most effective when coupled with a good degree of common sense and natural intuition. Trust your instincts and use the formula to help you refine them. But be careful not to become obsessed with controlling every aspect of the design. Mistakes are tools for learning! Take notes, laugh often, and use GOBRADIME as a circular pattern, rather than a linear process.
Here’s how GOBRADIME works with the David Holmgren version of the Permaculture Principles (as y’all might know I tend to favor a much longer list, but I am using this one here for the sake of brevity):