Photo-Essay on Permaculture Design:

*Created for MSc “Integrative Ecosocial Design” Gaia University.

Becoming a Permaculture Designer: 

 Table of Contents:

I: Introduction

II: Etymology and Definition of “Permaculture”

III:  Urban Permaculture Design Certification: San Francisco, CA

IV:  Mom’s Garden & Yard: Palo Alto, CA

V:  Permaculture Design Certification: Sunrise Ranch, CO

VI:  The Cabin: Lopez Island, WA

VII:  Conclusion: The Mindset of a Designer

IIX: Extras

IX: Digiphon

X: Bibliography

I: Introduction:

In this output packet I cover the learning and application of permaculture design strategies and techniques.  Obtaining a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) is the only external requirement of the MSc program at Gaia University, therefore, this output packet discusses a vital component of the ‘Integrative Ecosocial Design’ degree.  I go through cycles of academic learning followed by applying the new material that I’ve learned.  This output packet is designed to represent these cycles, as the reader goes chromatically through an urban PDC, a backyard garden, another PDC, and finally a cabin.  I feel as though I observe the world around me differently and that I make ecologically informed decisions on job sites after taking two PDC’s.

II: Etymology and Definition of “Permaculture”:

“The term permaculture (as a systematic method) was first coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s. The word ‘permaculture’ originally referred to ‘permanent agriculture’ but was expanded to stand also for ‘permanent culture,’ as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system. Inspired by Fukuoka natural farming philosophy, Mollison has described permaculture as ‘a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than premature and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single project system.’ (wikipedia article)  Ross Mars confirms this encyclopedic definition in his book The Basics of Permaculture Design when he writes that, “Permaculture is not just about gardening, although its origin of permanent agriculture suggests this.  Nowadays, permaculture is thought of along the lines of permanent culture, incorporating all aspects of human beings and human settlements.”

The term, “Permaculture,” or, [] is transformative in nature.  The second morpheme in the word has already changed from signifying ‘agriculture,’ to signifying ‘culture.’  The word is inextricably linked to a social movement, and it continues to take on new meaning as the movement grows.  I have taken 2 separate PDC’s with over 5 different instructors.  Each instructor had a personal definition of ‘permaculture,’ taking from their own life experiences and specializations.  One instructor mentioned that he thinks the phrase has already been commodified to the point that it is time for the movement to adopt a new name.  I hope that ‘permaculture’ does not become ‘greenwashed’ to the point where the phrase itself becomes vacuous.  Akin to what happened with the phrases, ‘sustainable’ and ‘natural.’

My sister-in-law asked me one day what permaculture meant.  I told her that it was, “a full systems approach to habitat that integrates traditional indigenous knowledge with modern day physics.”  I also showed her the Designer’s Manual.  After looking at the manual, she responded by saying something like, “oh, I thought it was just like growing corn, beans and squash together.”   I have also heard through the grapevine that there are farmers who define permaculture as, “hippie bullshit that doesn’t work.”

My own personal definition goes something like this:  Permaculture is a design process and a social movement.  Although the word began its life as an agricultural term, ‘permaculture’ is now applied to every aspect of human habitat and creativity.  Permaculture education gives the individual an ecologically based, full-systems perspective.  This perspective is rooted in an ethical framework, dependent on imagination, and spiraling in a reiterative fractal of accepting and applying feedback in a cyclical nature.  The mindset of a designer views all things as energy, whether it be words exchanged, food eaten, or exhaust polluting; all things follow meta-patterns and are essentially transformable.  The permaculturalist has an in-depth knowledge of their local biosphere and watershed, and they seek to improve the area in which they live via methods of community organization.

III:  Urban Permaculture Design Certification (PDC): San Francisco, CA:

The San Francisco Urban Permaculture Institute (UPISF) offers a PDC that focuses on urban design techniques, as well as California in general.  The course is taught by David Cody and Kevin Bayuk; two professional and informative instructors that make a great team.  I attended the course from December 2011 to March 2012.  During this time I also volunteered at the community garden that is managed by UPISF on Portrero Hill.  The garden is a beautiful place high on a hill with a panoramic view of the buildings of the downtown San Francisco skyline to the north, and Oakland to the east.  The projects that I worked on here included building a pond, a cob oven and a design for a backyard with a small group.

To build the pond we had to use a rubber lining, because of the proximity to other houses in this dense urban area.  In this process we also planned a low point for the overflow in case of heavy rain.  Another project was building a cob oven, which we did during the ‘natural building’ day of class.  We danced around barefoot in the mud while city busses drove by, mixing together the right proportions of sand, clay and straw.  The final design included a copper pipe that spiraled around the oven in between the insulator and outer layer.  This would be used to make hot water for tea during pizza parties.  Using the heat from the thermal mass of the oven, room temperature water poured in the top of the pipe will spiral around and come out the other side piping hot.

One Saturday, we had an “Earthworks and Pruning Workshop” at the M.A. Center in San Ramon.  This ranch is where Amma, “The Hugging Saint,” comes to give people hugs two times per year.  I felt fortunate and blessed to be a part of an orchard that was originally the vision of a woman who is famous for hugging others.  David and Kevin explained to us how the road that wasn’t on contour was a “type-1 error,” because heavy rains consistently wash it out.  They also showed us the water tanks across the valley, and explained how if the water were below that elevation on the side of the hill that we were on, it would be pressurized by gravity alone.  We walked over the swale and were instructed about the planning for overflow, and that trees are planted downhill from the swale because that’s where the water flows through the soil by force of gravity.   We were also told that this hill that was terraced with a fruit tree orchard is the greenest hill in the area during dry summers, because of how the terraces and swales slow the water down and allow it to sink into the soil.

This was during winter, and the sap of the deciduous fruit trees was down in their roots and the branches were leafless.  We were instructed about taking out branches that intersect other branches, and also branches that cross over the middle of the tree.  We were taught how to direct the growth of the tree, by making a diagonal cut away from the node that you want to grow outwards.  With all of this knowledge, we set out as a class and began to prune Amma’s fruit tree orchard.

Throughout the class I teamed up with three of my colleagues to create a design project.  Ours was unique in the class, because we had a private residence rather than a city park or other public land.  Because of this, we had a much higher chance of actually implementing the project, and this was an exciting prospect.  The backyard of the house at 100 Acadia S[DB1] treet was a steep slope of hard dirt that would make a big puddle by the door every time it rained.  A member of our design group is a friend of the owner of the house.  Because of this relationship, there were fewer obstacles to overcome.

We worked as a team to create a base map, a sector map, goals of the client, and a vision that would improve the condition of the existing yard.  We envisioned planting guilds of edible and medicinal plants in mulched beds on contour.  We also planned to have citrus, grey water from the laundry machine, bees, vermicompost and a space for relaxation.  Please view these before and after photos to see the difference in the yard with our design implemented.  It feels great to know that the project was started in my absence, during the time that I was in Colorado.  It feels good to know that a homeowner sees value in a vision that I helped to co-create.  (*Please refer to the attached spreadsheet for a complete description of the 10[DB2] 0 Acadia design.)

IV:  Mom’s Garden & Yard: Palo Alto, CA: 

My Mom’s yard in Palo Alto started out looking very nice, however, not very edible.  It worked out that my parents were interested in having a vegetable garden, around the same time that I picked up momentum in creating edible gardenscapes.  One element that changed the lifestyle of our home and the momentum of the garden was the ‘compost tumbler.’  I have heard mixed reviews from different sources about the efficacy of the tumblers.  From personal experience, I can say that they are a very effective solution to small-scale urban soil production.  The soil that we make has lots of different types of fungus that are found in medicinal acupuncture herbs, because of this, it is a deep and rich dark hue, and various sorts of mushrooms sprout out of it during different times of the year.

Once we had built up enough soil, I constructed a very basic rectangular planter box.  I lay crosshatched chickenwire beneath the box to keep out underground animals such as moles and gophers.  I also secured ½” pvc pipes arching over the top with bird netting to prevent birds and squirrels from eating the crops from above.  After the first planter box, my parents had two more built while I was out of town, and now the yard has 3 planter boxes total.  The planter boxes seem to naturally follow the spiraling pattern of ph[DB4] i; the first two are close to each other, and the third is on the other side of the house.

To plant the yard I relied on local nurseries, seeds from friends and also transplanting from the community garden in San Francisco.  The yard now has: tree collards, scarlet runner beans, pepino dulce, lettuces, kales, tomatoes, oregano, a nectarine tree, a fig tree, a dwarf meyer lemon tree, Italian parsley, 2 compost tumblers, perennial arugula, strawberries, calendula, clovers, and oak saplings.  I have a great time applying the knowledge that I learn, and helping my parents to have low-maintenance, year-round food production.  I have also learned a lot about client relationships, and the tension that exists between the desires of the owners, and the imagination of the permaculturalist.  In addition, after my absence in Colorado, 2 more dwarf citrus trees were placed in the yard, and I feel as though I built momentum that continued while I was gone.

V:  Permaculture Design Certification: Sunrise Ranch, CO:

I took the 11-day intensive PDC from March 28th through April 7th 2012 at Sunrise Ranch in Colorado, within one month of completing the PDC in San Francisco.  The class was taught by: Patrick Padden, Kelly Simmons, Jason Gerhardt and Joel Glanzberg.  Taking a second PDC directly after the first one was a practice in maintaining a beginner’s mind.  It was also very beneficial to refortify the abundance of information that is presented in the class.  I am also currently working my way through the Designer’s Manual, as well as a book called The Basics of Permaculture Design, which are both serving to allow the plethora of fundamental knowledge found in a PDC to actually be retained.

This PDC was very distinct from the urban style one in San Francisco.  There were more instructors, it was 11 days in a row (rather than Wednesdays and Saturdays for 3 months), and we had to complete our design projects within the same 11 days in which we were absorbing all of this information.  It was also distinct in that we covered techniques, plants and strategies for the ‘Rocky Mountain Front Range,’ rather than coastal California.

The design project for this PDC was for the ‘outer farm’ area of the ranch.  This area has lots of unused infrastructure, including an out-of-use milk shed, corrals with broken fences, and a cob dwelling with an incomplete bathroom.  The area also contains the main chicken coop that holds upwards of 150 chickens and 2 roosters, as well as a ‘Sunny John,’ tack shed, green houses, grain silos, and a dried up pond.  It was obvious to us through our own observations and research, that this area was vibrant in the past and is now in disuse.

We proposed to have the water from the canal that travels through the elevated west side of the property flow down through the pasture.  We would then create a native grass ecosystem that would have small ponds strategically placed at the intersection of paddocks, along with native fodder species.  The water would then flow into the dried up pond in the outer farm.  From there the water would connect with the runoff of all of the buildings in the outer farm, to a food forest located at the lowest point of the entire north side of the property.

In addition to restoring a native landscape and integrating the water, we also proposed a youth hostel and cottage industries.  In my proposal I write that, “By having a hostel and cottage industries in the farm area, Sunrise Ranch will be building community, offering education, creating a space for travelers to feel welcome, creating income, utilizing unused infrastructure in ways that are in alignment with the mission statement of the Emissaries, and providing a vast array of plant and animal products for the entire community.”

In the ‘Quality of Life,’ statement of Holistic Go[DB5] al Management, we wrote the following:  “Fresh water from the valley that has been lined with small rock wall ‘check dams’ flows through the field and into the pond in the farm.  Cows drink from the stream as it flows slowly through the field.  Chickens follow the cows, eating the fly larvae in their manure reducing pests, and preparing the soil with fresh fertilizer that the cows have left behind.  Native grasses are restored to the area, and mulberry bushes are planted for the chickens to feed on while grazing.  Visitors worldwide come to sleep at the hostel and help the residents with farm chores, crafts and meal preparation.  Homemade candles, cheeses, tinctures, salves and fermented foods are sold at the corner market booth.  The outer farm area is an integral part of the Sunrise Ranch community, and there is also a unique quality to the area that is distinct from the main campus.  The community at the farm is an educational environment that embodies the principles of holistic management and systems based scientific design.  Weekend workshops are held on topics ranging from fabric dyes made with natural materials to herbal remedies and ice-cream making.  Sunrise Ranch is more complete now that the existing infrastructure is being utilized in a way that brings the human divine into reality.”

Similar to the tension that existed between my creativity and the desires of my parents, there was an area of tension between our creative design and the facilitators of Sunrise Ranch.  Joel Glanzberg explained to us in our PDC how every situation contains an “activating force,” and a, “restraining force.”  The middle path between the two is called the, “reconciling force,” or the compromise.  Unfortunately, there was no compromise reached for this particular design, and the decision was made to not implement any of the ideas presented.  (*Please refer to the attac[DB6] hed document for a full description of the design project.)

VI:  The Cabin: Lopez Island, WA:

Lopez Island is a small, forested island off the coast of Washington state near the border of [DB7] Canada.  Bald eagles soar through the forested islands, strong tides sweep between the islands, and ferryboats bring people to and from the mainland.  It rains virtually every day at this northern latitude.  The summer days are extra long, and the winter days are confusingly short.  Working on my mother’s cabin on Lopez Island was a direct application of the knowledge that I learned in both of the PDC’s.  I requested that my client use a biodegradable wood product, instead of ‘normal,’ hazardous wood stain.  We used ‘biow[DB8] ash’ for the job, a biodegradable wood cleaner and sealer.  This was not only for the health of the soil around the cabin, but also for my own personal health.

While working on pressure washing and staining the cabin, I noticed that the front yard was eroding.  I also observed that the shrubs around the house were beginning to become overgrown.  I used the biomass that I clipped from the excess trees and shrubs to create a bioswale at the point of the yard above where the erosion occurs.  This is to have the yard build soil, rather than lose soil.  It cost nothing, and I utilized available resources.  I also purchased local plants and seeds from Doe Bay resort on Orcas Island.  I brought the plants and seeds back, and used more of the biomass from the yard to create a sheet-mulched garden bed on the south side of the cabin.  In addition, we used large rocks that were exposed after trimming the shrubs to create a fire circle in front yard of the cabin.

I feel empowered now that I can go to a job site with the intention to protect the wood siding of a house, and through my observations, create a low-cost strategy to prevent erosion, grow food, and beautify the yard.  It is also the case that I have worked hard to build trust with my parents, so that I am able to implement strategies that I believe to be beneficial.  I also started imagining a vision for a covered deck patio that is also a greenhouse.  This would prevent the weathering of the deck, reduce heating/cooling costs, and create a space to grow foods in Washington that would normally require a warmer climate.

VII:  Conclusion: The Mindset of a Designer:

Completing separate PDC’s in different geographical areas, along with my research and implementation of projects, has been an empowering and life-changing experience. I am learning from classes, books, workshops and direct ‘hands-on’ experience (e.g. reading the ‘Permaculture Designer’s Manual’ while taking a PDC).  I go through cycles of academic learning, followed by applying the new material that I’ve learned.  This output packet has been designed to represent these cycles.  I feel as though I now observe things differently, and that I am able to use my imagination to put together designs to improve aspects of human habitat.  I now observe winds, water flow channels, slope, angle of the sun, animals, rains, and soil as a second nature when I first arrive on a job site.  I am also actively changing my thinking to be that of a ‘designer’ in all aspects of life.

Of utmost importance is the following point: activities that are a part of permaculture design, such as community gardening, cob oven building and pond construction, are means that achieve multiple ends.  With one single project we can: build community space, beautify space, learn, educate, save income, create income, empower people, make steps towards independence from complex social structures, and do our part to usher in a new society where we live in a mutually beneficial manner with the planet.  This ‘stacking of functions’ that permaculture is inherently designed to do is fulfilling and thorough.  When we are intentional in our actions, starting with an ethical foundation and going all the way up to space-saving strategies, these awesome actions seem quotidian.  However, it is rare to come across such actions that achieve so much via their inherent value, and this is the truly magical crux of permaculture.



About danblake222

*MSc "Integrative Ecosocial Design" with Gaia University *BA "Ethnography & Photography" with Minor in Spanish Linguistics from UCSC *Artist in Residence at Omega Institute *Handyman, House Painter, Writer, Photographer, Permaculture Designer, Gardener *Photography portfolio at

One comment

  1. Very good article. I definitely appreciate this site.


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