Urban Permaculture in Practice

What is Permaculture?  Well, this is where I find it difficult to explain because it seems like it’s EVERYTHING – it’s gardening, it’s organic, it’s energy systems, it’s sustainability, it’s agriculture, it’s raising animals, it’s pest control, it’s regeneration of natural ecosystems, it’s efficiency, it’s energy efficient building and architecture, it’s a philosophy, a way of living, it’s community building… and more.  It’s a word that joins PERMANENT and AGRICULTURE but has been extended to include CULTURE too.  Perhaps the founder, Bill Mollison, can describe it better for you with these quotes:

“An integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man”

“Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs”

“People, building and the ways in which they organise themselves are central”

or co-founder, David Holmgren’s definition might be more precise for you:

“Permaculture is the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the vision [described above].  It draws together the diverse ideas, skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed in order to empower us to provide for our needs, while increasing the natural capital for future generations.”

Perhaps the best way to understand Permaculture is to see it in practice and do it yourself.  Why don’t you visit a local Permaculture garden or group? In the mean time, you can learn through my experience :). Today I was very relieved (and proud) to hand in my Permaculture Design Project to complete my Permaculture Design Certificate.  Here is a quick overview of what it entailed.

First, you do a client interview to determine what their needs, wants, ethics, budget and commitment to installing and maintaining the system are.  Through this process you can get an idea of what is realistic, what might be short term or long term goals, what they want to use the property for, what the property has historically been used for and also what the client’s understanding of Permaculture is.  I represented this process in a mind map:

Client Needs Assessment

Once you have assessed the client needs, you need to complete a Sector Analysis.  This is done through observation – observing sun movements (and shade) across the property throughout the days – preferably over a year; feeling where and when cool, warm and strong winds cross the property; observing where water flows and pools when it rains; noting how pets, children, adults, cars use the property for work, play and daily movements; researching where pipes and electrical lines are dug or hanging; and anything else that is important to how the space is utilised.  I drew this information up in the following diagram:

Sector Analysis

The next step was to take note of what was already on the property and mark it on a Base Plan.  This would be the basis for my design.  This plan was to plot all the existing structures and plants.  In my case, the property had a staggering 52 fruit trees planted!  I had barely noticed some of them since they were still young trees.  I started to identify these trees, research them and plot their sizes at full maturity on my Base Plan:

Base Plan

As you can see, whilst the landlord has planted some really rare, beautiful and exotic trees, there simply will not be enough room for them all to grow to full size and be fully productive.  This is not a normal permaculture experience! 🙂 Normally designers are confronted with bare properties or ornamental plants only… what a treat!  Check out my document (PDC Design Project) to see all the amazing trees I researched.

Once I had fully researched each tree, and done my soil tests I could determine if each tree was actually suitable for its current location and once removed I could see the available space for the rest of my design.  So, then I started considering my design, using what I had learnt in my courses and remembering these permaculture principles:

Elevational Planning – This is basically considering the profile of the site, where water flows and how placement of elements will be affected by this understanding.  You will see in my design that I put a banana mulch pit in the lowest corner of the property to make use of water running there.

Multiple Functions – There are lots of uses for everything in permaculture! Everything should be placed for more than one function – for example, in my design I have ground covers and guilds within the orchard to mulch the trees but the choice of plants will also feed the chickens 🙂

Sectors – Used to channel external energy like wind and sun into or away from the system.  In my design I have an example of this in the North East corner.  I have designed a circular garden for tomatoes but since they are not tolerant to wind I have planted a Jerusalem artichoke windbreak around them.

Zones – Zones are used in Permaculture design to place elements depending on how often you go to that element.  For example, in my design I wanted things like the compost bin and herb spiral close to the back door (which is near the kitchen) because we would use them every day.

Maximise Edge – Edges are rich in diversity – think the banks of rivers or edges of forests!  In permaculture, we want to create edges to encourage microclimates, good predators and diversity.  In my design I have incorporated key hole garden beds at the back of the house to do this!  In future designs, I hope I wouldn’t have as many existing straight lined concrete garden beds so I can create more interesting pathways and edges through the property.

Relative Location – This one is all about putting a design component in the right place for its most efficient functioning.  For example, in my design I put my intensive vegetable gardens in the North East corner of the property to make sure they get the required 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.  I ensured that the vegetables we’d want to pick daily were placed en route to the letterbox, making the trip to collect the mail useful in another way too!

Diversity – Diversity is everything! It’s needed for stability, for pest control, for interest and enjoyment.  Diversity includes the different types of elements, the number of connections between them and the number of ways in which they work. In my design I have tried to incorporate many species of edible plants but also incorporated them as sources of mulch, companion plants for pests and diseases, nitrogen fixers and chicken food, as examples.

Patterns – Patterns help us frame our design by planning how elements connect and function in beneficial relationships.  In my design I was limited by the existing square concrete garden beds but still incorporated the spiral herb garden, key hole plucking beds and circular tomato bed.

Biological Resources – This one is all about using plants and animals to save energy.  For example, my design incorporates companion plants for pest and disease control, chickens for manure and pest control and composting food scraps to improve the soil.

Natural Succession – Carefully planning the succession of plants can recreate what happens naturally in a rainforest.  In my design I have included an under story of useful plants within the orchard and suggested the planting of some pioneer species to improve the soil and encourage growth of the smaller fruit trees.

Energy Recycling – This one is all about keeping energy on the site as much as possible. My design addresses this through a banana circle which uses the water that runs off to the North West corner of the property, composting organic waste, growing my own mulch, utilising rain water tanks and installing solar hot water and solar panels, as examples 🙂

Multiple Elements – There is more than one way to use everything!  An example I haven’t used yet is the bamboo planted in the South West corner of the property in my design.  This has been included as a screen for privacy to the neighbours yard, as a source of mulch for the gardens, a material to be used for construction of planting stakes (and hopefully furniture one day!).

Here is my Concept Design:

Concept Design Plan

Lastly, I’d like to share with you the 3 ethics of Permaculture:

Care of the Earth – Care for living soil (see our post on The Story of Soil), care for our forests and rivers, reduce our consumption of ‘stuff’, care of all creatures (even the microscopic ones). Work with nature and not against – collaborate, don’t compete.

Care of People – Meet people’s needs in a compassionate and simple way.  Start with looking after yourself and expand to include families, neighbours and communities. Embrace self-reliance and personal responsibility.  Focus on positives and opportunities rather than problems and obstacles.  I think this is an appropriate place to appreciate my friends at the city farm I volunteer at.  They are constantly teaching and inspiring me.

Share of Surplus – Recognise our limits to what we can give and take, for people and the planet. Find the right balance in production and consumption.

I wanted to keep this post quite simple, focussing on the essentials and give you a taste of what Permaculture can offer you so please feel free to research, ask questions and get involved 🙂



  • aoristus

    This is fascinating. And I love the the philosophy, the drawings and the overall presentation. Is this an actual house? I mean has this been commissioned by someone or is it “just” a course project?
    Do you know of any permaculture professionals out there, i.e. people who do this for a living? I guess it is an evolving idea and people with these skills will be progressively more in demand as this takes off.
    How long did it take you to complete this?
    Anyway, really interesting work, well done.
    If I ever have my own house I would like all this factors to be considered.
    kKeep up the good work.


  • cjg

    Thank you so much for your comments. Even though it was for a course project, it was an actual house – where we live in fact! Every site will have its own constraints and benefits and Permaculture is all about observation (which is hard to do on a made up property).

    There are people all over the world practicing Permaculture and many as their livelihood. Some run their own properties/farms in this way, run courses and sell produce. Others work within humanitarian aid contexts abroad helping empower local communities with things like sanitation, producing their own food and regenerating their environment.

    This particular project took me weeks – but it was my first, I did a lot of research and I went in to a lot of detail. But I’ve seen experienced Permaculturalists whip up plans very quickly and effectively – the time is really in the client’s needs analysis and observing the property. Observation is key 🙂

    Thanks again for your feedback and maybe you could consider getting involved in your local transition network or community farm – you’ll definitely find some Permaculture people there, who might be interested in doing a design for your house one day 🙂


  • Josh B

    This is so weird. I have almost completed my PDC course (2 weeks to go), and have been doing it at the same place as you. Our teacher (W) showed us some examples of previous projects that had been submitted by past students, and made particular mention of yours, because of the amazing amount of effort and detail you put into it. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something like “I don’t expect this standard of quality from you, so don’t get too scared” – LOL.

    Anyway, your plan was inspiring, and I started searching for others to give me more inspiration (and help me with my own). I did a search for [“sector analysis” – pemraculture], and there was your design.

    I wish you all the best, and hope that you get to see your plan materialise into reality. Thanks for the inspiration too 🙂


  • cjg

    Thanks for your kind comments Josh. I hope you are enjoying your course!

    Please feel free to join ‘Making Sense of Things’ on facebook or subscribe to emails as I hope to put more designs on in the future. Also, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about my design or sector analysis.

    Happy permaculturing 🙂


  • aoristus

    That’s great info, thanks.
    Will you be implementing the project or at least part of it?
    It’s a First class one after all, as JOSH B let it leak! lol
    I live in a much colder climate (well, for most most of the year) and in my head at least it seems much harder to do Permaculture, and enjoy it at least.
    Anyway, thanks for the tip, I will try to get in touch with local groups.


    cjg Reply:

    Hi Aoristus… I thought of you when I saw this book released – It’s about Permaculture specifically for cooler Northern Hemisphere climates. The Earth Care Manual. (sorry for the long link).



  • cjg

    Hi Aoristus,

    I used to live in England and I know there is a huge Permaculture movement there, despite the horrible weather and cold climate. And the same in Canada. Generally green houses are used a lot and you need to research suitable plants for your area (or observe what grows well naturally).

    I found these 2 clips by Bill Mollison about Permaculture in Cool Climates if you are interested:


    And I also found these clips about a couple’s property in Canada, titled ‘Permaculture in Canada – An Urban garden’:


    Someone asked her what percentage they continue to grow in the winter? And they replied that they sprout in the winter but mainly eat whatever they have stored – frozen, preserved, stored roots in a cellar under the house and they continue to grow things like their greens in a sunroom. Sounds great!

    Sounds like winter could be enjoyable actually as you can sit back a little and reap the rewards of your hard work.



  • Eva

    Daba, daba duuuuuu!!!
    Congratulations darling, I have been reading your project and this post and you are going to be a great permaculturist.

    I could enjoy with your design around your beatiful house… mmmhh I think I will have to go back 😉

    Leave you this post to people who need work in a template climate

    Thank you very much for your positive energy,

    From Madrid snowing, eva


  • Yoo

    Amazing. Great work!
    It sounds so evident that we should all do this at a certain level : check the area we’re living in, integrate the componants of the climate to have the bests benefits of the sun (looking at the sun path it seems you’re south-hemispherian!), water and winds, growing adapted plants, in a way re-integrating the environnement in our lives!


  • Penina

    Hello! Great blog post! I am in a Permaculture Design class right now and we have been working on our own papers/designs. I was hoping you could tell me what region of the world your design is in. I didn’t see it listed anywhere and was curious by the exotic fruits. Keep up the good work!


    Making Sense of Things Reply:

    Thank you Penina 🙂 I hope you are enjoying your class! When I did this design I was in Brisbane, Australia which is sub-tropical. Now we are living in La Paz, Bolivia, at altitude which has presented a whole new set of challenges 🙂


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