2. Step by Step Process

Design Steps

“Each garden, each valley and each region is different. These differences, in the hands of an Earth steward, can be honored and used toward creative and diverse ends. Each garden is a reflection of the potential of place and the intimacy with which the gardener can connect with the needs and latent forces of the land. Earth wisdom becomes an expanding universe for the seeker, until the garden becomes an Eden where the gardener and garden exist in true harmony.” Tody Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden. Tody Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden.

“The big twist we have to make is away from our educational system. All the methodologies and principles we use arose as a result of observation of natural systems, and are stated in a passive way. The mind twist that has to be made to create permaculture is to realize that you can get hold of that and do it. We have to make our knowledge active. We have to move from a passive to an active thought level.” Bill Mollison – Introduction to Permaculture.

Design Principles (by Bill Mollison):

  1. Work with nature, rather than against it.
  2. The problem is the solution.
  3. Make the least change for the greatest possible effect.
  4. The yield (production) of a system is theoretically unlimited.

Tody Hemenway did a wonderful job in presenting the various steps that should be taken in order to implement an ecological garden. His work is based on ideas presented by Bill Mollison in the 80’s. There is no need to try to reinvent the wheel so we will follow the steps as defined in Gaia’s Garden.

The steps in creating our ecological garden design are:

  • Observation: Here we ask what do we have to work with? What are the conditions and constraints of the site?
  • Visioning: What should the design do? What do we want? What does the site need? How should it feel?
  • Planning: What do we need to make our ideas happen? How should the pieces be assembled?
  • Development: What will the final design look like? How will we make it happen?
  • Implementation: The final step: How to install the garden.

Holmgren’s 12 design principles
Holmgren lists these principles in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability ; also see permacultureprinciples.com.

  1. Observe and interact – By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.
  2. Catch and store energy – By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.
  3. Obtain a yield – Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback – We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services – Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.
  6. Produce no waste – By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.
  7. Design from patterns to details – By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate – By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.
  9. Use small and slow solutions – Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.
  10. Use and value diversity – Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal – The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change – We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

“If nature is left to itself, fertility increases. Organic remains of plants and animals accumulate and are decomposed on the surface by bacteria and fungi. With the movement of rainwater, the nutrients are taken deep into the soil to become food for microorganisms, earthworms, and other small animals. Plant roots reach to the lower soil strata and draw the nutrients back up to the surface.” Masanobu Fukuaka – The One Straw Revolution.

1. Observation:

Our first step is to make a detailed map of the land noting every possible aspect.

  • Areas of shade and sun
  • Wind direction, intensity, and change over the seasons
  • Temperature highs and lows, dates of first and last frosts
  • Points of sunrise, sunset, winter and summer solar zenith
  • Microclimates (cool, hot, wet, or dry spots)
  • Rainfall amounts and seasons (snow, hail)
  • Creeks, gullies, water movement during rain, flooding zones. Identify sources of water, analyze for quality and quantity, and reserve sites for tanks, swales, or dams. Wherever possible, use slope benefits (or raise tanks) to give gravity flow to use points, and detail plant lists that will grow (as mature plants or trees) unirrigated. Define water “pathways” in use, so that water use is economical in houses, and that grey water is used in gardens (via filtration beds) or forests.
  • Soil (drainage, heavy or light, sand or clay, rich or depleted, stable or slumping)
  • Rocky outcrops
  • Views in various directions
  • Activities of neighbors that may affect design (noise, children, pets, visits, etc.)
  • Utilities: power, phone, sewer, and gas lines
  • Traffic and access roads, frequency of traffic, heavy or light vehicles, pedestrian traffic
  • Location and impact of structures: house, garage, fences, walls, etc.
  • Vegetation: species present, invasive or noxious plants, rare species, and their state of health
  • Animals: native and introduced, pests, “scary” animals (snakes, spiders)
  • History of the land (talk to locals, study old books, maps, photos)
  • Resources in neighborhood (sources of organic matter, soil, and building materials): sawmills, factories, food processors, stores, landfills, plant and seed sources.

“In nature, there is life and death, and nature is joyful. In human society, there is life and death, and people live in sorrow.” Masanobu Fukuaka – The One Straw Revolution.

2. Visioning:

This is the time for dreaming and brain storming.

  • What do we want and need from the landscape? What can it offer? Possibilities include food, herbs, wildlife habitat, cut flowers, privacy, income, play space, or all of these. We will research what’s available, and go into a little detail, remembering that this is just the dreaming phase.
  • What does the landscape and region need? Has previous abuse caused a problem that can be corrected by good design? Does the soil need rejuvenating? Are trees dying, plants struggling? Would the land benefit from a pond, from wildlife habitat? Are rare native plants growing here that can be nurtured? Could the design regenerate and replenish a damaged landscape, and offer a chance of survival to endangered species?
  • What are our skills, physical and financial resources, limitations, likes and dislikes? How much time and money are we willing and likely to spend on the design, implementation, and maintenance? A design cannot succeed without a realistic picture of the resources and limitations that constrain it.
  • How should the new landscape feel? Like a forest, a Garden of Eden, a meadow, a sanctuary?
  • What will we do there?
  • What kind of food, herbs, medicinal plants, firewood, timber, or other products, can the land provide sustainably, for the long haul?
  • Will the place have an overall theme or function such as education, sanctuary, demonstration site, simple living, or market gardening?
  • Layout:  defining the zones and sectors.

3. Planning:


One system that helps manage garden layout is called the Zone-and-Sector method. This permaculture method helps decide where to place all the pieces of the garden so that they work with each other and for us—most effectively, according to intensity of human intervention, on-site energy and resources management or physical characteristics (slopes, temperature variations, etc).

Zones organize the pieces of a design by how often they are used or need attention and sectors help locate the pieces so they manage the forces that come from outside the site. Using zones and sectors together, we can make the best use of the connections within a design. Typically zones are numbered from 0 to 5.

Zone 0
The house, or home centre. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live, work and relax.

Zone 1
The zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, such as salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, and so on.

Zone 2
This area is used for sitting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control (preferably through natural methods such as spot-mulching) or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale home composting bins, and so on.

Zone 3
The area where main crops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal (provided mulches and similar things are used), such as watering or weed control once a week or so.

Zone 4
A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as timber production. An example might be coppice-managed woodland.

Zone 5
A wild area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural eco-systems and cycles. Here is where the most important lessons of the first permaculture principle of working with, rather than against, nature are learned.

Choosing the zone in which to place a design element depends on two things: the number of times we need to visit the plant, animal, or structure, and the number of times it needs us to visit it. The overall strategy with garden zones is to begin at the doorstep, design and develop the places closest to the house first, and gradually work outward. That way, we can keep a continuous area under control that gets as much attention as it needs, rather than having a hodgepodge of scattered patches that are easy to forget.

Sectors are a way of considering the external energies that move through a system such as prevailing wind direction, site orientation and aspect (north, south, east, west, etc.), winter/summer sun paths, underlying geological make up (bed rock causing clay or sandy soil types, etc.), frost pockets and so on; and how we might best take steps to either utilize or counter such factors.

Once we know what plants and structures we want in our design, we can use the Zone-and-Sector method to organize them. Using a base map, and sketching our ideas on overlays of tracing paper or clear plastic sheets, we can arrange the pieces of our design to connect sensibly with each other in their zones and sectors.

A recommendation:  In Zone 2 (see zones below), mulch heavily between the young trees and shrubs, and plant the herb, root, and ground cover layers as time, nursery stock, and money become available. Renew the mulch once or twice a year to build the soil quickly and smother weeds. To try to cultivate and plant this large area would probably be biting off too large a chunk at once. Remember, the wisest strategy is to get Zone 1 established first and then expand outward. With the above approach, the shrubs, trees, and soil of Zone 2 will be ready when Zone 1 is up and running.

Thus, we have created three zones in this forest garden: an intensively cultivated Zone 1, a well mulched but lightly planted (for now) Zone 2, and a long-term set of soil-building cover crops beneath the young shrubs and trees of Zone 3.

“Diversity isn’t involved so much with the number of elements in a system as it is with the number of functional connections between these elements. Diversity is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work. This really is the direction in which permaculture thinking is headed.” Bill Mollison – Introduction to Permaculture.

“We should not confuse order and tidiness. Tidiness is something that happens when you have frontal brain damage. You get very tidy. Tidiness is symptomatic of brain damage. Creativity, on the other hand, is symptomatic of a fairly whole brain, and is usually a disordered affair. The tolerance for disorder is one of the very few healthy signs in life. If you can tolerate disorder, you are probably healthy. Creativity is seldom tidy. … What we want is creative disorder. I repeat, it is not the number of elements in a system that is important, but the degree of functional organization of those elements – beneficial functions. Bill Mollison – Introduction to Permaculture.

“The characteristic that typifies all permanent agricultures is that the needs of the system for energy, are provided by that system. Bill Mollison – Introduction to Permaculture.

Sample of design of zones and sectors (From Gaia’s Garden):

Zones and Sectors

Although zones are often represented as concentric circles, they can have any type of shape depending on the land and location of the various buildings.


Now we can collect the design elements—plants, structures, tasks, functions that will make our vision come alive. How do we choose and assemble them? The guiding principle here, once again, is that we’re not creating a static collection of objects, but a dynamic, living landscape full of interactions between its inhabitants.

This is the time to make a list of the things that will satisfy our vision.

  • What kind of fruits and vegetable go in the Garden of Eden?
  • What companion plants can we include?
  • What kind of culinary and medicinal herbs do we want?
  • What species will attract the wildlife we want?

We make detailed lists of species and structures. These lists generate a lot of individual pieces.

Next, and most important, is to see how the pieces of our design can be connected to create a living landscape. Each plant or structure in a garden design should have its needs met by other design elements, and offer help to other elements. Dreaming up these connections often involves a cascading thought process. We choose a design element that we want, see what it needs and can offer, then find a desired element that meets some of those requirements, and then see what connects to the second element, and so on. This process is intended to build a dense web of connections, but if done haphazardly can create a tangled mass of confused feedback loops and dead ends.


What are the most urgent problems or desires that we need to address? Is it getting rid of the energy-gobbling lawn, redirecting runoff from the front walk, growing some food? Examine the least important aspects of the vision too; perhaps these contradict the more important ones, or can just be dispensed with.

If it helps, break priorities into several categories: personal, aesthetic, problems to be solved, environmental/ecological, and the like. See which categories and items leap out as the most important.

One of our main primary priorities should be to deal with soil erosion and soil reconditioning.

“Permaculture invites you to care for yourself, to care for your family and immediate community, to care for your neighbors in the widest possible sense, all around the globe. It is rooted in strong historical evidence that such care cannot work unless we also care for the land. Implicit in this is the understanding that we duly respect the waters and air of the Earth as well.” Tody Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden.

4. Development:

Now it’s time to polish these rough ideas, working with the locations arrived at by the Zone-and-Sector method. Sketch in the various planting beds, trees, walls and fences, patios and decks, and other design elements. At first, don’t go into any detail, just draw rough circles and outlines of the major components, showing their relative placement (this is often called a bubble diagram).

Once the layout has been refined on rough sketches, people with the skills or time may want to make more formal drawings and plans. Whether the documentation is of professional quality or not is up to the designer/gardener. Often just simple sketches will do, as long as they include distances, scale, and enough other detail to implement the design. Don’t expect to rely on memory. It’s frustrating to be about to install an expensive plant and not remember where it was supposed to go. Without these notes, that’s exactly what will happen.

Now it’s time to schedule the installation. What needs to be done first? A combination of factors interacts to shape this decision. These include:

  • Personal: Is our most urgent desire food production, a patio, shade, a flower garden, or some other consideration?
  • Environmental: Does the land most need soil building, erosion control, habitat, or something else?
  • Technical: Will the design require earthmoving, concrete or stone work, or other hardscaping? These often must be done first to avoid disturbing the rest of the design, and to reduce the expense and potential for damage done by multiple bulldozer visits. Trees and shrubs should also be planted early in the work, conforming to the old advice, “the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago.”
  • Seasonal: What can be done during the season appropriate to the work? Earth moving in the wet season will ruin soil structure; planting in summer heat may bake the transplants.
  • Financial: Is enough money available for the whole design? If not, what aspects make sense to phase in first?

“Everything has its own beauty. Putting it in the right place can only enhance it, and putting things together in the right place at the right rime is the essence of Permaculture. (…) People who choose to practice Permaculture spend a lot of time collecting, understanding and learning helpful techniques but the real secret is how effectively they are placed together.” Tody Hemenway – Gaia’s Garden.

5. Implementation:

Install the design, and be flexible enough to deal with the surprises that appear when a paper design meets the real world.

Follow this order of implementation:

  • First, do any major earth moving. Grade the site to a rough contour, if needed. Dig any swales, ponds, and drainage ditches. Install utility lines and underground irrigation pipes and wires. Then backfill the trenches.
  • Add any broad scale soil amendments and compost. Mulching and shaping of intensive Zone beds can wait until later.
  • Complete any hardscaping, the term that designers use for wood, stone, concrete, and other constructed elements: walls, sheds, paths, fences, and the like.
  • Make any final adjustments to the grade contours with rake and shovel.
  • Lay down sheet mulches.
  • Install large plants, such as trees and major shrubs.
  • Plant ground covers, non woody plants, lawn, and cover crops.
  • Adjust mulches, and fine-tune the irrigation system, if any.
  • Keep plants watered and help them get established by observing and caring for those that need a little extra attention.

“From just this one straw a revolution could begin. This straw appears small and light, and most people do not know how really weighty it is. If people knew the true value of this straw a human revolution could occur which would become powerful enough to move the country and the world.” Masanobu Fukuaka – The One Straw Revolution.


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