Permaculture Principle 7: Design from Pattern to Detail

Permaculture is a design method and like all design methods it looks at the “big picture” first. It does that with zones, sectors, and functions. Zones, in particular, have been really helpful to me in finding the right place to put things.

Warning – this is a long post. If you are just starting to plan your space, or if your existing space isn’t working for you, I think it will be useful. This method of thinking of space has really helped me put things in their proper place.


Zones are defined by the space and the lifestyle of the person who will be caring for the space. (It could be land or it could be a patio or even indoor space). Zone 1 is the place you visit most frequently and zone 5 is the place you never get to.

It really helps to draw a picture and then be honest with yourself about what area is in what zone. If you don’t know, go to Principle 1 and observe. Where do you go multiple times a day? Where do you go once a day? Where do you go once a week? Where do you never go?

Don’t put things in zone 5 that will require care. It will never happen, no matter how good your intentions. I know I am NEVER going to pay attention to the space on top of the hill by the back of the garage. It’s going to be wild. I am also never going to spend a lot of time in my front yard. Obviously, I can’t let it go wild but anything I plant there had better be able to take care of itself with little maintenance.

Sector Analysis: Where is the Energy in Your Landscape

Sector analysis looks at how external energy flows through your space. Sometimes you can block these flows, but other times you just need to plan for them. It’s also helpful to know what’s going to be happening as a result of climate change. It’s already here and it’s already significant. We need to plan for it.

Here are some examples of energy flow:

  • Water
    • When we have torrential rains, which we are having more and more frequently, what parts of your yard get flooded? Where does runoff from the roof or sump pump go? Create a space for it!
    • Do you need your landscaping to move water from one area to another?
    • Where can you capture and store water? Can you keep it on your property and out of the storm water system? Can you help it sink down into the soil – into the aquifer?
    • Where is the spigot located on your house – are there some areas of the yard you can’t reach with a hose? Put drought-tolerant plants there.
  • Sunlight
    • Where is the sun/shade in your yard? How many hours of sunlight does each area get? Is it consistent spring, summer and fall?
    • Can you minimize plant obstruction on the south side of your house to allow for maximum solar gain in the winter, boosting your indoor heat by a few degrees? Conversely, can plants shade the east and west sides of your house in the summer to prevent solar heat gain?
  • Wind
    • Wind can damage delicate plants, like peonies. Put delicate plants close to a building to minimize wind or in groupings.
    • Landscaping with trees can help block cold winter winds coming from the north.
  • Visitors
    • Who visits your space (wild animals, children and adults)? Why are they there? What do they need?
    • Can you accommodate their needs and still reach your goals?
    • If not, can you gently redirect them?
  • Social and cultural patterns
    • Every community has cultural norms. You’ll know them when you break them. Chances are, you’ll hear from your neighbors – or the city. Are there thing you can do to accommodate the norms of your place without sacrificing your own goals? (For example, can you put a dwarf fruit tree in amongst the front yard flowers to add food to your space?)
    • Be sure to plan for social space and social activities and consider how you “invite” people into the space.

Functions: What Do You Want to DO In Your Space

I had a lot of functional needs for my yard and in previous planning efforts I would say, “This is the area where this is done so it’s going to go here.” That didn’t work. For example, the laundry line by the back door is nice but that is the space I desperately needed for a rain garden to handle the water from the sump pump. The clothesline needed to go elsewhere.

So the first step is to just list all of the functions you want and need to include in your space. THEN take a look at how often you need those functions. Do they belong in zone 1 or zone 3? Then take a look at sector conditions. Putting my laundry in a windy area isn’t such a bad idea, within reason.

We needed space in our yard for:

  • Food production – vegetables, berries, fruit
  • Food preparation – the summer kitchen, family meals by the BBQ, roasted marshmallows over a fire
  • Water diversion – a rain garden for overflow water
  • Water storage to be used to water plants
  • Work space – A potting bench and space for tools, a vegetable washing station, a laundry line, a compost area
  • Ease of entry – A landing area outside the back door to set things down before entering; a welcoming seating area on the front porch where you can wait for visitors or get out of the rain
  • Social engagement – room for friends to sit around the fire, room for neighbors to gather at National Night Out, sharing books with the community from our little free library and a space to sit and look at books
  • Quiet relaxation – a hammock out of sight, by a burbling fountain

Down to the Details

Once I defined all the functions, I got down to the details.

  • Kitchen garden with herbs and greens – which plants
  • Larger vegetable garden for food storage needs – which plants
  • Fruits and berries
  • Flowers for bees
  • How many rain barrels do we need and how many will actually fit our space? And how can we make them attractive or hide them?
  • What kind of platform do we needed for stable cooking?
  • What kind of seating and how much do we need for guests?

I also defined the “feel” I wanted to achieve in various spaces. For example, the veggie garden is primarily functional. I’m not going to worry about “decorations,” at least for the time being. However, we want to add whimsy in all the other areas of the yard. This summer we built a poetry patio by the library, put a bird sculpture on the boulevard, made tin can sunflowers for the rain garden, and hung solar powered dragonfly twinkle lights above the hammock.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s