Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

“Can’t see the forest for the trees”


Principle 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.

Every spider’s web is unique to its situation, yet the general pattern of radial spokes and spiral rings is universal. The proverb “can’t see the forest for the trees” reminds us that the closer we get to something, the more we are distracted from the big picture.

Get the album! Permaculture: A Rhymer's Manual


Creating a picturesque garden

Mark Garrett designed this attractive food garden on a small steep sloping block at the world renowned Green Village, part of the Green School in Bali. The garden complements the organic form and aesthetics of the buildings that surround it. The keyhole beds allow for all plants to be within easy reach, while the winding path meanders across a series of terraces to access the river crossing below. Beauty and function blend to create an inviting space to work and relax.

‘Creating a picturesque garden’ photo taken in Bali by Mark Garrett and featured in the 2017 Permaculture Calendar.


Principle 7: Design from patterns to detailsP7 Calendar Banner

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

Bringing back skills of old

At the Festival of Forgotten Skills rhythmic patterns are common, with rope making, spranging (predates knitting), scything, and candle making among others. The art of weaving with plants reproduces patterns found in nature to create useful and beautiful mats, baskets and decorations. The basic patterns of each craft are easily learned. The detail of the work is an expression of individual skill and creativity. The event brings young and old together for a day of sharing.

Photo taken at Fair Harvest Permaculture in Western Australia by Michelle Troop

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details - Firing for the Festival of Light

Firing for the Festival of Light

Poppu Ram carefully stacks small lamps to be used for Diwali one of the most important cultural events in the Hindu year. A kiln is created by building up layers of lamps and cow dung as fuel and then covered broken pottery shards the keep the heat in. Hot coals are then dropped in through the chimney to light fuel at the base, it takes about three hours to complete the firing. The next morning the kiln is dismantled and the lamps are taken to markets on the back of push bike carts.

Photo taken near Delhi, India and contributed by Sandra Bowkett

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details - Transforming a monoculture into a polyculture

Transforming a monoculture into a polyculture

“I wanted to build a lifestyle that balanced my working life with my family life. Using two acres of our family walnut orchard we gradually transformed it into a highly productive organic market garden that also produces hazelnuts and raspberries. We use highly detailed planting and harvesting schedules, crop rotation, green manures and heaps of compost to produce an abundance of healthy food for local ‘vegie box scheme’ families, good restaurants and farmers’ market.” – Steve Oke

Photo contributed by Richard Telford.

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details - Permablitzing the urban environment

Permablitzing the urban environment

Starting with a group of people wanting action, positive change and local food, the permablitz moves to the design stage where the family and the designer get together and look at the patterns of movement, eating and working habits. We then look at environmental patterns and where their home is situated in the community and landscape. Once the design is complete we get down to specifics, even to the details of how many of each seedling will be planted.

Photo contributed by Dorothee Perez.

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

A shared kitchen

These dishes drain where they are stored above the sink, making large volume hand dish washing an efficient one person task. Good design has saved tens of thousands of hours of work and thousands of tea towel washes over the thirty year life of this catering kitchen. Everything is visible and accessible for the many visitors who use this kitchen. Simple and intelligent zoning choices save space and time.

Photo taken at ‘Commonground‘ in central Victoria, Australia and contributed by David Arnold

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

A paddock becomes a permaculture

“I came here to a bare paddock, adjoining Violet Town. The land form gave me a pattern to follow. I put grassy woodland on the floodplain, and fruit, nuts and olives in pasture on the higher land. Mixed tree and shrub habitat plantings shelter the tree crops. I identified the existing landscape patterns, and the patterns that I wanted to apply. Then the design for this land fell into place.”

Photo and text contributed by David Arnold, taken at ‘Murrnong‘ in Australia

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

Landscape to help 300 students grow their own food

This is part of a design based on classic permaculture patterns. Note the zoning pattern – elements most visited are kept nearest; catchment pattern – water is spread then absorbed in productive soil; and relationship pattern – food trees are planted with support trees, water and manure are near compost. Their daily chores and agriculture class work include helping to build and tend the gardens which will feed them.

Text by Dan Palmer, Sabina Home & Boarding School in Uganda plan designed by Amanda Cuyler.

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details - Mass co-operation, individual self-determination

Mass co-operation, individual self-determination

Here drones and the queen are tending the brood. Bees need some flexibility to determine for themselves what proportion of drone cells to worker cells their hive requires. They also prefer to expand their brood-nest as an integrated whole, and to have space at the edge of the brood-nest to put incoming nectar. Bee-friendly hive management aims to work with these patterns, and allow the bees to sort out the details.

Photograph by Emma Malfroy

Next: Principle 8: Integrate rather... Skip to the ethics

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability – Revised

Available now

The new, revised edition of Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.