Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Five

Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Five: Learning the Language of Design in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“[L]ist the qualities you would like the landscape to exhibit: dappled light, birdsong, bodies of water, aromatic scents, … direction of the light, a sense of mystery. Be as specific and inclusive as you can. Think of environments you have liked or in which you have felt comfortable. What qualities did they embody that evoked those feelings of resonance?” — Peter Bane 

I really like certain kinds of light. (Evening, early August 2016)

“Design is the conscious process of making culture.”  ? I didn’t understand it in 2014 and I don’t now.

The key to any design process is observation and other forms of data gathering. Especially if you’re new to the bioregion, take time to get to know it:

“Walk the land and notice different microclimates. It’s especially fruitful to walk about late on a sunny afternoon in autumn or winter when the temperature begins to fall rapidly. In a landscape with any relief, pockets of cold air will form and flow downhill, and the atmosphere will stratify to reveal warmer and cooler layers. … If you have a chance to see the land under a late winter or early spring snowfall, these same warm and cool microclimates can be graphically obvious as the snow begins to melt. Take note of warm and cool slopes, different plant communities and any animal tracks and paths you see. … Use all of your senses, and let your feelings of comfort and discomfort, danger, anxiety or lightheartedness rise to the surface. Your subconscious can register significant influences that may not be observable by the five ordinary senses.”

one of my many snow melt photos, this one from 13 March 2017 … you can see that most of the fruit guild, at the top of a slope, melts first, and the land, on the left, along the garage foundation (not shown).

Also, “sit for a bit on the land and let yourself begin to daydream or nod off. On the edge of the dream state, many non-verbal influences can come forward that we would otherwise not allow into consciousness” and visions and symbols may appear in your mind.

Access written/online records: Soil records from Natural Resource Conservation Service in your county. Online maps with aerial views of your property. Notice the industrial infrastructure and natural features nearby. Keep a daily log of temperatures and precipitation. Learn to read the land to understand its history [Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England is an excellent resource for this in my area.] Indicator plants tell us about the soil (e.g., “Reeds, cattails, horsetails or sedges indicate a high water table or periodic inundation of the soil”). The map is not the territory; the process of mapping is more important than the map itself.

Stand on the property, make a sketch of your property showing roughly where things are and their size and shape. You can make a base map, then overlay on transparent paper information about soils, water drainage, sun patterns, wind, noise patterns, etc. One of the main purposes of mapping is to “reveal relationships that might not otherwise be obvious.” [Enter your address into to get a map of the angles of the sun at various times of the year, overlaid on the Google map of your property.]

the sun’s angles on my property (from on 22 Nov. 2017

SIDEBAR on how to measure land with your body: arm length, hand span, stride. Also how to measure tall things using triangulation.

How to develop a vision for your land: List all the things you want or need to have around you. Then “list the qualities you would like the landscape to exhibit: dappled light, birdsong, bodies of water, aromatic scents, the sound of children (or not), colors in the vegetation, details of buildings, distance to neighbors, direction of the light, a sense of mystery. Be as specific and inclusive as you can. Think of environments you have liked or in which you have felt comfortable. What qualities did they embody that evoked those feelings of resonance?”

If you live already on the property you’re trying to create a vision for, you can clean the slate by approaching the property from a direction you don’t usually take; “focus on the shape of the land and try to see the energies of wind, water, sun and plants that have molded it.”

Design Aims: “Now that you have begun by identifying and observing the landscape, reading its clues, studying maps and documents and polling your own opinions, needs and desires and those of your household, you must distill these into a design aim or set of aims.” E.g., self-reliance; comfortable/functional spaces to live; home employment; privacy and serenity; a creative space; a diverse and productive plant and animal community.

[I wrote down, in Jan. 2014: beauty, comfort, a place to have parties and be with friends, wildlife habitat.]

party on the patio, July 2015

Site evaluation checklist (p. 48).

After you determine aims, then strategies come next. This is when design languages are useful, including pattern language. Pattern languages reach “into a language of patterns that is part collective unconscious and part visible infrastructure of our cultural setting. Pattern languages for cultural design are human, and each place speaks its own dialect. At the same time, all inhabited places on Earth share some common elements of a universal pattern language.”

Garden Farming Pattern Language and How to Use It: “Think of this language as an inventory of possibilities from which to shape your home landscape. The patterns are numbered: those at the top of the list are the largest in scope, while those at the bottom evince the smallest scale. From this selection you’ll begin to see the elements and some of the relationships that need to be developed to manifest your vision in a living landscape. A listing of the patterns follows, while a more complete articulation of the patterns may be found” in the next chapter.


There are 68 patterns listed, grouped together. I won’t list them all here but as an example, patterns 1–10 describe the ecological and social ground of garden farming; they are: 1. Landscape Catchment 2. City-Country Fingers 3. Agricultural Terrain 4. Working Neighborhoods and Ecovillages 5. Water: Source and Force of Life 6. Forested Ridges 7. House Cluster 8. Living in the Garden 9. Woodland Mosaic 10. Wildland Foraging. Patterns 21-24 describe major building elements (woodshed, storage barn, workshop, animal housing). Others involve a water system, shaping the land (fences, paths, contours), water features, solar influences, food handling, cultivation systems, and so on. I don’t really understand it.


Needs & Yields Analysis: Determining needs and yields in the system tells us how to connect them most effectively. Description of all workplaces and jobs to be done.

He offers the example of a fish pond: It needs a source of water, containment, protection from pollution and runoff, good aeration, and the fish need a source of food, other species to consume their wastes, protection from predators. The yields of a fish pond include nutrient-rich water (for irrigating and fertilizing plants), fish, insect control, reflected light, humidity, nutrient wastes from the bottom, thermal mass, fire protection, perhaps recreation, contemplation, habitat for other animals, water for farm animals and bees, etc. Knowing all of this helps us determine where the pond should be situated, its size, what could be grown near it, etc.

Zone & Sector Analysis: Reveals the impact of habitations.

Zones: progression of areas around the center of the system (the house), from 0 (house) to farthest away location on property (could be as close as 2 or as far as 5); “As the numbers get larger, the size of territory increases while human impacts and management decrease.” [Mollison also describes these in Chapter 5 of Introduction to Permaculture.]


Sectors: These are environmental influences that are external to the site: wind, water, sun, views, storms, etc. (I have no idea what “genetic drift” means.) The upshot: “By analyzing the different sectors influencing a site, we can determine how best to focus beneficial energies such as winter sun, summer breeze or a view of the mountains, while scattering or deflecting hostile energies such as storm winds, pollution or fire. Sectors, along with zones, enable us to place every element of the system in the best possible location for beneficial function.”


Featured image (top image) is blowing snow, March 2017. We usually get wind from the northwest but sometimes, especially in a nor’easter, it swirls around on the east-northeast side, as shown here.

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