So You Want to be a Permaculture Designer! What’s Stopping You?

Final colour master plan

Experience? Well yes, but that’s something that you can learn along the way. You don’t need to be the World’s best Graphic artist or AutoCAD genius, but you do need to be creative, have an eye for landscape patterning and a PDC in hand.

I just finished my first Permaculture design commission and I was hoping to share some of the process with you. Within the 11 years of experience with my own landscape design firm, I rarely put pen to paper with design. I found success even while employing experienced people to draw plans and document. My job then, like now, is main-frame design. I leave the finer points to specialists.

Your job as a designer is to know the process. You have the contacts in place to co-ordinate, instruct, manage, and even educate, if the professionals you engage are not permaculture systems trained.

What’s the process?

The process is the series of events that you will need to successfully master over time and refine to suit each client. Don’t think just because you’re now in the realm of the Permaculture world, full of ethics and good will, that people’s attitude towards paying money for your services will change, or the value they place on your time. I spend a lot of time speaking with my clients on the phone before I even think of getting out of my office chair to go and see them! (Mind you that office chair looks over the Pacific Ocean, and that’s hard enough to leave!)

Google map with topo map overlay for property.

The reason I question my potential clients so much is to look at some basics: 1) What’s their vision? 2) How do they plan to implement a permaculture design once the design is completed? 3) What do they think it’s going to take to achieve their vision? You can go and spend thousands of your clients dollars on reports, colour plans, graphs, and yet a client may still look at your work and won’t be able to find north on the map.

In my experience, it is easy for clients to have grand visions of what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle. Many have romantic ideas about growing their own food, reusing their waste and building compost without considering that yes(!) it is a lot of work: it’s going to take maintenance! I often refer my clients back to question three from above. “What do they think it’s going to take to achieve their vision?" "Oh that’s easy, we’ll just plant some veggies in the corner and use the water from the water tank". Stop!!! At the moment a client says “Oh that’s easy” that’s a warning bell that the clients you’re dealing with don’t understand the undertaking or commitment of what they are dealing with…. and your backside has not event left the seat yet.

The vision they expressed to you was one of abundance. They saw food growing from every corner of their property, water harvesting systems, and miles of food forest and animal systems. Yet, a realistic and practical maintenance schedule wasn’t a part of their vision. Home renovation and landscape gardening TV shows that flood our screens sell the easy 30min crash course of how to construct a garden. From that, so many feel capable and experienced enough to chuck in a garden. The television’s easy sell often misses the accounting related to the cost of design, cost of project management, labour and the amount of people behind the scenes coordinating the process. So often their vision doesn’t match the reality of implementation. As a designer, it’s your job to look at the process and find the best process to suit the client’s needs and, most of all, the client’s time & budget.

It is encouraging that we’ve seen a popular trend in going "green" or "sustainable" these days. Yet, whatever the trend may be, you’re going to get calls from people that have the money to do great things and have all the good intentions but very little of the design skills needed to make a practical system work. If they don’t understand how permaculture systems work and how to use them, it is your job to look at the process with them. There is an education element in that process that will allow you spend time with your client. You can show them how their plan will evolve and come together, realistically. I find it helpful to remember the small steps. Humans are very funny creatures. You don’t want to scare clients away with over-the-top architect plans or overly complicated specifications. These will be the parts of the design process that you will need to break down for your clients and incorporate into your plans: reports that you will receive from the consultants you engage.

Once you’ve worked with your clients to articulate a comprehensive vision, how do your clients plan to implement a permaculture design once the design is completed? Well, if they say to you “we plan to tender it out, get it installed by professionals and have a gardener look after it”. That’s fine and that will happen, but the questions you have to ask your self are: Are you cut out for the massive commitment to do the planning to a standard from where a contractor can pick up the plans and give the client a price to construct based on your plans? Could you set out a bill of quantities? Can you draw scale technical plans?

Your client may express "We want to install it ourselves!" O.K.! But even if they install it themselves, do you know the construction process to document for your client to follow? Will you need to do site visits during the design process? How do you move forward as a designer here? So this is where you need set out what your skill level is; how you could service this client without biting off more than you could chew. Are you capable of setting up a process by where you consult to your new clients, get the vision, and engage your technical professionals? Do you know how to find professionals that have the skills to put full landscape architect designed plans together with your permaculture main frame experience (water, access, structures)? Can you engage a horticulturalist, engineer, drafts person, etc?

These are very important questions we as permaculture designers need to ask before we leave the chair and get our minds around the design process. That’s just the first phone call! A good use of a website in this process can show your potential clients how you work and what services and processes you follow to get them a result. I have found that putting prices for types of design work, like consultation, looking at sizes of properties (urban – suburban – small farms – broad acre) and giving clients prices on deliverables within each design size works well.

Google map overlay with proposed design systems placed as a concept

I have included some concept pictures of plans throughout the process on this first commission. I used Google maps to place a contour map overlay over the Google image to give me very rough idea of how the farm looks and where I can start looking at the big three (water, access, and structures). It is wise to never fully trust a contour map unless you have had a surveyor on site with a highly detailed topographical plan. Being on the ground with a laser level for a day will save you in the long run. Whether a small urban garden or a 500 acre farm, walking the site step-by-step, meter-by-meter, is the only way to do it.

I use a very simple program – Microsoft Paint. I know of others out there using Google SketchUp and other programs that allow more flexibility. You can see where I mark, using different colours, elements that would be used as the base of the concept. I then print out the Google map on A2 size paper. I then use tracing paper to draw in property lines, and contour lines. I mark the swales, dams, farm tracks, roads, swale crossings, and then structures. While on the property the whole day is spent with a measuring wheel in hand looking at revegetation areas and pasture cropping. You might say, “Why don’t you just use a scale plan to mark them out?” You don’t know the farm until you walk them and take notes on what each area is and what it requires. I then, again on the tracing paper, colour it with different markers to show swale trees, bamboo, gabion, fences, rock outcrops for non workable land, etc…. Then once I have enough detail (and you will only know this once you hand it to your AutoCAD genius or in my case a graphic artist, if they can look at it and make sense of it then you job is done), then you end up with what I have shown in the site plan Master Plan.

I like a graphic artist’s finish. It looks more natural in its application and more detailed. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being very basic and 10 being very detailed, this master plan would be about a six. If my approach interests you, I’m setting up (Landscape) Permaculture Designing Courses next year in Victoria, NSW & QLD.

These courses will spend time looking at the steps of consultation, designing, drawing, pricing your time and quoting while also focusing on business management and how to get yourself started. The details are listed below.

The Aim of the Program:

I’m committed to training creative, confident and professionally superior permaculture designers. On completion of your course you will be entitled to design within the permaculture field, fully competent to undertake the following tasks:

  • Creating sustainable, functional permaculture designs. (Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. It seeks to provide a sustainable and secure place for living things on this earth. Functional design sets out to achieve specific ends, and prime directives. Every component of a design should function in many ways. Every essential function should be supported by many components.)
  • Designing concepts and plans for urban, rural and aid projects with water, access, structures.
  • Producing concept plans, planting plans, and site maintenance schedules.
  • Preparation of concept drawings for land re-contouring and retaining.
  • Preparation of construction and working drawings for hard landscaping items (not requiring specialist engineering and when permitted by law).
  • Managing the contractor bidding and the installation of the design on behalf of the client.
  • Running a professional permaculture design business.

What you will learn?

The Permaculture (Landscape) Design covers every aspect of garden and landscape design as well as other topics concerned with the setting up and running of a professional permaculture design and consulting business. You will learn things a professional permaculture designer needs to know.

  1. Project Assessment: You will learn how to talk with the Client about their concerns, assess the potential of the site, ascertain the client’s needs, suggest the best course of action, and give a written quotation for design work.
  2. Site Survey: You will learn to measure a site, including surveying ground levels, and use this data to draw an
    accurate and useful survey (base) plan.
  3. Concept Plan: Showing a ‘bird’s eye’ view of the proposed design, this drawing is the starting point in the development of a new garden. You will learn to create exciting and functional designs and present them to your clients as attractive concept plans.
  4. Planting Plan: You will learn to design the planting scheme to complement the new design. Preparing detailed
    planting plans and schedules are covered for your climate.
  5. Hard Landscape Construction: You will learn about hard landscape construction and materials. This will enable you to design viable permaculture hardscapes and structures to enhance your designs.
  6. Ground Contouring Design: You will learn to recognize a site’s greater potential through re-contouring, and how to produce concept plans detailing the new ground levels, swales, dams and house pad levels.
  7. Running a professional design and consulting business: You will learn all the aspects of running your own business in a professional manner. This includes dealing with Clients, effective communication, getting new business, industry protocols, working to a Client’s budget, bidding and tendering, and writing technical specifications.

How long does it take?

Intro Design (intense 24 hour) courses run over a Fri – Sat – Sun weekend will cover all the areas and give you a basic idea of design to get your business started. There will be one teacher plus two teacher aids per course. This gives the course a very personal touch and attention to detail.

Full Design courses (96 hours) will cover the process in depth and home work set during the week. The course is run over 1 month, 3 days a week. Fri, Sat, Sun for 12 days. There will be one teacher plus two teacher aids per course. This gives the course a very personal touch and attention to detail.

Course Cost

  • Intro Course 24hr 3x 8-hour days = $295 per student, limited to 30 students.
  • Full Design Course. 96hr, 12x 8-hour days = $1250.00 per student limited to 10 students.

Program Content

This is a brief outline of the main topics included in the program. The course material informative with many pictures and diagrams used to illustrate concepts. You will be taught and encouraged to think and solve problems.

  • 24, information-packed study modules covering all aspects of professional Permaculture design.
  • 3 relevant, hands-on assignments reflecting the actual work done by Permaculture designers.
  • Several useful portfolios to aid you in developing your designs.
  • 3 full, real-life permaculture design projects (no installation is required for any projects).
  • several small urban design projects (no installation is required).
  • continual assessment and feedback to keep you informed of your progress.

The Study Modules

  1. Course overview; Equipment and Materials; Drawing to Scale.
  2. Classification and Naming of plants; Plant physiology; Soil in the landscape.
  3. Introduction to the different types of landscape drawings; learning to draw.
  4. The design process; analyzing a site; discovering the client’s needs; introduction to site surveying; writing a design proposals.
  5. Site surveying – theory and practical.
  6. The drawing sheet and title block; lettering and titling; the concept plan.
  7. The zoning and functional placement of areas.
  8. Major permaculture design project #1.
  9. Design principles and design development.
  10. Solving site problems; function and safety.
  11. Surveying ground levels – theory and practical.
  12. Drawing elevations, cross-sections and working drawings.
  13. Major permaculture design project #2.
  14. Planting design; color theory, shape and texture.
  15. Designing; how to choose the right plants; the planting plan.
  16. Water, natural pools and ponds, swales & dams.
  17. Hard landscaping materials; site contouring and leveling.
  18. Retaining walls; paving and other horizontal surfacing.
  19. Introduction to timber construction; steps and ramps; walls; fences and screens.
  20. Decorative structures; using trees, shrubs, hedges, vines.
  21. Major permaculture design project #3.
  22. Natural habitat; maintenance of design; eco-friendly design.
  23. Small urban gardens; functional planting; irrigation, estimating installation costs for budgetary purposes.
  24. Business procedures; documents and contracts; the client-designer-contractor relationship; specification writing; the bidding process; project facilitation; costing your design services; getting started; promoting your business: final design project – an exploration of design creativity.

Expressions of interest for this course in your area can be directed to Nick Huggins at hugginsn (at)