When you first start considering turning a site into a permaculture garden, you need to do a thorough analysis of the plot. You need to get to know the land, the organisms that live on it and the influences that act upon it. By understanding the land, you can work with it to make the changes a permaculture garden will need to thrive. One of the primary means of analyzing a plot is observation. Looking at the land, watching how it changes with the season, and how it reacts to events, will be a great bedrock of knowledge on which to base your subsequent permaculture design. The longer the period you can simply observe the land before altering it, the better, as you will see how it changes over the seasons. Here are some of the primary things that you should observe when analyzing your site.
Different species of plant require different amounts of shade and direct sunlight. Observing how the sun falls on your plot will help you decide which plants to site in which locations. It could also help you orientate your garden beds to allow for the maximum amount of sunshine to hit them, and also demonstrate where shade might provide relief for livestock.
The wind is a significant factor in the growing potential of a plot. It can affect the evaporation of moisture from the soil and from plants, can impact upon soil erosion and even damage or destroy plants. By observing how the wind acts upon a site you can design windbreaks to protect your plants and animals from the negative effects of the wind.
Temperature affects everything from plant growth and soil moisture to evaporation from water bodies and the comfort of animals. Record temperature high and lows across the seasons, remembering that temperatures won’t be uniform across the whole site – different conditions will create niches and microclimates within the site. Noting the first and last frost of the season is also a good idea.
Observe when the sun rises and when the sun sets across your land. While these times are fairly predictable in geographic locations (they are published by government agencies, for example) the specifics of your site may mean that the times vary. For instance, if a neighboring property has a border of tall trees, the sun may tot ‘rise’ to hit your plot until later in the morning.
Microclimates are locations within the garden where features of the land, such as topography, materials and water bodies create variations in temperature. These microclimates can provide niches in which to cultivate certain species of plant that thrive in specific conditions. You can also plan in your permaculture design to modify microclimates where doing so may be beneficial, such as placing rocks to store and diffuse heat, or planting tall species to provide extra shade to ground cover crops.
Moisture is key to plant growth, and the more you can harvest from the weather, and reduce your reliance on water supply systems, the better. Observe rainfall patterns across seasons (you can also access official figures of annual rainfall expectations across your region). Analyze where snow and hail settle and where it melts most quickly. Try to discern the reasons for this.
Look at the soil. This is the foundation of your permaculture garden, so you want to understand it as best you can. Look at how loose or tight the soil particles are. This will help determine if you have a clay or sandy soil, which in turn will affect how well it retains moisture.
How does water that falls on the land move across it? Are there gullies and creeks that direct the flow? Are there areas of the site that are prone to flooding after heavy rainfall? Observing how water flows across the land will, enable you to design features that make use of this flow – by diverting it to other, drier areas of the site – or slow it down so it can seep into the soil, by building swales, for example.
A permaculture garden is designed to work in harmony with the land surrounding it, including the visual aspects. The views you have from your land, particularly those you wish to preserve for their natural beauty and the pleasure they give you to look at, will impact upon your garden design.
Observe any aspects of your neighbors’ properties and lifestyle that may impact upon your permaculture garden. It may be that they do activities that are noisy so you might want to plant trees in a position to shield yourself from that noise. They may have a tall fence or building that casts shade onto your plot, which will affect what you plant in those shaded areas.
Local government ordinances and procedures will also impact upon your site. Observe whether the council undertakes spraying on vegetation in public locations near your plot. Consult zoning regulations and recycling collection schemes. You will also need to observe how public utility services are represented on your plot, be it power lines above ground or sewage systems below.
The manmade structures on a site will also influence the growing conditions. Houses, sheds and fences can affect how sunlight is reflected, how heat is retained and diffused, the shaded areas of a garden, and which views are available.
Before you start planting your garden, observe the vegetation that is on the site already. Which species appear to be thriving and what is it about the areas where they are growing that seems to be the reason? Which species are native and which are introduced (you may want to preserve the native plants in your design)?
Look at the wildlife that visits the site, from the smallest insects to large mammals. Each is being attracted for a reason, typically the availability of food. If there are certain species you wish to deter, and other you want to attract, you can plant accordingly.
Consider if there are businesses locally that could provide sustainable organic materials you need for your permaculture garden. These could include a farm to source manure and sawmills to attain woodchips for mulching.