When you are looking to start a permaculture garden, one of the first tasks you will need to do is to read your land. By gathering as much information as possible about the site, you put yourself in the best position to make decisions about your design that will result in a thriving, productive permaculture site. There are several different means by which you can get information about how to design your site better.
The simplest, but often the most effective, method of reading you land is observation. Looking at your site – as well as touching, smelling and tasting it –often and over a prolonged period, is one of the best ways to determine how different parts of it, and influences upon it, act. This can give you a good idea of large-scale phenomena, but also works on a smaller scale when looking at specific problems. Say you have a patch of ground that doesn’t seem to be as productive as others. Observe everything that might be connected to that problem – from wind potentially eroding the soil to a lack of nitrogen-fixing plants or leaf litter to add organic matter to the soil. You might find it’s just where the dog likes to scratch!
Another way of gaining an understanding your own site is to compare it to one that is similar. These could be human-designed or natural sites, and can reveal answers to problems you are looking to solve on your own property. Look at how forests have grown to protect themselves from the wind, or see how nearby gardeners have devised methods to keep deer out of their vegetable patches. These comparative sites are likely to be local to you, so that you can compare locations that have similar weather and climate conditions to your own.
Some things you can’t necessarily see, but your do experience. These gut feelings can also be important for your design. You may feel that a certain spot on the site would be good for a certain type of plant, even tough you haven’t quite worked out why. This might be an opportunity to experiment – plant a small crop and see what happens. You never know, it might just work out perfectly.
Form observation, deduction and experience, you should be able to start discerning patterns that occur in your site. Patterns occur in nature, and a permaculture site should exhibit similar patterns. For instance, you might detect the patterns of plants that grow near to one another, or see a pattern in the way that mist settles over your land.
Analysis involves looking at an element in your design from all angles. An example would be an analysis of keeping chickens. You would look at what the inputs of the animals are – their needs – as well as their outputs – their yields. With a complete analysis you can then determine if your site has the ability to meet those needs and whether the yields justify doing so.
Creating your own map of the site gives you a document on which to develop ideas for your design. It doesn’t have to be measured down to the last inch (although you can certainly do that if your wish); even a rough sketch will help you visualize your plot as a whole and enable you to think about solutions to problems. A map that shows the structures and features on your land, from buildings and roads to rivers and dams, will be an invaluable tool during the design process. You can use layers of tracing paper over this base map to plot zones and consider planting options.
It is not just your own mapping skills that you can use to read your land. You can also take advantage of the fruits of professional cartographers. Government departments make all sorts of official maps, not just of topography and contour (which are of course useful for your plans), but also of vegetation, soils and industrial usage of nearby land. You should be able to access maps in different scales in either illustrative or photographic formats. A cadastral map details the boundaries of properties, which is useful if you have a large plot.
Getting accurate climate data for your site is very important. The levels of rainfall you can expect at particular times of year, the common prevailing winds, rates of sunlight and evaporation, as well as fluctuations in temperature, are all key considerations when planning your permaculture design. While such weather events can never be entirely predictable, studying historical data can give you a fair idea of what to expect over the year in your location. And once you determine what is likely you can plan accordingly, including strategic design to influence microclimates on your site that buck the trend of the larger weather patterns on a small scale.
One of the aims of permaculture is to preserve and propagate heirloom species of plants, and to plant native and historically appropriate plants that are most suited to the local landscape and climatic conditions. Research indigenous species in libraries and local government and university publications, but also tap into local knowledge. Talk to conservation societies, botanic gardens and local gardening groups. Elderly neighbors with their own gardens can also be a fount of knowledge about local species, and what works well in your location.
You may need to consult your local Department of Water for assistance with regard to water regulation. This may take the form of restrictions on dams, on the diversion of streams, or the sinking of bores. You should also check on what local legislation is in place with regard to the reuse of greywater and blackwater if you are planning to include such systems in your permaculture design.
Any changes you wish to make to your site must conform to planning and other legislative issues. For instance, there may be legislation in your location relating to endangered species, protection of habitat, public access, heritage orders or restrictions concerning the protection of water. Your local government planning office will be able to give you the information relevant to your site.