When designing a homestead based on permaculture principles, it’s essential to draw out a few maps before getting started. This process is akin to putting together a puzzle. Dumping out and looking at all the pieces from a bird’s-eye view before putting together the puzzle gives you a vision for your ultimate goal, so your efforts are maximized and the final layout is a low maintenance homestead (or a really awesome puzzle!).
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Permaculture: A System for Designing Systems
Permaculture is a system for designing agricultural landscapes that are ecologically sound, and work with nature to be as low maintenance and efficient as possible. In this article, we’re diving into the essence of permaculture: the design.
Read more: What is Permaculture?
Permaculture design can be very intricate and detailed, but today we’re going to focus on the six maps that I believe are essential to draw before breaking ground.
Now, for folks who aren’t able to take a permaculture design course, “permaculture” questions usually get stuck in the realm of, ‘Should I plant this or that?’ And the answer usually depends on the design for the property in question. Without a design and ultimate vision for the property, it’s often hard to say which plants are going to be the most appropriate.
If you’d like to take a permaculture design course, here are some pointers.
Permaculture is like baking a batch of cookies.
In a system, we have a bunch of elements, and it’s the way we put the elements together that makes it work.
For example, when following a recipe in the kitchen, first we get out all of the ingredients (elements). When we put them together in the right order, the result is hopefully a successful and delicious batch of cookies.
It’s the science in the elements (ingredients) and the way they are combined that makes the recipe successful. There are chemical reactions that occur throughout the process to produce the desired end goal.
We’ve all made recipes and mistakenly did the steps out of order. Sometimes we’ve even accidentally omitted an element. Much of the time, this spells disaster, and all of our efforts (and cost of ingredients) were a waste.
Sometimes we have to spend a bunch of extra time fixing what went wrong or starting over completely. (Perhaps this isn’t the best example, because even a cookie gone wrong will usually taste pretty good. But you get the idea.)
When we start with a design (recipe), it is simply a starting point, but it is an essential starting point. It is a master plan. This is the essence of permaculture design.
Once we dive in, we might discover that by skipping a step or combining steps, we could make things more efficient. But without our starting design, we’re just winging it, and personally, I don’t have that kind of time.
6 Essential Maps to Draw
These six maps are the ones that I feel are essential to developing a final site design that meets your needs:
- The base map
- The sun map
- The sector map
- The zone map
- The Master Plan
- The water map
I will go over each in detail below.
Now, I’ve been at permaculture design since 2009, and I have a pretty good idea of how I want my new homestead to look when I’m all done developing it. So you’d think I might be able to skip all this mumbo jumbo and just dig in. But I haven’t. I still drew all the maps. I didn’t skip a step, even when I wanted to.
And you know what? I discovered some things in the process—things I wouldn’t have thought about until it was too late, things that would have cost me a lot of time to go back and fix.
Believe me, if it seems like a waste of time, it won’t be. But you’ll never know until you give it a try 🙂
About Professional Designers
Professional designers usually create computer-generated designs that are really fancy-looking. If you are tech-savvy, this can be a good route to go. The benefit of generating maps on the computer is the ability to move around elements as you experiment, or click “undo” if you mess up. If you know the program well, you’ll generate maps pretty quickly.
If you change your mind on paper, however, you’ve got to draw it all over again.
However, I’m pretty low tech, and the idea of putting time into learning a computer program did not interest me. So I went the hand-drawn route, and I believe it is the most accessible to others. Almost anyone can draw on paper, and that is unifying, whereas there are many different computer programs to choose from.
Another point to make is that every designer has a different process. Some designers prefer to combine the contents of certain maps with others, while other designers will produce even more than these six maps.
What’s important is that you follow a process so that the essential factors of a property are considered.
As a side note: If you would like to hire a professional designer to do all of this work for you, read this first.
Frequently Asked Question: Can I use this process if I’ve already started developing my property?
Yes! I suggest walking through these steps as if your property wasn’t developed, so you can see how (or if) it is different from what you have. In the end, you can think about if there are any changes you can implement to make your existing situation more efficient, more biodiverse, or more low maintenance.
So let’s get started!
Pre-Step: Collect Maps of your Property
Before drawing maps, you need to get some existing maps of your property to draw from. I found google maps really helpful. I also received maps for free from my local Ohio Soil and Water Conservation District (Department of Agriculture) as well as the Ohio Division of Forestry (Department of Natural Resources). Every state is different as far as services offered to the public, and indeed for folks abroad, you’ll have to do some sleuthing to find good maps.
Here is the map that was the most useful for my property and this exercise:
With some trial and error, I scaled this up to the full size of an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. It will work in your favor if you can do the same.
#1: Base Map
The base map is a look at your property as it is before developing it for agricultural pursuits. It’s your starting point.
(And if it’s a farm that’s always been in agriculture, you’ll want to try to find maps for your property as it was before you dug in and changed things. If you can’t imagine anything other than what you have now, go through the process anyway. It’s a mind bender!)
To get my base map, I put tracing paper over the image above, and traced the outline of the property, as well as the essential, immovable features such as the house, driveway, and creek.
Then I traced over the lines on the tracing paper with black pen, so that when the trace paper is placed under a blank piece of paper, I can make out the lines. It can help to make a copy of the tracing paper before darkening the lines, since tracing paper tears more easily than regular copy paper.
Now, with the tracing paper (or copy) placed under a blank sheet of paper, use a ruler to draw out your property. I used pencil first, then went back with pen.
Add details such as a marker indicating north (If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’ll mark south), and a distance scale. I detailed lawn vs. forest; you may detail existing hedgerows, trees, or other important features.
Here is a look at my base map, my starting point:
Now that I know my starting point, I can begin to brainstorm about how best to use this space.
#2: The Sun Map
To plan for food-growing areas, it will be important to know where the sunniest spots are as well as the shade. We can make some guesses by simple observation, but mapping can bring up some amazing realizations.
As a note, we aren’t planning exactly where the food-growing areas will be just yet—there are additional considerations later in the process that will help us determine where the best food-growing areas are.
Ideally you’ll have three sun maps: One for the spring equinox (March 21st), summer solstice (June 21st), and fall equinox (September 21st). These dates are for the northern hemisphere. If you plan to have a winter garden, you’ll want to map the winter solstice (December 21st), too. As the seasons wax and wane, so does the position of the sun.
You will plot full sun (6+ hours), partial sun (3-6 hours), and full shade (less than 3 hours) areas on the map.
To get started, I only mapped my yard for the summer solstice so I could decide the most ideal spot for my main growing areas. As I move forward, I will make sun maps for the other times of year to determine the best spot for sowing spring seeds, as well as the best spot for an overwintering garden.
There are lots of different ways to map the sun. If you’re super low-tech, here are two articles that can help you map the sun without any equipment or devices at all:
If you’re mapping the low-tech way, you’ll get the most accurate results if you wait until the summer solstice.
I take a slightly higher tech approach and use an app on my smart phone called Sun Seeker (available for iPhone or Android). With this app I can see from any location exactly where the sun will be in the sky during any of the solstices or equinoxes. I used 11 locations around my yard to map exactly where I would get full sun to full shade.
For my sun map, I zoomed in on the lawn area that immediately surrounds the house, where most of the food-growing activities will take place.
I took measurements of each spot and its distance from the house. Having another person to manage the other end of the tape measure is a big help. Then I plotted those distances on my map.
Here is how my sun map turned out:
I made some new discoveries by doing this exercise. For one thing, I have a bit more sun in the backyard than I originally thought when I include the partial sun area. Yay! There is a giant old oak tree that is causing a lot of the shade, and this is one tree that we aren’t interested in chopping down (although we will have some lower branches pruned for more dappled light).
Another interesting thing to note is how “sunny” dappled shade can feel. For example, our fire pit sitting area is in full shade, but it feels light and airy. This may not be important for planting, but it can be helpful when mapping areas for other uses such as in the case of my sitting area or a shed that could become musty in the deep shade.
#3: The Sector Map
The sectors of a property are those elements that we don’t have much control over. They also have a directional quality to them (i.e. wind). We can enhance or redirect these elements as it makes sense for our master plan, but we can’t usually put an end to them all together.
Some examples (in no particular order) are:
- Contour: Contour lines tell us where land slopes and where gravity sends water to drain (even flat-seeming land drains somewhere). It also helps us find flatter areas that are the most practical for growing spaces. Sometimes designers will choose to map contour lines on a separate map.
- Wind: We can’t help where wind comes from, but we can buffer it. We can also point out areas with stagnant air compared to those areas with a slight breeze. Gentle breezes are great for growing areas, while stagnant air can be a detriment.
- Noise: As much as we would like to have control over our own environment, most of us have to deal with some aspect of noise that is out of our control. We may live near a busy road, a highway, or simply a neighbor with a yappy dog.
- Sunlight is often plotted on the sector map, but as noted above, I prefer to map it separately. Be sure to include the effects of neighboring trees as well as your own.
- Snow/Fire: If you live where big snows or wildfires are common, you’ll want to map what direction those might come from so you can buffer their effects.
- Wildlife: Map wildlife patterns that are significant challenges to your food growing efforts. For example, I’ve mapped the most popular deer route on my map below. Other people enjoy supporting wildlife and will mark those areas that are essential for that purpose so that it is off limits to growing.
- Flooding/Drainage: Demonstrate how water moves on your property according to the contour lines, as well as where seasonal flooding may occur.
- Views/Privacy: You’ll also want to mark where you’d like to improve or retain privacy plantings, and where you can enhance beautiful or relaxing views.
- Crime: What direction might thieves or unwelcome folks come from? It may inform where to place certain elements and help you brainstorm ways to reduce the threat.
- Air/Water/Light Pollution: Do you have a neighbor that keeps a flood light on all night or have a neighboring farmer who sprays his/her crops? Perhaps you have a septic leach field or other outlet worth noting. Perhaps a nearby cow farm or factory sends unpleasant odors your way.
While you may have little control over some of these sectors, it is always beneficial to brainstorm ways to minimize the effect or even how to turn the problem into an asset (i.e. buffered winds become gentle breezes in growing areas, a neighbor’s errant downspout feeds a swale or rain garden on your side of the fence line).
It isn’t necessary to map all of the sectors listed above—only those that are significant to your property.
Here’s a look at my sector map:
There is a lot going on in my sector map above. You can see the contour lines indicating the slopes, as well as the water lines that indicate where the water runs. Map #6 below details how I intend to use some of these slopes to my advantage.
The road is pretty noisy, and neighbors are tight on both sides in the back of the house. I hope to buffer and minimize these with plantings and strategically placed outbuildings.
The deer are basically everywhere, as they walk through the protected land along the creek and come onto our property. But over the past year I’ve been able to observe their main route. I will avoid this path for some plantings and be ready to redirect them in other areas.
The wind comes toward our house from the top left corner, which is why we had 14 trees taken down directly in front of the house. The forest certainly creates some buffer, but in a high wind storm the trees would most definitely fall toward the house! This liability was turned into the following assets: Firewood, lumber, and space for growing and improving biodiversity.
Views: Our property provides some beautiful, relaxing views into forested areas. We want to protect and enhance those areas, because it is just as important to enjoy and appreciate the property as much as it is to improve its productivity and biodiversity.
#4: The Zone Map
Now that we have a better idea of some of the challenges and assets of the property, we can begin to brainstorm how we would use the different parts of the property. We can start to think about where it would make sense to locate certain elements for growing, sitting, or storing materials.
A permaculture property can be divided up into zones according to how the different areas will be used. Zones help us think about which areas would be accessed more often or less often than others and why.
The zones of permaculture design range from 0-5, with zone zero being inside the home, and zone 5 being untouched wilderness.
How many zones a property has will depend on how large the property is and how it is situated. Although a property can have up to five zones, for example, the original Tenth Acre Farm on 0.10 acres only included zones 1-2.
The following is a rough outline of how the zones are used:
Zone 1: This area is closest to the house and is the most intensively used space, especially where paths from the street, parking, and social areas draw you to the front and back doors. This is often where intensive gardening occurs.
Zone 2: This area is a bit farther from the house and gets a bit less attention, but it is still an essential part of daily life. This is often where small livestock is kept, edible perennials are grown, and where compost structures and outbuildings are kept.
Zone 3: Farther out still, this area is not essential to everyday operations but is still visited regularly for enjoyment or for elements that don’t require as much attention. Some example uses are: staple crops, orchards, pasture, or meadow.
Zone 4: This zone borders on wilderness and is where you will find elements like managed woodlands for timber, nut crops, foraging, and wildlife support. You may also use this area for pasturing large livestock.
Zone 5: This is usually wilderness where little to no human intervention occurs. This is where wildlife can move freely and humans go for activities such as quiet respite or hunting.
Map the zones based on some general ways you might use each area. Don’t be specific, as in “tomato plants”, but rather, use general terms, as in “vegetable production”.
It is important to note that zones are fluid and will flex and change to adapt to the property in question.
For example, my new homestead, Tenth Acre Farm at Twisted Creek, is a little over three acres. It includes all five zones because the slope and forest make much of it inaccessible or unreasonable for development. On the other hand, a different 3-acre property that is flat, cleared, and mowed will not have all five zones unless some of the areas are intentionally reforested or left to go wild.
Here is what my zone map looks like:
My zone 1: My zone one for the backyard is based on where I would receive the most sun for gardening. It also includes the areas that are most often used for socializing, sitting outside, and coming and going.
My zone 2: My zone two areas are adjacent to my zone one areas. They are easy to access and support my food-growing goals, as well as my goals to enhance biodiversity and views from sitting areas.
My zone 3: My zone three area on the side of the house is a relatively stagnant area that receives very little light due to trees on the property line. So it won’t get a ton of attention, but it will receive some maintenance as it is a throughway between the front and back yards. The large front yard zone three area will also receive some management. Even though it is forested, it is still highly visible and the gently sloping ridge line is easy and pleasant to walk. It is an excellent area for foraging.
My zone 4: Although most of this area is sloping forested hillside, a section of it levels off to a gentle slope. It is here that I would like to encourage more natives to grow and to perhaps do some light foraging. Edible contour plantings here would really help to slow drainage and reduce erosion down to the creek.
My zone 5: These bottomlands by the creek are wonderful for wildlife. Animals can access this land unimpeded from other protected lands. It is an excellent place to sit quietly, but full access is limited to the few times of year when the creek is passable.
#5: Master Plan
The master plan represents your long-term vision for your property. It is a culmination of our observations and discoveries from the other maps.
Pre-Step #1: Make a list of all the elements you want to include in your permaculture design. This will be everything from vegetable garden to compost to chicken coop to medicinal herb garden to food forest.
The only limit is that it must be something realistic and something that you are truly interested in having. I can’t grow coconuts where I live, so it would be unrealistic for me to list a coconut tree. There is nothing that a homestead “must” have. If you don’t want chickens, for example, don’t include them in this conceptual list.
Pre-Step #2: Take out your base map again. For this step, you’ll place tracing paper over your base map and experiment with placing all of the elements from the pre-step #1 above into your system. This is called a schematic design. Don’t worry about getting it right. That’s why you’re using tracing paper.
I suggest drawing out at least four different schematic designs, each time situating the elements from pre-step #1 in different positions or locations. Keep in mind some of the things you learned from the previous maps as far as the sun, sectors, and zones.
Push the limits of what you think is possible. This is often when aha moments happen. Is there a full-sun area in zone one where your vegetable garden could be placed that you hadn’t thought of before? Could a shed be rotated to be more accessible from the garden or allow space for a greenhouse?
What are the elements that should be near the garden for ease of access, such as a water source, garden shed, compost, etc. Is the garden located so that these other elements can be placed nearby and easily accessible?
Final Master Plan
Now look at your different schematic designs and decide which one you like the most. Which will be the most practical, efficient, and low maintenance? Perhaps the final design is a hybrid of ideas from each of your schematics. Keep working it until you’re content with the layout, and sketch it onto paper for your final master plan map.
The master plan is a big-picture view of your long-term vision. It will show elements like a food forest, but it won’t show exactly what you intend to grow in the food forest. Those details come later. A ‘final’ master plan isn’t, in actuality, final. But it IS a starting point for creating an intentional, ecologically sound, low maintenance, productive property.
The best way to see a master plan in action is to take a look at mine:
You’ll notice that my vegetable garden is placed more or less in my zone one area where I receive decent sun. Conveniently grouped together next to it are all of the things that I will need to run my garden:
- The material storage area (where bulk soil, wood chips, soil amendments, or plants can be stored or delivered)
- The greenhouse (where spring seedlings will grow). Note: A winter sun map will need to be created to identify if this location is actually feasible.
- The garden shed (where, of course, tools and other supplies and equipment will be stored)
- The livestock paddock (where we will keep small livestock, TBD: chicken, duck, or rabbit)
- The compost (where animal manure and yard waste will become an amendment for the garden)
See how many connections we can make when we place elements together that benefit one another? This makes our efforts more efficient. Because we’ve taken into account sun, zone, and sector challenges, we’ve found the most low maintenance spot for each.
The food forest and meadow in front of the house are two things that I’ve been excited to have since moving to our bigger property. Placed on the south side of the tree line, they will receive the most sun there. The location is also the flattest (gently sloping) and easy to manage. Grouping these two elements together makes a lot of sense.
From an ecological standpoint, I am mimicking a forest edge by growing a food forest of dwarf fruit trees and food-producing shrubs. The meadow is bordered by some brambles. These are exactly the kinds of plantings you would expect to find at the edge, so we’re helping to seal off that edge, protect it from the harsh full sun, and ward off non-native opportunistic species (those that do not make a valuable contribution to human or wildlife), like in my case, bush honeysuckle.
The meadow flowers will improve pollination by attracting pollinators for the food forest. It will improve biodiversity and attract many kinds of beneficial insects, birds, butterflies, and more. Flowers are a missing element on this property as it exists now, and I want to add some beauty as well.
From a view standpoint, I look forward to enjoying the front sitting area and watching the food forest and meadow grow up.
The forested zone three “front yard” has taken some hits in the recent past from the ash tree borer and the Dutch elm disease. As trees have fallen, they have created openings to the forest floor. Bush honeysuckle is more than happy to fill that niche, but I would rather take the opportunity to create contour plantings of useful, native species.
These contour plantings will feed humans and support native fauna. Planting on the contour allows us to slow the water running down the slope toward the creek to prevent the nutrient rich forest floor from washing away. Read more about contour plantings.
This is all just a starting point, but it’s a well-thought-out starting point. Having a plan means that even if we feel like we’re winging it, there’s some intentionality to it.
#6: Water Map
Now you might be tempted to jump right into a project, but still, not yet! We must think strategically about the water on our property: Where is it going? How can you capture it and passively irrigate growing areas? Gravity never fails. How can you take advantage of the water from your roof?
Golden Rule: Always create water infrastructure before anything else.
Otherwise, you’ll have to spend a lot of time watering, which is neither efficient nor low maintenance.
Here is a look at my water map:
I noted that my house has spigots on the front and side of the house, which is pretty convenient for the front yard growing areas. As those plantings are getting established, some hand watering will be necessary.
I will also connect the two downspouts on the side of the house to a French drain that directs the water into a swale at the front of the food forest. A French drain is a buried, perforated pipe that redirects roof and groundwater.
This solution will annually send 2,500 gallons of passive, gravity-fed water toward the food forest, and will most certainly reduce or eliminate the need for hand watering.
The vegetable garden area in the backyard is a little trickier to manage as far as water is concerned. There is no water spigot on the back side of the house. The nearest spigot on the side of the house is 180 feet away, and that’s a lot of hose.
But thankfully, we’re thinking ahead with this exercise. There are another two downspouts on the house nearest to the garden. Connected to a French drain, the downspout water will direct to a swale at the entrance of the vegetable garden. That’s another 2,500 gallons of passive, gravity-fed water annually that won’t require any work on our part once it’s all set up.
In addition, we can take advantage of the grouping of utility buildings next to the garden. The greenhouse, wood shed, garden shed, and small livestock housing will all have roofs, with their gutters/downspouts feeding into another French drain that will also direct water into the garden swale.
A water line and spigot will be installed, probably on the outside of the garden shed, so all activities in that area will have access to water, including the garden via hose if necessary. I will also have water on the interior of the garden shed at a utility sink near a potting bench.
This map was especially valuable for me to draw, because I couldn’t solve the conundrum of lacking a spigot near the garden. Once I drew it out and realized the benefit of having the nearby outbuildings, I was able to direct additional passive water toward the garden from their roofs and find the best spot for a spigot, too.
It takes some time to think through this process and draw out the maps that become a master plan. However, much like putting together a puzzle, the final results are overwhelmingly satisfying, inspiring, and calming.
No longer will you have to worry whether your efforts are worthwhile. You will now have a big-picture view and an intentional plan to work from to create a low maintenance, ecologically sound, permaculture-designed homestead.
Wondering what to do next? Here’s how to plan phases of implementation (you can’t do everything at once!), and from there design specific areas for your use. For example, I will plan exactly what to plant in my food forest, and exactly what species of flowers to grow in my meadow.
Would you like to learn more about using permaculture to improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Other books referenced for this article include:
- Permaculture Design: A Step-by-Step Guide
- Practical Permaculture: for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
Have you created maps for your homestead? How did they help you meet your goals? Tell us about them in the comments below.