After coming back into the house this morning after a short hike about the neighborhood and preparing to hit the road this week for master planning and teaching:

Astute designers rigorously attempt to lift the veil of a land base and penetrate to the essence of what they observe. A master plan is a complex endeavor and needs insight, intuitiveness and practical skill in order to create a comprehensive design that will pay heed to the ecological integrity that will bring health to the land for generations to come. It is a concept map.

This framework, based on P.A. Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence, aids the designer in delineating a master plan:

  1. Climate
  2. Landform
  3. Water Systems
  4. Access and Circulation
  5. Vegetation and Animals
  6. Microclimate
  7. The Built Environment, Energy and the Waste Stream
  8. Zones of Use
  9. Soil
  10. Aesthetics and Culture

These broad terms range from a “connection” to the earth forces of wind, sun, soil, water, heat and cold, to the inclusion of the often felt spiritual forces that our ancestors are watching over us, or that there is an ever present force, or God, with some type of universal plan. In light of this we will consider an eleventh point: Spirituality.

These eleven points of permanence ground the vision for the project in “real time” and offer a comprehensive framework for planning and design.

A master plan is by no means a finished product. It is a scaffold for depicting the vision and goals of the stakeholders involved in a land development project. We might liken it to a painting wherein the painter works within a frame (think of the property perimeter), and initiates the painting with broad, brush strokes before the details emerge. The painter sets the table, so to speak, before the guests arrive. One by one they are seated at the table, then all the meal’s courses are served.

Another point to note is that the painter enters the canvas from the outside. Think of this as the designer and stakeholders imprinting their ideas on the blank canvas. We also might think of the canvas within a frame as the land within the property lines, this land that is not isolated from the external forces that course through it always. Change is inevitable. The natural world is constantly forcing its hand on the plants, soils, stones, animals, structures, and human beings.

One of the critical dicta of Permaculture is to “make the least amount of change for the greatest affect”. Why would we make any change to a landscape? By making small (or at times momentous) changes we are attempting to augment the general health and balance of the ecological functions of the land and make the land viable for not only the present, but for future generations.

Without sound observation and rigorous design practice, the Scale of Permanence becomes just another list amongst lists. We utilize this system in order to help us organize our assessments, inventories, ideas, goals and visions into a comprehensive whole. Permaculture is about functional relationship and seeks to delineate the interconnections of the many functions of all elements in the landscape. A comprehensive design is a “whole” design, a unified expression of all stakeholders involved in the creation of a land-base.

The first step in delineating the environmental characteristics of a particular bioregion is to look at the macroclimate. This is placed at the top of the scale of permanence. Climate exists no matter where we are and we cannot escape its affects.

In Permaculture systems redundancy is a central principle. Redundancy means that we set up as many components in the landscape and the built environment so that there will “always be enough” of whatever resource we need to tap. For example: we are encourage the installation of several diverse methods in order to catch, store and utilize all the water that falls on a property.

We accomplish this need by evaluating topography and contour lines (which sit dead level) and creating opportunities for water management by:

Directing water where it is needed most and spreading it around the property so that all areas are on equal footing based on need.

Remember that the principle is to slow water down and spread it. The technique comes later. It is important in our work to understand the principle idea first and then seek out techniques in order to make manifest the idea.

General access and flow through a property helps to weave all the elements in the landscape together, and directs people and animals to nodes of activity (or quietude) where they need to be. There are vistas, gardens, homes, barns, meeting areas, places of meditation and contemplation, storage areas, forests, that are central to how and why we move through a site. These avenues of access are fairly permanent once established in the general design. Therefore, much contemplation is required for the appropriate direction, scale and frequency of use of these pathways. When we think of access and circulation we can think of the circulation of blood and nutrients in the human body. All of the veins and arteries are connected as they move from larger trunks to smaller capillaries in a network of flow. The paths and byways on a property do the same thing. We are directed into a main entrance and, as we proceed, we move to smaller paths, which point the way to significant nodes of life.

By developing microclimate, opportunities for outdoor and indoor crop season extension, building temperature regulation, outdoor recreation and gathering, present themselves. White walls reflect heat. Black walls absorb heat. Plant against these walls and we extend our growing season in northern climates. In hotter climates we use the natural shade of plants in order to shelter sensitive crops and smaller woody species and plant species that are accustomed to this particular climate.

Those of us that live in more northerly climates long to extend our growing season into the colder months.

Shelterbelts, screens, and walls will slow down incoming brisk winds, intense prevailing winds and rainfall squalls and such.

By observing the path of the sun we utilize sunlight to create pockets of sunshine for plants that rely on a good dose of exposure.

We use warmer microclimatic areas for season extension of sensitive crops. Growing seasons are delimited by frost dates and cold temperatures. As the farming and gardening process develops at a farm, home, etc. we seek out more opportunities for creating specific microclimate locales. A greenhouse is also a season extender with its own microclimate. For

As we become more familiar with the movement of wind (predominately from the northwest in the winter and the southwest and southeast in the summer months) we will be able to design efficient shelterbelts to slow down and dissipate strong winds from the west and northwest and to shelter the home and people form intense sunlight. An added bonus of this is that we now have another opportunity for microclimate areas on the leeward side of the shelterbelt.

Often, we overlook what we already have present on a piece of property. Edibles, medicinals and utility plants abound. Initially we take inventory of what we have and then do research to explore the many functions of each plant. Here is an example of some of the yields of a pine tree:

Uses for Pine Resin: Pine resin has multiple uses. Scrape resin from a tree and collect it in a tin container. Press the sap into the container until it is full, and light the sap at night. The odor will deter insects, and its warm glow will provide light.

Resin can also waterproof articles, such as boots, mittens, or tent seams. Heat the resin in a container, and use the resin as glue while it is still hot. Adding ash dust from your fire to the hot resin can help strengthen its waterproofing qualities.

If you can’t find enough resin on a tree, cut into the bark with a knife so that more sap will seep out. Come back later to collect new sap as it oozes from the cut.

Uses for Pine Needles: Brown or green pine needles provide an excellent bed for a survival shelter. Collect them into a pile, and spread them beneath you while you sleep. Laying pine branches and needles beneath you in a shelter will also form a natural insulation between your body and the ground so that you can stay warmer at night.

Make tea from green pine needles by boiling the needles. Fill a container with water, bring to a boil, and add the needles at full boil. Boil for two minutes before removing the container from the fire. Let the needles stew for a few minutes, and either strain the needles from the water or drink the water with the needles in the container. This beverage will warm you up if you are cold, and green pine needles are also high in vitamin C.

Uses for Pine Cones: The seeds of all pine species are edible, and they’re especially good to eat when they’re toasted over an open fire. In the spring, collect young male cones. You can bake or boil the young cones as a survival food.

Uses for Pine Bark: The bark of young pine twigs is edible. Peel the bark from thin twigs by stripping it off in thin layers with your knife or by pulling it off in chunks with your fingers. On a more mature pine tree, the tender layer of bark beneath the brittle outer layer is also edible.

Uses for Pine Wood: Pine twigs and branches make excellent dry tinder when you’re ready to start a fire. Cut pinewood into thin strips to use as kindling. You may also burn pine logs to fuel your fire after you get it going.

Ideally, the home is placed into the landscape in order to maximize solar gain, have protection from weather extremes, supply easy access, and for integration into the greater land base so that the building is both beautiful and part and parcel of the natural flow and texture of site ecology. Historically, when houses were constructed in the eighteenth century the need for passive solar was adamant. They did not have fancy hvac systems to control inner temperature for comfort. The fact that the home was placed near the streams meant that they could easily haul water to the structure as needed.

Structures are multi-functional entities that not only require inputs, but can also be a major source of supply for all that surrounds them in the landscape. Organic materials seem to pour from buildings. If we pay close attention to these “outpourings” we have ready resources to build soil, water plants, construct buildings and other site features, and utilize “waste” heat. The house is as much part of the “food chain” at a site as an animal that crosses the land every day or a tree that has fallen in the forest nearby.

Attention to the size of the building footprint and construction site disturbance is tantamount to achieving ecological integrity. How often do we pass by building sites where the land has been completely bulldozed of all vegetation, and when construction is complete, a small mono-crop of sapling trees is planted, without regard for what was there and could have been saved and included in the original site plan?

Local sourcing of materials is key in order to eliminate the footprint based on fuel costs, minimizing the ability for local businesses to supply needed materials, and making use of local stone, wood and other materials that “fit” local climate and bioregion.

Energy systems, such as wind, solar and geothermal are a big part of the discussion on how to power and heat the buildings.

Other major construction pieces that will need a closer look as to materials, construction methods and style and aesthetics, parking areas, paths, driveways, cisterns and the potential for animals to be inserted into the landscape later on that will require shelter, fencing and other needs.

Materials, energy systems, style and structure, the waste stream, footings, foundation, roofing materials, and much more go in to planning for a house that will withstand the affects of time and weather, and if planned consciously, will be completely compostable and recyclable at the termination of its habitation.

Soils can be classified in many ways. Classification systems group soils according to similar characteristics. One such grouping is called soil series. Physical properties associated with each series pose opportunities and limitations for various types of land use activities. For example, soil particle size, slope and permeability, and ground cover are features that influence erosion.

Soils composed of deep, well-drained sands or gravels tend to have high infiltration rates and lower surface water run- off potential. Other soils have low infiltration rates and higher surface water runoff potential.

Soil compaction, slope disturbance or placement of impervious surfaces in areas with high surface water runoff potential can exacerbate runoff problems. On the other hand, soil compaction or placement of impervious surfaces in areas of high ground water infiltration may undermine the value of ground water recharge areas. Therefore, employment of best management practices for new development is critical.

One often wonders why, in the Scale of Permanence, soils sit so low in the list. In reality, none of the points in the Scale of Permanence is any more or less important that any other. But, if there is a hierarchy here, then the one that sits almost last takes on even more importance. We are in an age of peak water and peak soil. So little of the water on this earth is potable and we have polluted it to no end. And most of the topsoil on our continent now lies in the depths of the Mississippi Delta. 2/3 of all drainages in the US end up in the Mississippi which happily makes its way past New Orleans and dumps what little is left of our topsoil in the gulf.

The key to all of our endeavors with soil is organic matter. We have this strange tendency to clear our land of anything that covers the lawn or creates what we perceive as a nuisance of rotting branches, leaves, cardboard, paper, and whatever organic materials get in our way. These materials are a source of gold to the Permaculture practitioner. Whether we are on sand or clay it is the organic materials that matter. This is what builds soil for our crops. And, as was previously stated, without these crops we simply do not exist.

Everything else that we have looked at in this master plan produces “waste’. All of this can be recycled into our soil matrix where the micro and macro organisms go to work on it, turning it into accessible nutrients for our plants, and then of course, for animals and us.

We will use numerous strategies to keep the soil in good tilth and good health. We will hold nutrients with keylines, swales, mulches, plant density and diversity, and eventually, animals integrated into the system to help build soil.

All “waste” from the entire site will be recycled into compost bins, a vermiculture operation, used for sheet mulch, in hugelkultur mounds and as part and parcel of the cycle of nutrients in the food chain and the great web of life and death.

We can establish several compost bins at point of use. This eliminates the need to move compost to planting beds from long distances.

It is, all in all, about a feeling of “place”. Proper placement of flowers, trees, and all types of plants, along with the motifs set out and the flow of the design will turn all visitors into “budding” artists and adventurers in the natural world. Attention to scale, building design, year round color in vegetation, the use of natural materials, the winding pathways, all of this, creates more than simply an aesthetic. Aesthetics go much deeper than surfaces even though these are shimmering and seductive.

As we knit together this landscape in all its possible and impossible connections and convolutions the delight that we obtain from immersing ourselves in it will reach into our personal depths. The opportunity for the “look” of the place, merged with the functional relationships that we design into it and that grow on their own, is an opportunity not lost to anyone with a heart for deeper communication and connection and an eye for beauty. Beauty, certainly, is not only skin-deep. A Permaculture landscape is a unique landscape, one that takes everything under the sun, literally, into consideration.