Are you planning to launch or grow an ecological business? Do you have a farm or homestead that you wish to make some changes to, or are you looking for ideas for installations you can build on your site?
The Permaculture design process can support your decision-making in these areas, and one way to bring permaculture into your life is to draw a Permaculture Sketch Map.
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What is a Permaculture Sketch Map?
A sketch map, in the world of permaculture, is a series of drawings in different layers that show your chosen site of land, first as how it currently is, and then how it could be designed to optimize yields, save resources, and care for nature and people, while helping to grow your homestead ecosystems and small business.
The drawings can be made with free software and simple stationery, and should take around three hours to complete.
This article will help you get started on such a design process yourself, whether you have recently completed a Permaculture Design course yourself, or are just beginning on your journey of sustainable and regenerative practices.
The Importance of Intentional Design
Permaculture is a design practice as much as it is a scientific topic of inquiry. When asked to sum up permaculture in a single word, teacher Geoff Lawton used the term ‘design’ to encapsulate the purpose of the study.
To this author, the word ‘design’ brings to mind an intentionality behind what we do as permaculturists. We are called to make informed decisions about how we’re going to alter the landscape.
Too often, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, humans have altered their environment without much thought to ecosystems, and without much regard for those who will be affected by the change, especially those that do not have the same level of decision-making power.
While the results of these alterations have arguably brought great prosperity and advances in medicine and longevity, some side-effects have included pollution, deforestation, erosion, and mass species extinction.
Permaculture is in a place to say that we can, and should do better.
The theory recognizes that our decisions often have outsized impacts, perhaps like the proverbial unwitting bull in a china shop, and thus seeks to empower our decisions with knowledge and practice based on what is best for all.
Thus stated, are the three permaculture ethics: earth-care, people-care, and return of surplus.
The Academic Study of Permaculture
With these ethics in mind, permaculture selects the basic principles of some important topics of scientific study, including philosophy of ethics, climate science, ecology, forestry, agriculture, horticulture, architecture, sociology, economics, and cartography.
In a 72-hour permaculture design course, there is no chance of becoming an expert in even one of these fields, let alone all of them.
However, the idea is to introduce the necessity of studying them, and to suggest some of the key principles of each, in order to make the beginnings of a well-rounded designer.
In spite of the theoretical groundings of this subject, one cannot graduate the course without making, either individually or as a group member, a design map.
This requirement recognizes that it is one thing to study theory, but quite another to put it into practice.
Some of the best-regarded teachers implore beginners to ‘get designing’ – that is, start practicing the art of map-making, even if you feel that your theoretical understanding is lacking.
As you design and show your design to others, your questions, thoughts, and attempts to answer the questions of others will help you learn and find the gaps in your knowledge.
At this point, I recommend you work with a small set of colored pencils, a standard pencil, at least one poster-sized base map, and several sheets of tracing paper.
You will also need a compass, protractor, and ruler. All of this can be done on a computer, too, but for ease of explanation, I shall focus mostly on the drawing tools and their recommended methods of use.
When these tools are ready, you can get started on your base map.
The Base Map
Any design needs to begin with a thorough understanding of what is presently on the site.
Advanced permaculturists recommend detailed site observation for a period of one year before beginning implementation, so that you can observe the site through all of its seasons.
You may or may not have this amount of time to spare, but it helps to know what you should be looking for.
One good resource to consult in this matter, as well as to use later for design, is P.A. Yeomans’s Scale of Permanence. This resource helps you to learn what is important to pay attention to.
In order of most to least permanent, Yeomans recommends observing and researching climate, land shape, water flow, site access, trees, structures, animals, and soil.
The reason for this order is that items near the beginning of the list have the greatest impact on the site, and also are those less affected by individual human decisions.
For example, while I can save up and buy several thousand dollars’ worth of compost and improve my soil over a period of a year, or build some fences to limit the movement of animals in certain areas, I cannot do anything to make it rain more often, nor raise the height of the hillside next to my farm.
A base map means creating a sketch or computer-generated map of how your site looks today. The map is highly advised to be correct to scale.
The map should indicate all the features mentioned above, as well as having firmly drawn the borders of the land over which you have influence or ownership.
The map should indicate a directional compass. Some maps put north directly upward of the map, which is a convention I recommend following if you plan to show you map to many other people.
It is also a good idea to include the scale ratio – for example, a map that displays an inch that represents ten feet would have the scale ratio of 1:120.
One other important factor of the base map is that it displays contours for height. Many permaculture design practices depend on knowing the topographical profile of the land.
The most detail that is required in the majority of cases is a map showing height gradients of five feet, but you can use more detail than this if you choose.
Creating a contour map is possible using free software, following these instructions:
- Go here and type in your address in the search bar.
- Click the option on the Google Maps interface that shows 2D buildings instead of 3D.
- Zoom to the required level of detail.
- Sample a rectangular area you wish to have contours for, according to the site’s instructions.
- Change the units to ‘ft’ and choose the option ‘level interval’, and type the number of feet per contour you wish to show. You can test this by clicking the button ‘redraw contours’.
- Scroll down until you can show a KML file and import this into Google Earth.
Once you have established the land borders of your map and generated the contours, you can either print the map using a printer, or alternatively, project the map to a wall, stick poster paper to the wall, and sketch the relevant features.
Once you have sketched or printed the base map, the next useful thing to do is to write down the date that the base map was completed, determine the scale ratio, and move on to the next section about sectors and zones.
Sectors and Zones
A base map is useful at telling us the current static factors of our site, but it cannot display dynamic energies by itself. That is the purpose of a sector map.
Once the sector map is drawn, it will be time to consider land use zones.
A sector map is designed to plot the angles of incoming and outgoing energy sources, both wanted and unwanted, on to our site.
We might consider sunlight to be a wanted energy in how it helps our plants to produce their own food through photosynthesis.
However, in the same way, when the sunlight heats our house so fast that we have to pay to run an air conditioner, this energy is excessive and unwanted, and it may help us find a way to vent this excessive energy, or redirect some of it from arriving at our site.
It thus stands to reason that if we know and can predict the direction of incoming and outgoing energy, we can design to optimize our site to capture the energy we want, and redirect the energy we don’t want in such a way that it does the most good.
We may even find a way to turn excess energy into something useful.
For example, people living in cold climates often build glass houses on the Southern sides of their houses. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun spends the majority of the day, all year-round, in the South.
Therefore, it makes the most sense to allow the sunlight to enter the house at this point. More advanced designers might decide they want a way to hold on to this heat throughout the night while the sun isn’t shining, so they fill their glass houses with thermal masses, such as a fish tank and bags of concrete.
If these same designers now find their houses are too hot in the summer, they can install high windows in the house, knowing that warm air rises and therefore will easily ventilate, while drawing blinds over their glass-house windows.
Meanwhile, people living in hot tropical climates may want a draft through their houses, so they orient their houses to the prevailing wind direction in summer, making sure that air can flow through, cause evaporation, and cool the house cheaply.
Thus proven, the advantages of drawing a sector map are numerous. There are multiple ways to go about it. The one that feels the simplest depends on whether you’re designing your base map on paper or on the computer.
If you’re using a computer, you can create layers with imaging software and change the transparency of the different layers so that they can be visible. For the pencil-and-paper method, you can use transparent tracing paper.
Cut a circular sheet of tracing paper that will cover the base map of your site. Mark the center of the circle, and bisect the circle across its four cardinal directions.
Now, you can visualize the incoming angles of energy. Here is a list of directional energies to consider:
- Summer sunlight
- Winter sunlight
- Summer winds
- Winter winds
- Water flow and flood risk
- Fire risk
- Wild animal incursion
- Views pleasant and unpleasant
Consider the directions that each of these energies come from, and plot them on the circle using the protractor. For example, a southerly wind will be centered on 180 degrees, with its border lines on 135 and 225 degrees.
It is also recommended you use a different color for each sector type, so that information can be communicated simply, and that overlapping sectors can be more easily read.
If you’ve never done a sector analysis before, one unintuitive but useful method is to calculate your sun direction.
This website can find these angles for you if you enter your location. Find the summer and winter solstice days of the given year, and use these to determine the rise and set angles.
In my location in Central Texas, on the summer solstice, June 21st, 2020, the solar angle sunrise is 62 degrees, and the sunset is 298 degrees. The total solar arc is thus 236 degrees at its widest, and this corresponds to 14 hours, 4 minutes of daylight.
In the same location, but on the winter solstice, December 21st, 2020, the solar angle sunrise is 117 degrees, and the sunset is 243 degrees. Now, the solar arc is only 127 degrees, which allows for 10 hours, 13 minutes of daylight.
With these data points and a protractor, you can map the sectors of solar angles.
Sunlight is one of the most critical sectors to map, because it gives you an idea of shadow locations throughout the year, where to place trees and plants, and helps you to give your installations the correct amount of sunlight.
Once you have mapped your sectors out, you can take another piece of tracing paper and use it to designate your permaculture zones of land use.
Zones are permaculture-based land use designations that help you decide which installations belong where.
Zones are concentric and start at zone 0 for your house or workplace.
- Zone 1 is for the area immediately outside around the home or workplace, including small gardens and nurseries.
- Zone 2 is for medium-sized gardens and nurseries, small animal pens, and orchards.
- Zone 3 is for fields, crops, paddocks, and medium-sized animals, and zone 4 for woodlots, large animals, and high-impact earthworks like dams, swales, and canals.
- Zone 5 refers to the wilderness, or areas that we leave mostly alone and only visit, observe, and forage in on occasion.
As with sector planning, we can use different colors to indicate the presence of zones, which will help us see where zones might overlap or form unusual shapes, at a glance.
Sometimes natural barriers like waterways, hills, and contours will inform zoning. Other times, a fence or a planted hedgerow might differentiate them.
With sector and zone planning complete, we turn to learning about design elements.
Elements of Design
Once you have your sector and zone maps decided, you can consider where to place elements. For the purpose of this article, elements are defined as being the smallest unit of design.
In this way, an element might be a solar panel, a rainwater tank, a fruit tree, a horse, a dam, or a wilderness path.
Each element is defined as having needs (or inputs), producing yields (outputs), and being differentiated by characteristics (variables).
Each element that you choose to include in your design can benefit from having a Needs, Yields, and Characteristics Analysis performed on it.
This analysis will help you place the elements, because permaculture designs are different from other landscape design methodologies in that they encourage resilience and multiple functionality.
Resilience might be defined as having needs satisfied by at least two different sources, and multiple functionality means having a minimum of three useful yields.
To function well, a solar panel needs crystalline silicon, engineering design, ability, and equipment, to be placed in direct sunlight, to be cleaned every six months, and to be kept reasonably cool.
Its yields include shade, insulation, water collection, heat, and electrical energy. Some of its characteristics include type (heating or photovoltaic), size, and weight.
This analysis might lead us to put the solar panel on a rooftop, or perhaps to use it near the ground to shade a garden from harsh sunlight and collect water, or even to do something unconventional like mount it on to a golf cart stacked with batteries for use as a mobile power source.
A fruit tree, such as an orange tree, has needs including full sunlight, warm air, water, sandy soils, fertilizer, sun protection when young, and cold protection during the winter.
Its yields are oranges, shade, and fragrant white flowers. Characteristics may include cultivar type, mature height, sweetness of fruit, and insect resistance.
These guidelines help us determine that orange trees will do well in USDA climate zones 8-10, will grow well in the presence of nitrogen-fixing plants like yarrow and alfalfa, and might do well if planted near other mature trees that will shade it when young but not compete with it when it is mature.
Even a zone 5 element like a hiking trail can benefit from a thorough analysis.
A hiking trail needs access, fairly flat ground, protection from dangerous wildlife, stones and wood to create steps, and to follow a route through points of interest.
Yields of a hiking trail can include relaxation, beauty, exercise, birdwatching, hunting, foraging, camping, and swimming – also consider the yields of water runoff and possible collection, possible erosion created, and possible damage to ecosystems through its creation and use.
Characteristics may include trail length, altitude gain or loss, shade, difficulty to use, and frequency of points of interest along the trail. These considerations may help you plan a trail through a wilderness area you have access to for optimal use.
One final consideration, before sitting down to put your elements on to your sketch, is to consider how your design will change over time.
One Permaculture line of advice is “see things how they will be, not just how they are”.
This advises you to consider how big your plants might grow (and therefore not put them too close together), how many resources your animals might consume and what you may need to do if you want to increase your herd size in the future, or to plan for possible changes.
What if the neighboring farmer uphill of you decides to use masses of pesticides all of a sudden?
You’ll need to adjust your sector map to include the new waste stream, and design in a barrier such as a constructed wetland or swale to keep your plants and animals safe.
Now that you’ve learned about base maps, sectors, zones, and design elements, you are ready to make your first design.
Choose how many pieces of tracing paper you want to use, and then use these as your layers of the design.
There are multiple ways to approach this. On one of my design courses, I used three time-stacked layers: short-term (1-3 years), medium-term (3-6 years), and long-term (6+ years) to account for the needs and yields that my design was calling for.
It can also be helpful to include one zoomed-in area that you want to show more detail in, which can be especially useful in zones 1 and 2, to show.
Sharing your Designs
A design has the most use when it is shared and can be commented on by others. You can join local permaculture meetups or start your own.
You could also take photographs of your design or scan the pages that you used. Join a social media group that has the word permaculture and your city, region, or state name, upload the design, and ask for comments and criticism.
Many people might be happy to give free advice or pointers – they are learning, just as you are, and your design might teach them something they had never considered before, as you might learn from them.
By following the process outlined above, you can help yourself avoid expenses and improve the yields of your ecological business venture.
Permaculture design is an art that relies heavily upon science to provide its yields to the world, and the only way to get better at design is to practice doing it.
While it is not recommended that you design professionally for clients without high-quality training and certification, you can certainly learn plenty through your own research and practice.
Designing is a fun way to learn about the systematic topic of permaculture, and if, one day, you decide to pursue a 72-hour permaculture course, you will set yourself up for greater success for having tried this process by yourself.
David Dornbrack is a permaculture designer and author from the Austin area of Texas, USA. He first achieved his PDC in South Africa in 2013, and has since traveled to the world’s prototypical intentional community and ecovillage, Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He has gardened in three different climate types – Mediterranean, Cold Temperate, and Humid Subtropical. His favorite plants are tomatoes, chilies, and potatoes. He believes that humans function best when interdependent – able to take good care of themselves so that they can be generous and giving to others. He would like to gain experience in house-building, carpentry, and solar electricity installation.