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Permaculture Principle #7: Design from Patterns to Details

Unlike our first 6 principles, principle 7 is the first coming from the top-down perspective of the patterns and relationships that tend to emerge.

David Holmgren’s Summary

The commonality of patterns observable in nature and society allows us to not only make sense of what we see, but to use a pattern from one context and scale, to design in another. Pattern recognition is an outcome of the application of Principle 1: Observe and interact, and is the necessary precursor to the process of design.

The spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design shows a clear pattern even though the details always vary. This icon evokes zone and sector site planning — the best known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of permaculture design.

… The proverb ‘Can’t see the forest for the trees’ reminds us that the details tend to distract our awareness of the nature of the system; the closer we get the less we are able to comprehend the larger picture.

Commentary by Tim Sonder, Edible Evanston Education Chair


The details will come later. Start with the patterns.

Patterns are everywhere. There are spatial patterns and there are temporal patterns. Weather patterns, travel patterns, sleep patterns, and more. 

Zoom OUT… Look at seasons. Look at land undulations. Look at river and stream courses. Look at trees branching. Look at airflow and wind patterns. Waterflow. Watch the sun as it moves through the sky…during the year and during each day. Watch the trees as they have mast years of cyclical fruiting and lean years of rest, or weeds as the dominant weed each year may ebb and flow.

Zoom IN… listen to your heartbeat. Look at the veins in a leaf. Look at your hair follicles. Look at the flowers buds and the petals unfurling.

Go back to Principle 1, Observe and Interact, and find the patterns around you and shape the details to fit them.

Waves. Edges. Spirals and swirls. Lobes. Branching. Scatter. Webs.

Branches are a way of connecting and dispersing energy, food, and materials in the most efficient pattern. A main path to haul the big things, and little branches to get into each area. Think human or plant circulatory systems. Think corporate organization chart. Think essay outline—from pattern to detail.

One pattern it may be best to break is assuming the way things are being done is the right way. Step back and look at the problem and make sure the right pattern from nature is used.

Even when you zoom in, you are really stepping back and looking at the pattern, not the detail.

  • What happens in inside corners? Dust at home, weeds in the garden, grime in the sink, garbage in the park, car parked-in in the garage. What happens with curves?
    • Plan paths by where people want to walk.
    • Watch the pattern of the sun each day, and the path of the sun each year, and plan the details of your garden layout to conform.
    • Plan your day for when you need a break; perhaps delay breakfast until mid-morning when you need a boost and a break and capture your early morning energy to get things done. Or plan your day based on the sun, and let it adjust seasonally.

Look at what functions the design is supposed to achieve—how are we moving people and materials around, blocking wind, creating warm microclimates, etc —and then look for patterns that help do that. … Nature uses branching patterns to collect and distribute energy and materials, the way roots and branches of a tree collect and distribute sun, water, and nutrients. If there are places to collect or distribute things in our design, maybe a branching pattern is needed. That’s why many garden paths are in a branching pattern; we’re collecting and distributing water, food, mulch, compost materials, and so on. Mound and lobe patterns can increase surface area and exposure—are there places that we need to do that? Spirals are usually patterns of growth and flow—where are those things going on in the design? — Toby Hemenway