Permaculture Design Process – 1. The site survey

This is the first article of a comprehensive series on permaculture design by Aranya. Enjoy!

by Aranya

1. The site survey Introduction

We are going to start our process by first surveying the area to be designed. You might not always be designing areas of land (permaculture is much more flexible than just this), but we’ll start you off by doing so, as this is the easiest way to get a sense of how the process works. Personally, I always like to have a look at a site before interviewing the client(s) as it gives me an unbiased view of what is there. The survey also often raises questions that need further clarification, such as issues around the history of use of the site; so doing it this way around makes most sense for me. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, and you’ll have to ask the client(s) in advance about the site boundaries anyway.

When you do so, ask them if they already have a good map of the site, as this will save you time later making your own. If you are designing for yourself, you’ll already have a fairly clear idea of what you want, and if the site is familiar to you, a sense of what is there. Then this process becomes one of clarification and expansion. It’s your design process, so find the way that works best for you. The main thing to remember is that a little more time spent observing now is going to save you a lot of effort later. Bill Mollison suggests that we observe our design site for at least one full cycle. For a land-based project, that means a whole year. However, if you don’t have that information to hand, there will be others who can help fill in the gaps. Neighbours and previous owners may also know where sunny and shady areas are, where it floods or frosts etc. Include them in your client interviews if you can.

 The survey

Our survey is based around the following processes:

Creating a rough base map.

  • Identify the site boundaries and record the dimensions of the site.
  • Where are the access points and routes through the site?
  • Are there any significant bodies of water?
  • Identify neighbours and any problems or resources coming onto the site from their properties.
  • Identify the direction of north and mark on your map.
  • Sketch out a rough base map (unless you have managed to get a good map from the client, in which case use a copy of that) and use it to record this information. Make sure that you make a note of distances (use a tape measure or pacing) and any angles (if you are also using a compass) between significant objects. You’ll use this information to make a more accurate map later. If the site is some distance from your home, take plenty of photos of it from different angles. These will help you with your map-making, saving the need for a return visit later to clarify those things you forgot to note the first time around.

Mapping what is on the site now.

  • What is the primary land use on the site?
  • What is the primary agriculture / traditional crop of this area?
  • Now add to the map all the elements that are currently on the site using the PASTE acronym to help you:
    • What plants and trees are on the site?
    • What animals (domesticated and wild mammals, birds, insects, fish etc.) are using the site? Look for any signs of their activities.
    • What structures are there (e.g. greenhouse, shed, wind turbine pole)?
    • What tools are there (e.g. wind turbine, pole lathe, washing line etc.)?
    • What events take place here (e.g. social; parties, camps – or natural; floods, fire etc.)? You may not be able to identify every tree or plant. This is another time when photos can be useful. Otherwise, collect a leaf or flower as a sample* for identification later – either by the client, by another gardener, or by using a reference book. * Obviously only if there are plenty to spare!

Identifying the different zones on the site.

Rather than cluttering up your already busy-looking map with more information, use an overlay (tracing paper or ‘semi-transparent’ greaseproof paper) to record the zones. Place the overlay on top of your rough base map and trace through the corners of the boundaries and the north arrow. These will enable you to position it correctly in future. Then sketch out the rough zones on to this overlay (colouring them in is one effective method).

To identify the different zones follow this rough guide:

  • Zone 1 – Closest to the home access points (front and back doors), also alongside regularly used pathways.
  • Zone 2 – Gets less attention; perhaps further away, but still intensively gardened. May include small animals, soft fruit, fruit trees etc.
  • Zone 3 – Commercial production (less intensive).
  • Zone 4 – Managed woodland; timber, coppice, fuel, forage etc.
  • Zone 5 – Places that humans rarely visit and wildlife feels safe. You will not necessarily identify all five external zones in this space, especially if the site is relatively small (e.g. an average garden). You will almost certainly find areas that you can designate as zone 1 and possibly even 2, along with zone 5 areas where wildlife feels secure; even if these are limited only to drains, gutters and a patch of weeds. Don’t forget though that the tops of trees and inside hedges also act as good zone 5 areas. With larger sites, especially broad-scale farms, you will also be able to identify areas of zones 3 and 4. Note: at this stage we are just identifying the zones as we observe the space is currently being used. You may well identify opportunities to improve things (i.e. turn a zone 2 into a zone 1), but your job for now is to just record the site’s use as it currently stands.

Mapping the different sectors of the site.

Follow the same technique to map out the sectors on the site. Get another overlay sheet and mark on the following:

  • The midwinter and midsummer sun sectors (where does the sun rise and set at these different times of year?).
  • The direction of the prevailing wind (i.e. where does it enter the site?).
  • The direction of the coldest, most damaging winds.
  • Any areas prone to flooding or frost.
  • Any neighbouring fire risks.
  • Any particularly good or bad views.
  • Any other issues (e.g. pollution, noise, smells, bright street lighting).

This information will help you to identify the different microclimates (handout 3.9) on the site, any opportunities to harvest incoming energies and the areas where the site needs to be protected from them. It is useful at this stage to also approximate and record the heights of buildings and trees (to determine shade patterns). Include anything on neighbouring properties that affect the site (e.g. shade from trees, or toxic run off from chemical sprays or groundwater contamination). Any rainwater harvesting opportunities can also be recorded: what is the surface area any roofs channeling rainwater into this space? Unusual weather events can be good times to make observations as they will show you things that you don’t normally see, such as:

  • Heavy rain – Where is water focussed? How does it flow down slopes? Off roofs? Are there any leaking gutters? Overflowing drains? Where does it puddle (this can also be a clue to soil compaction)? Are watercourses coloured brown by soil washed off fields.
  • Strong winds – Where are the windiest areas? Are there are places where litter is blown in circles? Or never settles on the ground? Where are the most sheltered spots? Poles with simple flags (e.g. carrier bags) placed around the site can enable you to observe wind patterns across a large site from a distance.
  • Frost – Where does frost settle? Is this cold air trapped & unable to move downslope? Can this be remedied? Are there frost-free areas around trees, under hedges, or around buildings?
  • Snow – The thaw after snow can show us more that we wouldn’t normally see. Roofs of heated buildings are less well insulated if the snow melts more quickly (more heat loss). Capped wells & other underground bodies of water will melt snow more quickly than the surrounding ground (a melted circle on a yard is probably an old concreted over). Other microclimates, perhaps around buildings will also thaw snow more quickly. Conversely, the chilliest spots will hang onto snow residues the longest. Desire lines are also easy to see in the snow, where do people & animals prefer to walk through the space?
  • Drought – When rain is scarce, which areas are most affected by the lack of water? Where is heat & drying out most prevalent? What happens during the first fall of rain after a dry spell – does soil capping prevent the efficient infiltration of water into the soil? How long does the current water storage last before it runs out (tanks, butts etc.)?

Recording any significant slope on the site.

If the site is small and slope insignificant, it may be unnecessary to take this part into account. However, if there are neighbouring slopes channelling water and materials towards or away from the site, these certainly need to be recorded and accounted for. Larger sites and small sloping sites will certainly need to have any slopes surveyed. If so:

  • Use a level (e.g. Bunyip water level, A-frame, laser level) to identify contours and the difference in height between key elements on the site (e.g. boundary corners, trees, buildings etc.).
  • Mark this information onto your rough base map. Ideally also sketch out a transect (cross section) of the site through different areas of planting and terrain and mark its line on your base map. If you can obtain a good map in advance, it will save you this surveying work in the short term. However, if your design ultimately calls for swales or close- contour ditching, then you’ll be doing this later anyway.

Taking at least one soil sample.

What do the locally abundant wild plants (weeds?) tell you about the soil? Use the indicator plants chart (handouts 5.13–5.15) to determine what kind of soil these plants like to grow in. Then, to see how accurate this is, get a copy of the ‘Biological and Soil Monitoring Chart’ (handout 5.28) and a spade and:

  • • Find a suitable site, away from compacted areas like paths.
  • Fill in the chart, starting with column 1 for site 1.
  • Make a note of the current land use.
  • Determine the degree of plant diversity there (can you recognise any of the plants?).
  • Look for signs of insect activity.
  • Dig your soil profile (a square hole a spade’s width on each side and a spade blade deep). How easy is it to dig? -This can be a clue to the degree of compaction.
  • Carefully remove an additional downward ‘slice’ (a second spade can help lift it out) and observe the different soil layers and soil life.
  • Smear a little soil on to the chart (in the dry / wet colour box).
  • Take a representative sample of soil and using the ‘How to test soil texture’ flowchart (handout 5.16), follow the instructions until you determine your soil type.
  • To check this, also perform the jar test on a further sample from the same place (see handout 5.8 for details). If your site has a variety of different microclimates and land uses, it is worth surveying the soil at each point and comparing what you find.

Identifying the site’s remaining limiting factors.

Our survey so far may have already identified some of the site’s limiting factors. Perhaps excessively shady or boggy areas, very heavy or light soil, or crops regularly grazed off by insects or wild animals? Some of these factors we will be able to modify, others we will have to accept and discover the gifts they offer. Our role as designers is to identify the key limiting factors, and then to design strategies to overcome them. Sometimes, we can remove just one limitation, and the landscape will change dramatically (e.g. removing grazing animals from a landscape will permit the re-growth of forest). An effective strategy can also be as simple as plugging a leak. A quick look around most sites will quickly identify leaking energy and resources such as: • Heat escaping from buildings. • Fertility being washed out of the soil. • Water leaving the site before being fully utilised. • Crops being left to rot (most commonly on trees). • High maintenance, low output systems (e.g. most lawns) You may also be able to identify other opportunities being wasted like: • Workers having insufficient to do, or being wasted on low value tasks. • Volunteer help not being made use of. • Free or cheap local resources, not being collected / harvested. In addition there may be other ‘non-physical’ limiting factors to consider, such as: • Legislation (e.g. planning, conservation etc.). • Ownership. • Cultural issues (including the reactions of neighbours). These should be explored as part of your client interview process. Handout 10.2 will help you to identify others that relate to your site.

Identify any free or cheap resources available on or close to the site.

Finally we need to record the valuable resources available on the site. Often items considered to be junk by most people can be put to ingenious use. These include examples such as: • Tyres being made into excellent rodent-proof wormeries (of course, if you have enough, you could even build your own Earthship dwelling!). • Old baths being turned into ponds. • All kinds of other large containers used to store rainwater. • Pallets being made into compost bins. • Patio doors, recycled plumbing bits and old copper pipe being made into very efficient solar hot water panels. • Large plastic bottles (oil, water etc.) being made into cloches. Also, as you travel to and from the site, make a note of any local businesses that may be throwing away useful items, such as any of the above or also: • Glass bottles (make good raised bed-edging). • Cardboard (for mulching). • Manure (need I explain this one?) • Waste timber (for building garden structures). And so on… You are limited only by your imagination! So make a note of everything that is available on the site, or that you have noticed nearby. Any of it may become an integral part of your design!

Creating your base map

Now that you have gathered all this information, you’re ready to create your base map with overlays (part 2).

Go to part 2 – Creating a base map