So You Want to be a Permaculture Designer! What’s Stopping You?

Final colour master plan

Experience? Well yes, but that’s something that you can learn along the way. You don’t need to be the World’s best Graphic artist or AutoCAD genius, but you do need to be creative, have an eye for landscape patterning and a PDC in hand.

I just finished my first Permaculture design commission and I was hoping to share some of the process with you. Within the 11 years of experience with my own landscape design firm, I rarely put pen to paper with design. I found success even while employing experienced people to draw plans and document. My job then, like now, is main-frame design. I leave the finer points to specialists.

Your job as a designer is to know the process. You have the contacts in place to co-ordinate, instruct, manage, and even educate, if the professionals you engage are not permaculture systems trained.

What’s the process?

The process is the series of events that you will need to successfully master over time and refine to suit each client. Don’t think just because you’re now in the realm of the Permaculture world, full of ethics and good will, that people’s attitude towards paying money for your services will change, or the value they place on your time. I spend a lot of time speaking with my clients on the phone before I even think of getting out of my office chair to go and see them! (Mind you that office chair looks over the Pacific Ocean, and that’s hard enough to leave!)

Google map with topo map overlay for property.

The reason I question my potential clients so much is to look at some basics: 1) What’s their vision? 2) How do they plan to implement a permaculture design once the design is completed? 3) What do they think it’s going to take to achieve their vision? You can go and spend thousands of your clients dollars on reports, colour plans, graphs, and yet a client may still look at your work and won’t be able to find north on the map.

In my experience, it is easy for clients to have grand visions of what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle. Many have romantic ideas about growing their own food, reusing their waste and building compost without considering that yes(!) it is a lot of work: it’s going to take maintenance! I often refer my clients back to question three from above. “What do they think it’s going to take to achieve their vision?" "Oh that’s easy, we’ll just plant some veggies in the corner and use the water from the water tank". Stop!!! At the moment a client says “Oh that’s easy” that’s a warning bell that the clients you’re dealing with don’t understand the undertaking or commitment of what they are dealing with…. and your backside has not event left the seat yet.

The vision they expressed to you was one of abundance. They saw food growing from every corner of their property, water harvesting systems, and miles of food forest and animal systems. Yet, a realistic and practical maintenance schedule wasn’t a part of their vision. Home renovation and landscape gardening TV shows that flood our screens sell the easy 30min crash course of how to construct a garden. From that, so many feel capable and experienced enough to chuck in a garden. The television’s easy sell often misses the accounting related to the cost of design, cost of project management, labour and the amount of people behind the scenes coordinating the process. So often their vision doesn’t match the reality of implementation. As a designer, it’s your job to look at the process and find the best process to suit the client’s needs and, most of all, the client’s time & budget.

It is encouraging that we’ve seen a popular trend in going "green" or "sustainable" these days. Yet, whatever the trend may be, you’re going to get calls from people that have the money to do great things and have all the good intentions but very little of the design skills needed to make a practical system work. If they don’t understand how permaculture systems work and how to use them, it is your job to look at the process with them. There is an education element in that process that will allow you spend time with your client. You can show them how their plan will evolve and come together, realistically. I find it helpful to remember the small steps. Humans are very funny creatures. You don’t want to scare clients away with over-the-top architect plans or overly complicated specifications. These will be the parts of the design process that you will need to break down for your clients and incorporate into your plans: reports that you will receive from the consultants you engage.

Once you’ve worked with your clients to articulate a comprehensive vision, how do your clients plan to implement a permaculture design once the design is completed? Well, if they say to you “we plan to tender it out, get it installed by professionals and have a gardener look after it”. That’s fine and that will happen, but the questions you have to ask your self are: Are you cut out for the massive commitment to do the planning to a standard from where a contractor can pick up the plans and give the client a price to construct based on your plans? Could you set out a bill of quantities? Can you draw scale technical plans?

Your client may express "We want to install it ourselves!" O.K.! But even if they install it themselves, do you know the construction process to document for your client to follow? Will you need to do site visits during the design process? How do you move forward as a designer here? So this is where you need set out what your skill level is; how you could service this client without biting off more than you could chew. Are you capable of setting up a process by where you consult to your new clients, get the vision, and engage your technical professionals? Do you know how to find professionals that have the skills to put full landscape architect designed plans together with your permaculture main frame experience (water, access, structures)? Can you engage a horticulturalist, engineer, drafts person, etc?

These are very important questions we as permaculture designers need to ask before we leave the chair and get our minds around the design process. That’s just the first phone call! A good use of a website in this process can show your potential clients how you work and what services and processes you follow to get them a result. I have found that putting prices for types of design work, like consultation, looking at sizes of properties (urban – suburban – small farms – broad acre) and giving clients prices on deliverables within each design size works well.

Google map overlay with proposed design systems placed as a concept

I have included some concept pictures of plans throughout the process on this first commission. I used Google maps to place a contour map overlay over the Google image to give me very rough idea of how the farm looks and where I can start looking at the big three (water, access, and structures). It is wise to never fully trust a contour map unless you have had a surveyor on site with a highly detailed topographical plan. Being on the ground with a laser level for a day will save you in the long run. Whether a small urban garden or a 500 acre farm, walking the site step-by-step, meter-by-meter, is the only way to do it.

I use a very simple program – Microsoft Paint. I know of others out there using Google SketchUp and other programs that allow more flexibility. You can see where I mark, using different colours, elements that would be used as the base of the concept. I then print out the Google map on A2 size paper. I then use tracing paper to draw in property lines, and contour lines. I mark the swales, dams, farm tracks, roads, swale crossings, and then structures. While on the property the whole day is spent with a measuring wheel in hand looking at revegetation areas and pasture cropping. You might say, “Why don’t you just use a scale plan to mark them out?” You don’t know the farm until you walk them and take notes on what each area is and what it requires. I then, again on the tracing paper, colour it with different markers to show swale trees, bamboo, gabion, fences, rock outcrops for non workable land, etc…. Then once I have enough detail (and you will only know this once you hand it to your AutoCAD genius or in my case a graphic artist, if they can look at it and make sense of it then you job is done), then you end up with what I have shown in the site plan Master Plan.

I like a graphic artist’s finish. It looks more natural in its application and more detailed. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being very basic and 10 being very detailed, this master plan would be about a six. If my approach interests you, I’m setting up (Landscape) Permaculture Designing Courses next year in Victoria, NSW & QLD.

These courses will spend time looking at the steps of consultation, designing, drawing, pricing your time and quoting while also focusing on business management and how to get yourself started. The details are listed below.

The Aim of the Program:

I’m committed to training creative, confident and professionally superior permaculture designers. On completion of your course you will be entitled to design within the permaculture field, fully competent to undertake the following tasks:

  • Creating sustainable, functional permaculture designs. (Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. It seeks to provide a sustainable and secure place for living things on this earth. Functional design sets out to achieve specific ends, and prime directives. Every component of a design should function in many ways. Every essential function should be supported by many components.)
  • Designing concepts and plans for urban, rural and aid projects with water, access, structures.
  • Producing concept plans, planting plans, and site maintenance schedules.
  • Preparation of concept drawings for land re-contouring and retaining.
  • Preparation of construction and working drawings for hard landscaping items (not requiring specialist engineering and when permitted by law).
  • Managing the contractor bidding and the installation of the design on behalf of the client.
  • Running a professional permaculture design business.

What you will learn?

The Permaculture (Landscape) Design covers every aspect of garden and landscape design as well as other topics concerned with the setting up and running of a professional permaculture design and consulting business. You will learn things a professional permaculture designer needs to know.

  1. Project Assessment: You will learn how to talk with the Client about their concerns, assess the potential of the site, ascertain the client’s needs, suggest the best course of action, and give a written quotation for design work.
  2. Site Survey: You will learn to measure a site, including surveying ground levels, and use this data to draw an
    accurate and useful survey (base) plan.
  3. Concept Plan: Showing a ‘bird’s eye’ view of the proposed design, this drawing is the starting point in the development of a new garden. You will learn to create exciting and functional designs and present them to your clients as attractive concept plans.
  4. Planting Plan: You will learn to design the planting scheme to complement the new design. Preparing detailed
    planting plans and schedules are covered for your climate.
  5. Hard Landscape Construction: You will learn about hard landscape construction and materials. This will enable you to design viable permaculture hardscapes and structures to enhance your designs.
  6. Ground Contouring Design: You will learn to recognize a site’s greater potential through re-contouring, and how to produce concept plans detailing the new ground levels, swales, dams and house pad levels.
  7. Running a professional design and consulting business: You will learn all the aspects of running your own business in a professional manner. This includes dealing with Clients, effective communication, getting new business, industry protocols, working to a Client’s budget, bidding and tendering, and writing technical specifications.

How long does it take?

Intro Design (intense 24 hour) courses run over a Fri – Sat – Sun weekend will cover all the areas and give you a basic idea of design to get your business started. There will be one teacher plus two teacher aids per course. This gives the course a very personal touch and attention to detail.

Full Design courses (96 hours) will cover the process in depth and home work set during the week. The course is run over 1 month, 3 days a week. Fri, Sat, Sun for 12 days. There will be one teacher plus two teacher aids per course. This gives the course a very personal touch and attention to detail.

Course Cost

  • Intro Course 24hr 3x 8-hour days = $295 per student, limited to 30 students.
  • Full Design Course. 96hr, 12x 8-hour days = $1250.00 per student limited to 10 students.

Program Content

This is a brief outline of the main topics included in the program. The course material informative with many pictures and diagrams used to illustrate concepts. You will be taught and encouraged to think and solve problems.

  • 24, information-packed study modules covering all aspects of professional Permaculture design.
  • 3 relevant, hands-on assignments reflecting the actual work done by Permaculture designers.
  • Several useful portfolios to aid you in developing your designs.
  • 3 full, real-life permaculture design projects (no installation is required for any projects).
  • several small urban design projects (no installation is required).
  • continual assessment and feedback to keep you informed of your progress.

The Study Modules

  1. Course overview; Equipment and Materials; Drawing to Scale.
  2. Classification and Naming of plants; Plant physiology; Soil in the landscape.
  3. Introduction to the different types of landscape drawings; learning to draw.
  4. The design process; analyzing a site; discovering the client’s needs; introduction to site surveying; writing a design proposals.
  5. Site surveying – theory and practical.
  6. The drawing sheet and title block; lettering and titling; the concept plan.
  7. The zoning and functional placement of areas.
  8. Major permaculture design project #1.
  9. Design principles and design development.
  10. Solving site problems; function and safety.
  11. Surveying ground levels – theory and practical.
  12. Drawing elevations, cross-sections and working drawings.
  13. Major permaculture design project #2.
  14. Planting design; color theory, shape and texture.
  15. Designing; how to choose the right plants; the planting plan.
  16. Water, natural pools and ponds, swales & dams.
  17. Hard landscaping materials; site contouring and leveling.
  18. Retaining walls; paving and other horizontal surfacing.
  19. Introduction to timber construction; steps and ramps; walls; fences and screens.
  20. Decorative structures; using trees, shrubs, hedges, vines.
  21. Major permaculture design project #3.
  22. Natural habitat; maintenance of design; eco-friendly design.
  23. Small urban gardens; functional planting; irrigation, estimating installation costs for budgetary purposes.
  24. Business procedures; documents and contracts; the client-designer-contractor relationship; specification writing; the bidding process; project facilitation; costing your design services; getting started; promoting your business: final design project – an exploration of design creativity.

Expressions of interest for this course in your area can be directed to Nick Huggins at hugginsn (at)


  1. I can barely imagine the possibility of being knowledgeable enough to comprehensively design even a small farm, much less to actually sell this expertise to others for serious money. I find that each species of plant takes 2-3 years to really learn its characteristics and roles in an integrated system. I’ve been growing Leucaena leucocephala for 3 years now and almost every time I look at it I still ponder different ways of planting, grazing, pruning, chipping, protecting bark from sheep, intercropping with elephantgrass, etc. Multiply this by 100’s of species. And that’s just the vegetation!

    And farming has a reputation for being boring!

  2. Hi Nick,

    If I had my PDC I would be in boots and all for this course. My trade is graphic design – well it was a few years ago – so how this relates to permaculture would be a valuable course.

    Now – how am I going to get the money to do a PDC – so I can then take part in your course….

    What are you doing the weekend of Sunday Sept 12th mate? – we are looking for a speaker to talk about community gardens at the Gourmet in Gundy wine and food festival as a way to launch the Goondiwindi community garden project. If you cant make it do you have any ideas for a good speaker? Its a fun weekend.


  3. Whats stopping me? The cost of the course… I have wanted to do a PDC for a long time, but as a full-time student on centrelink, the options for paying for this course are limited for me.

    I would love to see a course that is offered with some kind of trade system. (An accredited course, not WWOOFING)

  4. Nick,

    If I was still in Australia I would be your first student! For anyone in Oz that is considering this course you should know that Nick is an outstanding designer and teacher. I have spent a significant amount of time with Nick at PRI and he is salt of the earth! This course is going to fill up fast!

    Good luck Nick, hope to chat with you soon!


  5. Autocad and MSPaint were mentioned as SW for producing those nice final design plans. What else is used? Does anyone know of a set of graphics that can be used for making ones own plans (e.g. representing trees and such).

    1. I have used quite a few different programs , being a graphic designer, and I recommend using Xara Design Pro. It’s a British/German product, and one of the most versatile graphic design programs on the market, and vastly less expensive than Adobe’s offerings. Sure, Autocad has great programs, but who can afford them? Perhaps when you’re running a multi-million dollar venture you will be able to pay the significant sums they require. Until then, Xara Design Pro, and Sketchup, which I’ve recently started using (Sketchup looks pretty good).

  6. Permaculture is a lateral thinking discipline,it challenges the designer to think outside the box and turn problems into solutions.It’s also about self empowerment which in turn empowers others.On occasions we can fall into,stages of what Holgren describes as “Paralysis by Analysis” and another well known psychological disorder “Learned Helplessness” neither of these are fruitful mindsets for permaculture as it is an action orientated discipline.
    It is those that dare who win.
    Having followed some of Nicks earlier articles is quite obvious he is a doer and has achieved some great results.As far as PDC courses go they are worth their weight in Gold if undertaken at reputable sites.These are easy to pick they are the sites that are consistently full and also have other successful projects on the ground.Lets look at PRI and it’s price structure 2200 dollars for 14 days which includes food and a place to stay if you bring your own tent.It also includes a copy of the designers manual and world class education,the chance to participate in practical elements of permaculture on a highly functional property.So at about 150 dollars per day it is exceptional value.I know several friends from South America from very humble backgrounds who saved a small amount of money each week over two years and also fully familiarized themselves with the manual and other permaculture literature so as to gain the best possible outcome.I agree to scholarships and woofing in exchange for fee relief but in all honesty I believe they should only be offered to people from developing nations who do not have the capacity to support the cost even by the slow saving method.I am correct in understanding that PRI offers scholarships which are funded by the fees of those who are capable of paying.So to me it would be worth the hard graft to know that you are helping to support others less fortunate than yourself when attending a PDC.
    best wishes
    Fernando Pessoa

  7. @ Hamish …
    I could possibly help you out re: a speaker. We were involved with the Toowoomba Community Garden for a while, and I’m talking to the Southern Downs Regional Council this week about getting one going here in Warwick. Email me … don at if you want to discuss further.

  8. Don’t miss GIMP – the free and Open Source version of Photoshop. It lets you import aerial photos and supports layers so you can get all sorts of different views of your design, as well as make measurements between features, etc.

  9. I’m using the software Inkscape (, a free Illustrator clone to produce my designs. It’s vector based which suits a cartoon look, but it’s able to use photos for topographical reference, etc.

  10. Sounds like a great course,it would be great to get some real world advice from a landscaping perspective once a PDC is completed.The jobs are out there but require this professional approach especially for mainstream installations.Unfortunately I am overseas otherwise I would attend.
    Good Luck with this.

  11. Inkscape is a great tool to use in conjuction with the Gimp. It does Vector style drawing (the drawing is made up of objects that can be changed) while the Gimp does bitmap (More like editing a photo). For Example you could import the aerial photo into Inkscape draw contour lines over the top and those lines can be moved and shaped at will.

  12. Hello Nick,

    Looks like you are doing some great work. Charles Hamilton mentioned you participated in the PRI internship program which I am considering attending. I was wondering if you would be willing to share what your experience was like as that may help me decide whether the program is a good fit for me.



  13. I am very keen to start out for real with consulting – I have done two PDCs plus some extras, but only one consult, and that was for free!! I am having trouble making the leap into business, ie advertising my services and getting someone to pay me. Where in Vic are your courses? I am in Albury on NSW/VIC border. I don’t know whether I can afford or have time to come (five kids!!) but maybe!

  14. Im an archtecture undergraduate student from India, very interested in pursuing permaculture design but am unaware of where and what courses would suit me . Any help?

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