Observations from a New Permie

One of the principles of permaculture is to ‘observe’.  Having started in permaculture about 18 months ago I’d like to share some of my observations, especially in regards to my own behaviour, assumptions and, importantly, mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Back in October, 2009, having just discovered permaculture, my wife and I became very excited about the possibilities for our 8-acre property in the Gold Coast hinterland in Queensland, Australia. Our property is on the side of a hill, and formerly having horses as tenants, it has hard, stony, compacted earth with a number of areas of erosion caused by fast flowing water after rain events.  For us to have any hope of growing anything useful here, other than the few struggling natives, we needed to perform some major earth surgery.

At this stage we knew practically nothing about permaculture design so we engaged the services of Craig Gallagher who was at the time the farm manager at the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm.  Craig designed a water catchment plan for us which included swales and some new dams.

By this time it was December 2009 and to say I was keen to get started is an understatement.  Being a thrifty soul, and having a thirst for adventure, my first thought was to buy a small excavator (I was thinking around 3 tons), do the work myself, then sell the machine – hopefully for a profit – with the end result being free earthworks!  Great idea, however, there were two problems with this approach.

1.  I knew absolutely nothing about earthworks or driving an excavator (and after watching a professional at work I probably would have killed myself in the process!)

2.  It turns out that the 3 ton excavator I was intending to buy would have been “no better than using a bucket and crowbar” (I’ll explain why below.)

I’m lucky enough to have friends from a variety of backgrounds, and one of them, with way more experience than me at this sort of thing, quickly talked me out of the foolishness of buying my own machine, and pointed me to a local earthworks contractor. At this point I told
Craig that I had hired someone to do the earth works so could he please come up and explain to the driver what needed to be done.  Craig asked me to hold off for a few weeks as he was too busy, but as I was far too excited about the
possibilities, and lacked any patience, I couldn’t wait. So, ignoring his advice, I decided to get started with some earth moving.  This was mistake number one as you’ll see shortly.

Two days later a truck turns up with a 20 ton excavator on the back. When I told the driver of my original plan to buy my own 3 tonner and do it myself, he just laughed and made the comment about the bucket and crowbar I quoted above.  You
see, there is a lot of rock we needed to cut through and even this huge digger had moments of hesitation trying to get through some of it.  

Beginning the Earth Surgery

So here we are, the excavator is off the truck and the operator is ready to go. I’ve had a chat to the operator, asked him read through the design Craig created for us, and walked him around the property explaining what I wanted.  At this stage I have an image in my head as to what it is I want that has come from Craig’s plan and all the conversations with him and others who were helping with the design. 

However, there are things I didn’t know, which are:

  1. Anything at all about earthworks
  2. Anything at all about surveying
  3. What ‘on-contour’ really meant
  4. What the end result really should look like
  5. Where my hat was (it’s hot out here walking around with this guy)

So, the operator has read the doc, had the walk, and nodded at all the right times.  I’m happy and off I go to do my own work, after all I need to make the money to pay for all of this, and I’m just expecting things just to magically happen. Big Mistake!

The problem was that the excavator operator was hearing me say, “swales”, and I’m hearing him say, “yes, I’ve done lots of swales”, but having no permaculture experience he is thinking ‘swale drains’ – not ‘swales on contour!’. In other words he thinks I want drains to take the water off
the property, rather than for soaking it in to re-hydrate the landscape as I actually want/need.  This is what he is used to doing as most of his work was with new housing developments.  So the first swale he had dug was not on contour but running across the block down hill!  Oh no!

By now it is the end of the day and rain is approaching.  Filling a swale with water is a great way to show it isn’t on contour and nature did this perfectly as can be seen in the photo.

Luckily my good friend Matt had a neighbour who happened to have a dumpy level.  We borrowed this and spent a day in the drizzling rain marking out where the swales should run so that they are on contour.  Having the dumpy also helped with setting out the new dams.  What a great tool!

The swale was corrected and put back on-contour, but it wasted a day for which I still had to pay.

After this little debacle we were back on track, and I was quite surprised how quickly this huge machine could operate and within a week I had 5 new swales and two new dams!

As soon as the swales were finished we wanted to get the newly exposed swale mounds planted.  Rain was coming and we were worried that they would be washed away before we managed to get anything established. 

To do this we brought in a few lucerne ’rounds’ and a 20kg bag of cow pea with innoculant.  You could almost see the cow pea growing, it came up that fast! The photos at right and below show the swales finished on-contour (below), then a couple weeks later mulched with the cow pea starting to take hold (right).  Also planted were a variety of things including, cassava, sweet potato, a number of fruit and nut trees, coffee, olive trees, and some support species.

This all happened over a year ago now and we have done lots since.  I hope to share some more of our triumphs, mistakes, and observations in future posts but for now here are some….

Lessons learnt

In hindsight here are a few tips I can offer to anyone new to permaculture and who wants to get started on transforming their property:

  • Don’t rush!  Take small steps and do things gradually.  Enjoy the process, don’t be in a hurry for an end result.  The transformation of your property will continue for years.  In fact it will probably never be done but each step along the way provides its own joy.
  • Educate yourself as much as possible but also bring in the experts.  Paying for a few hours consultation to an experience designer will more than likely save a lot of headaches, time and money in the long run.
  • Just because you use the same words, don’t assume you’re talking about the same thing.  Confirm and supervise any contractors that are not familiar with permaculture (case in point the my idea of a swale vs that of the digger operator).
  • Take lots of photos.  You will be surprised at the transformation of your property.  After a few months you will have forgotten how things were before.  Photos help to realise how amazing a transformation a good permaculture design can make.  I have lots of photos of before, during earth works, and after and looking through them as I wrote this article I was surprised how much I had forgotten. 
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew!  I tried to transform and plant out about 5 acres of my place pretty much on my own.  It is a lot of hard work.  You can spend a lot of time doing one little thing (i.e. creating a vege garden) and neglect getting around to take care of all the other things you have put in motion (watering new plants, mulching new swale mounds, creating compost, establishing worm farms, etc.)
  • If possible get together with others so you can help them and they can help you (see the point above).  The old saying of ‘many hands make light work’ is never truer than in permaculture.  And there is much joy to be had in working with others.
  • Consider the financial cost (earthworks, buying trees, etc.).  Establishing your design can become quite expensive so best to do things a piece at a time rather than trying to do it in one big bang (see my first point above!). Some things in life you can throw money at to fix, but plants and natural systems grow in their own time at their own pace.
  • Keep at it and tell lots of people what you are doing.  You never know who you might influence.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience !

    I’m about 7,8 acres and 17 months of experience short , but I’ve taken the ‘Don’t rush!’ to heart – a Warré hive and a special raised bed is enough for me to construct for the moment :)

  2. Hey Marty – thanks for sharing your experiences – I’ve had a similar learning curve on our property and it’s great if no one repeats the same mistakes :)

  3. Great post Marty.

    I see this sort of thing happen every day when I’m consulting on Permaculture projects. As Bill states, it a TYPE 1 Error. People, even Permaculture designers undertaking this sort of work need to take into consideration there level of experience. I myself have 12 years of time spent running a medium size landscape construction company here in SE Qld, designing landscapes big and small, reading plans, engaging earth workers and a big one- Costing and estimating the project so you know what your up for, even when I came out of my PDC, I went back for 10 weeks and took Geoff’s Internship and earthworks course..
    I congratulate you on having a go and I think you’ll be the wiser for it in the future.
    The point I’m trying to make to others reading this and with little or no experience is stop… Its not as easy as it looks. Engaging a qualified, experienced Permaculture consultant, Paying good money to do it once do it right. I remember Darren Doherty saying to me once that earth works are for ever. Just driving a car across a paddock the same way and compacting the ground will be there long after your gone.

    Im in the process of setting up such a course for Advanced Permaculture landscape design. Looking at, Design, Construction, Costing and estimating a project, for consultants and land owners alike. I know its a bit late for you Marty, but you never know you might get itchy feed and move onto something bigger.

    I have seen clients of mine pacing around me paying large sums of money to have me holding a staff (Dumpy Level Measuring stick) for hours on end putting in earth works. But getting it done right the first time. I had one say, “I’ve read the book and watched you, I think I can handle it from here”. Only to go be called back 2 days later with an absolute mess. Result, more money, more of my time which is not cheep, and the excavator and driver. The job I’m referring to is in the Currumbin area. Finding levels is easy, but getting your head around, Contour, Free board, setting out a level sill spillway, the lenght of the spill way, 24hr peak rain event, watershed of your land… etc…etc…

    Run the other way If an excavator driver (Non Permaculturalist) says, “Yeah I know what a swale is”.. I think you’ve leant that Lesson hey Marty? Keep up the great work mate.

  4. Thank you Marty for sharing, this is a very good advice!
    I would like to add mine, even in a short way: never go away when
    the experts work on your land, that’s one lesson I have learned. “Keep always an eye on the excavation works, maybe you will find gravel in the excavation and you can pave your new road almost for free” (Bill Mollison, PDC Turkey 2010)

    Nick: I understand you are going to offer an advanced course, that’s fantastic for the people who can afford it, but…
    A great thing to do is sharing your expertise not only to paying customers, but also to others which maybe need it but don’t have big bucks… If Craigh over the phone gave Marty some tips, that TYPE 1 errors would have beeing lessend. Or even a list of the most common type one errors as an handout in the pdc…
    According to the 3rd ethic…
    What do you recon?


  5. I will jump in here with a bit of defending,I am well aware of all parties involved in this story.First of all three cheers for Marty,he is sharing a painful experience with us all,and we are all better for it.Marty is a brilliant and humble man who is very generous.Craig is also a caring man and is passionate for permaculture.Nick is also a great guy and I would say I have seen him put in at least 500 hours of community service in his home town since he came onto the permaculture scene,not to mention the donation of time,money and goods to many worth while charitable events.https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=139788752705759
    This being the most recent,Nick offering his services as part of a raffle to help fund Warren Brush and his work with aids orphans overseas.The Gold Coast is a lucky place to have so many great people involved in permaculture and we have big hearts up in Queensland.Good onya guys great work.
    Best Wishes Fernando Pessoa

  6. Love these ‘beginners’ lessons learned’ posts – sharing mistakes are so helpful and help us all accelerate our learning curves.

    Keep up the great work Marty, and please keep posting about your progress. Would love to see some ‘after’ photos showing the plants’ growth & succession :)

  7. Fernando
    thanks for sharing these wonderful charitable actions, it’s good to have a source of information about this, sometimes the experts do awesome things and we don’t know. You are lucky indeed to have them in the Gold Coast…

    It there a constructive way to discuss this?
    Let’s spersonalise the matter.

    My point was if a conversation on the phone can help or not. If a simple handout can help or not. If sharing the surplus is worth it or no. And I am not talking about charity with money, but about knowledge with personal interaction.


  8. Elena,
    In this situation no phone call can help.I am pretty sure I have seen some pictures of your property which is swaled,so I imagine you know exactly the skill set is that is required to establish earthworks.
    More than anything Earthworks in PC systems are static,the work you do today will be around for a long long time.So I think in regards to earthworks especially,the paid advice of a recognized expert,who has a checkable history of successful projects is vital.
    The skills that the earthworks designer has,and the years of experience should be compensated.
    I pay for good legal advice,I pay for good medical advice,I pay for good Accounting advice.I see the Permaculture consultant in the same regard.
    As far as handouts are concerned and phone calls I am all for them,an example might be a sick chicken that someone needs advice on,if I have experience I would offer any help that I could,the same in diagnosing a plant disease in a friends home garden.
    However if my friend had a flock of 1000 chickens and a commercial venture,I would see this as a commercial exchange, he would need expert advice and for that advice he/she should pay,it keeps both parties sustainable the expert and the commercial operator.
    My vision of the third ethic is that we all have surplus to share,surplus energy,surplus time,surplus food,surplus knowledge etc etc ,if we are all sharing as much of our surplus as possible we are creating an atmosphere of abundance.When this happens,people become more secure.
    If you have a talent and you can provide a service to others with it,you not only bring abundance to yourself but others as well.You will know if you are on the right track with this because when you are doing the right thing the resources that you need in your life will gather around you and then you can share them with others..
    Best wishes Fernando

  9. Thanks Marty – great article, interesting about the bobcat drivers definition of (contour) swales and not rushing. Good luck with your Vietnam trip!

    So we need more contour swale bobcat drivers eh?


  10. Building a swale is earth surgery, not brain surgery. Once the concept of a swales on contour is clearly understood (takes about 30 minutes of reading, explaining or/and watch the food forest dvd).

    Marty engaged an experienced consultant that he paid for so the discussion of using a consultant or not is not hitting the point.

    The point may be that the consultant has not sufficiently explained what a swale is and what it is designed to achieve. Now I know Marty is very intelligent so the problem was more likeley not the understanding but the lack of explaining by the consultant.

    Folks, don’t be deterred by this story, be inspired. It’s great to have a permaculture expert at hand (and pay him if he/she is worth it) but if you don’t its not a show stopper.

    BTW – A 20-Ton excavator with swivel bucket and driver costs about A$100/hr in SE QLD perhaps with a fee for hauling the thing to your place. Be sure they bring a laser level with spare batteries. You will just be blown away by the amount of swale you can get done in a single day.

    But first be sure you watch the fruit forest and the water harvesting DVDs a few times while taking notes before…. Or even better – attend a PDC, it will change your life forever.

  11. @ Matt
    I can appreciate you zealous attitude the PDC is a powerful experience,however I think you are over simplifying earth works.I would agree that watching the video and reading the book are great things, again these are simplified forms.They give you a basic understanding so you can stand next to an expert but they don’t put you in the expert category.I suggest that you will also be amazed at just how much damage you can do in a single day with a 20 ton excavator in the hands of unskilled operator and an owner with little experience.
    Even the experts get it wrong,earthworks is softy softy catchee monkey not a rush,I would at least suggest people take an earthworks course and then take the challenge.
    In my opinion anything less than that is cowboy,and disrespectful to the fields of hydrology,geology,and the myriad of other sciences that flow into this field,it would be like sending a motorbike mechanic out to fix a fighter jet.None of this is meant to cause offence.It’s just an opinion.
    Best wishes Fernando.

  12. Worth a read: Brad Lancaster’s books, about water harvesting.
    And why sometimes you can become an expert observing nature do her work…
    But you have to read it first.

    A big permahug!

  13. If you get a swale wrong, you find out in the next big rain and you have to spend a little more money to touch up the uneven spots. Right? Unless you do something powerfully stupid, like aiming a ‘swale’ downhill, there is not that much risk of permanent damage I would think. I’d likely try the DIY route.

  14. Thanks JBob, yours is a voice of reason.

    There is no need to overcomplicate things with swales. At the very basic, swales are but a level ditch on a hillside with the mound heaped up on the low side. They stop the runoff, hold the water and let it soak into the land.

    Swales can be dug by hand and they have been. They can be small or large, deep or shallow but any size will bring benefits. One could even dig small one shovel wide swales and get benefits. If there is a breach after extreme rains there is likely little work to fix it (and by this last statement I am quoting Geoff Lawton Melbourne PDC 2010).

    Anyone can put in a swale on a property, as long as it is on contour (meaning level) it will much more likely cause a lot of good than any harm at all. We need to get away from making this sound so awfully complicated and scare people away from having a go.

    And Fernando – your analogy with the bike mech fixing a jetplane… I am a chef and have built an aerobatic all metal airplane which I flew loops and rolls with, including a trip to Ayer’s Rock. No prior experience in metalwork, avionics, wiring, painting etc. It is possible you know.

    All it takes is the willingness to learn and the time to put into practice, take responsibility for your actions and learn from the mistakes.

  15. Great stuff,with the model plane,Mat.
    I was talking about Earthworks as a whole,not just swales.
    In certain situations they are not warranted, what ever you learn in your PDC it’s not enough to direct Earthworks,regardless of how inspired you are.
    Yes I would like to see people a little scared,fear breeds respect.
    I think it’s the point of Marty’s article.
    Educate yourself but bring in the expert.
    I think Nick gives a few valid variables that you need to consider in Earthworks they are well worth looking at.
    Geoff said a Swale that was blown out was easy to fix,I am sure this is possible,I don’t think he said earthworks were easy and that you should get straight into it.
    I guess a more fitting analogy would be that the kitchen hand in a three hat restaurant,is not the one that runs the service,he has the where withal to wash the plates run, the dishwasher,and mop the floors.
    It’s the Chef that runs the service and controls the pass because he has the skill and talent developed through many past experiences to see the pitfalls and control the flow.
    Any kitchen hand that wants to be a chef accepts this gets his head down and his ass up until he has earned the shot at an apprenticeship,and then the journey begins, Commis,Cuisinier,Chef de Partie,Tournant,Sous,Chef
    Permaculture is like a Kitchen plenty of different disciplines to learn you are never finished when you think your good enough there is always a service that beats you.
    Like I said it’s just my opinion,I see PC as a serious design science,it can be applied to a backyard or to a 1000 acres,I don’t like when I hear it’s easy,it’s simple.
    Best Wishes
    Fernando Pessoa

  16. The education/experience is learned not perfected. Arrogance places the new explorer in a lesser class, unworthy of the task or the ability to grasp the magnitude of knowledge clumsily stumbled upon. The catastrophe one could create may have residual circumstances lasting up to a season on the 7acres food supply othrwise unused.. DO IT LEARN GROW TEACH. Hey guess what no failure/challenge done within your means is a loss. A loss is doing nothing. Tip,childhood watching water flow should’ve rang a bell,or get a hose,soil similiar to yours create a model of property and play until the magic. My guess a guy with 20 ton machinery can run it skillfully.

  17. Another observation from a new permie:
    No matter how much we agree on, we can always find something to disagree about. Thanks to both sides of this discussion, all the points made are useful in their right context. This reminds me of what has been said about the differences between zones, and how a successful zone 1 strategy could be completely inappropriate in zone 4, or vice versa.
    What I got from it: A hand dug swale is easy to make and easy to fix. A complete earthworks system for a large property will require more experience, possibly expert help, and extra attention and communication to make sure that the design is properly implemented on site.

    I agree that it is important to share knowledge as much as possible, but I know as well that some knowledge just takes time to learn, and can’t be shared via a conversation or a handout. Still, I’d like to see a list of type 1 errors to know what to look out for.

    Again, thanks for all the comments.

  18. Hi guys. Thanks for the article Marty and for the great discussion that is has triggered. I have a beginner’s question.
    A couple of lines of context first : I am currently taking an online PDC course. I live in the southeast of France (Cagnes sur mer) and have land on slopes in the Middle Atlas height in Morocco (North Africa) that I plan to design to create some kind of educational farm for the youth.
    Marty and Fernando, I understand your point about hiring permaculture-compliant professionals to do the consulting and the earthworks. My problem is that in Morocco, I’m not sure to find these kinds of professionals. Am I doomed to “bend it like Marty” or is there a way between your professionals’ perspective and Matt’s DVD DIY approach ?
    Anyway, thanks Marty for sharing these experiences. Lessons learned feedback is so valuable.

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