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Permaculture Site Establishment: Phases of Abundance

An abundance of jackfruit at Project Bonafide in Nicaragua

Five years ago I had the opportunity to join a land-based project (Rancho Mastatal Sustainable Education Center in Costa Rica) already eight years into operation. At my arrival I found a site that had focused on infrastructure and program building over its initial life span. This was an important leverage point in building a financial base as an education center, but it meant that some aspects of the campus were still in their infancy, such as the agricultural and food preservation systems. I arrived during a shift in focus to the latter systems, which enabled me to participate simultaneously in different phases of site establishment.

In addition to Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes, the owners/founders, the Ranch was populated by a long-term crew of returning community members, many of whom had been helping to build the site from the first few years onward. They narrated stories to me of the rustic lodging, tight tiny kitchen, and general inefficiencies of the infrastructure establishment years. The classroom turned into a bedroom at night, the tools were stored in the only secure building far from the workshop, and one (quickly filled) five gallon bucket served as the main house composting toilet.

What luxury I felt to have joined in during a phase of infrastructure abundance. To have a private room with my partner, a large fully operating kitchen, workshop and library at our fingertips; it all came together to create an ideal learning environment.

The pattern emerges…

Building a pattern language in Costa Rica

Over the last few years I have seen dozens of projects in various degrees of site development, and I’ve begun to recognize a pattern during these stages of establishment. With each stage there are various skills, choices, and design considerations that stand out as most pertinent. Through use of pattern recognition and application, permaculture designers can use this information to organize resources, forms of capital, and people’s skills more efficiently. For example, if you know a certain stage of establishment requires a specific dedication to organizational skills, then you can look for this in the team you build around yourself and invest in the proper tools.

This pattern is a tool for permaculture designers as the establishment of any site is most likely the most energy and capital intensive period. Earthworks, soil building, infrastructure development, brand creation, market generation and so much more fall into the heavy lifting of the early years of site activity. This coupled with the common trade-off of short term (annuals) for long-term yield (perennials) makes this a daunting task.

Phases of abundance

Bill Mollison wrote a short piece entitled Phases of Abundance. It describes the energies of abundance through a three-year window for a multi-acre garden. Year one is highlighted by species abundance through early experimental trials, to see what grows well and what is mediocre. Year two is abundance of propagation material. We learn what grows well and we propagate those species. Our species abundance decreases as we remove what doesn’t work so well. Year three and onward, finally, is abundance of yield, From here on out we feast, we have a livelihood.

This model, albeit simplified, provides an example of how the plant material on a site might move through the establishment phase, and more importantly how to see the forest from the trees as you are struggling through the sheer amount of work needed to jump start a site.

With this lens in place, and our experience on the ground, we can formulate a pattern of site establishment that:

  • begins with Abundance of Experimentation
  • moves to Abundance of Feedback
  • finally arrives at Abundance of Maintenance

Abundance of Experimentation

The base camp of VersaLand at the start of the season. Utilizing a quickly raised structure
for temporary storage is a hallmark of young sites.

VersaLand, founded by Grant Schultz, is a 145 acre site in soy/corn country Iowa. VersaLand is in year two, on a site with zero initial infrastructure. It is a site full of ideas. A diversity of just started, on the horizon, nearly finished, and nearly forgotten projects dot the open landscape and cluttered home-base. Abundance of Experimentation reigns supreme. Every evening around dinner, cooked in a tiny RV kitchen, someone inevitably utters that phrase “We should really…”. This can be followed by an impossibility of tasks: set up a micro-hydro system, thin the woods for the pigs, harvest wild plums, organize a film screening, etc. The abundance of sheer ideas, needs, and possibilities is both exhilarating and overwhelming.

The Experimentation phase of site establishment requires:

  • lots of energy
  • a willingness to take risks
  • organizational skills
  • great goal setting
  • saying yes to new things and new ideas
  • positivity
  • the ability to prioritize.

Tip 1: The Keyline Scale of Permanence becomes a powerful tool for prioritizing action; a place to start when there are limitless chess moves in play.

Tip 2: Holistic Management is another tool valuable to any site. Too often associated exclusively with grazed animal planning, HM is a decision making framework and a great way to test your actions up against the quality of life you desire.

Abundance of Feedback

The sequencing of infrastructure decisions is important in accelerating site development.
A well placed wood barn and tool shed support the natural building program
needs at Rancho Mastatal.

Back at Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica, many of the essential systems are in place, and as the site enters the second decade of work, we find ourselves in the next phase of site establishment: Abundance of Feedback. This is the point where the great diversity of systems either begin thriving or falling apart. After a few years of observing and intervening in a system one becomes aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Does it cause you stress or make your day easier, does it become more resilient as it grows/ages or less, has it become forgotten/ignored or is it used all day long?

The Feedback phase requires:

  • a keen sense of observation
  • being realistic about your capacity
  • understanding what scaling a system up entails
  • avoiding emotional attachment to poorly functioning systems and projects
  • the ability to make hard decisions (i.e. to shut something down even after much initial investment)
  • having the experience to know what drives your quality of life
  • being open to feedback in the first place

This is when it is time to take out the fruit trees that don’t produce well, and propagate the ones that do. This is the time to say that the biochar system an intern started years ago and has puttered along, really doesn’t yield much and should be dismantled. This is the moment to notice that guests love fermented beverages and perhaps there exists a micro-enterprise opportunity. I would argue that this is the stage in site development that puts good permaculture designers and sites on the map. Good design is accepting feedback and adjusting accordingly.

Abundance of Maintenance

The sorghum harvest at Project Bonafide demonstrates the abundance
after a decade of good site design and feedback

No site will ever follow the linear nature of these three phases. Every year, as you learn and grow as a designer, you will keep experimenting, planting new orchards, adding an addition to your home, etc. Different zones on your land will move through this process fluidly, but eventually some aspect of a well designed site will arrive at the third phase of establishment: Abundance of Maintenance.

This is the point where you have experimented and observed; and now you know with certainty what works best. At Project Bonafide in Nicaragua, established in 2001, co-director Chris Shanks speaks of how it took a decade to figure out the best practices that they teach and implement today. But now with that knowledge (pattern language) in place, new site establishment time is cut in half. Experimentation is minimized and the succession through feedback and maintenance is accelerated. For example, today our building crew at the Ranch knows exactly how to source, mix, apply, and cure the lime plaster on a new addition, because they have felt the successes and failures of doing so a dozen previous times.

The key requirements of the Maintenance phase of site establishment are:

  • consistency and routine
  • understanding cycles and repetition
  • a commitment to the concept of chore
  • learning how to take a yield and spread it over time
  • knowing how to finish projects

The word maintenance might turn some folks off. Many in the permaculture community love to start projects, but never arrive at this phase. But isn’t this the permaculture ideal promised in so many texts? The ability to know just what you need to do, how to do it efficiently, and when to do it on any given day of the year. There is never an “end” to this process, it is rather a cycle, with maintenance again leading to experimentation, but in much smaller ways. There is no stagnancy, but there is maturity. This is dynamic stability.

What happens next…?

…sit back and enjoy the abundance

Do sites ever really move out of being established? I doubt there are many great designers, farmers, or homesteaders out there who feel they have nothing more to add to the land, and simply go through the days harvesting yields. But it should be expected that a site will reach a point where many of the key systems, infrastructure, earthworks, tree plantings, human knowledge, etc., are in place, functioning well, and life is good.

As the VersaLand team ponders where to site their first permanent structure, it can be difficult to visualize this whole process. Working on the cutting edge of experimentation, combining systems in climates and cultures that have very little modern history creates a great amount of unknown. But, if they step back to look at the patterns, it is helpful to realize they are smack dab in the middle of the Phase of Experimentation. We know goal setting and prioritizing will make the work easier.

When I return to Costa Rica, we know that during the Phase of Feedback we are going to have to examine our capacity and keep evaluating what gives us a good quality of life. With this pattern recognition and its application in place we can see the forest from the trees and keep working toward an abundance.

What other skills and characteristics have you found are key during the various phases of establishment? Do you see these patterns applying to others aspects of your life?


  1. Our inspirations to have natural abundance start with our conviction to the power of permaculture with existing desired results in having sustainable, resilience of sovereignty aspirations! Preach and outreach what you have gone through with communities. This is a good and encouraging project!!

  2. Great information After 2-1/2 years of implementation and maintenance here at the Phayao Permaculture Center, Northern Thailand. we can attest to the knowledge and understanding outlined in this article. Thanks for the thorough information.

  3. Thank you for this well written, thought-provoking article Scott. There’s a hard part and enjoyable part too each phase you described. Ripping out a non-performing fruit tree is hard but necessary even for an eternal permaculture optimist :)

  4. Great work Scott,

    I’d like to add a couple of items for consideration (take the best, leave the rest;).
    in Abundance of Feedback:
    -good record keeping tools and systems for collecting and analyzing feedback are essential (identify indicators, set consistent review period (i.e. monthly, etc.) to capture feedback and make adjustments
    -this is where HM helps a lot with the financial planning process and more
    -when breeding for superior genetics a ‘ruthless culling’ program is often recommended
    Abundance of Maintenance (could also be called Abundance of Harvest because much maintenance is accomplished by Harvest in well designed systems, this could even be a feedback indicator;)

    Keep up the good work Scott,

  5. Thanks everyone for the comments. Neil, I like the additions. Good record keeping, financial and otherwise, is always challenging, but in my experience pays dividends. One of our goals this year is to do a better job of photo documentation, before and afters, and a quarterly photo from set points around the property. This also really helps others see what has been accomplished in what can otherwise appear to be a mess of green, especially in the tropics. Thanks again!

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