Learning What the Dendritic Pattern Is (It Looks Like a Tree) and Applying It to Design

Recently, I’ve been working my way through Geoff Lawton’s new online course, in particular chapter four, which concentrates on Pattern Understanding, as found in Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. It’s a topic that I do enjoy, though it sometimes feels a bit steeped in jargon, words formerly unfamiliar to me—tessellation and dendritic—appearing again and again. However, it’s the later, the dendritic pattern, that has recently captivated me, and I have found it to be a new, ingenious way of looking at space design.

I’ve been working off and on with a friend, Claire, for a couple of years now. She’s got a project, Garden of Hope, based in an area just outside of Antigua Guatemala, in the neighboring town of Jocotenango. She’s working with at-risk kids, giving them a safe space to interact with nature and learn about growing food and taking care of the planet. Recently, a kind-hearted associate (and friend), Ricardo, donated about an acre of his coffee farm, Azotea, to her project. Now, Claire has entrusted me with helping to come up with a design for the place.

It was early on in approaching her design needs that the dendritic pattern fell into my lap. It was the function of flow that it created that felt right for the space. So, I have begun playing that pattern now, and the dendritic design is feeling less like jargon and more like genius. I’m happy to say that Claire liked the preliminary thoughts about basing the space on this natural pattern, and it’s from there that our next design steps are beginning.

Video: Garden of Hope

What is a Dendritic Pattern?

The two most common ways to explain the dendritic pattern is through tree and river systems. Because a tree is a bit easier to visualize as a whole, that’s what I’ll use. At the center of a tree, there is a trunk. Above the trunk, there are a few large branches, which break off into smaller branches, which further break off into even smaller branches, and so it goes. Beneath the trunk, under the surface, roots are doing the same thing, breaking up into ever smaller versions of roots the further away from the trunk they expand, in essence mirroring what is happening in the sky. This is what the dendritic pattern looks like.

Now, to magnify our thinking of this pattern, we can look at the way each order of branches behaves, and that boils down to some very formulaic results. The smaller the branches, the more numerous they’ll be. The larger the branches, the larger the flow will be. The velocity of flow however slows in the large branches and elevates as the size reduces. While the volume (of whatever) captured is lower from each individual leaf or hair-sized root, it all congregates into a massive quantity in the trunk, transferring resources/energy/nutrients from one part to the other.

To understand it with a river system, we have to think of it as tiny runoffs congregating into creeks rapidly to form streams, a series of which unite to make a river, that ultimately forms a really slow moving estuary, where the river begins to break back down into smaller parts, mixing with the ocean or otherwise large body of water. The waters leading to form the river are high velocity and, as the volume increases, they slow down. The estuary is where the river ultimately begins to really slow, depositing its silt and mass of other resources to create a super rich system, while dividing the river back into smaller pieces.

McKenzie River Watershed (Courtesy of Oregon State University)
McKenzie River Watershed (Courtesy of Oregon State University)

Applying It to Design

Garden of Hope is meant to center on a meeting space, something akin to a classroom, where students and visitors can congregate to learn and share and process what is around them. This is the slow flow area, the trunk, through which all traffic will come and the movement of things will be at its most voluminous. Here is where harvests will be compiled and sorted. It’s where tours will begin and end. This is the river. Its banks will be replete with vegetation and beauty, with wild animal habitat (bird houses, bat houses, insect hotel, frog ponds, etc.), that will enjoy the edge of open space with that of garden and forest.

From there, the design branches off into smaller structures: an outside kitchen, a chicken roost over compost bins (random assembly in action), a bathroom/tool shed, and a private but open-air space for therapy sessions. These areas will have high volume traffic and require paths to them which can accommodate multiple people carting tools and wheelbarrows full of compost or pumpkins or fruit. They will be spaces in which several students or visitors can move and collect and, ultimately, disperse, but they will be engulfed in useful perennial vegetation, such as lavender (with a noted calming aroma) growing near the therapy area.

From these structures, the energy diffuses into less trafficked areas, like paths through a food forest, a key-hole kitchen garden, chicken/mulch yards, water catchment ponds, productive hedge borders, hugelkultur (a couple of remaining shade trees from the coffee days will need clearing), and double-reach beds for staple production. These areas will be lively with energy: the ebb and flow of growth and decomposition, the rotation of crops, the seasonal harvesting of fruit and vegetables, the movement of mulch materials, the collection and diffusion of rainwater and graywater drainage systems, etc. However, now the paths will further reduce to single tracks for walking, reducing down again to keyholes and stepping stones and drainage ditches and much smaller volumes of movement.

Dendritic Sand (Courtesy of Dave Bonta)
Dendritic Sand (Courtesy of Dave Bonta)

Pattern for Function, Not for Pattern’s Sake

Lawton has reiterated throughout the chapter how important it is to not use pattern with no reason. The function of the landscape, energy, resources, and requirements take precedence over the aesthetic delivery of a particular pattern. Unsurprisingly, as I delve deeper and deeper into the Garden of Hope, the concept of the dendritic pattern that appealed to me—the order of flow—has stayed truer than the perfect shape of a tree. We could, of course, argue that the same thing is happening with the Fibonacci spiral. It’s our human impression that renders it into perfect measurement.

My departures from standard visual patterning hasn’t stopped there. Because the Garden of Hope centers on the classroom and doesn’t have a home to build around, the zoning system is also going to be a little askew from the typical concentric circle pattern. Rather than putting in the gardens with the central, most trafficked area as the focus of food production, the garden design will form around the kitchen, which obviously is more in tune with how zoning is supposed to work. Of course, this concentric circle depiction is also to illustrate a concept more than any specific shape.

A rather simple, but freeing realization, I’ve come—though perhaps a little slowly—to view natural patterns as a source of ideas as much as they are a physical manifestation. I know that some people struggle to understand the notion of patterns, how exactly to apply them, and I’ve heard Lawton say that it one day just snaps into place. From this experience moving forward, I will look at my patterns much more as conceptual than I previously did, and that’s an exciting new way of understanding and applying patterns for me. No longer am I relegated to forcing things into an exact shape, and no longer am I thinking of patterns as only their visual form.

Ways to Grow (Courtesy of Devin Stein)
Ways to Grow (Courtesy of Devin Stein)

Header Image: Dendritic Tree (Courtesty of romana klee)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. just wondering, are you watching the preview videos? As far as I know the new course hasn’t officially opened. I’m enrolled but the notices I have so far say the course is not opened yet. I don’t want to miss anything.

  2. The study of mycology (dendritic patterns below the soil reflected above) is ultimately fascinating, too: as it’s the basis of the main way nature does it’s nutrient and mineral delivery system. Forest gardens are really the only way to go, for sure. Good posting!

  3. You’ve applied the term dendritic pattern to the structure of a river and that of a tree. This makes fertile sense in the physical realm. But, in my teaching environment, (and likely for a few others moving forward,) my community is bestowed with not one, but up to six––blank slate––defunct schoolyards, all needing a complete re-think from their prior use as corrals for forced learning.

    Why? Small town, “GMO-AG” USA is effectively being brain-drained and left for broke!

    In this context, where each teacher is encouraged to invent their own rules, random individual human choices are playing-out in patterns which appear to be utterly ill-founded, and/or biased by pre-existing monoculture training. In practice, zone one is beginning to mean MY side of the lot, vs. theirs. (Hopefully, I won’t need revisit this chapter by the time we finish the course.)

  4. Bus and metro transportation systems use a hub and branch design, which is not the same at the ends of the branches (not many twigs) but sort of similar overall. Often in that case there’s a ring of transportation around the whole thing so that you can go around the perimeter, and in an elaborate system there might be intermediate rings partway out as well. I would think that would be useful for a site setup. For instance, it might be useful for the tours.

  5. Hi, on dendric patterns the book by Adrian Bejan is just great to go a bit further.
    For me, part of the work with patterns in Permaculture has to do with what actually awakens in you / us as we work with these forms. They make up so much of our own physical bodies and the world about us and there is a type of intelligence in the form. We can feel into this intelligence as we design, time and time again in repeated patterns as well as live with these forms around us. They tend to awaken a special sensitivity within us; something which is in all our cells; a place where a deeper type of knowing exists; something that goes beyond the rational. regards Pete

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