Earthworks & Earth ResourcesGeneralSurveying

A Simple Principle to Overcome Permaculture Design Overwhelm

When you’re face to face with your new property, planning to create your safe, self-sufficient permaculture farm there – where do you start? How do you set priorities in beginning your design?

If these questions make your head swim with overwhelm – you’re not alone! They are the most important questions every property owner faces. And after 12 years of designing sustainable and regenerative permaculture properties, and teaching thousands of students, I can still say the most important answer I ever found to these questions was given to me by Geoff Lawton while I was studying under him at Zaytuna Farm, home of the Permaculture Research Institute.

I’d like to share that story – and that lesson – with you today.
Like most new permaculture graduates, I was completely bowled over by my first design course: it changed my world view and set me on a new life and career path! But – also like most other PDC grads – I found myself overwhelmed with all this new information, unsure where or how to put it into action.

Seeking additional teachers who could help me unpack this massive body of knowledge, I stumbled upon Geoff Lawton – ironically the person who had set me on this path in the first place. I reached out to him to see if I could study under him at Zaytuna Farm…luckily he saw something in me and allowed me to learn from him, starting out as a farm aid.

Off I flew to Australia, settled in with my tent up on the ridge near Geoff’s classroom, and went to work. Within my first week I noticed that the layout of his land was very different from other properties I had observed…but the patterns were not immediately obvious. After a few more weeks of work and many conversations with Geoff, I started to see the theme in his design process…and my understanding of permaculture opened up in ways I never could have imagined.


What was the great AHA?

One guiding principle brought his unique design layout into perspective in a way I had never heard from any other teacher. Breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity, this principle distilled the complexities of permaculture design into an orderly process.

The principle?

Water, Access, Structures, in that order. The rest will figure itself out and fall into place.
What does that mean? First, diagnose the water flow on your land: if you observe and analyse this effectively, then access and structures (in that order) will intuitively fit into their appropriate positions and your design will fall into place.

Geoff describes his method as Mainframe Design, which I liken to the broad strokes of a painting or the spine of a vertebrate, giving a structure to all of the smaller details below or around it.

A correct diagnosis is three-fourths of the remedy
– Mahatma Gandhi


Why is “water, access, structures” the most intuitive way to design your property? Well, before we dig into that question, we need to look at what each of these property resources actually is.

Let’s start with a look at Water. This dynamic element offers both regenerative and destructive capabilities (e.g., irrigation and flooding), and this intuitively guides our design. Depending upon the property, water-focused design elements may include water flows (springs, creeks, wetlands, seasonal runoff, natural drainage, etc.), as well as installed wells, dams/dugouts/ponds, swales, diversion drains, culverts, and drainage tiles, all of which are used to manage the flows.

Up next in the design protocol is Access, which includes elements such as paved roads, gravel roads, farm tracks, foot paths, zone maps, etc. Functioning as the main arteries of your permaculture system, these design elements allow you to move around your property and manage your other resources.

The last design element in our ordered design protocol is Structures. These include any physical element in the permaculture system, and can include dwellings, barns, outbuildings, greenhouses, workshops, and utilities.

Now, we need to consider why water comes first, and how access and structures interact with it…
Do you like perpetually wet feet? Not likely…and neither do roads, bridges, or paths (access), nor the foundations of buildings (structures). In fact, I heard a story in Australia that the original settlers positioned the first roads based upon where the sheep trails landed because, like roads, sheep don’t like wet feet.
It has been my experience that any design element either needs to be close to water (or even fully immersed in it), or else its contact with water needs to be carefully limited. For example, a rice paddy and a home are both structures, but the rice paddy needs a lot of water and wants to be wet for a lot of the growing season. On the other hand, a home needs water for drinking and cooking, but certainly does not want wet feet; instead, it needs water to be contained in pipes, with its flow carefully controlled.
Thus, once you have your water mapped out on your property, placing the roads, paths, buildings, and agriculturally productive systems become a lot more obvious. Your permaculture principles intuitively flow out of this design, and everything just falls into place!
So with all this in mind, you may be wondering…how am I supposed to start? How do I begin to understand and effectively plan my water so that access and structures fall right into place?
Before I answer that very important question, let me offer some context.
The very first thing I do when taking on a client is to map and/or survey their property, and arguably the most important skill that I teach my students is mapping and understanding the use of contour. In both cases, this gives my clients and students an entirely new perspective and greater appreciation for the flow of water throughout their property.

Why is that? Well, thanks to gravity, water flows downhill and runs across your property perpendicular to contour, from the highest point to the lowest. Eventually, it accumulates enough flow on the surface and underground to emerge as a stream (see figure 1 for an example, in which the blue water lines cut across the parallel, vari-coloured contour lines).

So when you’re designing the property of your dreams with water as your first consideration, having accurate contour data is critical to your success!

Figure 1. Water flows perpendicular to contours in the same direction as the red arrows, merging to form streams. Sources: Google Earth Pro, Landsat/Copernicus, and

With all this being said, there’s one problem: getting a detailed, accurate contour map that includes all the information you need is not a cheap or easy process! If I had to guess how much money I’ve spent on mapping in the last decade, it would be somewhere around $30K – not an easy financial pill to swallow. Similarly, my students don’t always have the ready funds to hire a surveyor, nor the time to survey the land themselves…and this is also a challenge many new regenerative farmers face.

This is why at Verge Permaculture we have been working tirelessly on making this critical contour information extremely easy for our students – and anyone interested in regenerative farming – to access and act upon…
With the advent of satellite technology and big data, we are proud to offer exclusive access to a revolutionary, innovative contour mapping tool…one that allows you to survey any property on earth in a fraction of time for a fraction of the cost.

If you are wrestling with the question – How do I begin to understand and effectively plan my water so that access and structures fall right into place? – now the answer is easier than ever: our brand new, leading-edge comprehensive mapping package, available at

Not only does it provide contours, slope direction, and local drainage layers, but also six other layers to help you design your permaculture property in precise detail. Furthermore, we’ve included in-depth online training (more than two hours of content) taught by Verge’s post-grad intern, geography whiz/meteorologist Mitch Rawlyk, with the purchase of every map for no charge. To learn more about this exclusive, pioneering new tool, head over to

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