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Top 7 Mistakes In Backyard Permaculture Design – And What To Do Instead – The Permaculture Life

Top 7 mistakes in backyard permaculture designIf you’re like me, fresh fruit is one of your favorite foods.

I love when we can peaches, because there’s always “bad” peaches that I can’t process and must sacrifice and eat fresh.

It’s terrible, but someone has to do it. Might as well be me!

A great way to have fresh fruit (and canned fruit for winter) is to create your own food forest close to your house.

Most people can design a food forest themselves if they take care and use the permaculture principles.

But there are some pitfalls to watch out for.

Check out these mistakes, and use them when you design your own food forest, edible landscaping and food production systems.

#7: Don’t research

Some people jump into permaculture without really understanding the prime directive, ethics, and principles, and (most importantly) the ideas behind it.

Unfortunately this can lead to putting elements in the wrong place, either in space or time. It also can lead to using the wrong techniques or wrong features in an incompatible climate or location.

The solution is simple: read and learn.

  • Take a PDC
  • Get on permaculture forums
  • Talk to knowledgeable people
  • And read THIS blog, naturally!

Also, make sure you search for solutions to problems. Someone has probably dealt with this issue before. Forums are great for this.

One saying in permaculture “the problem is the solution”, means that the problem situation may be the solution to another problem, or a resource that can be used in another way.

So learn permaculture techniques, and proper application areas.

Also, learn about type 1 errors. These are errors in design that will cost a lot in time or money if you assume and design incorrectly.

Proper permaculture implementation should prevent type 1 errors.

One way to prevent these errors is to assume you are wrong, and design to handle those consequences.

#6: Not observing before design

Sunrise man sitting on rock

As a permaculture designer or a new landowner, you will not be able to understand the flows of the land and how it behaves until it you spend time observing it.

The more experience you get, the more you can infer what you expect to happen, but even Geoff Lawton still gets surprised sometimes by a landscape.

Not observing comes down to implementing a design before really “seeing” the land. Natural environments are not static. They are constantly changing dynamic systems, with a multitude of interactions and cross-reactions.

Be aware and know the climate, local conditions and energy flows.

One commonly offered suggestion is to observe the land for a year before making any changes. But you have to really see and not just look.

Here’s my suggestion:

Sit (yes, sit and get comfortable) in one spot for an hour with no distractions.

Write down every action and interactions of elements that you see. You will be amazed by how many things you record.

Do this as often as you can, at different times of day, in different seasons.

If you follow this, you will have a much better understanding of your land and how it works.

#5: Not considering needs & wants

So let’s assume you know how permaculture works, and you’ve observed your land.

The next mistake people (not you though, you’re reading this blog!) make is not considering what they really need or want.

What do you and your family want and need? What do you, for sure, not want? Think about that, and make a list.

I like lists. They are like an external brain to let you think visually.

If you have a hard time climbing stairs, don’t buy or build a 3-story house. (Put in an elevator?)

Buy a ranch (single level) home.

Similarly, if you don’t want ponds or water features, don’t put them in.

If you need raised beds, put them in. Make sure to leave room for them close to the house for easy access.

Let’s say you’re not a horse person or don’t want lots of fruit, why would you put in lots of pasture or orchards?

Boy climbing trees

If you have a large family, you will need and likely want lots of food production AND places for kids to play.

So you need trees for kids to climb, where you won’t angry when they get damaged. The trees, not the kids.

Well, you will probably be concerned when the kids get damaged too.

Oh, and forts. Kids love forts.

Make sure you have your water features fenced to keep kids (humans and goats) and livestock out of them.

Also design animal locations so it’s easy as possible to take care of them, including water and feed.

#4: Not starting with the end in mind

What is your end goal? Work towards that.

Don’t work at cross purposes.

If you want that perfectly manicured horse farm look (you weird people), don’t put swales all over your pastures.

If you want to feed yourself on your own land and are planting lots of veggies and perennial trees, don’t make the newbie mistake and get goats (at first).

Without REALLY good fences (and even sometimes with them), goats WILL get out, and they WILL eat your new plants.

Not that I’ve ever done that…ugh!

Later when your trees are bigger and can stand (and even benefit from) an occasional browsing, maybe get goats.

But only if you REALLY REALLY want and have REALLY REALLY good fences. Like Fort Knox.

If you want lots of food forests and food production around your house, don’t locate your house in locations unsuitable for growing.

Like on river bottomland (too wet for trees) or steep slopes (too steep for swales) or thin/poor soil (requires lots of orgranic matter and

Keep that end goal in mind, and hold up what you’re doing to that end result.

#3: Imposing a solution in the design

I think it was Larry Santoyo who said “arrive at a solution, don’t impose one“.

Don’t force what doesn’t fit. Like round peg in a square hole type stuff.

Just because you want a pond in this particular location, doesn’t mean you should put one there.

Is there good clay soil? Can the pond seal? What’s downstream?

What’s your plan for 100-year rainfall events? Does it make sense to have a pond there?

In the desert, putting in traditional hugelkultur mounds is probably a bad idea. Better to do shaded, sunken beds and crater gardens.

Additionally, having lots of ruminants (cattle/goats) on the same desert land is a bad idea.

Why? Lack of pasture, lack of water. Which means you will have to supply them yourself.

Which means a higher cost in time and money.

Not good.

Fit the solution to the land, not the land to the solution.

#2: Applying techniques without thought

The worst offender? Herb spirals!

The point of the herb spiral is to increase edge and diversity of growing plants in a given space. It’s also shows a different way to think about how to grow plants.

But herb spirals don’t work everywhere (they’re not supposed to), in all climates and with all herbs.

And putting in a herb spiral doesn’t mean it’s automatically permaculture.

Falling rocks sign

See my herb spiral? That means it’s gotta be permaculture!


Another often misapplied technique is hugelkultur. It only makes sense where you have lots of waste wood with no other use than burying it.

And some people try to combine hugelkultur with swales (please don’t. Just…don’t).

This can be done, but only if you’re very very careful and really plan for all possibilities.

But do it wrong, and all your hugelkultur mound and any extra dirt goes downhill to visit the neighbors.

Getting sued? Not good. Don’t be that guy.

Ask yourself:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Why am I doing this?
  • Is there another better option?
  • Do I understand all the features and consequences of this technique?

Maybe Congress should follow this suggestion…

#1: Trying to go too big and do EVERYTHING

I am totally guilty of doing this. Sorry, I’m not perfect.

When we first moved to our new property, I planted hundreds of native trees, and exotic fruits and vines.

But almost all of them died. Ugh!

Here’s what I messed up:

  • I dug every single tree hole by hand – wasted time
  • No irrigation, and so hand watered with a garden hose – more wasted time
  • No deer/rabbit browsing protection – destroyed trees
  • No mulch – trees died
  • No compost – trees got sick and died
  • No shade – trees withered and died

Lots of waste and dying.

All of this added up to a lot of wasted time and money. Out of the hundreds of trees I planted, I maybe have 10 left.

And they are smaller and weaker than trees much younger than them.

Also fruit bushes, huge garden, goats, ducks, chickens, guineas. Just crazy.

So don’t do this, but instead do it this way:

  1. Start small. Design and implement the area just outside your door.
  2. Once that’s going well, expand a little.
  3. Get the expanded area under good control before expanding again.

I would be much better off if I did it that way instead of my crazy way.



OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about backyard permaculture design? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.

Thanks from TPL

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On – 01 Sep, 2017 By

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