Project Management is paramount for Permaculture Design

Recently I began a new job doing project management for a green energy company. As part of goals and ongoing training I decided to look into the Project Management Professional (PMP)® training.

The most important part of becoming one of these professionals is to be versed in all the aspects of managing projects, the language involved, and the processes. All of these aspects are explained in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) booklet. You can purchase the updated 2013 edition from their site or download the 2000 version from here. Most of the fundamental aspects of project management do not change from the versions and can serve as a good education for permaculture design projects.

Reading through this manual has been super instructive for me and has already helped me through defining phases within the permaculture design process, which has been one of the more difficult aspects of permaculture for me to grasp.

Grab a copy and see if it helps you as well.




Why I am moving from Google Earth Pro to QGIS

I’ve spent a lot of time developing an open source workflow for permaculture design. While, initially, I thought that Google Earth Pro was my ticket to professional level work, I slowly began to realize the limits that the platform has. I’ll admit, I spent all this time working on learning one type of GIS that I wanted it to be the one I could use until the end of time. But there are some pretty compelling reasons to use QGIS over Google Earth Pro if your goal is to do professional design work, and that is the subject of my article.

Updates and support

I’m fairly certain that Google has been developing their Google Earth Engine while GEP has been left on version 7.1 for years. QGIS on the other hand just came out with version 2.16, and is continuously developing their platform. It’s simply a matter of goals. I don’t think Google really ever wanted to create an ArcGIS alternative, and after using both GEP and QGIS I understand the vast differences in their user interface and capabilities.

File Type Support

This is a pretty straight forward benefit to using QGIS. It supports many more file types that you are going to encounter while doing geospatial analysis. Many data types on websites like CTECO (Connecticuts repository of GIS data) can be used in QGIS, while GEP cannot handle any of it. Take the shapefile, or SHP. Here is a file that needs to be converted to either one of the file types that GEP can support, KML or KMZ.

QGIS is meant to be an open source, high end software and thus understands the need to be able to open and use file types used by the dominant company in GIS: ESRI.


QGIS is adept in handling databases, something I am learning more about everyday. The beauty of databases is that when I create a shape to represent some data on site, for example a riparian buffer, I can create a table with information about that buffer such as seasonal flow, water quality tests, and what kind of species composition is contained within the buffer. I’ll be honest though, I haven’t quite figured out how to do what I just said, but I think it is within the realm of possibility.

Datums & Geolocation for everything

Everything you do on this platform will need to be marked geospatially. Because of this, the workflow that all stems from the master GIS file will be better streamlined. Also, due to the large numbers of plugins available and file types supported, you can export data from QGIS to the next step such as LibreCAD for some CAD work, all while maintaining GPS locations which will become helpful in the field.

Datums are quite possibly one of the primary reasons to switch over. A Datum is essentially a way of orientating the GPS coordinates, there are many, and to keep everything smooth you need to be aware or which datum you are working. The orthoimagery that I use works on the EPSG:2234 datum for example, while GEP only works on WGS84.

It all comes down to workflow, conversion, and goals

QGIS makes the professional open source workflow all that much better. There are many municipalities and governments investing in this technology and doing real world projects on the ground. To me, that signals that QGIS is the better choice for having the workflow be smoother and save time. It is just too much of a hassle to rely on third party apps to convert data from GEP to anything else that will be useful.

Though my one caveat is to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. GEP is a wonderful software and I have had happy clients who end up with the GEP file and can do what they need to do at their level. Most clients need to visualize and play with their data on the fly, GEP is perfect for that. For us other designers, who want to be taken seriously but don’t want to fork up the cash for the proprietary software, QGIS is a great option.

Site Specific Weather Station with Raspberry Pi [Briefing]

I’ve mentioned before that typically when one is first compiling information for site analysis, there is a sizable amount that does not come from the site. Data is typically aggregated for climate, landform, soils, plant systems and more. This is to say that there is always room for more specific data to be collected.

Last year I was surfing the web to look for ways of grabbing site specific data for climate. This journey eventually led me to a DIY weather station that could be run on Raspberry Pi. Luckily, there are robust sources available, and even the makers of raspberry pi are working on making some for sale. But, where’s the fun in that?

The instructable website offers a great blueprint for this project. For less than $300, one could build their own weather station with photo taking capability. It can measure precipitation, humidity, pressure, temperature, wind direction, and wind speed as well as provide time lapse worthy photos in order to make sense of all of that data in visual context.

Furthermore, this particular instructable includes its own software that runs on Python (so you can learn a little bit of that too!) and uses the Weather Underground API in order to obtain other data relative to the site that you would be hard pressed to measure on site scale.

There are a couple of adaptations I would like to make of course. Making the measuring components themselves I think will be the most simple part, a more challenging aspect will be to case them and to find more functions for the space that weather station takes up. Ultimately, I am thinking about building around 6 or 7 of these to put all around the 65 acre farm. While I could settle on having 7 weather stations, I can’t help but be pulled into a deeper process.

The question becomes, if I have a structure capable of capturing weather data and photos, what else should it be capable of doing? They are spread around, accessible, and stationary. What else could be built into these structures to truly maximize need on the farm?

I suspect answers will come as the process moves along. I have connected with the Western Mass Geek Group which has regular meetings on Tuesdays and has encyclopedic members. No doubt with the tools and help available I can make a more functional weather station, and aesthetic too!


Open-Source Permaculture Design: Intro to the Observation Workflow

Months ago I wrote a post about Open-Source Permaculture.  I introduced the programs and wrote briefly about their usage tied together with some stories and fluff.  For this post, I am going to provide an update to the material from the last post as well as begin to layout a workflow for the Open-Source Permaculture Designer (OSPD).

Updates on Software (9/30/15): Most up to date versions of previously mentioned software.

LibreCAD 2.0.8 (August 24th, 2015)

Inkscape 0.91 (January 28th, 2015)

GIMP 2.8

Google Earth Pro 7.1

Sketchup Make 2015

Scribus 1.5.0 (May 22nd, 2015)

Of course, I mentioned other software in the previous post, but I have been mostly using Google Earth Pro, Inkscape, and GIMP for my initial workflow dealing with site A&A.  I have heard calls from some in the community for a permaculture specific software, or accessing knowledge related to permaculture in a open-source way.  I think that these calls are valid and I hope to answer them in my own ways.

My ideal permaculture software is really a workflow of all of these other softwares.  When I look at the whole point of the design process, it is to get from observation to implementation and management.  That means for every aspect of the whole design process, I can fabricate a workflow that can produce a coherent and organized final product.  Let’s begin.


Observation can come in two different flavors…indirect or direct.  I won’t belabor the efficacy of either flavor of observation, but the way that each is recorded and utilized is unique and this is the first aspect of the workflow.

-Indirect Observation-

I’m discussing indirect observation first because it will most likely be the most robust source of most information on a site before even stepping foot on it.  Generally speaking, indirect observations are from secondary or tertiary sources;  you didn’t do it.  The bulk of this information comes from a variety of sources like the NOAA, USDA, and USGS.  Climate, landform, and soil info can come from these sources.  Beyond this there are countless sources for soil science, species identification, species utilitarian value and more.  Maps are an important form of indirect observation.  Survey maps, soil maps, geological maps, maps that show water locations, topography maps and etc will all fit here.

-Direct Observation-

These are things that you personally observe and interpret in your own unique way.  We all tend to focus on different aspects of experience, there is simply too much to take in all at once.  At any given sliver of time, a group of 5 people in the same general area may record observations on some sort of spectrum from exactly the same to completely different.

Anyway, how does one incorporate direct observation into the OSPD workflow?  I like Google Earth Pro (GEP) for this one.  I will do a full length tutorial on this soon enough.  The beauty of GEP is the tools that are available and the way that the tools work.  I can create polygons and lines that demarcate, on satellite,  different parts of a given site.  Furthermore, I can add text and descriptions to the shapes I draw in GEP.  A dialog box will pop up when clicking on shapes.

A real time saver is that if I have had a survey done, I can put in the GPS coordinates and start out right off the bat with my site boundaries on GEP.

So essentially, all direct observations can be recorded with shapes and descriptions on GEP.  This makes it a quick and powerful tool for taking experiences of the day and recording them for later design use.  Keep vigilant though, there is a pitfall of analysis paralysis here.  The point of direct observation in permaculture is not to have a large archival repository of individual observations, the point is to have relevance of observations and attempt to distill patterns from them.  The other point is to have information in context that can inform design in the future.

Verbal Representations (VeR)

After observation comes representation and communication, with verbal communication being the next logical step.  Observations need to be in a streamlined and coherent package.  This is where some sort of publication comes in, or a working document.  The working document needs to be able to communicate direct and indirect observations of the site in a coherent/organized manner.

Direct– Time is a major factor in the organization of the document, the time that the observations occur is really important.  Location is another major factor, a lot of observations are tied in with a specific location, and can be organized in this way.  Biological individuals/groups are another major factor.  Some observations are tied to a specific species and their behavior in interaction with another.  For example, if I observe that birds are making their nests in a particular kind of shape on the facade of a building, I may be able to design a similar shape to make housing and encourage that species.  These major factors effectively fulfill who, what, where, when, how, and eventually why.

Direct observation can be done in different ways as well.  It can be done in a directed or non-directed way.  For example, if I want to understand the changes of the season more, I can embark on a phenological study, eliciting patterns of seasonal change ultimately.  Non-directed, obviously, is just experience that you pay attention to for whatever reason and deem as important enough to record.

Indirect-More or less, indirect observation is an easier thing to represent visually.  A lot of the information from indirect sources is fairly stable.  Things like climate, landform, soils, water, and plant communities remain stable beyond human lifespans.  One can create a document and be secure in the fact that a lot of the information will not change until site specific information is gathered.

Visual Representation (ViR)

Basic yet undeniably unique in it’s representative power.  Verbal representations are quite weak in how they can connect someone to the subject matter.  The context of text is limited in its explanatory power.  Think, if all textbooks had strictly just text, you wouldn’t nor couldn’t really grasp a lot of the concepts contained within.

The visual representations can be educational, artistic, and most importantly as resources to inform design and implementation.  For all the sophistication and uses of Google Earth Pro, it looks ugly, no offense.  With GIMP and Inkscape, one can make much more compelling illustrations to convey the data cleanly and easily.

If you’ve read Ben Falk’s book “Resilient Farm and Homestead”, you know what I am talking about.  The illustrations in the book are really nice, and convey information real easily while displaying a clean look.

Observation Workflow Overview (2 Flows)

Direct Observation>Verbal Representation>Visual Representation>Working Document

Indirect Observation>Verbal Representation>Visual Representation>Working Document

Software – Google Earth Pro+Open Office+Inkscape+GIMP+Scribus+LibreCAD

Observation Workflow Broken Down

Direct Observation>Google Earth Pro (VeR&ViR)>Open Office(VeR)>GIMP (ViR) or LibreCAD(ViR)>Inkscape(ViR)>Finished ViR product.

Indirect Observation>Open Office(VeR)>GIMP (ViR)>Inkscape(ViR)>Finished ViR product.



Deep Time and Constraint-Based Design

My lifetime is pretty short, but the ramification of the design journey I am choosing to embark on will effect things long after my time ends.  Permaculture is very much meant to be permanent, it is supposed to last a long time, that is what I am trying to wrap my head around as I learn from day to day.

Site analysis and assessment is something that is undertaken by everyone after obtaining agency at any kind of site.  It is the basic skeleton on which designs can be puttied on top of.  The more robust the skeleton, the tighter the design.  The skeleton is realized from the observations of the designer, the flashlight of consciousness unveils the skeleton as it observes separate parts within the massive structure.

My time is short, but I am designing for eternity.

Site A&A is an eternal affair, it is a constant relationship between the individual and the non-individual, i.e. the site.  Change is inevitable.  As things change, the patterns are emergent.  Within the patterns lie the keys to better design and more conscious decision making.  So when I am first getting onto a site I am doing a lot of unrecorded and relatively unattached observation, to get the gist or the lay of the land.  It isn’t long though before I begin to do site A&A, and then the work is never done.

Exhaustive Site A&A

I am a proponent of a highly exhaustive and dynamic site A&A.  This kind of A&A ultimately serves as the toolbox of patterns and data to which a designer can realize more design goals.  Because of the idea that permaculture is aspiring to be permanent, the exhaustive nature of A&A is crucial.  My own personal design method is constraint-based.  Constraints are determined by site A&A.  Patterns elicited from site A&A create real constraints that can then determine parts of the design.  It is more about what one cannot do on site rather than what one can do on site.

With modern economic constraints for professional designers and typical time-based constraints for non-professional designers, it is difficult to do such a lengthy A&A.  However, the ideal still remains.

Past/Present/Future Patterning

There are patterns of past, patterns of present, and patterns of future to be realized through observation and recording on site.  Each aspect of time has it’s own types of recording methods and attributes which I will outline here.


Patterns of the past generally deal with things that have occurred and have shaped the site to be what it is today.  Examples of patterns of the past are paleo-climatology, land use history, and phylogeny.  The Scale of Permanence has aspects that exist in the past like climate and landform.  By taking on a study of patterns of the past for a site, one may find helpful constraints that can inform design in the present.  For example, when looking at the phylogeny of Rhus typhina (or Staghorn Sumac) I can determine what kinds of things would work better on a site that has a lot of the plant growing on it.  Right now I am working on a site that grows it prolifically, which cause constraints with managing the stands.  A better example would be an event that happened in the past the prevents certain design in the present.  This is more apparent with sites that have pollution or a real serious limiting factor.  After examining patterns of past, one should be able to elicit both constraints, opportunities, and catalysts.


Patterns of present deal with A&A elements that are changing more rapidly like vegetation/wildlife, microclimate, zones of use, soil management, and aesthetics.  Patterns of present also deal with observations of patterns that are accrued on a daily basis like phenology.  Phenology is recording annual events as they occur on site like budding, fruiting, flowering, first sighting of fauna and etc.  By recording events like this one can get a really good understanding of how the climate is changing on site.  It can be incredibly important to have many of these datasets since official governmental climate studies use phenological records from individuals to understand how climate has changed.  Though there are not many…so we have predictions based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and only a handful of others.  The present is where most of the constraints will be discovered.


Patterns of future are based on the past and present and can be a rewarding exercise to brainstorm about.  It is worth spending time to try to predict constraints that may occur in the future and how to begin to mitigate those constraints in the present.  For example, if I understand that short-term drought is to become more of a reality in Massachusetts with changing climate I should definitely be planning for a more robust water catchment and transportation system on the site.  I would take the drawbacks of overbuilding my water system if it meant that I would hardly experience consequences of lack of water which could be potentially much worse.


I am looking to measure as much as possible on site that will provide me patterns on how to design the site to function better.  While it may take a while to construct the system of data collection, I ultimately think that the extra effort will pay dividends in the future.  The site-specific document that I create with an exhaustive site A&A will be authoritative when dealing with the site and instructive as an analog for sites that experience similar conditions.  No longer will people who live in the area of my site have to rely on aggregate data based on large systems, they can see what kind of energies are occurring near their own site.

Site A&A, to me, needs to be exhaustive, dynamic, and site-centric wherever possible to be able to inform not only the designers on the site but also anyone who is curious to learn what the document entails.

Open-Source Permaculture

A group of college nerds came together collectively at the UC Berkley campus in the 70’s and ushered one of the most technologically important inventions of the modern age…fully functional personal computing.  Fueled by their desire to figure out problems and impress their friends, these students and enthusiasts worked hard and for long periods of time to crack the problems of computing.  Their club was called Homebrew, and the ethic was sharing and open-sourcing.

I am currently working on applying such an ethic and also provide some insights in how to apply open-source to permaculture design.  The sheer power and swiftness of computers makes them well-suited to creating scaled basemaps which can be easily traded, shared, and printed for various uses.

The roster of Open-Source programs and their uses are as follows:

LibreCAD- Scaled Basemapping

Inkscape – Vector Based Editing

GIMP – Pixel Based Editing

Scribus – Desktop Publishing

Krita – Digital Painting

There are other free but not open source programs available to the budding permaculture designer:

Google Earth Pro (Yeah buddy) – GIS and Geositing

Google Mytracks – GPS Tracking

Xmind – Mindmapping

SketchUp – 3d Modeling

Let me briefly explain which programs I am using so far and for what purposes:


LibreCAD – With this program I am trying above all to create a basemap that is scaled, and on which I can make visually appealing with other software.  This is done by typical low-cost surveying techniques like triangulation and offset/extension.  I build the basemap with my own personal measurements combined with any found measurements from existing maps.

Inkscape – Basically the mainframe of the operation.  Even though on the surface inkscape is basically an open-source version of Adobe Illustrator, it can support a large array of file types.  The most important file type it supports is .dxf which is integral to using and then improving upon work done in LibreCAD.

*Here is a link to an example of the first full basemap I created with the LibreCAD/Inkscape Combination.

GIMP – A photo editor.  I use it personally to edit digital photos that I’ve taken.  Right now I’m working with a Canon A2300 modded with CHDK.  Essentially CDHK makes certain point & shoot Canon cameras able to shoot in RAW format as opposed to jpeg, as well as other useful features like altering shutter speed and aperture.

Scribus – Really haven’t been able to sit down and figure out this one yet.  I have experience with InDesign, so I will have to learn the different interface.  From what I’ve seen and read it can get most jobs done.

Krita – A lot can be done with this digital painting program.  This program is for painting the basemaps that I finish in Inkscape.

Free to use

Google Earth Pro – Now the pro version is available, all one needs to do is download the pro version and use the code GEPFREE when logging in to it for the first time.  It is pretty powerful and I sometimes get lost in all that can be done with it.  It is perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of your site and the context of where you are doing design work.  There are topography maps available to put as overlays and there are soil maps that can be overlaid as well to find out what kind of soil types are existent on your site as well.  The soil types can be clicked on and then sent you to more information.

Google Mytracks – This app requires a GPS device via cell phone, so you’ll need a smart phone in order to use this.  It basically tracks the path that the phone moves in.  This can be used to find out how long it takes to travel certain paths, changes in elevation and other data.

Xmind – Just a mindmapping software.  Bubble diagrams and webs are created through topics and subtopics.  Can be used to organize ideas, plans, and projects.

SketchUp – Used for 3D modeling.  Any kind of architectural work and concepts can be hashed out on sketchup for the site.  I have used it briefly to model the garage and see what it would look like with a second floor.  The garage is right in a central location of the garden, so I imagined that with a second floor and large windows facing the garden (and simultaneously facing south as well) a nice space could be created up there that takes advantage of the solar gain during colder months.

Open-Source is an ethic I really like, and computing is important to design.  Things just move faster with open-sourcing, when many users can access the code and change it to improve the programs and offer more applications.  Companies tend to stop innovating when they become a certain size and opt instead to buy innovation from smaller groups or individuals.

But with more focus and time spent on the learning curve with the open-source programs, innovation can be occurring all the time, because individual coders and small groups can constantly be tweaking the source code in order to provide a tighter designed program.  This is what I’m after as a designer, tightest design possible.

So if you have the time, go for open-source, collaborate, and get more sites implemented.

Small Permaculture Project Planning

I thought that I would share a plan outline for a small Permaculture project (<1/3 acre/0.1ha)

Simple. Few Species. Clear intent.


  1. Articulate Goals – Goal Articulation ; Summary Exercise only ; Simple goals. (1-2 hrs)
  2. Base Mapping. (16 hrs)
  3. Analyze and Assess Site – Simple, quick, sketchy ; Three bubble diagrams and simple summary ; Existing & desired species analysis. (4-8 hrs)
  4. Design Concept – A few options. (1-2 hrs)
  5. Schematic Design – Few options & iterations.  Single instant succession to a horizon. (4-8 hrs)
  6. Detailed Design – Small number of species and guilds. (4-6 hrs)
  7. Patch Design – Four or five patches of low to moderate complexity, with some repetition. (4-10 hrs)

Total time to spend on planning and design : 4-7 days.

Remember…design is intention.