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.


    • Thanks for this, considering the basic use of the programs like Xmind and FreeMind, I can do without the aesthetic of Xmind in the short term for an open-source alternative in the long term. Perhaps I could even make my own aesthetics…

  • Good to see someone making some traction here. About a year ago I made a video concept on building open source designs. It was very much a beginning but has helped to spawn and inspire some interesting creativity, I think.
    At the time I was more focused on the open source possibilities of designing (less so the applications used to create the design) although, ideally, we could contribute to platforms that support both. My programing skills are nearly nonexistent these days (it’s been well over a decade since I even dabbled in coding) so I hit a bit of a roadblock and haven’t made much traction on the concept since the video.
    What I found, in my limited experimentation, was that our major bottleneck seems to be in the realms of a collaborative working/designing platform such as Github. Something designers can plug into and see a variety of projects being worked on, contribute to ones that are of interest or have needs within their skill set, etc… From what I’ve been able to suss out, Github can’t support the large imaging, mapping and 3d modeling file types that are pretty critical to this form of collaborative network.
    Thanks for sharing your interest and work on this. I feel that for design of commons spaces, a collaborative, open source model has huge potential and appeal. I know that there are tons of permaculture programmers out there just waiting for a project like this – I’d love to connect and contribute whatever support I can to such development!

    • Thanks for the reply Theron. I actually found your video and watched it a couple of months ago, it’s how I found out about Xmind. I have been open to making friends with programmers and while I have met a couple, they have not heard of permaculture yet. It would definitely be easier to discuss possibilities with those who are already in the know. As you’ve already pointed out, our focuses are similar yet different. I would like to see a platform for collaboration, and I would also like to make custom functions/patches for the software I’m using. There have been plenty of frustrations, but overcoming the problems was very much possible.

      Perhaps you already touch upon this with your video, but how do you visualize the open-source functioning in a collaborative way? Like a visual map that anyone can edit?

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