Your Smartphone as a Design Toolkit

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Permaculture AppsOriginally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 81 (Autumn 2014)

Mobile phones have rapidly become part of our daily lives and most of us now carry them nearly everywhere we go. Nearly three quarters of us in the UK now own a smartphone1 and these can do so much more than just make calls. With on-board hardware such as a GPS receiver, camera, microphone and accelerometer these devices can, with the right software, do remarkable things. As a permaculture designer my preferred tools for gathering site information and making maps are still pens, pencils and paper, but I also now appreciate the new and powerful tools that my ‘phone’ provides. In this article I’ll introduce you to a few of the apps that I’ve been finding really useful.

Recording site observations

Perhaps where the smartphone really comes into its own is out in the field. Even if I don’t have pen, paper & clipboard with me I can now record a lot of what I see and hear on my phone. In addition to the standard camera and video options, both of which I would always make good use of especially if surveying a site some distance from home, there are apps that can overlay extra information. Up until now I’ve used a Sun compass to identify the sun’s path through the year and this is a great tool, but it has its limitations. Firstly they’re only made for 50˚north, which is fine for Britain, but less useful at different latitudes. It also indicates the rising and setting points on a flat horizon, which we rarely have, so I end up having to guess how the surrounding landscape affects this. Sun Surveyor offers much more precision. It uses GPS to locate itself and then shows you the path of the sun (and moon if you wish) on any date you choose. You can view this information as an overlay on a satellite image or, if you buy the paid version2, through the camera. It’s so useful to be able to move the camera around and see where the sun crosses the horizon and even take a photograph with this information overlaid.

Grow your own pea shoots

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Having been introduced to this idea by two different people in the same week earlier this month, I thought I’d give it a go. Not much to say really, other than it’s easy to do and the pea shoots taste great. A no-brainer for winter flavour and nutrition. These few pictures tell the story:

Pea shoots close up

Demystifying Design

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Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 74 (Autumn 2012)

Location! Location! Location?

Making a model to help with designA good friend of mine once described to me a phenomenon which may be the biggest curse of the modern plant collector. It’s what happens when people return home from their local garden centre with that plant they just couldn’t resist and go looking around the garden for a gap to put it in. Mmmm… sound familiar? He appropriately calls it ‘gap gardening’. Perhaps we might substitute ‘local garden centre’ with ‘Martin Crawford’s catalogue’ or some other specialist supplier, but the temptation can still leave us with trees and plants that we bought on a relative whim. I’ve certainly done it and I suspect you may have too. So in my final look at the design process I’m going to describe some of the tools and methods that permaculture offers us to best place and integrate the many different elements into our designs.

Nature of course does its own kind of gap gardening, no niche is ever left unoccupied for long. Wherever an opportunity arises, something will make a home there, but of course these plants and animals will be the very ones best adapted to live in those conditions. Plants often arrive as seeds and have to compete with others to take that territory. Nature of course is very abundant and the strategy of seeds is to throw a huge amount at the landscape knowing that only a few will ever grow to maturity. That’s a strategy we can only model if we save our own seed, but Fukuoka did just this very successfully, scattering seeds around his orchards and allowing the plants to show him where they most wanted to be. Most of us don’t have very many seeds to risk though, and even an established plant will struggle in a site unsuited to its needs. This is where some permaculture planning bears fruit.

How to Survey a Site

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Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 73 (Summer 2012)

Observation PASTE mind mapHaving looked at the value of a clear design process in the last issue, we’ll move on to the process of effectively surveying a site. Of course, there are many things we might design using permaculture and that site might be a physical one like an area of land or it could be organisational like a business. In either case we’d essentially be studying relationships and their current level of effectiveness, in order to figure out some improvements. The greatest challenge I think for most of us is to give this survey stage sufficient time. We live in a society where we’re encouraged to have everything as soon as possible, so it can be difficult for us to find the patience to simply observe and record without immediately having lots of ideas to make things better. Some of these ideas might be good ones, but we often completely overlook possibilities that we haven’t encountered before. So one of the most important things I think I do now is to help people to slow down…

By taking the time to observe, we begin to notice things that weren’t immediately apparent. These things are often the key to plugging energy and resource leaks that others had overlooked. And those observations will get you invited back to give design advice next time.

Why Permaculture Needs Design

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Originally published in Permaculture Magazine issue 72 (Spring 2012)

Using the light through a window to expand a mapDiscovering permaculture was an epiphany for me. It gave me hope in a world seemingly gone mad. I finally had a framework for positive action. Sure, I knew we needed to plant trees and to ‘feed the world’, but now I had a way to figure out the where, when and how to go with the what. I’d discovered something that could really make a difference.

Permaculture excited me, and as a long term activist, I was eager to make up for lost time. I made a number of gardens in almost as many years and plenty of mistakes along the way. But that was ok; I was learning, and trial and error is how we master the most important things in life, like walking and talking. Naturally. This is called Action learning and one of the things I’ve learned is to celebrate those mistakes for the great lessons they are, rather than feel the shame that society encourages us to feel.

Another important thing I’ve learned is that slow and small solutions are very often the best way forward. Yes, the tortoise really can be quicker than the hare. Or at least end up working less to get there. But following that advice really can be hard for those of us seeing the urgency of the global situation. We want to act quickly, to do something before it’s too late. “Don’t just stand there, do something!

Yet through permaculture, I’ve discovered the value of patience and protracted observation. I’ve learned this the hard way of course, by for instance my impatience to make gardens. I once laid out a few pallets around a mobile home where some decking was planned, so I knew where to start making my mulch beds. Only later did I start thinking about all the different uses I could make of such a deck and that two pallets deep would be a much more sensible size. I spent a lot of time rescuing plants from the shade under that structure while I was building it.

Nature by Numbers

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I just came across this video and felt compelled to share it. Three and three quarter minutes of amazing animation showing how numbers create all the beautiful things we see around us. Enjoy!

If you ever get to feel like you’re on your own…

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Just give five minutes to this inspiring talk by bioneer Paul Hawken:

Did you feel vulnerable?

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Britain snowed in...

The recent snow affected most of us in one way or another. Interestingly, I was running a Permaculture Diploma tutor training event on the outskirts of London when much of it fell. I thought the possibility of being snowed in inside the M25 rather ironic, given how much I avoid going there. Mind you, who better to be stranded with than a lovely bunch of permaculture designers? As it happened we all managed to get home that day, though for some of us it was a long journey.

Such episodes highlight once more the vulnerability of our current system’s dependency upon moving so much food around on a ‘just in time’ basis. It’s encouraging then, that an exciting new project showing one way to improve food security in cities just celebrated its first birthday.

‘Food from the Sky’ is a pioneering food growing and educational project in Crouch End, North London. Food is grown organically on the rooftop of Budgens supermarket there & sold in the store just 8 metres below. Now that’s local food ~ grown within walking distance!

Of course, unused roof space is one thing that urban areas have an abundance of. And as well as providing valuable growing space, up above the worst of the pollution, roof gardens also provide vital food & habitats for wildlife too. Additionally, such projects provide a focus for people to meet up, as community gardens like Tatnam Organic Patch in Poole have been proving for a long time now.

Leadership lessons from dancing guy

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This short but interesting video is at first just funny, but then makes an important point about how quickly movements can gather pace. Important when we are feeling like we are still that lone voice in the wilderness! I’ve been reading about systems theory this week (how systems behave, sometimes in unexpected ways) and this is a fine example of a reinforcing feedback loop. The more that joins the movement, quicker the change occurs. Stay with it, you’ll be amazed at how quickly it all happens at the end. Just substitute the dancing for ‘global environmental sanity’…

We are surrounded by genius…

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Janine Benyus introduces the science of Biomimicry; using nature as our inspiration for creating new technologies. This gives me so much hope for our collective future and fits so beautifully into the permaculture vision.

Spend the next 18 minutes regaining some hope…

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