Permaculture Blog

Getting into good shape!

Reed beds are very efficient and produce an additional yield

So having looked at the functionality of different patterns, how might we go about using this knowledge to design truly sustainable ways of living? Well, looking at both excellent and poor examples of pattern application should help illustrate the idea.

In wastewater treatment systems, we have long used beds of gravel to help clean up our sewage. Collectively, the many particles of gravel have a lot of surface area on which the active bacteria live.  This is an application of the successful ‘lobe’ pattern, which we find being applied in our colon, where the collective surface area of the ‘friendly’ bacteria makes digestion most efficient.

An adaptation of this system involves planting in addition, some heavy feeding plants into the gravel beds. These plants take up the fertile wastes of the bacteria and turn it into plant matter (or biomass). This can then be cut and made use of in any number of ways, including use as fuel or a mulch. The combination of gravel and reeds for instance, makes for a very efficient system.

Herb spirals have many different microclimates

The Herb ‘spiral’ (actually an upturned vortex) is a classic permaculture application of the vortex pattern. It uses the way that a vortex focuses or dissipates energy, to ‘focus’ dryness and sunlight at the top and distribute moisture to the lower (outer) edges. In addition, north, south, east and west aspects are also created, providing microclimates for plants preferring different combinations of warmer / cooler and wetter / drier conditions. The use for herbs comes from the issue of scale. For the top of the structure to be reached without clambering, the diameter can be no more than 2 metres (6 feet) or so. Thus we have a great diversity of microclimates, but each is quite limited in size. Herbs are plants that are strong enough in flavour to be worth growing in such small quantities.

Flowforms oxygenate water mimicking naturally formed stream patterns

Flowforms are excellent water oxygenation systems. Created by the Virbela Institute in England and modelled upon naturally formed upland streams, they oxygenate and energise water in the same way nature does. The water is swirled in a figure of eight in each bowl, then falls into the next, taking oxygen into the body of water below. This oxygenation process kills of pathogenic bacteria in contaminated water (such as silage run off), making it safe for fish to live in once more. They are also very calming features, like the natural streams they model.

Hydro-electric turbine shell

A Hydro-electric turbine shell also uses the ability of the spiral form to focus energy. Water, falling a considerable distance down a pipe and gathering speed, enters the shell where it is swung quickly into a spiral. In doing so, the energy of the water is concentrated into the turbine in the middle, focussing its force equally around it and maximising the ability of the water to turn the turbine (and consequently generate electricity). This redundant shell allows us to see this well.

These are all applications of space-based patterns, but what about time? Well, every time you read the back of a seed packet and act upon the planting recommendations, you are applying a time-based pattern ~ to save you time, energy and seeds doing your own planting experiments.

A normal rush hour pattern...

Sadly though, we can also find many examples of poor patterning in human society. When our original path / lane network first developed, it would have had much of the adaptability of a tree, in that as traffic grew across the branching network, all routes had the capacity to organically expand. In the same way, any track falling into disuse would have been quickly re-absorbed by nature. By making the road width more rigid, the network has lost this flexibility. The widening of any particular section of road to relieve congestion just shifts the problem to the next most restricted part. A tree expands all its parts at the same rate to accommodate increasing nutrient flows as it grows, our rigid tarmac network no longer does.

Another poorly applied modern pattern is the 9 to 5 work concept. We all know that we have more energy when days are longer and warmer, yet we’ve been forced into an unnaturally fixed, year-round work pattern, in order to suit ‘the business economy’. This is often to the detriment to our health. Working nights has an even greater potential to upset our biological clocks and affect our overall wellbeing.

So as good permaculture designers, our strategy is to first identify the functions of nature’s forms, next to assess our needs, and finally to apply the most appropriate patterning to achieve our aims.

“The final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole. Patterning is the way we frame our designs and it is this that permits our elements to flow and function in beneficial relationships. The pattern is design and design is the subject of permaculture”

Bill Mollison

For some more beautifully elegant examples of pattern application in producing new materials, read ‘Biomimicry’ by Janine Benyus. Start now though by watching her captivating talk at