Permaculture - Design from patterns to details

by Liz Beavis

In his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (affiliate link), David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, has written about 12 design principles.  The seventh permaculture principle is Design from Patterns to Details.  In this post I summarise this chapter and give examples from my own experience.


Designing from patterns to details is broadly about looking for patterns that already exist on the site and patterns in nature that may be useful in the final design.  This is one of the principles that I have to admit to not completely understanding.  I understand how to apply zone and sector techniques and how a food forest mimics a natural forest, but I'm not sure that I see the broader application of this principle, even though I've read the chapter several times now.  

I'm really not sure how to use this principle apart from just following the typical permaculture design process, I just don't have that intrinsic understanding yet, but maybe it will come eventually or maybe I'm just over-thinking it!

What are Permaculture Zones?

In permaculture, zones are used to describe areas of a property that have different intensity of use.  The house is Zone 0, and moving away from the house, the zones decrease in intensity.  The idea is to have the activities that need to be visited daily closer than the ones that may only be visited weekly or monthly.  For example at Cheslyn Rise the property can be divided into the following zones, which are also shown in the image below:

1 (visited regularly) – House yard – shed, annual garden, aquaponics


2 – Food forest, chickens and other poultry


3 – Managed pastures and forage/hay crops, dairy cows, dams, beef cattle in rotational grazing


4 – Pasture and woodland for beef cattle and free-range pigs


5 (visited infrequently) – Dense forest and creek area for wildlife


A smaller property may not have all 5 zones.  I think Eight Acres has the following zones:
1 – House yard - shed, annual garden


2 – Inner paddock - Dairy cow paddock and calf yard, chickens and other poultry


3 – Outer paddocks - Managed pastures (slashed occasionally), dam, beef cattle

5 – Small dense forest area for wildlife

Note that zone 4 is missing because we only have eight acres, however we have left a wild rocky area of trees, which is effectively a Zone 5 wildlife zone that we pretty much leave alone.  A suburban block may only have Zone 1 and possibly 2, depending on how often the area is visited and how much maintenance is required, although you could design to have other zones.

What are Permaculture Sectors?

Sectors are used to define the general direction of external forces such as sun, wind, fire and flood.  The sector analysis informs the placement of elements within the system.  I think its more appropriate to consider the effect of sectors on Zone 1 and maybe 2, but not so much on the less managed zones.  I find it very difficult to draw a plan of the house yard, the distances are too large to estimate or measure, and even though I have marked points on the GPS, they are too close together on the GPS map to be useful!  However, the point of this exercise is to think about the impact of the external energies, and even though my map is not exactly to scale, it did get me (and Pete) thinking.

Firstly about sun, and most importantly how to place the house to make the most of passive solar design.  We have orientated our secondhand house facing north so that it will get full sun in winter, but the veranda will protect from sun in summer.  And from there we could see where the planned house and shed will cast shadows throughout the day, and where to place the garden and food forest so that they benefit from full sun.

When considering wind and fire, we planned to (and eventually did) build another dam in a hollow between the house and the main fire risk.  We will also have a clear area of road base around the house and a hedge of fire resistant bushes (not sure what yet).  The grass in that area will be kept short by the dairy cows and we will clear the undergrowth from beneath the tall trees.  

Fire is not such a risk for us in QLD as for the southern states, and we have the cultivated area/managed pasture on the other side of the house as another fire break in the other direction.  The hedge on the other side of the house will block our view of the neighbour's house (I know, on 258 A, we put our house near the neighbours, but they had the electrical connection we needed!).  Both hedges will help to reduce wind, although we do actually want that wind to cool us on hot summer days, that's why we put the house on top of the hill.

For QLD, flooding is more of a threat than fire, so I am very happy to be high and dry on the top of the hill, even though it is the worst place to be in a fire.  At least we know that the house will never wash away, and we have some contour banks already constructed to help manage water flow in the house yard.

I didn't like drawing the circles for the sectors, because I couldn't see where the "outside" of the design was, as this is just a small area of the property.  I just used arrows instead.  In the drawing below, the red arrows are the external energies and I know there's a lot of scribbles, but I tried to highlight the main points I discussed above.  This is not our final design, but its just a rough summary of ideas about how the energies will affect us.


Why is Slope Important in Permaculture Design?

An example of the use of slope that's often used is locating a water tank up the hill from the house.  Our house will be on the top of the hill, but we have two other ideas for using the slope instead, one is to drain our grey water directly from the house to the garden without using a pump, this means we don't need to store it anywhere.  The other idea is to build an old-fashioned pump stand and use a solar pump to fill a small header tank from our main tank, that way we always have water pressure without a pressure pump cutting in and out.  This second idea may take longer to implement!

We also have a few ideas about developing more dams and bores and moving water around for the stock in the other zones.  We are lucky that our property consists of a series of ridges and gullies, so we have plenty of opportunities to use slope.

Select Appropriate Plants and Animals

Another theme of this chapter was the selection of appropriate plants and animals for the situation.  Matching the plants and animals to the fertility and climate available will reduce the need for outside inputs.  This can be done by looking for patterns in nature.  I think that our Braford cattle are a good example of appropriate selection, as this breed is well-suited to our climate and are good foragers in poor pasture.  This is also something to consider in selecting food plants for the food forest, it will be best to start with plants that are well suited to the climate and gradually transition to more sensitive plants as the forest is established.

How do you design from patterns to details?  Have you applied zone, sector and slope design at your property?  Do you select breeds that are appropriate to your climate and soil fertility?  Does this principle make any sense to you??


Find out more about Permaculture using these books (affiliate links):



 And the other posts in this series:

Discovering permaculture
Catch and store energy
Creatively use and respond to change
Design from patterns to details
Integarte rather than segregate
Observe and Interact
Obtain a yield
Apply self regulation
Produce no waste
Use and value diversity
Use and value renewable resources
Use edges and value the marginal
Use small and slow solutions


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