Permaculture - Observe and Interact

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.  Observe and interact is the first permaculture principle.  In this post I summarise this chapter and give examples from my own experience. 


The first principle?

The first principle on the list is Observe and Interact.  Obviously I have to start somewhere, but I do need to point out that this is not to say that we only need to apply this principle once at the start of a design, the principles are arranged in a circle because design is a cycle, in which we observe, make a change, and observe again.  We need to be continuously observing and interacting with our environment in order to refine and optimise our designs.


Initial observations take time

We have been very lucky to have had lots of time to observe our new property before we had to start developing anything.  We spent time thinking about where to put the house and then how to orientate the house.  Where to put the shed in relation to the house and then everything else that we want close to the house.


Permaculture design for our property

I started a permaculture design for our house yard and the first step was to gather all the data about the climate and landscape.  For me, this was even better than just observing the property for a year.  We were able to look at data from the previous ten years (since the airport was built nearby) to see how the temperature and rainfall fluctuated between and within years. 


In Australia, the best source of climate data is the Bureau of Meteorology (affectionately known as “the bom”).  Use this page to find the closest weather station to your property, you can then download the observations as .csv files which you can open in excel and then do a bit of analysis of averages and maximums/minimums.


It is also possible to get the sun path chart for your property if you know the gps coordinates (which you can easily find onine, just google latitude and the name of your town), so you can work out how the sun angle changes with the seasons.  The best source that I found was here


I used a number of different sources to map the property.  We have the “property map of assessable vegetation” from the QLD dept of environment (can be downloaded for properties in QLD here, which includes vegetation and waterways), google maps, and my own GPS map.  I drew all the important features from these sources onto one survey map (from when we bought the property), so we now have a rough idea of roads, creek lines, dams, fences, distances and paddock areas.


You can find my initial permaculture design observations on my google docs here.


Fine-tuning my observations

The problem with the weather observations is that the property is 10km from the airport where the readings are taken.  This means that readings are really only an indication.  As much of our rainfall is due to storms, there can be no rain on one property and 50 mm on another close by.  We need to keep our own records in order to know the real annual rainfall and temperature variations on our property.


I started keeping a detailed diary for the farm(s).  I decided to make my own so that I could customise it.  I just used 3 days per page, with extra space on the Sunday page.  A month prints out on 8 leaves of paper, so the entire year (when I print it) will be only 96 leaves.  I keep it clipped into a simple folder, and try very hard to fill it in every evening. 
The most important thing is rainfall and number of eggs, and then any notes about where the cattle are, so we can keep track of when they were moved to different paddocks.  Once I get into the habit of making notes, I hope that it will be easy to continue to observe out property.


What's that tree called?

Another tip from Linda Woodrow is to name things.  Even if you don't know the proper name, if you name something yourself, you will remember it.  For example, there is a tree on our property that was in flower in December and I called it our Christmas tree, that will help me to remember when it flowers.  It also helped me notice where that tree was growing and how many other similar trees weren't in flower at the time.

Observe and Interact in practice

When we moved to Eight Acres we knew that we had one area in particular that was very badly eroded and seemed to get worse every time we had a decent rainfall event.  When I first heard about swales and hugelkultur I wondered if we could use those ideas to help with our erosion problem. 
I could see that we needed to fence the area to keep out the cattle (who were just walking all over it and making the erosion even worse), and we needed to do something to prevent more of the bank washing away. 
First I built a small swale/hugelkultur at the top of the slope, just using logs and piling up grass clippings and mulch.  The logs stopped the mulch washing away, and the mulch helped to catch the top soil coming down the hill.  I could see that it was working, so I kept expanding the system gradually. 
I then started to plant arrowroot and comfrey, and anything else that I had spare, to try to generate some more organic matter and start to build up some soil.  So far these plants have struggled, and maybe I need to think more about what else I could get established there, its hot and exposed and there's not much soil yet.  In some places the Rhodes grass is starting to creep over the bank, which is ideal.  Maybe it will take several years to really see an improvement, but at least I think I’ve prevented it from getting worse. 



after (different angle, sorry!)
In this simple example, I think I observed the problem, I tried a small system, I observed that it worked and I extended the system further.  This is what we need to do at each design stage of our larger property.  First observe the cause of a problem, or a possible inefficiency that could become an opportunity for improvement, make a small change, observe the impact and continue to build the system as appropriate.


How have you applied “Observe and Interact” at your place?

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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