Principle #7 - Design From Patterns to Details

Image courtesy of João Vítor Heinrichs

Understanding Patterns

Patterning is a very deep subject and that can get complex but the three takeaways I hope you get are:

  1. An expanded overall understanding of patterns
  2. Pattern recognition: The ability to recognize and make linking connections between elements
  3. How to apply patterns in your life

The permaculture principles of patterning emphasizes the benefits of working from the general to the specific. It is akin to finding your purpose in life and then going about finding a way to manifest it. In a Permaculture system, the natural patterns in nature form the basis of the design.  

Blame Nature

Nature constantly creates breathtaking landscapes that man has no hand in.  These beautiful landscapes follow a greater natural order creating their pleasing aesthetics and consistent balance.

Image courtesy of Madison Inouye

Mimic the Original

To mimic the natural world, we need to understand that nature is using patterns and cycles to maximize the benefits of interconnecting systems.  Our first goal then is to look deeper into the cycles and patterns that nature uses so that we can mimic her which produces;

  • Aesthetically pleasing landscapes provide healthy habitat dwellings for animals.
  • Clean water from rainwater harvesting and greywater reclamation systems.
  • The energy efficiency
  • Appropriate and sufficient space(s) for the interaction of people with each other & nature.
  • Fresh healthy organic food is grown only with the sun, water, and compost.
  • Reduced carbon output thus keeping air & water clean.
  • Insectary plants that attract beneficial insects.
  • Systems that catch/store energy efficiently to reduce output and stockpile for future use.


Innovative companies like Pax Scientific use what they call the Streamlining Principle which translates nature's flow efficiencies (patterns) into streamlined design geometries.  They employ these geometries to significantly improve the performance & energy efficiency of a wide range of technology, such as fans, mixers, pumps, turbines, heat exchangers, ducts, propellers, and other applications.  Patterns are endless, linked, and everywhere.

Rule of Thumb - Design Method

The permaculture rule of thumb to follow, in all cases, is to design systems so that the flow of material and energy through a system is provided in a supportive configuration (pattern) so that the interactions between systems are mutually beneficial for the intended outcome of their connections. 

Garden/Farm/Urban Examples - Spatial Patterns

Spatial patterns are defined by the arrangement of individual entities in space and the geographic relationships among them. Herb spirals, keyhole beds, mandalas, or a food forest filled with radial trench work for the trees are all excellent example(s) of this.

Permaculture Zones - Growing Food

Imagine that you are ready to plant your annual vegetable gardens and you’ve spent all year building up the fertility of the soil and creating planting zones. You carefully stake out and plant row after row of your plantings in perfectly straight lines, usually east to west to maximize sun exposure.

So far so good, right? 

So, either you have planted areas (food) or unplanted areas that by default become paths. Depending on how far apart and how big what you plant gets, approximately 50% of your garden is dedicated to pathways. 

Tetris in the Garden

How do we mitigate this irritating loss of planting area?

Planting in a pattern is a simple but cleverer answer.  I have, still do, and probably will always experiment with planting patterns, it’s sort of like playing Tetris outside. 

Implementing a simple change in how you lay out your rows from straight lines to circles will reclaim a minimum of 30% of your soil for planting.  Produce more food in less space! You can now re-think those small areas you thought wouldn’t be fruitful enough for you to try and grow plants on.

Keyhole pattern planting at its most basic consists of concentric circles of plantings with one narrow path cut through the circle to a small area in the center. The orientation of a keyhole should be set to maximize its sun exposure with the “keyhole” running north/south so that the inner circle will trap heat (energy).  The diameter of the keyhole garden should be such that it is comfortably workable (reachable) from both the inner circle and perimeter. 

Image Courtesy of Wes Carpani

Financial Example

How can we save money with this permaculture concept?  It's a case of it’s simple, but it may not be easy to implement. This is an information-gathering mission for you – first, decide on the what and then work on the how.  To do this, you need to get a broad perspective on how you live and function as a human being.

First, step back regarding your physical living space, what pattern(s) do you observe?       

  • Where have you placed the primary elements of your design on your property?
  • Have you respected their proximity to other supportive elements and in accordance with how frequently they will be accessed? 
  • If you’re an urban dweller have you wisely selected as to what you need to live near – what essential services need to be accessed and how often?

Next, look at the next level of patterns, what do you see? Permaculture teaches us to divide environments into a maximum of six zones: numbered zero through five.

Your home – whether situated on a farm or in an apartment building, Zone 1 to 5 radiate out away from Zone zero. In the interests of conserving energy, those elements which need to be accessed frequently would be in Zone 1 and those in Zone 5 are those which are used the least often.

The zones can be as small as a workstation in an office to the universe and beyond, it just depends on what your mapping goal is.

Take the time to map out your environment into zones. For a few months observe your behavior to see if your zone map needs to be tweaked.  Once you have a solid mapping of your patterns, you can determine the effectiveness of their assigned location and purpose.  As inefficiencies are revealed you can begin to adjust your pattern design accordingly to reap higher yields.

Staying Healthy

Your behavioral mapping may reveal that you don’t move as much as you think you do. Ignoring self-care comes with a price tag in the form of doctor visits, medications, hospital stays, and lost time from work. 

  • Have you ever wasted time and money purchasing stuff you already own but can’t find? 
  • Do you have any spaces you avoid using because of poor layout and/or clutter? 
  • Are the natural patterns you’ve created in your living environment conducive to the healthiest, wealthiest, and wisest version of yourself? 

A well-patterned living and working environment saves you time, keeps you organized, and directly supports the age-old adage, “time is money.” Don’t let disorganization rob you of your hard-earned income.  Take the steps now to zone your environment, map your behaviors, batch activities, stack functions, save money and gain peace of mind.

Mental Health Example

Screen time is also an excellent illustration of the application of this permaculture principle. According to Internet Analyst Mary Meeker, the average American spends 7.4 hours staring at a screen a day. 

Obviously, many people use their computers for employment, banking and self-education. The question is though do you really have a good handle on what your computing patterns are? 

Productivity tools like Chrometa and RescueTime give you a starting point as to your online patterns. These tools allow you to get granular as to when, what, and for how long you use applications/websites. It can be a particularly revealing way to compare the story that you have been telling yourself about how productive you are against reality. 

They are Everywhere

Understanding patterns is an important skill to develop. There are obvious patterns such as weather patterns Utilizing patterns can improve the functions of your garden, health, prosperity, relationships, and the overall quality of your life. In virtually all instances, it is more efficient for people and designs to support one another instead of competing. It makes sense to work smart and leverage shared patterns.

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