Permaculture Design in the Landscape: Sectors, Elevation & Resources

Whereas zones are concerned with energy that is within the site, sectors are concerned with external energy sources that are flowing into and through the site. Sectors can include:

  • Summer winds
  • Cold winter winds
  • Salty or strong winds
  • Sun angles
  • Water flow
  • Flood water
  • Fire danger
  • Views
  • Air pollution
  • Noise
  • Smell

The principle of sector planning is to place elements so that we avoid or minimize negative energy and that we make the most of positive energy. We can incorporate features into our design that block, channel or open an area up to energy. Examples of this may include planting a row of trees to act as a windbreak or to reduce noise from a busy road. Alternatively, we may chop down certain trees that block sunlight in the spring, using the timber for firewood and the branches as mulch.

Blocking Energy

We can block negative energy from entering a site by identifying the energy sector and then placing elements appropriately. Negative energy such as strong winds, cold winds, dusty or salty winds, noise, and air pollution can be blocked or reduced using trees. The trees may need to be hardy to survive in high wind areas, or perhaps large and leafy to block out air pollution from a main road.

Identifying the angle of the sun across the year can be an important observation to make so that you can protect your house from the hot summer sun, especially your western wall in the afternoon. By blocking the heat with trees or shrubs you can cool down your house. In winter, you can take advantage of the sun’s warmth by planting deciduous trees that let the light in. By understanding sun angles we can design windows that let the light in when the sun is lower in the sky but are then protected by an eave in the summer when the sun is higher in the sky.

If your site is exposed to the risk of fire, it is important to design your site accordingly. Firebreaks can be incorporated into the design and elements can be placed to minimize the impact of a fire such as placing ponds, stone walls, waterways, and clearings in between your house and the fire sector. You can also plant fire retardant trees that can block heat, trap burning material carried on the wind and suppress the fire’s energy through the water stored in the tree’s leaves. The best fire retardants include most deciduous tree such as Oaks, Willows, Poplars, Liquidambar, Ashes, and fruit trees including Apples, Pears, Stone Fruit, Fig, and Mulberry.

Channeling Energy

Channeling energy refers primarily to capturing energy flows that are entering our site and then using the energy for our benefit.

Rainwater can be captured using gutters that channel the water into water tanks. This water can then be used in the home or to water the garden. We can also use swales that are dug on contour to collect runoff that will percolate into the soil to create an underground reservoir of water. By planting perennials and trees on the mound, there will be more water available for these plants for longer periods of time, reducing the need to use tap water.

On larger properties, water can be stored at the top of a property and then channeled to where it is needed through a series of irrigation channels, swales, and ponds. Water can also be channeled from wetter areas to drier areas.

Energy can be channeled to provide electricity for our house or farm. Wind and water can drive turbines and solar photovoltaic panels can capture sunlight. Renewable energy should be an integral part of a permaculture design. Installing sustainable energy systems on our property is one of the most effective things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint.

Opening Areas to Energy

When we want to increase our exposure to positive energy we can clear an area of our site. We may want to let in more sunlight or open up a nice view.

We can let in more sunlight by thinning trees or by removing certain branches. We can also replace evergreen trees with deciduous trees for more sunlight in the winter half of the year. When removing trees and branches, permaculture principles encourage us to reuse as much of the resource as possible such as using the wood for heat and the branches as mulch for the garden.

Elevation

There are almost no truly flat landscapes in the world other than salt flats. Almost every site we design will have at least some difference in elevation. Uneven ground and slope have a direct effect on how energy flows over the landscape and we must allow for this in our design.

On a larger scale, we can simplify a typical landform to be an S-shaped curve (in reality the land is going to be much more complex than this). The higher land will often be well suited for summer grazing and wind power. Although there is not as much water up here, collecting water high up in the landscape can be beneficial as it can be used for hydropower or directed to where it is needed using gravity.

The slope’s gradient also has a major influence on what we can use the land for. Typically, once the gradient is steeper than 20 degrees the land should be left to native tree species, and if we are going to expose the soil for annual crop production the land needs to be as close to flat as possible, otherwise, the effects of heavy rain can be destructive. Areas higher up in the landscape are often much steeper than lower down, and these steeper areas are best left as woodland.

The key point in a landscape is where the convex slope turns into a concave slope. This is a great place to store water as there is a much higher potential to store water here than there is higher up, and there is still a lot of arable land below the key point that can be irrigated. The key point is also a very good place to build a house or an orchard as it is typically below the exposed highlands and above any risk of flooding or frost pockets.

The low lands are typically well suited to cropping as the slope is gentle and the land will often have deep soils from the accumulation of biomass that has washed down from higher up in the landscape.

The land lowest in the landscape can often be wet and subject to flooding. Meadows and certain tree crops are well suited to this bottomland.

From these observations of the natural landscape, we can situate elements on our site in relation to an elevation that maximizes the efficiency of our design. In an urban setting such as a garden, the primary use of slope will be to manage the flow of water. If the garden slopes away from the house, we can simply situate our water tanks alongside the house and feed the water into the landscape using gravity. If our garden is above the house, we can use technology to our advantage such as installing a small solar pump that pumps water from our tanks up to a hand-dug pond at the top of the garden. This allows water to automatically flow through the garden whenever the sun is shining. We can also look to capture water at the bottom of the garden and cycle this energy back through our system. By digging a small pond at the bottom of the garden, we can use a solar pump to pump the water back up to our water tanks or to a pond higher up in the landscape.

On a larger property, we can situate farm buildings above the house to help collect rainwater. This water can be stored higher up in the landscape and then fed down to the house when it is needed.

We should also design our site so that resources are carried downhill. For example, planting trees for coppicing above the house makes it easier to carry the firewood back down the hill to where it is needed.

Resource Management: Inputs & Outputs

By minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs, we can increase the efficiency of a system, making it more sustainable. A good design looks to create a network of relationships between elements. For this to be successful we need to place elements so that the outputs from one can become the inputs of another. Smart design allows this to happen with a minimum amount of work.

A natural system requires almost no external resources other than what is naturally abundant such as sunlight and rainwater. There is almost no waste as all available energy is cycled back into the system. To design a site that is beneficial for humans, we need to speed up the establishment of the system and increase the yield.

Inputs

The two main resources we have at our disposal are our money and our time. We can use these two resources to establish and manage a system that is as efficient as possible given our limitations. Most of us in the developed world are time poor and money rich, however, the balance between these two inputs will differ depending on each person’s circumstances. For example, a banker may work 60 hours a week and be on a six-figure income. In this case, it will make much more sense to spend money to save time. For example, if this banker decided to buy some chickens for the backyard, it would make more sense to buy the coop rather than to make it. Conversely, a permaculture student who decides to take a year off work to deeply connect with nature will be time rich and money poor. In this case, it will make more sense to spend the time to make the chicken coop from recycled materials.

Minimizing inputs is a fascinating idea to consider because it is not necessarily a matter of spending less money and making all our projects from things we have lying around the house. It involves using what we have available to us in the most efficient way possible, including money, recycled materials, time, knowledge, and effort. Although it might seem natural to want to do everything possible to save money, we may find that certain purchases will save hours of time that we can then spend doing what we love.

When we choose to spend our money to buy something, we are directly encouraging the specific business practices of the manufacturer and the retailer. We should take responsibility for our purchases and we must let our money do the talking, not our fingers on a keyboard! We should remember that permaculture is based on the ethics of Earth Care and People Care, which means we need to act differently when we are spending money. Money is a tool that can be used for good or evil and it is up to us as individuals to put it to good use.

As permaculture moves into the mainstream, there will be increasingly more people in the movement who are time poor and money rich. Instead of buying a flatpack chicken coop online that has been made in China, we could instead put an ad up online for a neighbor to make one for us, in this case exchanging our money for someone’s time. Developing these relationships within your community can help grow social cohesion through diversity, remembering that diversity is finding niches that will then help develop a network of relationships that strengthen a system.

Outputs

We should look to maximize the number of outputs each element produces, including plants, animals, and structures. This means thinking creatively about how we can use what we already have available to us and what new elements we can introduce that can provide at least three outputs.

Outputs can either be an input for another element in the system, or we can harvest them for our own benefit.

Here’s a fun exercise that you can do for your own backyard. Pick an element and then brainstorm how many outputs (or yields) you can think of in 60 seconds. Here is my attempt with a chicken. I’ve come up with:

  • Eggs
  • More Chickens
  • Feathers
  • Manure
  • CO2 for plants in a greenhouse
  • Heat for a greenhouse
  • Entertainment
  • Companionship
  • Meat (preferably for me and not the foxes)

In permaculture, we look to value multiple yields rather than trying to maximize one specific output at the expense of everything else. A permaculture acre would never come close to 160 bushels of corn, nor would our backyard chickens lay as many eggs as a battery hen. Instead, we can design a system where we grow enough corn for our family along with all the fresh food and medicine we need for the year, with a bit left over to feed to the chickens. It is a completely different way of measuring yield when compared to the industrial agricultural system.