Articulating Clear Design Goals

The word permaculture has different flavours for different folk. My favourite flavour is that of design. I see permaculture as an amazing design system helping people and landscapes partner to look after each other, each providing the other with a significant amount of what they need to thrive, now and into the future.
Design of Mitcham property.

The word permaculture has different flavours for different folk. My favourite flavour is that of design. I see permaculture as an amazing design system helping people and landscapes partner to look after each other, each providing the other with a significant amount of what they need to thrive, now and into the future.

My main experience in applying this flavour of permaculture relates to what I do for a living: for the last five or so years I have been collaborating with friends to design and create edible gardens in and around Melbourne. In this work we use a permaculture design process to bring people and space together in backyard edible ecosystems.

The design process we use starts by tuning in to the people and then the site. Next, we find suitable spots for desired areas (like orchards), and then things within those areas (like apple trees). Taking a cue from nature’s book, we make mutually beneficial connections among these areas and things. We also consider harmonious access and circulation patterns throughout the site. All the while, we wriggle back and forth between patterns and details, problems and solutions, observations, interpretations and new design ideas. It is a fluid and beautiful thing, and you never know exactly where it will take you.

In this article I will focus on just one part of the design process. I want to share our starting point, and why our experience has taught us that it matters. We start by facilitating the articulation of goals for the project – a statement of goals provides a clear destination for the design process and for the space designed.


Above: Raised vegetable beds in Mitcham garden. Right: Addition of colourful art makes the winter garden bright and cheery in Woodend.


Let me share an example. A few years back I consulted to a young family where each partner had different priorities for their planned edible garden. Within a few minutes of arriving I knew that unless we could achieve a clear goal statement, that clarified and accommodated their differing priorities, we would have trouble moving forward. The design process would not proceed smoothly, and may fall short of realising the garden’s potential (at least as far as one of them was concerned!).

I first asked them for some words to describe the garden they would like. Here is what rolled off their tongues: productive, vibrant, alive, nice space for sitting, well maintained, uncluttered, organic feel.

Together with points from the earlier conversation, we worked these words into this goal statement: ‘Our garden is a productive, vibrant living space that, though feeling alive and organic, is well maintained and uncluttered. We enjoy tending the garden as a family and eat fresh, nutritious vegetables or fruit from it daily.’

Both partners agreed that this captured what they most wanted to be true of their garden. The whole atmosphere relaxed, and the design process then flowed smoothly.

In another example, a family offered these words to describe what they were after: colourful, green, relaxing, light, kidfriendly and welcoming, eat from garden most days, private, free of ivy, full of life, multiple spaces. The goal statement that flowed from and threaded these words together was: ‘Our garden is a colourful, green, relaxing and private space that is full of life, fruit, and vegies. With multiple spaces to explore, it is welcoming, safe and friendly to kids, and free of ivy.’

If a goal statement is clear, and genuinely captures everything the stakeholders want to be true of their edible garden, the rest of the design process flows forward with purpose and direction.

Chicken run from Mitcham garden.

The goal statement guides decisions throughout the design process. In the last example, when we came to decide on which shrubs to recommend as borders to some of the required multiple spaces contributing to privacy, that doubled as bird habitat helping make the garden full of life, we chose vibrant green shrubs that supported the fruit and vegies by providing nitrogen rich mulch, and that were soft as opposed to prickly or twiggy, making it welcoming, safe and friendly to kids.

Design involves a sequence of decisions and, having clearly defined the desired destination, these decisions can be made towards that destination.

Note that I am consciously glossing over the rest of the design process here. The point I want to emphasise is that all of the design phases that come later are directed, energised, enriched and kept on track by an earlier statement of goals. Let’s now look at ways to make such statements as effective as possible.

Get It Down, Then Get It Good

If you try to formulate the perfect sentences in your mind before committing them to paper you may never get there. It is more effective to start getting words and ideas down, and then polish them into a draft statement you can move forward with. Like carving or sculpture, it makes sense to make a rough cut first before honing in on what you are really trying to say.

Josh from VEG with Elvira and new composting bays in Woodend. Design for Woodend property.

Accommodate Rather Than Compromise

Even in a small family, there will often be different priorities and desires for the space – not to mention a community or school garden! In creating the goal statement, we have found it important to work towards wording that accommodates differing priorities rather than settling for a compromise. This might not always be possible (which may indicate that the project needs reconsidering), but give it your best shot. Unless all stakeholders feel their deepest desires have been included and honoured, their buy-in and active participation can be undermined.

In many permaculture design projects, the main challenge is to help to enable positive collaboration among human beings; get that right and the rest is peanuts (or tomatoes, or apple trees, as the case may be). A statement capturing a shared vision of the space is a giant step towards productive collaboration.

Make It Concise

Try to keep your goal statement to two, or at most three, sentences. Don’t leave out anything crucial, but the fewer words the better.

Present Tense, Active Voice

Write in the present tense, as if what you want of your garden is already true. You’ll find the words are more powerful in driving the design process towards making them true. Not ‘we aim for our garden to be …’ but rather ‘our garden is a wild food forest dripping in fruit’. And use an active voice – active language is more grounded, direct and to the point. Rather than ‘our garden allows us to …’ consider ‘we pick abundant meals from our garden daily’.


Let It Evolve

Allow goal statements to evolve over time. Lose anything that stops feeling important, and add anything important that you realise is missing.

In summary, when designing edible gardens, articulate and agree project goals at the start. As simple as it seems, it has been a real step forward in our application of the permaculture design process.

Acknowledgement: I am most grateful to the work of Dave Jacke, who both in person and with Eric Toensmeier in Edible Forest Gardens (Chelsea Green Publishing Co 2005) put me on to many of the ideas, emphases of and terms I have used in this article. For their comprehensive treatment of the subject I recommend pages 146–59 of Edible Forest Gardens, volume II.

Dan Palmer runs Very Edible Gardens