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Declutter Your Life

Permaculturists see the world differently – Cecilia in Tokyo. Photos by Cecilia Macaulay
Create guilds of objects for getting infrequent, procrastinated done
Guests willingly join in at my long-term harborside housesit, Balmain

The garden is a good place to start doing permaculture. But Bill Mollison would be shaking his head in dismay if it stopped there, behind a little fence: ‘Poor bastards’, he’d be saying.

From the beginning, permaculture has been something to apply to every area of life: architecture, economics and community building. So why are permaculture books almost entirely about land use? Give Bill a break; he’s been roughing it on the road, too busy spreading his message to get good at the nesting side of things. He gave us a blueprint, a set of design principles that work, no matter where you use them; now he’s waiting for us to write the next generation of permaculture books. Like everyone else, most of your joys and sorrows come from your home life and relationships. Home: that’s the place for your best permaculture.

Below are some of the ‘reframes’ of gardenbased permaculture that have been a hit with my students for turning things around in their homes; instantly, permanently or both, but always miraculously, apparently.

But there’s more, an unlooked-for blessing: once we commit to deploying permaculture where it really counts, permaculture itself gets a makeover. ‘Permaculture-isms’ that sound good in theory, but don’t work, get checked. We re-read Bill and David Holmgren. We relook at how nature works, and see we hadn’t quite got it. Flakey bits fall away and, as people look at our cared-for lives, our robust, realitychecked permaculture, they say ‘I want more of what she’s got’. No persuasion necessary.

‘Bradley Method’ Of Clutter Control

You spend hours sorting your clutter, getting things to look ordered. In a day or two, it’s reverted to the same daunting tangle. ‘Why bother’, you start to think. ‘Any unuseable resource is pollution’, says Bill. Home life cannot flourish in clutter: you have to wade though it to cook your meals, think your thoughts. Like all recurring problems, the clutter challenge requires multiple solutions. An inspiration for me was the Bradley Method of weed management and naturalistic bush regeneration. On their walks in the Sydney Harbour National Park the Bradley sisters, Joan and Eileen, noticed that weeds grew back fastest on the vulnerable, denuded soil. They found that if they started where intact native vegetation was strongest, and trimmed weeds from its edges, healthy bushland would expand until invaders were shaded and crowded out. Their method became NSW-wide policy.

The message: find what’s working; allow it to expand at its own rate, and watch it prevail. Here are some steps to help.


‘Wouldn’t it be nice’, I suggested to my Japanese client ‘If those pots weren’t cluttering the only blank wall. It could then display your “red and green” self.’ ‘Yes, But I need them there as it makes them easy to reach.’ ‘You are right. It would have been nice if it was an art wall, but easy is important’, I said. Two days later, without another word from me, she took the drill and swapped the pot rack for the back wall in the hallway. Tell someone why they are wrong, and the natural reaction is to search for reasons why they are right. State facts without opposing them, and they work it out themselves.

The hallway to the back door hadn’t been used in years. Their son did these joyful laps of the newly-useable house ‘We can go anywhere’ became a convincing idea.

Take Photographs

Take ten close-up photos of arrangements you find beautiful in your house. Look for common themes, and that’s what you’re aiming for, for example: ‘It’s earthy tones and materials for me, all the way!’ Then take ten photos of arrangements you find unharmonious; what you don’t want to live with any more. Look for their common themes, for example: ‘Why is everything I own broken?’ These ‘invaders’ will start to disappear from the moment you name them. And because the change is generated by you, not imposed, it’s more likely to prevail.

Create A Kitchen Sink Of Beauty And Love

Bill insists that we complete stage one of our creative efforts at the back doorstep, an attention-rich zone that bridges two worlds: inside and outside. Its indoor equivalent, I have observed, is the kitchen sink. I don’t let my clients move on to declutter other areas of their house until they’ve maintained their sink as the ‘zone of beauty and love’ for at least two weeks.

As always when making a system change, start by creating a vacuum, destabilising the existing system. Take away everything but the essentials, for example detergent, compost bin, squeezed-out cloth and brush. These should be of excellent quality, clean, coordinate harmoniously, and inspire even visitors to wash your dishes. You don’t need a plastic take-away container to hold soggy cloths. Decant detergent into a colourful jug. Follow the theme of what is beautiful for you. Display a vase of flowers from the garden: like attracts like, and dirty dishes will start to look out of place. From now on there should be no arguing over who washes the dishes.

Defend this zone, keep it strong, and the beauty will spread throughout your home.

Maki’s sink, now reduced to 1/4 the objects of before. Square pretty compost bin, flowers, light-green and red theme, attractive brushes, and the view to the garden reclaimed. Honour the Dishwasher

Create Guilds

Just as we populate the garden with creatures which get along well and support each other, store objects in a way which supports their mission. Group items for essential, but irregular, functions , for example for wrapping presents, and long-distance travel.

Use Kid-Power

Just like when you encourage beneficial insects, children can be sent on a rampage of tidying your house if you get the design right. Reframe the task so it goes with, not against, what they already love doing. No children: your inner-child will do just fine.

Bus stop method. Put trays by each door: the ‘bus stops’. When children see something that doesn’t belong in a room, it gets put in the bus stop, for example pyjamas or toys. Then, when you or the children are going out that door on some other mission, see if there are any ‘passengers’ that want to go that way.

Winnable races. Take children into the back garden with an empty treasure-chest each. Say ‘Whoever fills it up, with rubbish/weeds/ tomatoes … is the winner – Go!’ Don’t be the mother forced into nagging her children to help. Build in a measurable sense of progress.

Make ‘families’. Children love families, so challenge them to group objects. ‘Let’s pick a jar for the crayon family. Yes, of course we can draw them a letterbox for their house. Yes, making neighbourhoods is a great idea. Let’s make sure they are all home in time to have dinner together.’

Reduce Useless Diversity

‘It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components’, says Bill. It’s common for kitchens to have many different container lids, and pasta served for dinner every second night. Seek nurturing diversity: of guests, of conversations, of food choices. Avoid un-designed diversity: of cleaning products under the sink, of condiments in the pantry. Clutter squanders decision-making ability, and reduces harmony. Decisionmaking ability is a limited resource.

Increase The Useful Edge

On Sunday afternoon, my stash of goodies from the farmers’ market gets washed, trimmed, sometimes part-cooked, and put into clear, uniform and non-distracting containers in my fridge. I choose flat, deep containers, and stack them three storeys high, so that I can see what’s there. ‘Choose me, choose me!’, they say when I open the fridge. No more spring onions wilting unseen in the bottom of the crisper. No more toast for lunch. Recipes suggest themselves every day; good combinations jump into my mind.

Guests don’t know why they feel like washing dishes. Just as we stop weeds from growing by crowding them out with useful plants, keep high-attention, high-value objects on your sink:
Sprouts, goldfish, flowers. Knives on magnet: You can’t keep sharp knives kicking around in a drawer. You don’t want a block of wood taking up precious attention-space. Go vertical


All you need is an old jar (label lovingly removed), bridal tulle, mung or alfalfa seeds, and pretty elastic bands. Sink sculpture

A Harbourside pad in Belvue Hill, where I did a live-in home makeover. Once you get organised, the space is exactly the right size for whole food cooking for two – bigger is unwieldy, just lets you get away with being thoughtless. Feedback comes too late


Applications are open for Cecilia’s April and November public workshops in Melbourne and Sydney. Register with your vision of something hard and beautiful you would like to achieve. If design will get you there, you’ll be in. For notifications of sponsored free events throughout the year, contact: For more information about Celia’s approach

Discard Versus Create No Waste

When you start discarding – whether you sell the thing cheaply, take it to a charity shop, recycle it or put it in the rubbish bin – in the depths of your being a gnarly voice hisses, ‘Throw that out, and you die!’ A typical urban dweller needs to discard at least half of their possessions. Until you do, your home won’t function optimally, and neither will you. How can you care for the earth, care for people and share what’s spare when you’re overwhelmed and ineffective; busy trying to hide the fact that you got tricked into gathering a houseful of junk.

It will take around six months of focused work, inviting friends to help, to declutter your house. It is best to do it this way, as one big project. You are designing a new system, and there will be lots of what looks like waste.

‘Creativity is messy’, says Bill. It usually takes many drafts, iterations and much ‘waste’ till a quality result emerges; a reluctance to waste can lead to no creativity, no new contribution to this world. That’s the deal with creating; see it as iteration.

Thank each discarded object for what it taught you about what you never, ever need to buy again. After the right amount of wistful throwing-away sessions, the shopping appetite fades. The new life begins; a life where waste is designed out of the system.

So, if you’ve decided you want to get your uncluttered new life started, call a friend, and tell them your vision, and what you will do next. The Japanese believe that each word has a soul, and once it’s uttered it’s already a real thing. Making intentions real by speaking them to someone has worked for me. The impulse to change a deeply entrenched system is a precious, delicate thing, and can fade like a dream on waking. So get started: today rather than tomorrow.

In a world where everyone feels stuck, without choices, you were lucky to come across permaculture. Bring it inside; use it everywhere; make brave choices; and watch your spirit get stronger as your permaculture gets stronger. When you get skilled and powerful, share it, with: your family; your neighbours; people whose lives aren’t working for them; and people who are doing such great work in the world that you want to free them up to do even more, by making the home-side of things smoother. Don’t just leave all that good permaculture lying around on the ground.

Cecilia Macaulay has been introducing Australian Permaculture to creatives and corporates for the last 21 years. With ‘Permanent Agriculture’ as a powerful metaphor, her workshops & consulting create what looks like magic, to ease ourselves into getting things done, caring for ourselves properly, and as a side effect, creating a cared-for world.


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