Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

I’m sure each one of us has had times where we hadn’t thought through something, the thing happened, and it took a direction we hadn’t intended it to take. A little bit of forethought could have made all the difference, perhaps turning a failure into a success. My early attempts at gardening were like this–I didn’t have a plan, I put seeds in the ground without knowing how tall or wide the plants got, and then they came up and things went wild quite quickly!  Sometimes, serendipity took over and I had great successes if I could manage to weave my way through the thicket of tangles to the harvest. Other times, my plants were crowded out or strangled by each other or my harvest only lasted for a short time. What I learned, through permaculture and organic farming courses was this: a well-thought-out plan maximizes your yields, minimizes your time, and creates beautiful spaces. I started creating plans, working with nature, and suddenly, my gardens greatly improved!

Patterns of nature in a thistle!
Patterns of nature in a thistle!

When people talk about permaculture, they talk about it as a “design system.” One of the definitions of permaculture I work with goes like this: “Permaculture is a design system, rooted in patterns of nature, that helps humans restore and regenerate ecosystems while providing for their own needs.” What does it mean to be a designer? What do we do when we “design?” Why do we care so much about design? And how can design” in a permaculture sense be woven into our other spiritual practices? In this post, we’ll explore the principles of design and magic of intentionality as two of the cornerstones of the intersection between permaculture, and nature-based spiritual practice.

A lot of us feel really lost and confused about what’s going on in the world.  We feel very reactive rather than proactive.  We feel like we need to keep responding to things coming at us, rather than intentionally addressing, in advance, our own circumstances.  Things move so quickly, stuff happens, and we find ourselves always trying to keep our balance. It’s the nature of things, you might even say, it’s by design–just not our own. As a culture, we focus on problems, not on responses to problems–we are always hearing and focusing on everything that is going wrong.

But, what if we could reverse those scales a bit, and begin by designing our own lives and designing our interactions with the world?  That’s essentially, what a big part of permaculture is about, and why we use the concept of design. The idea of design, of intentionally and thoughtfully planning in advance, can be of great service to all of us. Design gives us power, in the sense that it gives us a plan to address problems we see. If more of us were able to take the energy we invest in problems (reading about them, experiencing them firsthand, etc.) and turn that into designing responses and enacting change, our world would be a very different place!

Design and the Flow of Awen

There are a lot of fields and practices that use design in some way, and if we are going to dig into what permauclture design is and why its useful to us as druids and others on nature-centered paths, let’s start with a few definitions. Merriam Webster Dictionary suggests that to design is to:

  • to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully
  • to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose
  • to think of (something, such as a plan): to plan (something) in your mind
  • to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan:
  • to assign in thought or intention; purpose:

From these definitions we get a few key pieces: design includes the practice of planning, in the mind or on paper, for some purpose.  Design is about goals–what we set in advance and bring into being. We use our minds, our creativity, our artistic skill, and the powers of observation to conceive of some kind of plan, which we can then execute and adapt as necessary. Part of this design work is, of course, setting intentions and following through with those intentions.

There’s also, implicit in these definitions of design, that design isn’t simply about planning ahead, but rather, that there is an art to the process.  Creativity, the flowing of awen, must be part of our designs. Designs in permaculture aren’t just simple plans, they are creative responses we can use to better adapt human needs to natural ones.  In this sense, it ties to the entire line of bardic arts–those of working with the hands, with the mind, with the flow of awen to design spaces, places, communities, and more.

Natural Building Inspired by Nature's Patterns and DesignsThis flow of awen comes, in permaculture, and in druidry, from the living earth herself.  Patterns in nature teach us patterns we can replicate in our more well-tended spaces.  Principles in nature teach us principles we can enact in our homes and lives.  Nature, then, is the ultimate designer and teacher: all that we can hope to do, and do well, is replicate her understandings.

Design and Magic of Intentionality

Further, in druid practice and other earth-centered spiritual practices, I think we can also tie design directly to the concept of intention in the magical sense of the word.  You often set “intentions” when you begin a ritual–the goals for the ritual, why we gather, why we open the space. Intentions help us direct activity and actions–these are things we want to accomplish. In magical work, we often leave the designs itself to the universe/spirits/diety/etc. We set intentions, raise energy, and send it out. But in permaculture, we take a more focused hand. Designs give us the plans that we need to move forward in collaboration and communion with the living earth.

I’m not saying that intentionality and design are the same: they are not.  But I am saying that they are related acts, and come from the same place in the heart: the desire to accomplish good in the world, and to enact positive change.

Nature’s Designs

Nature's designs....
Nature’s designs….

The other side to permaculture, of course, is that it is a design system that replicates the many patterns and connections already present in the natural world. Whether you believe in higher hands guiding natural development or simply in evolutionary processes doesn’t really matter–what matters is that nature has an incredible wealth of information to teach us, patterns to show us, if only we are ready to see them.

In Permaculture Design, we use nature’s designs in at least two ways:

Conceptually, we design using principles and patterns in nature.  This means that we try to replicate the natural processes that already occur: designing with ecological succession in mind (I design for 100 years, not 1!), trapping and using existing energy flows, designing polycultures (groups of diverse plants) that support each other, and so on.  When we look to nature as our master designer, what we create is more effective.

Visually, we design using patterns in nature.  A leaf keyhole pattern in a garden means maximized space and beauty; a wave pattern is visually asthetic and offers many edges and margins; a spiral pattern replicates ancient truths.  We visually create designs rooted in nature and that replicate her patterns.

What are the Design Principles?

In the tradition of many hermits, one day in the early 1970’s, Bill Mollison got fed up with society, went into the forest, spent a lot of time observing and simple being present, found wisdom there, and came out with his first draft of the design principles. Of course, as I wrote about in an earlier post on this series, Mollison was giving a new treatment to ancient truths. The design principles are, in essence, those small lessons that nature has taught humanity over and over again, its quite and yet profound way.

I see them a lot like lights and markers along an otherwise dark path—we stumble in the dark, but the light of the principles helps guide our way. But to me, the design principles are more than just “design” principles—they are principles for living and being in the world. I use them from everything from themes for discursive meditation to mantras for daily living—here are three ways they can be used:

Wave Pattern in Garden
Wave Pattern in Garden

Good Decisions. First and foremost, the design principles help us make better, smarter decisions that are earth-centered and earth-honoring. When I’m deciding how to do anything, the principles are there, helping me guide my decision. For example: I’m faced with the prospect of a bunch of leftover food after an event on campus. The design principles offer some simple solutions through “produce no waste” or “waste is a resource.” How then, can I turn this waste into a resource? Take it home, compost it, feed it to a friend’s chickens, and so forth.

Good Design. Of course, beyond immediate life decisions, the design principles offer us much in the way of good design. I’ll be going into the principle of design more in an upcoming post, but in a nutshell, one definition of design is, “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object” ( This is to say, if we use the design principles for good design, we can live our lives and create/inhabit our spaces with intention and forethought in an ethical, nature-centered way.

Meditation Mantras. The third way the design principles work (at least for me) is as mantras for meditation. Deep meditation and reflection upon the nature of the design principles can lead to a more robust understanding not only of how to use them in your life, but in interacting and understanding nature. For example, “use the edges and value the marginal” leads us to understand nature’s patterns but also my own spiritual practices.

Designing the Inner and Outer Realms

What I love so much about permaculture as a system of design is that it can be applied just about anywhere.  Just as the permaculture ethics (which I wrote about in the last post in this series, and in the distant past) can be applied to both inner and outer work, so too, can the entire permaculture design system be applied to both our inner and outer realms.

Here’s what I mean: one permaculture design principle, which we’ll talk more about next week is: observe, interact, and intuit. This principle is exceedingly useful in considering for our outer landscapes, in that we can observe through the seasons to come to an understanding about how to create beautiful and regenerative spaces. We can observe the flows of nature and energy, note the challenges before us, and pay attention to the changing light, heat, and flows to understand the best approach to developing and regenerating this particular piece of land.

Leaf Patterns
Leaf Patterns

But the same principle can be equally effective on the inner landscape: we can step back from ourselves and observe our feelings, our interactions, our inner realms–and this can be deeply useful in our own healing and growth as human beings.  In fact, each of the permaculture principles of design, which I’ll be talking about quite soon in my own druidic way, can function on the outer and the inner–both as a way to design outer functional landscapes of any kind (cities, communities, homes, gardens, farms, campuses, etc) but also work deeply within our inner landscapes.  This series will weave between those two aspects of permaculture as a practice and a system of design.


Design offers us a kind of compass and roadmap for the journey ahead.  It takes the guesswork out of things, and instead, helps us plan carefully and effectively before enacting those plans in a meaningful and ethical way.  Design connects directly to patterns in nature, allowing us to carefully understand and replicate those patterns in our own inner and outer landscapes. As simple as design  is as an idea, the actual practice of design takes a bit more work.  In our next post (next week) we’ll explore the design principles as they weave through the four elements and continue to spiral inwards into understanding the relationship of permaculture and druidry.


    1. Thank you for the reblog! 🙂

  1. […] Source: Permaculture: Design by Nature and the Magic of Intentionality | The Druid’s Garden […]

  2. I had to smile at your description of your early gardens. It sounds just like the refugia garden I started this year! The difference, though, is that wildness was part of my intention for this garden.

    I like what you said about the relationship and the difference between intention and design. Part of the design of my refugia was to incorporate a tree for its solar tempering and water retaining qualities. Plus, the one tree I have on my lot is a locust, so there’s nitrogen fixing going on too. That’s the dimension of design.

    But there was a deeper intention behind encouraging a diverse ecosystem around this tree. I’ve been able to have meaningful contact with many trees, mostly using your experiences as a guide. This tree, though, was extremely… distant. All I ever got was a sense of isolation and withdrawl. It felt like a ghost that dreamed of being a tree.

    I don’t know what kind of locust it is. It has no thorns, it’s small (maybe 25 feet) and it’s never put out pods. I figure it was “designed” in a nursery. Something essential has been denied to this tree, and I wanted to give it community. Our interrelations with others in our environment give our lives context, and I strongly feel that this holds true for all life.

    I’m proceeding very slowly with this tree, mostly just being present in the garden and sharing breath with it, but I saw something very encouraging recently. I welcome all “weeds”, (this year, at least) so long as they aren’t starting a monoculture or actively killing something I want. A couple of newcomers were really giving me a challenge trying to figure out what they were, until it hit me: the locust was actually putting up suckers!

    I haven’t tried to commune with the tree since making that discovery (like I said, I’m moving slowly) but I’m very encouraged by this development. It shows a level of participation in life beyond mere existence.

    I’m looking forward to this upcoming series. I’ve made a lot of observations over the past year, and your knowledge and experience with design should help me make sense of it in a practical manner. Also, what a wonderful suggestion to use design principles as themes for meditation! Thanks again for sharing your journey.

    1. Ynnothir,

      Oh, I had wild gardens that were intentional–but some of my early ones were ill planned. Nature did its thing regardless (or perhaps in spite of my planning), but there isn’t anything quite like trying to pick tomatoes in the middle of a nettle patch or have sprawling food on the ground so that each step ends up smashing something you’d rather eat. 😛

      I’m delighted to hear about your refugia garden, and I’m so encouraged by your story of the locust tree. I have found that locusts can have a….hard energy sometimes. I haven’t written on them yet (my tree series is one I’ve been neglecting, and will change that this fall and winter!) but I have been doing research on the locust. Most of the locusts I’ve worked with are either black locusts or honey locusts. I grew up with the black locusts, so they are good friends, but some of the others are more distant. Part of it is that the locusts (at least the black locusts) drop their leaves so much earlier than the other trees, and bud out so much later. They have a shorter window of being “active” if it was, and that might be some of the distance at a species level. But there’s also this issue of breeding, or over-breeding, in the plant kingdom.

      I have two thoughts on the matter:
      A) Its interesting that you talk about the nursery “design” of this tree. I’m not sure you’ve noticed this, but it is something herbalsts do know in the herbalism community: the hawthorn trees that are bred to not have thorns aren’t as potent medicinally. Again, its like something has been “denied” to them when their thorns no longer protect their trunks. I have a set of these on campus, which I was delighted to find, but when I made medicine from them, I could just intuit that they weren’t as potent. Its the same with Yarrow and many other plant allies–the yarrow you gather wild in a field is so much more medicinal than the fancy colored varieties you find in people’s gardens….

      B) I also think here about companion animals that have been over-bred (like a stray cat I had that was likely a purebred himalayan — she had such bad congestion and snoring issues because the breed had been bred not for functionality, but for look). I saw a graphic of this once online somewhere –comparing the hounds and labs and other such dogs from 100 years ago to today. The breeding has caused all kinds of really bad genetic defects. I wonder if the same is true in the plant kingdom. Does that over breeding (taking the wild out of the locust, or the hawthorn) actually harm their spirits? Your story seems to suggest it does. And that’s a *really* important insight.

      I’m so glad to hear that some rehabilitation can be done–perhaps you are working to encourage the tree spirit to come out of its long slumber!

      I’d be interested in continuing this conversation further, if you have any additional insight.

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