One of the hardest things about permaculture, or any project for that matter, is getting started. It can be so overwhelming to balance all of the different environmental factors and dynamic relationships between all the different elements and the environment and create a comprehensive plan that will account for all of them. It might even be impossible.
While it is important to consider these things, we shouldn’t let that paralyze us and keep us from acting. Staying in the planning phase for too long can cause us to lose motivation, but going out there and actually building these systems can be incredibly inspiring and invigorating. Obviously it is important that we are planning for and designing around these concerns of environment and complex relationships, but it we tired to plan for everything we would be planning forever and never actually do anything.
The critical question becomes: How do we balance proper planning with actual implementation of those plans?
Permaculture has tools and strategies to help us with this, particularly the principles of Designing from Patterns to Details and Using Small & Slow Solutions.
By designing from patterns to details, we don’t necessarily need to know exactly the paths that water will take through the landscape from the get-go, but by looking at the topography and slope of the land and knowing seasonal weather patterns, we can know generally where it comes from and where it goes and when, and design swales and retention ponds accordingly. By using small and slow solutions, we can continue to adjust the shape of the ponds and re-route the different overflow streams over time as we observe and interact with them and learn how they behave.
We don’t need to know every single relationship that will exist between different species in a guild, but we can know generally how they behave. For example, we might know that american persimmons get browsed by deer and require pollination, and so we might want to plant them with strong aromatic support plants and other flowering plants, but we might not know how they will interact with specific opportunistic species like mint or anise hyssop. The pattern is that persimmons need these support plants, but the details are which particular species we choose. By working with small and slow solutions, we can plant out a couple of different combinations and watch how they grow and develop over the years, then use that information to inform future plantings, going back in and making adjustments to existing plantings as necessary.
We might initially want to plan out every species in the garden and exactly where they will all be located, but as we observe and interact we may notice that certain functions are missing in certain areas and we have to introduce new species to accomplish those functions, or we might notice that certain areas are overcrowded and need to be thinned. Some of these might be foreseeable and planned for, while others can only be learned by experience and adapted to on the fly. If we commit ourselves to a comprehensive and rigid plan, then we are only limiting ourselves in our ability to learn and adapt to new situations and conditions.
By designing from patterns to details and using small and slow solutions, we can work on big-picture and long-term goals without knowing exactly how it all will look. This allows us to do things today to prepare for an unknown tomorrow. And some of those things might just surprise us.
Permaculture is an iterative process. Conditions are always changing, and our designs must be able to adapt and change with them. So don’t get to bogged down with trying to plan out every single species interaction or how every single drop of water will move through the landscape. Focus on the patterns, and the details will fall into place.