In Methods of Design & Patterns, Plants & Living Systems

I woke up this morning with a realization – nothing I didn’t already know in principle, just a clearer understanding of how certain principles fit together to create good design. My epiphany was visualizing integrated design as a three-legged stool which requires all three legs to make a stable seat/design.

The three legs of the design stool are

  • The Elements (food forest, roof, solar panel)
  • The Placement of each Element relative to other Elements (Solar panel on top of a roof)
  • The Temporal Aspect (how time affects the orchestration of the first two )
By MONNIN Jacques [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Most elements are placed following aesthetic criteria as opposed to function or, more importantly, the functional relationship to other elements. This is where the saying “permaculture design is not the solar panel, the roof or the rain barrel, but the connections between them” comes from. Good design focuses on the element and its placement relative to other elements. Great design has one more dimension – the temporal dimension.

When I am designing for other people, such as during a three hour consultancy, I focus most of my energy and time on selecting the elements and locations. What I don’t usually provide a lot of guidance on is the placement of elements with regard to time. It is amazing to me is how much better I can make a situation by re-ordering elements in space without considering the time element too carefully, but the more I think about design, the more I realize that to design like an ecosystem designs, you can’t ignore the time element. You can get all of the elements and the placement of those elements correct, but if you get the time element wrong, the whole thing can fail.

Most people are generally aware of the element of time in design, at least at a rudimentary level. For example, you shouldn’t plant a tree in the middle of winter or put your seedlings out before the ground is thawed. Few people grasp the more advanced design relationship to time and the repercussions.

Ecosystems are specialists in timing, placement, and species (elements) in relation to everything around them. They should be, they’ve had an unlimited budget and 4 billion years of research and development to get it right. When you start looking at ecosystems in terms of space and time, what you see is more of an orchestra than a statue. Things are constantly in motion and when the connections between these things in motion work together at the right time, we can find harmony. When they don’t, the opposite is true. As a designer we get the opportunity to choose our own time scale, the notes that we play and when we play them. In essence we are the conductor of an orchestra with an unlimited number of melodies with an unlimited number of time scales. The melody is equivalent to the placement of notes relative to each other, the time scale is the time element.

 The Temporal Aspect in Action

Photo credit:

Joel Salatin is what I would refer to as a master conductor and he is always tinkering with both the melody and the time scale. Every time he finds a new combination that works, he writes a new piece of music. His instruments are cows and chickens. One of his main compositions is his pastured poultry and salad bar beef combination. For those of your unfamiliar with how cows and chickens are currently raised, I recommend googling factory farming, Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) and industrial chicken houses. These are design examples that get it all wrong. To improve horrendous designs, you can just raise these animals on grass and the system improves dramatically – their health improves, the over-fertility that feedlots produce is used as a resource and the product is worth more because it has more nutrition. This, however, is still only designing with two dimensions in mind. To get the third dimension right, you have to understand the intrinsic nature of each of the elements. Cows eat grass and produce habitat for bug larvae, while chickens are scavengers and scratch the ground apart looking for bugs and larvae. When you are designing with time in mind, there are always a number of different permutations and combinations that you can try – a few will work but one will fly.

Here are some examples with chickens and cows:

  1. If you put the chickens on the pasture before the cows you end up with unscratched cow patties, a surplus of bugs and grass that is not clean for grazing for the cows.
  2. If you put the chickens behind the cows the day after the cows have grazed, you get the cow patties dispersed but there are no bug larvae for the chickens to eat.
  3. If you put the chickens on the land 72 hours after the cows graze, the larvae are perfectly plump and ready to eat, which reduces the flies on the farm, disperses the manure, builds topsoil and reduces feeding cost for your birds.
  4. If you wait longer than 72 hours, the larvae will be flies and the birds won’t gain all the benefits of example #3.

Example #3 is what I call effortlessness or working with fulcrums. When you find the fulcrum, things work and it always appears that the output is more than the sum of the inputs, almost like a perpetual motion machine.

Chopping and Dropping a Food Forest

In permaculture gardening and food forestry, this principle can also be applied to how we get a forest up from nothing. The Chop and Drop is a great example of this. If you do it at the wrong time in the early stages of the forest life, the forest may not make it, but if you get it right, you can speed up the regeneration of the forest ecology dramatically.

The design of food forestry is beyond the scope of this post. However, when we are chopping and dropping the nitrogen fixers and pioneer species in an effort to build soil, it is important to bring down these plants at the right time of year relative to moisture in the ecosystem. The rule of thumb is to chop and drop when precipitation (rain, dew) is higher than evaporation. This is because shade is more valuable as an evaporation reducing strategy than mulch. So we want to bring our mulch producing/soil producing plants down when evaporation is low and precipitation is high, allowing the forest to rebuild the shade layer before it becomes hot and dry. In the cold temperate ecosystem, this is less important than in an arid environment like the desert. Getting this wrong in the desert, or even wet tropics or sub tropics, will kill your forest.

Here is a video that I did a few years ago on chopping and dropping.

After this morning, I realized that I have not spent enough time thinking about timing. I believe this one concept, when considered in conjunction with the other two elements, can pay more dividends than we can even understand. The two examples above are relatively simple examples where there are one, two or three interactions at play. When we start working with 10, 15 or even a hundred elements, things start to get really interesting and complex. Some might argue that that many interactions are not manageable or even designable. I would tend to agree; however, if we get the base elements figured out, nature will find ways to fill in voids in space and time and all we have to do is try and replicate the pattern that nature is showing us in a way that helps us to build complex, stable, anti-fragile systems. Examples of these patterns include weeds that show up in your system after a certain disturbance and timing of disturbance, specifically dynamic accumulators, as well as pests like aphids, slugs and other bugs. These guys are just showing you that your system is incomplete. The best expression of this is “you don’t have a slug problem, just a duck deficiency.” Don Ruzicka, who runs a Salatin-like operation, has spent a lot time rebuilding the riparian zones on his property, providing bird habitat which means that he has no grasshopper problems on his farm while all of his neighbours are spraying for them.

Ecosystem Events as Indicators – Learning from the orchestra

Observing these patterns is something that I am deeply interested in. I love to collect indicators and distill what they mean in terms of design. Every ecosystem has them, and every ecosystem therefore needs a book written on them. These patterns are events in space and time that happen to or with specific elements. They require us to uber conscious as they are subtle and easily missed in our hyper techno lives. Below are some examples of temporal patterns and how they can guide design.

The Black Poplar

Photo credit: Christian Fischer

One of my favourite indicators is the Black Poplar. In Calgary we have very erratic weather due to our proximity to the mountains. For this reason, it can be hard to know when to plant your garden to avoid the last frost. To get a sense of when to plant, you can look at long range forecasts, which are always wrong, or you can go to the elder in the ecosystem, our native black poplar. This tree observes the weather far better than I do and can see, smell or sense the climatic patterns that I can’t. Because it is native, it knows when the last frost will come and can make a really good guess about when it should put out its leaves. This gives me a clue as to when I should put out my garden.

More Abstract

Most of us are bound to working 9 to 5 for most of the year. In addition most of us vacation at the same time, in the same places. This creates chaos through the entire system. I would argue one of the most important ways that you can regain control and sanity of your life is by designing the time element.

Some examples of chaos due to poor time planning:

  • Rush hour
  • High season and low season for vacation rentals
  • Market gardening (everyone is producing at the same time reduces the price)
  • 50% off end of season sales

If you can find a way to own your time, or at least more of it, you can find niches in space and time to take advantage of low traffic periods, cheap shorts at the end of the season, growing food that has a counter schedule to mainstream growers or adding value to your products so that they are available at different times and vacationing in the off season. In life, this means either less money to generate or more money generated in less time which equals more free time and a higher quality of life. One of the ways that we have been able to live on so little is this exact principle. After my epiphany, what I realized was that for us to reach the next stage in our life, we have to get the timing right in our design.

To summarize, we have to get all three of the design legs on the stool right to make great regenerative design. If we get it wrong, the system will wind down. If we get it close, the system will function, but if we get it right, it will soar! In terms of ecological design, we look for metrics that indicate whether we are dealing with an upward spiral, a static system or a downward spiral.

Metrics for upward spirals:

Ecological systems

  • more soil
  • more bugs
  • more diversity
  • fewer pioneer species (weeds)
  • fungi
  • faster growth than a similar species in close proximity
  • less predation
  • fewer plant pathogens
  • more output for the same or less work

In our lives and businesses

  • more money for less time (not following the trends of others in your industry)
  • less money to do the same things (doing things off season, taking advantage of the chaos)
  • less energy to get the same distance (wheel barrows, total immersion swimming, bicycles)

In the end we have to be conscious of the feedback that we receive. In integrated design, our landscapes will tell us what they need if we are tuned in and conscious to what is happening. Using herbicides is an example of not being conscious. In our businesses, our cash flow, level of energy, enthusiasm and passion will indicate if we are doing the right things. In our lives, meditation and self awareness, both mental and physical, provide us with the same clues as weeds in the garden. Ultimately, we are all connected elementally in space and time as an ecosystem. Our job is to learn how to dance again with everyone we are connected to. So, go out and make some music, I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing it!

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Showing 3 comments
  • Tyann Matthews

    This is exactly what I am ready for, to listen and learn about my timing, instead of trying to push things to come into being ages before they are ready. I appreciate this post and the sentiment behind it, thank you!

  • Angelica Mendoza

    Time is for sure a great aspect to take into consideration in a good design. But I have a concern about the examples showing in the article: how general people can know exactly the right time when actions should happen? The given example about Salatin’s chickens and cows system mention a precise time of 72h after caws graze, when chickens should go to pasture. How could we know this precise number of hours in order to get a positive result? It makes me think about other similar information that I do not know and that could put in risk an entire project. Any thoughts about that? 🙂

  • kurtis

    Yeah bro,

    Great subject and wonderful exploration. The ability to tune in to what needs doing (or not) and when is truly a learning art and discerning science.

    Just today, after rolling my ankle and seeing some nice storm clouds approaching from the SW, I was like: “yeah, definitely gonna let the rain finish leveling my bedding sand rather than continuing to tamp…”

    Can’t wait to see the result on the morrow!



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