Permaculture Designers Manual



Section 3.4 –

Deduction from Nature Design by adopting lessons learnt from nature

The impetus that started Masanobu Fukuoka on his remarkable voyage to natural farming was the sight of healthy rice plants growing and yielding in untended and uncultivated road verges. If rice can do this naturally, he asked, why do we labor to cultivate the soil?

In time he achieved high-yielding rice production on his farm without cultivation, without fertilizers or biocides, and without using machinery.


Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a farmer and philosopher who was born and raised on the Japanese island of Shikoku. He studied plant pathology and spent several years working as a customs inspector in Yokohama.

While working there, at the age of 25, he had an inspiration that changed his life.  He decided to quit his job, return to his home village and put his ideas into practice by applying them to agriculture.



Via our senses (which include the sensations of the skin in relation to pressure, wind chill, and heat), and the organized, patterned, or measured information we extract from observation, we can discover a great deal about natural processes in the region we are examining.


In order to put our observations about nature to use, we need to look at the following:



We can imitate the structure of natural systems. If we have palms, vines, large evergreen trees, an “edge of herbaceous perennials, a groundcover of bulbs or tubers, and a rich bird fauna in the natural system of the region, then we can reconstruct or imitate such a system structure on our site, using some native species for pioneers, bird forage, or vine supports.

We can add to this the palms, vines, trees, tubers, and poultry that are of great use to our settlement (over that broad range of uses that covers food, crafts, medicines, and fuels).

After studying the natural placement of woody legumes or windbreak in natural systems, we can imitate these in designed systems.

We can improve on local species by finding out-of-region or exotic species even better suited to those roles than those of an impoverished or degraded native flora and fauna.

Certainly, we can carefully select species of a wider range of use to settlements than the natural assembly.


Apart from the structure of natural systems, we need most of all to study process. Where does water run? How does it absorb?

Why do trees grow in some special sites in deserts?

Can we construct or use such processes to suit ourselves?

Some of the proccesses we observe are processes “energized” by animals, wind, water, pioneer trees or orbs, and fire.

How does a tree or herb propagate itself in this region? As every design is a continuous process, we should most of all try to create useful self-generating systems.


Some examples would be:

On Lake Chelan (Washington State, USA), walnuts self-generate from seed rolling downhill in the valleys of intermittent streams.

Similar self-propagation systems work for palms in the tropics, Aleurites (candle-nut) in Hawaii, and asparagus along sandy irrigation channels.

Thus, we save ourselves a lot of work by setting up headwater plantations and allowing these to self-propagate downstream (as for willows, Russian olive, and hundreds of water-plant species, including taro in unstable flood-water lowlands), as long as these are not a problem locally.

Birds spread useful bird forages such as elderberries, Coprosma, Lycium, autumn olive, pioneer trees or herbs, and preferred grains such as Chenopodium species.

If we place a few of these plants, and allow in free ranging pigeons or pheasants, they will plant more. The same applies to dogs or foxes in the matter of loquats, bears for small fruits, and cattle for hard seeds such as honey locusts.

Burrowers and hoarders such as gophers will carry bulbs and root cuttings into prairie, and jays and squirrels, choughs, or currawongs spread oaks when they bury acorns.

If, in grasslands or old pastures, we see that a “pioneer” such as tobacco bush, a pine, or an Acacia provides a site for birds to roost, initiating a soil change so that clumps or coppices of forest form there, we can use the same techniques and allied species to pioneer our food forests, but selecting species of more direct use to us.

Many native peoples do just this, evolving scattered forest nuclei based on a set of pioneer trees, termite mounds, compost heaps, and so on.

We can provide perches for birds to drop pioneer seeds, and so set up plant nuclei in degraded lands around simple perches placed on disturbed sites.

We can provide nest holes so that owls may then move in to control rodents, purple martins to reduce mosquitoes, or woodpeckers to control codling moth. Many nurse plants allow insect predators to overwinter, feed, or she1ter within our gardens, as do small ponds for frogs and rock piles for lizards.

If we want these aids to pest control, we need to provide a place for them. Some of these natural workers are very effective (woodpeckers alone reduce codling moth by 40-60%).

To limit a rampant plant, or to defeat invasive grasses, we need only to look to nature. Nature imposes successions and limits on every species and once we know the rules, we can use this succession to limit or exclude our problem species.


Many soft vines will smother prickly shrubs. Browsed or cut out, they allow trees to permanently shade out the shrub, or rot its seeds in mulch. Kikuyu grass is blocked from spreading by low hedges of comfrey, lemongrass, arrowroot (Conna spp.), or nasturtiums.

We can use some or all of these species at tropical garden borders, or around young fruit trees. We can smother rampageous species such as Lantana by vines such as chayote (Sechium edulis) and succeed them with palm/ legume forests, by cutting or rolling tracks and then planting legumes, palms, and ‘vines of our choice.

Where rampageous grasses smother the trees, we set our trees out in a protecting zone of “soft ” barrier plants such as comfrey, nasturtium, or indeed any plant we locally observe to “beat the grass , and we surround our mulched gardens with belts of such plants.

There are hundreds of such botanical lessons about us. Look long enough, and the methodologies of nature become clear.

This is design by analogy: we select analogous or botanically-allied species for trials. If thistles grow around a rabbit warren, then perhaps if we disturb the soil, supply urine and manure, and sow seed, we will get globe artichokes (and so I have!) or we can pen goats or sheep on a place, then shut them out and plant it.

It was by such thinking that the idea of chicken or pig “tractors” evolved to remove such stubborn weeds as nut-grass, Convolvulus, onion-weed, and twitch before planting a new succession of useful plants.

Or we can provide fences or pits to trap wind-blown debris (dried leaves, rabbit and sheep manures, sea grasses), which can be gathered for garden use. And so on…

All these strategies can be derived from observing natural processes, and used consciously in design to achieve a great reduction in work, hence energy inputs.



Gullies, ridge tops, natural shade, the sides of multi-storey buildings and exposed sunny sites all demonstrate different opportunities, just as various velocities and grades of streams or rock-falls present specific niches.

We can find a use for each and every such special site, whether as an aid to food storage, food dehydration, as an energy source in itself or as a site for a special animal or plant.

We also create such opportunities over time as we grow groves of trees, raise earth banks, build houses, or excavate caves. It is in the creation of microclimates that we find a natural diversity and richness increasing.

Every clump of trees invites new species to establish, every shaded area provides a refuge from heat, and every stone pile a moist and shaded soil site.

We can plan such revolutions, and plant to take advantage of them, using data derived from a close observation of natural systems.



Life is not all survival in a stable ecosystem. First by designing well, and then observing system evolution, we gain contemplative and celebratory time.

In celebration we can incorporate the myths and skills that are important to future generations. In contemplation we find more refined, profound, or subtle insights into good procedures.

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To implement and manage a constructed or natural system inevitably leads to a more revelationary lifestyle, a more satisfied and contented life, and a sense of one’s place in nature.

To become a philosopher is not necessarily to be of benefit to the natural world, but to become a designer or gardener is to directly benefit nature or society, and one will inevitably generate natural ethics and philosophies.

To become a good designer is to be in search of an understanding of nature, and to be content with the search itself.

It is to design by natural example, becoming aware, taking notes, sitting a long time in one place, watching the wind behave and the trees respond, thrusting your hand into the soil to feel it for moisture (it is always more moist on the shade side of tussock grasses, for example), and becoming sensitive to the processes and sights about you.

In microcosm and macrocosm, we can learn from the world, and these are the very best lessons to adopt. There are a thousand lessons to learn, some so obvious that we could pinch ourselves for failing to notice them.

Such an experiential system of design, in broad and in detail, is almost obliterated by the classroom, the sterile playground, toys, and didactic education.

The huge information store that is nature is a primary reason for its preservation. We can never afford such a fine teacher or an equivalent education system that operates without cost or bureaucratic involvement.