The Survival Podcast Forum

Farm, Garden and The Land => Permaculture, Land Management and Foraging => Topic started by: spartan on October 03, 2010, 10:06:02 PM

Title: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: spartan on October 03, 2010, 10:06:02 PM
Well, after 7 months of one weekend a month classes, I have completed my Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and am now a certified Permaculture designer.  After all those hours of leaning in and out of class I feel that I know less than when I started.  This isn't because I didn't learn a lot, I did, but because the potential for Permaculture is so much larger than I knew when I started and this expanded understanding dwarfs my former knowledge.   Permaculture isn't about designing permanent agricultural systems anymore.  It is about building sustainable human cultures however, that work doesn't end when cultures become sustainable, Permaculture evolves with it to keep them so.

The following sections are a laundry list of thoughts about the class.  Feel free to respond with questions and I will answer them as I can.

What is a PDC?

A PDC is an extended introduction to Permaculture at the end of which you can be considered a Certified Permaculture Designer.  Though you will know more than 99.995% of the people on earth about the subject when you are done, it still only scratches the surface of what is possible and the many areas of interest.  From agricultural systems, to communities, vehicles, buildings, you can apply what is taught in this class to many human topics.  Areas of interest include aquaponics, hydroponics, biochar, alternative energy, energy efficiency, waste recycling, land use, and riparian repair just to name a few.

What does taking a PDC give me?

When you are done taking a PDC you can use Permaculture in you business, call yourself a Permaculturist, and also teach a PDC.  It is also the gateway to more advanced trainings, such as Permaculture Teacher certification (not required to teach).

What did I learn?

I learned how to take the Ethics of Permaculture (Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share) and Holmgren's 12 Principles ( ( to use as a framework to observe natural processes and apply them to designing a system.  The first half of the class, about 40 hours of instruction, accomplished this through a series of lectures and field exercises designed to reinforce the class knowledge.  Each day built on those before until we reached the design practicum, which used the remaining 32 hours or so, where we were able to use everything we learned to come up with a design.  This was accomplished as part of a design team of 4 people. 

Most importantly though, I learned that Permaculture and the PDC isn't about teaching techniques, like the herb spiral, keyhole bed, as we commonly see, but about providing the tool kit to be able to understand their importance in Permaculture and design like systems.

What was the class like?

This was the most relaxed and casual class I've ever taken but also one of the most informative because of it. We openly shared on any topic we wanted to talk about, when appropriate, which allowed us to pull from a giant pool of knowledge rather than our 2 teachers lecturing on and on.  Generally, for any given topic, with individual lectures being 45 minutes to 2 hours long, the instructors would teach for 50-75% of the alloted time and the rest would be question and answer, discussion, and exercises.

As noted below, the political tone was more left than right but there wasn't a whole lot of "Woo" in the class.  Nothing hippie-ish or particularly offensive to anyone's personal predilections on any side of the spectrum, though there were some discussions about how what we have now needs to be dismantled because it isn't working, though no agenda on how to do that.  Radical at times?  Yes.  Revolutionary?  Yes.  But all in an intellectual manner rather than offering specific ways to do it. Tyler Durden and the Narrator talking in the bathroom, not Project Mayhem.

What was the text book for the class?

We used David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  This was the only required text for the class.  There were some additional handouts, totaling 40 pages or so, but they were primarily for use as reference for a lecture or to prepare us for an exercise.  Multiple additional readings were suggested along the way including some that are recommended for people working as professional Permaculturists.

What were the fellow students like?

We had a diverse mix of people. 9 men, 3 women.  Ages 19-40+. Professions from landscaper, stay at home dad, to M.D.  One told tales that sounded like he was once, possibly in the near past, homeless, while others seemed more comfortable.  Though politically the vibe was more to the left than the right, plenty of our time was spent talking about using guns for pest disposal and hunting.  Many of us made our own wine and cordials and shared those during class. 

What was the final design like?

The design itself wasn't difficult, but it was complicated.  Even though our design site was well under an acre, we spent some 250 man hours on putting the final presentation together and only had the barest beginnings of a design, yet with that base design were able to fill the hour alloted for our final presentation.  We could have probably filled a full 8 hours discussing and detailing all of the elements we had thought about along the way but were unable to mention due to time.

Did anyone fail the class?

Only one person was considered to have not completed the class and that was by their choice.  They had not yet handed in their final homework packet and did not feel that they should take the certification for not completing the work.  Once they submit it they will receive their certification. 

What was the most important thing you learned in the class?

"Here is not there".  This has become my reigning Permaculture motto as I sit down to do the work of site assessments and designs I have in front of me.  It is a reminder that every situation is unique and there is no blanket solution for every problem.  As Jack mentioned in the episode about Permaculture, and I'm paraphrasing from my awful memory, for every hour of action you need 10 hours of thought.  This little aphorism keeps me grounded and reminds me that regardless of how similar two situations look, they are not the same and need to be evaluated on their own terms.

What was the most valuable lesson from the class?

I have actually done a Permaculture design and presented on it.  I've done it.  Not talked about it.  Not read about it.  I've done it. That experience is behind me which makes doing it again in the future that much easier.

Would I pay another $1000+ to take this class again?

Yes.  Though much of the lecture information can be obtained from books, rather inexpensively, where it was most useful was in the hands on exercises and knowledge share of other participants.  Mollison, Holmgren, Wilson, Jacke, et al, as much as they have thought about this and worked on the subject individually they are still a single person who comes from a particular perspective.  When you look at the short list of what the students were like you can see how many different viewpoints were regularly offered.

Would I recommend that other people take a PDC?

I was against taking a PDC unless someone wanted to do this professionally because of the plethora of information one can get for free elsewhere but now that I have had some time to look over the experience as a whole, I think anyone who has the slightest interest in Permaculture should put forth the time, money, and effort to take a PDC.  Another reason for this, however, is that most PDCs have a minimum class size to be financially viable for the instructors to teach.  If not enough people sign up for the classes, they get canceled, making it even harder for people to find one in the future.  It also limits the number of professional Permaculture instructors at a time when we need more people teaching this.

What do I intend to do now that I am certified?

Opening my own Permaculture design and consulting company and teaching a PDC.  I have people who are already interested in taking the PDC as soon as I am ready.  There are also some other projects brewing but they are still in the works.
Title: Re: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: Artos on October 05, 2010, 08:48:53 AM
Great comments and insight.  Once I get done with this language course, a PDC is VERY high on my personal skills list and this re-enforces that decision.

If you dont mind, who did you go through?
Title: Re: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: spartan on October 05, 2010, 08:45:58 PM
I took my PDC through Lower Susquehanna Valley Permaculture ( (  This was their first long course PDC and though you could tell in the first few sessions, it smoothed out as we moved forward.
Title: Re: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: Roswell on October 06, 2010, 07:57:31 AM
Good write up Spartan.  Thanks for taking the time to do this.
Title: Re: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: I.L.W. on October 06, 2010, 08:00:45 AM
It sounds like the class was a good experience for you.  I've been interested in taking one for a while, but there's only one in my area and it lacks... sanity.  I had the opportunity to sit in on one class, and the professor was an extremist green-party vegan who ridiculed a student for "enslaving animals to do work or feed us".  He wen't on to say that animals should be integrated into a permaculture design, but that it was unethical to think of them as one of the products of production.  I understand there's a certain political leaning among permaculturists, his distortion of the ethics and preaching to the class made it clear that his personal views were at ends with reason and practicality.  I actually got up and left after the first hour when he ended the first half by saying "Permaculture is the mechanism by which socialism can be introduced to our country".  As much as I'd love to warn against his specific class, I don't want that to take away from the credibility of those students who actually endured through it.

I know this is just one nut-job professor, not representative of the group by any means.  But while not every class is run by a lunatic, I do recognize the issues that present them selves when a subject based primarily on ethics and political or economic beliefs is taught as though it was a science. There is a definite scientific study to permaculture, but the methods of employing that study are tied to the ethics.

Personally, I think these classes would be better if some of the underlying themes were broken off into other classes and offered as a degree program.  Thus a permaculturist would still be someone with a unified study of each of these aspects, but the instruction and content of the classes would be tempered by dividing the load among several teachers, while giving students a better view of each sub-topic.  As someone who's been through a permaculture course, what are your thoughts on that? Aside from the present speed of getting certified, would you see any benefit?

In many ways, permaculture now is taught in much the same way agriculture was taught up through the 1950's, as a single unified course of study.  Now agriculture deals with water and soil management  in their own individual courses, and botany, biology, chemistry, statistics and technology are all vital elements to a proper study.  I would break it down like this:
• General plant science
• Basic Soil Science
• Wild-life study
• Ethics
• Symbiotic relationships of plant and animal species
• Introductory engineering
• Water management
• Meteorology and climate studies
• Agricultural studies
• Permaculture Lab (actual design and work)

Any of those headings will have a half dozen classes dedicated to them in different specialized areas in practically every school in the country. A permaculture advisor or department head could offer the occasional lecture that ties them together, and in my opinion, create a more palatable course of study with other opportunities for specialized study. If nothing else, it's tough to find someone with adequate knowledge to teach all of those topics as permaculture studies demand.  By dividing it, you can get experts in each subject rather than people who are moderately versed in all of them. It would also increase exposure to the ideas behind permaculture, which is now still an esoteric study.  

Of course, I recognize the problems with a more formal academic approach too.  Increased cost, and given the state of academic institutes in this country, it's likely trading one crazy commie teacher for twenty.

Perhaps a bit more in line with the conventions of current permaculture study, it might better lend it's self to private, open enrollment courses.  If I could circumvent academia all togeather, I'd gladly pay $20 a week in cash for a community course.  I took a butchering class that way, and the guy teaching it had 30-40 students every week.  Half of the course dues went to materials, and half to the teacher (or so he says). But the "no check" policy means he was pocketing $300-$400 a week in cash, not bad for 2 hours on a Tuesday night.  Obviously, a permaculture course would also require a fair amount of land, but at those rates it would more than pay the taxes on a 40 acre lot, and many students or others in the community may donate the use of their land. Being a more casual course of study paid per-diam, I think there would be greater interest in the subject and more people willing to try it, knowing they can drop the course later and get their money back, or even jump in half-way through and catch up at their leisure, or work at their own pace.

If you had it to do over again, or were going to teach your own class, what might you have done differently?
Title: Re: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: spartan on October 06, 2010, 12:13:53 PM
Personally, I think these classes would be better if some of the underlying themes were broken off into other classes and offered as a degree program.  Thus a permaculturist would still be someone with a unified study of each of these aspects, but the instruction and content of the classes would be tempered by dividing the load among several teachers, while giving students a better view of each sub-topic.  As someone who's been through a permaculture course, what are your thoughts on that? Aside from the present speed of getting certified, would you see any benefit?As someone who's been through a permaculture course, what are your thoughts on that? Aside from the present speed of getting certified, would you see any benefit?

I wouldn't do it that way because Permaculture is a very very broad study.  One of the issues trying to clarify this point is that many of the books on Permaculture are about the agricultural and ecological repair aspects, where as Permaculture is also applicable to Community Design, Art Integration, Economics, and so on.  What you are talking about would be a great series of Advanced Permaculture lectures with experts in those topics coming in to present.  Take the PDC as the base, then do other classes in interest topics.  Or provide someone with a resource list on where to go for more information on specific topics.  This would include national/internationally known experts, as well as regional and local ones.  

I say this because I'd love to go study mushrooms and mycelium with Paul Stamets but he's on the other side of the the US and I don't have the time or money to go.  However, there is a local expert on woodland mushroom management and cultivation, Eric Burkhart, who I can.  

One of the thoughts we ended our class on is to play to one's strengths.  For that reason I would rather see a community of "Permaculture Guidance Counselors" that could sit down with someone who has taken a PDC and design an advanced education program with them than a formal program developed in academia.  They could then take classes appropriate to their interests, and list it as advanced training, or take it to a college or university and have a custom degree program developed for them.  Though it sounds far reaching but there is a local university that does just this.

In my own case, my program would mean taking classes in drafting and GIS, advanced training in Google's Sketchup (which is amazing for working up a design or taking remote measurements), a botany class on plant names, olericulture, pomology, and landscape horticulture, as well as geography to study human land use.  Add in some classes in sociology, specifically group dynamics, psychology, for diffusing confrontational situations, and some architecture, adult education, and on running a small business.  All of that is because I am specializing in Permaculture design, but not implementation, and education.

Someone who is specializing in Permaculture Art might take classes in economics, art education, city planning, leadership, and communications/public speaking.

Quote's tough to find someone with adequate knowledge to teach all of those topics as permaculture studies demand.  By dividing it, you can get experts in each subject rather than people who are moderately versed in all of them.

This seems to be an ongoing issue with the teaching of Permaculture in general and the PDC specifically.  From the talks I had with my own instructors, who have been more involved with the larger community as a whole, and other readings part of the issue is that the "professional" Permaculture teachers who teach the PDC over and over again is very small.  From my analysis of various websites, maybe 100 in the US.  Then you have people who graduate from a PDC, take their knowledge, teach it once, and then for one reason or another move.  The reasons for it are legion but in the end it dilutes the educational experience.  

There were some things said that I didn't agree with, but they were throw away things that didn't effect my education compared to the overall support and encouragement that we received.  Regardless of their individual viewpoints and why they do it, they both were very passionate about the subject and cared about what they were doing and that showed.  If there was something they didn't know about, they were very clear on saying "I don't know" and would then give us resources, including people we could contact directly, who could give us more information.

Your mention of open enrollment is interesting because I am working on a similar curriculum.  I envision a 2-day, 12 hour of instruction, class ("Intro, Ethics, and Principles") that is the pre-req for the advanced lectures.  Once that is complete the students are free to take the lectures in any order to meet the lecture requirement of about 40 hours of instruction.  Once these lecture requirements are met they can then sign up for a 4 day practicum and final design class where they can implement what they learned before into doing the final design and presentation.  Total classroom time commitment from the students, 12 9 hour days (6 hours of instruction, 2 hours of breaks, 1 hour for lunch), with a cost in the $1200-1800 range.  This class structure could also be broken down into 2-4 hour segments which could be taught in the evenings, with the long form on the week end.  As someone who wants to be a professional Permaculture teacher, this would be an easier way to make it more fiscally possible.  A PDC billed at $1000 per student seems to require a tuition of about 10 students to be worthwhile for 2 instructors to teach.  One common complaint for PDCs being cancelled is due to a lack of students.

If you had it to do over again, or were going to teach your own class, what might you have done differently?

My class was taught one weekend a month, over 7 months.  Sat/Sun the 1st, 6th, and 7th month, Sat only on each of the others.  If I were to take the class over again I would have preferred every other Saturday for 12 class days, rather than the 10 days we had.  That could have made the class days a bit shorter, or made the total amount of instruction longer.  There were times when we would really get rolling on a subject and then have to move onto something else and not really get to complete the ideas that were going on.  Or, with a shorter lecture day, we could have had an end of day discussion that went on for a few hours to empty all our questions and seek clarity on anything we didn't cover in enough detail.

Any other thoughts or questions?
Title: Re: Reflections on a Permaculture Design Course
Post by: I.L.W. on October 07, 2010, 06:54:27 AM
Thanks for the reply.  I hadn't considered it from an art perspective.  I get hung up on efficiency, so the aesthetics of a design are secondary, though I suppose the techniques could be used to make productive art. I understand your point about the design class being a solid base of education.  It establishes the methodology then, not the technique. The student is then left to apply that methodology to their continued studies, be they academic, self taught, or applied and refined practical experience.  I think I understand a bit better now, basically it's like engineering.  Here's how we create reliable systems, but it's up to you as an individual to bring in other knowledge as needed and apply it within the constraints of the method taught.  That actually makes a lot of sense, thanks for clarifying.

As far as a community class goes, I think you could broaden the scope and get more people involved.  With community classes, I think there will be less of a desire on the student's end to get certified.  That's great for college kids looking to build credentials, but for people like me, the knowledge is valuable, not the paper.  Also, with 9 hour courses, you're excluding the vast majority of the adult population.  Even if they have weekends off, they still spent the rest of the week working, they want to relax on the weekend.  It would be hard to fill a class like that.  Around here, we have a "Homesteader's association".  It's a series of classes in many topics, taken ala-cart.  There's the butchering class I took, a beer and wine making class, pottery and candle making, several agriculture classes, hunting trips and gun safety, and about a dozen others that escape me now.  Some classes have an independent price structure, but others pool a surcharge (usually about $100/student) paid one time for membership in addition to a class fee.  They also get non-cash assistance from a rotary club (we use their building for free) , two churches (advertising in their newsletter), a community college (offers credit for 2 of the classes so all classes are listed in the course catalog), and several local businesses (offering discounts to members, occasional event catering etc).  We have a few college age students, but most are 30+ years old, and there are a lot of summer classes for children.  In a setting like that, most of your overhead is reduced to zero, plus you get more exposure to other segments of the community.  Up until last years budget cuts, the town subsidized many of the courses. I'm glad they cut the programs, it's not for the tax payer to cover people's tuition, but many towns still offer money to continued learning courses. 

I think a more casual permaculture class would fit right in there.  You wouldn't get $1000 per student, but you could get 50 students pretty easily. Nearly every class now has a waiting list, with paid members getting priority over the general public.  By breaking the fees out into a per class micro-payment, you'll also get a lot more students.  The reason I say that, not many people have dreams of being a career professional permaculturist. The public would view it as a hobby or skill class.  It's hard to get people to kick in a thousand dollars for a hobby class, especially one in such an esoteric subject.  But, if you met once a week for a year, with a couple weeks off for the holidays, at $20 a class, you have your $1000/student.  Some won't stick it out through the whole series, and some will miss a class here or there, but you make up for it with the number of students.  If a more formal certification class were to be offered, a casual community learning program could be helpful in sparking interest in the subject.

If your town has public or private continued learning programs, it may be worth exploring.  If not, the possibility of starting your own is tempting enough to consider.  You'd have to drum up funding or donations, get tax-exempt status if applicable, and find other skilled professional to teach similar trade courses, but it can be done. 

In the meantime, whatever you choose to do, it's not too early to start advertising and building a name for your self in the community.  Offer grade school teachers a free 1 hour lecture to their students.  They'll appreciate someone willing to volunteer time to their class, and word will spread.  Get to know your local extension office, the fish and game officials, sit in on some of the town board meetings and know your public officials.  If permaculture is about building community, business is more so.  A little networking will go a long way.  One of my former neighbors owned a landscaping company and gave free classes in urban landscape restoration. He became friends with the fire marshal, and set up a system where his class would clear and replant some of the inner city yards that were overgrown fire hazards left by scumbag renters and landlords or in abandoned or foreclosed properties. His class always had a project to work on, and he never paid for land to do it.   While he made nothing from the course it's self, his relationship with the fire marshal and history of volunteer work landed his company some very lucrative city contracts.  Why not apply permaculture in the same way? Something as simple as an "adopt a highway" program, while not a paying gig, puts your name on a sign.  Plant the medians of roads employing the methods you've learned, with an emphasis on aesthetics and low maintenance.  Document everything you do, and dump some video footage up on youtube, then send a DVD to the town supervisor and the head of DOT, maybe you'll get a bite there.  If nothing else, it build's your reputation and name recognition in your community, and in circles that already have interest in permaculture.  Then if you offer a class, enrollment could be quite a bit higher. If not, it's created other opportunities for you.

Good luck, and if you ever offer a class in western NY, send me a PM, I'd be interested in attending.