The pattern is design and design is the subject of Permaculture. – Bill Mollison in The Designers Manual

“When we see how the branching of trees resembles the branching of arteries and the branching of rivers, how crystal grains look like soap bubbles and the plates of a tortoise’s shell, how the fiddle heads of ferns, stellar galaxies, and water emptying from the bathtub spiral in a similar manner, then we cannot help but wonder why nature uses only a few kindred forms in so many contexts….It turns out that those patterns and forms are peculiarly restricted, that the immense variety that nature creates emerges from the working and reworking of only a few formal themes” – Peter S. Stephens ‘Patterns in Nature’

As patterns seem to be very abstract and perhaps difficult to grasp, they do go to the deepest essence of our being and the world that surrounds us. Deep under the apparent chaos in nature lies a simple, elegant and powerful truth. Patterns orchestrate the show and create efficiency beyond imagination. Nature as the ultimate designer. Why would we ever want to do something that deviates from or goes against the graceful, chaotic and perfectly organized chain of events, shapes and flows of energy that we witness all around us. There is no energy leaks in nature as everything is continuously looped and recycled. Nothing ever goes to waste. The force that pushes nature forward can be observed and patterns distilled. As permaculture designers, we should apply those patterns whenever possible. With the ultimate goal of setting up truly sustainable systems that tap into all surrounding life force. Design will never be really sustainable if it is not supported, maintained and even co-created by nature itself.

It is our task as designers to reach an understanding of the basic underlying patterns of nature, link patterns cross disciplinary and apply patterns to our design. We should always aim at making an integrated whole, an assembly of appropriate elements and systems, fit into patterns as a template.

Main form patterns in nature

Tree Patterns

Bill Mollison says in the Designers Manual (pg. 93), “We can see how rivers change their whole regime if we alter one aspect. We should see that water is of the whole, not to be thought of in terms of its parts. Thus we refute the concept of status and assert that of function. It is not what you are, it is what you do in the relation to the society you chose to live in. We need each other, and it is a reciprocal need wherever we have a function in relation to each other.”


We can identify the things around us because they differ from their environment, because they are distinctly different as a result of their chemistry, physical, biological or abstract characteristics. We not only distinguish air, water, earth and stone but also properties like hot, cold, salty, acid, fast, slow,..  In between the object and its environment exists a zone which in permaculture is called a boundary or the edge. On earth, more events occur at edges than anywhere else. This is due to the interesting and unique properties boundaries posses. For us, Permaculture Designers, these boundaries present an open invitation to place translator elements or maximize the use of the unique niche within the boundary.

Both sides of the edge have often very different characteristics and create a third, unique niche. Within the edge zone, specific conditions exist and it acts as a host for species from both boundaries but often also edge specific species. In addition to this, the boundary is a zone in which particles naturally accumulate, it can gather resources and act as a net/blockade. An example of this is a shoreline or a fence.  The reason that edge can generate highly productive systems is for the reason that resources from both media are available for the species (animal and plant) living in or around the edge.

Complex land/ocean interfaces (estuaries, coral reefs or mangroves) have the highest production per area compared to any of the other major ecosystems. Chinampas are a permaculture strategy that aims at maximizing land/water edge and was used by indigenous Mesoamerican farmers. Chinampas are long narrow garden beds, separated by canals (wide enough to fit a canoe) and built using layers of lake mud and thick mats of decaying vegetation. Up to 146 different species have been found in one community chinampa garden and they show high tolerance against disease and frost (a warm microclimate is generated). Chinampas generate up to four crops per year and are regarded as one of the most productive agricultural systems on this planet.


Forest/pasture hosts species from both ecosystems and proves to be among the most productive systems on this planet. The edge continues to produce edible foods, long after other crops stop yielding. It accumulates nutrients from both sides, gets more sun and more rain. Also pollination at the edge is increased.

A powerful design strategy for yield and system stability is to select compatible components for complex edge and surface phenomena. Many crops, like wheat and pulse grains, trees which bear on the crown, and mass-planted vegetable species, yield much better on the crop edge than they do within the crop. When we sow a field with nothing but edge, by making long, narrow strips of plants (preferred sinusoidal), we will obtain from this field about two times the yield as would we have sown the same are to single crop stands.

 Edge Design rules (Bill Mollison, The Permaculture Designers Manual

  1. The creation of complex boundary conditions is a basic design strategy for creating spatial and temporal niches
  2. Select and place components so that incompatibility is nullified, interdependence maximized
  3. Use and value all differences creatively
  4. Place intervening, mutually-compatible components between two incompatible systems
  5. Keep it small and keep it varied