GoSADIM – A Permaculture Design Process

by Graham Burnett

Our What IS Permaculture? article introduces the ethical basis of permaculture – Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares – as well as some of the key permaculture principles, including working with nature; learning to apply mindful observation; maximising yields whilst minimising effort; increasing diversity and using lateral thinking to see solutions instead of problems. In this article we will start to explore the actual process of permaculture design, and the benefits that this can have in helping us to make better decisions about what we wish to achieve.


GoSADIM (Goal articulation, Survey, Analyse, Decisions, Implement, Maintain) is a thinking framework that enables good task management by breaking the design process down into manageable steps, and can be be applied to any context, from land development, creating a garden, setting up a small business enterprise, organising a successful community project to building a house or even preparing a meal.

Step One: Goal Articulation

As Captain Sensible (or was it Rodgers and Hammerstein?) reminds us, “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” In order to find solutions that best meet our needs, it’s essential to be clear about our short and long-term design goals – what is it that we actually want?

Finding opportunities for design often begins by noticing problems. Sometimes our goals might come out of wishes (‘I really wish my community had… ‘) or out of complaints (‘It annoys me that we’re not… ‘). Turn problems into opportunities by rephrasing your dreams and moans into questions beginning with ‘How might I… ‘ Sometimes it might help to call on a friend to assist you here by acting as a sounding board to bounce ideas off. Share your dreams and moans and ask for them to be reflected back as design challenges. When beginning to articulate goals, the first rule is to ‘get it down, then get it good.’ Just grab a sheet of paper and begin capturing a list of your relevant ideas. Afterwards, take time to revise your thoughts and organize them coherently. From here, we can begin to identify the problems we seek to solve, the intentions we wish to fulfil and the questions we must ask to get there…

Step Two: Survey

The next stage in any design process is all about observing and collecting information on what is already there – Now that you’ve got some ideas about what you want, it’s time to look at what you’ve got: If your project is land based, you might want to gather data about the site itself. Create a base map indicating any existing physical features, for instance, fences and walls, buildings, ponds, paths, trees and bushes, as well as orientation (e.g. south or north facing), sun paths at different times of the year, shady spots, frost pockets, slopes and contours, etc. Take photographs, make sketches or use Google maps. What type of soil have you got? Is it sandy, clay or silty? Any evidence of compaction or erosion? Investigate local weather patterns such as prevailing wind direction and annual rainfall figures. Is your site dry or boggy? Any springs or ponds? Any sources of potential contamination or pollution? What animals and plants share your land?


At this stage it’s important to try to be as ‘value free’ as possible. At the moment we are concerned only with collecting data, NOT with making decisions, however tempting it can be to start thinking in terms of ‘answers’! Many permaculture designers recommend that the observation period should last at least twelve months in order to view all of the changes that happen throughout the seasons. In reality this isn’t always practical, as we usually need to obtain some kind of a yield before this, especially if our livelihood or sustenance depends on it! However the ‘leave it a year’ rule is certainly good advice to follow before making any changes that may be difficult to reverse, such as carrying out any major landscaping, pond creation, tree or hedge planting, building permanent structures (for example, sheds, greenhouses), etc.


As well as gathering information about your plot, it’s also important to ask questions of the people who are going to be using the site or involved in the project. Find out as much as you can about their needs and wants. Develop your listening skills, and refrain from imposing your own ideas. What are their dietary requirements or preferences? How much time, money or energy are they realistically likely to devote to their garden? Any children (actual or planned)? Any ‘special needs’ such as allergies, physical disabilities, visual impairments, therapeutic needs (especially if the garden is to be a retreat from stress and anxiety)? Try to include plenty of ‘open’ questions designed to elicit high quality information, eg, ‘what else might you need…’, but once again avoid the temptation to start providing ‘solutions’ at this stage – plenty of time for that later on! (NB. Even if you are designing just for yourself (eg, your own back garden or allotment plot) rather than anybody else, it’s still worth going through these kind of questions)

Step 3: Analysis stage


The next phase of the design process is about analysing and assessing the data gathered during the ‘survey’ stage by looking at your ‘boundaries’ (what are your limiting factors?) and ‘resources’ (what can you make use of?), and how to fit these together. Think about inputs and outputs – which of these are already being met by the existing system or what might need to be changed? Limiting factors might typically include constraints such as available time, finances or issues about the physical characteristics of the site such as slope or soil type – carrots for example are not likely to do well on a heavy clay soil as they prefer one that is light and free draining. Also consider ‘cultural’ or legal matters such as planning permission or disputes with neighbours. Solutions-based thinking can often reframe such challenges as resources or assets when approached laterally however. That heavy clay soil might be useless for growing carrots, but it’s perfect for brassicas and other crops that thrive on the high levels of nutrients that it can hold. In the same way, that allotment committee member who is always complaining about how you don’t grow your leeks in nice straight lines can be a real fount of plant knowledge and wisdom if you can get on the right side of them (a strategically shared bottle of wine on the plot can sometimes work wonders you know…)!

Step 4: Decision Making

So at last we are ready for the bit that most people tend to think of as ‘Design’. In other words, coming up with decisions about changes we can make based on all of the information we’ve gathered and analysed earlier in the process. This stage is about asking ‘How Might We…’ questions, and there are a whole range of tools available to us that can help us with our design thinking. ‘Zone and Sector’ planning is a great tool for thinking about optimum placement of elements like greenhouses, ponds, orchards or vegetable beds. Placing overlays onto our base maps or maybe even making physical models and prototypes are also useful techniques for planning and trying out ideas. CAD programs like SketchUp or the Plants for A Future online database for creating edible plant guilds are just two of a whole host of useful and freely available digital applications. Participatory engagement methods such as World Cafe, Open Space Technology or Planning For Real can generate collaborative design ideas from groups of people, particularly if it’s a community project or diverse sets of stakeholders are involved. Tools drawn from the world of the arts such as Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ are aimed at generating lateral thinking possibilities and can break through ‘designers block’, unlocking more intuitive, creative and ‘right-brain’ ideas… Be a magpie, don’t be afraid to pilfer ideas, stash them in your own Designer’s Toolbox and use what works for you!


It’s useful to spend as much time as possible working in the designing phase of your project. That way most of your mistakes will have been made on paper (or your laptop screen) rather than on the land itself! But at the same time don’t forget that ‘The Map is Not the Territory’ – in other words, however thorough and detailed your design might be, it remains just that – a representation of your project rather than the project itself out in the real world. So don’t get overly attached to your beautifully drafted plans and drawings. Nature doesn’t always follow our blueprints. Accept that things don’t always go as expected, build in flexibility and be prepared to adapt and improvise when you get to the next stage…

Step 5: Implementation


Now its time to turn your goals into reality, where the proper challenges begin! To guarantee success set SMART sub-goals for yourself or your team – that is, chunk a larger project into a series of managable tasks, making them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. Be realistic about what you can achieve, and don’t overdo it. Keep within your physical and financial limitations. It’s better to thoroughly develop a small area – probably not more than a few square yards for a beginner – than take on too much and simply exhaust yourself and your enthusiasm. Involve others – don’t be afraid to ask for help, particularly with manual labour tasks. Many hands make light work, and you can always return the favour later. Set dates and deadlines, and write them down. Pace yourself and follow a work schedule, prioritising the most important tasks first, maybe making use of open source Project Management software such as Ganttproject. Learn to fit in with the rhythms of the seasons, and take time to listen to the experience and advice of others. But don’t let a lack of confidence or experience intimidate you into indefinite procrastination. You won’t always get things right first time, but that’s fine. Remember that the person who never made a mistake never learned anything either! Most importantly – enjoy yourself. If creating a sustainable landscape feels more like a chore than a pleasure, it’s probably not worth doing in the first place!

Step 6: Maintenance and Management


So we’ve followed this step-by-step design process and our goals and dreams have been realised. Our project is up and running and is producing an abundance of fresh and succulent fruit, vegetables, salads and herbs – now we can spend the rest of our days simply snoozing in the hammock strung between the apple and cherry trees, doing nothing more strenuous than occasionally reaching out and grabbing a handful of fresh produce whenever we get a little bit peckish… Urm, I’d afraid not – time for a wake-up call! Don’t believe the hype about the no-work gardens – A living system such as a permaculture landscape is never finished. Elements evolve, our needs and commitments change, climatic conditions alter. Sometimes even the best and most considered plans just don’t work out… Permaculture system management and maintenance is therefore about creating ‘feedback loops’; a constant process of evaluating, reflecting, redefining our goals, observing changes, re-analysing, redesigning, implementing tweaks and continuously learning and revisiting the cycle.

Designing For The Real World


GoSADIM is useful for chunking the design process down into manageable steps, but the real world tends to be a messier place than our neat theoretical models might suggest. The actuality is that you will need to be agile and adaptable in the use of this and other frameworks, as they don’t always work in a linear way like the neat and tidy diagrams. However as with any new language or skill, once you have mastered the vocabulary of design you will find it a highly versatile tool whenever new opportunities to create positive change emerge in this world of uncertainties;

‘The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!’

– Donella Meadows, author of ‘Thinking In Systems’ and co-author of ‘The Limits to Growth’

This article first appeared in Growing Green, the magazine of the Vegan Organic Network. Graham Burnett is the author of Permaculture A Beginners Guide and The Vegan Book of Permaculture. Learn more about the permaculture design process by signing up for one of our courses.