Permaculture Design: How to Perform a Site Analysis of Your City Lot

The first step to successful permaculture design is understanding your land. Performing a site analysis and assessment of your city lot will clue you in on sun and shade patterns, water trends, and soil quality.

| July 30, 2013

Paradise Lot Book Cover

"Paradise Lot" by Eric Toensmeier with contributions from Jonathan Bates shows their journey using permaculture design to turn their barren city lot into an edible paradise.

Cover Courtesy Chelsea Green

Paradise Lot (Chelsea Green, 2013) tells the story of Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates turning the barren and run-down tenth-of-an-acre lot behind their duplex into what is not just another urban farm, but a "permaculture paradise" replete with perennial broccoli, paw paws, bananas, and moringa — all told, more than two hundred low-maintenance edible plants in an innovative food forest on a small city lot. The garden — intended to function like a natural ecosystem with the plants themselves providing most of the garden's needs for fertility, pest control, and weed suppression — also features an edible water garden, a year-round unheated greenhouse, tropical crops, urban poultry, and even silkworms. The following excerpt from chapter five, “Sun, Shade, Soil, Slope,” shows you how to assess your city lot for growing food, using the principles of permaculture.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Paradise Lot.

Permaculture design is about harmonizing your goals with the unique characteristics of the site. Rather than laser leveling and planting uniform rows, permaculturists strive to understand what’s happening on a piece of land: What is the overall pattern? What are the opportunities and limitations? What potential can be unlocked through regenerative land use? At first glance our backyard looked like a blank canvas — a raw slab of bad soil, uniform and monotonous. But as we studied the site, we discovered a different, far more complex (and complete) picture.

Sounds great. In order to get from here to there, however, it meant drawing a fairly tedious but truly worthwhile series of maps on tracing paper. Each map viewed the site through a different lens — soils, sun and shade, slope — each with an effect on a garden’s ability to grow and thrive. As we made the maps, we were observing, studying, and talking about each aspect, each of which presented us with a different vantage point from which to see what was happening on the land and a degree of focus that deepened our understanding. At the end of the process, we laid multiple layers of tracing paper on top of our base map to see a combined image illuminating our site’s less obvious secrets.

This phase of the permaculture design process is known as analysis and assessment. Analysis is about observing current conditions on a piece of land. In theory it does not presume to like or dislike, only to describe objectively. In practice this can be a difficult Zen exercise; an observation like “Norway maples cover much of the backyard” can quickly lead to feelings of frustration and discouragement. However, in the assessment you interpret the results of analysis through the lens of your goals for land use and evaluate the situation. For Jonathan and me, distancing ourselves like this helped, and we began to find peace with our towering Norwegian neighbors.

Permaculture experts say that you should spend at least a full year observing your site before deciding what to do with it. I had heard this many times but until now had never had the chance to try it for myself. We moved in in January 2004 and spent the year on observation and design. Along with drawing the maps, seeing the land in all its seasons gave us essential insights, not least of which was understanding the seasonal patterns of sun and shade, which provided the key insight that our design crystallized around.

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