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Permaculture Design Principle 1 – Relative Location

The first Permaculture Design principle is ‘Relative Location’.

In this principle, every element (separate component in a design) is placed in relationship to another so that they assist each other.

In Permaculture our primary concern is with the relationship between things, and how they interact, rather than with the things themselves.

So, in Permaculture design, we focus on the connection between things, and by understanding the nature of the elements, and how they benefit each other, we can determine the optimum location for them.

All elements have inputs and outputs, and they can have many of these. By the correct placement of elements, we can create a relationship where the outputs of one element feed into the inputs of another element in our design.

To know what an element’s inputs and outputs are, we have to understand its nature, and when we have done this, we can determine the relative location where the element is best placed in our design.

Pictured above are several examples on the application of the Relative Location principle.

  1. We can locate our water tanks uphill of the house, and let gravity flow the water back down, saving energy. To get the water to an elevated height, we can use a solar powered pump, and by pumping the water to a height when we aren’t using it, we convert the sun’s energy to potential energy, which will drive the water to the house at anytime, regardless of whether the sun is present or not.
  2. By planting deciduous trees (which lose their leaves in autumn-winter) on the sunny side of the house (north facing side in the Southern Hemisphere, i.e.. Australia), we can block out the sun, and thereby shade the house in summer when the tree is in full leaf, in order to keep the house cooler. In winter, the trees lose their leaves, allowing the sun to pass through and warm the house.
  3. A kitchen garden can be located close to a kitchen which exits to the back yard, so that culinary herbs and often-used vegetables can be easily accessed when preparing meals. Here, the output of the garden, food, is the input to the kitchen. The kitchen scraps can conveniently be put into a worm farm which is located near the kitchen garden. The output of the kitchen, kitchen scraps, are the input to the worm farm. Worm castings provide a nutrient rich fertilizer for the kitchen garden, which helps the growth of the garden. The output of the worm farm, worm castings, provide the input to the kitchen garden. As you can see, all the inputs and outputs are linked together across all three elements, and as a result there is no waste, and there is a recycling process taking place.
  4. Trellises are built with a North-South orientation so that the plants trained along the trellis do not shade each other out, and the midday sun shines down the full length of the trellis, maximising exposure to the sun.
  5. Wind, sun and rain are all elements that we incorporate into our designs when applying the Relative Location principle. In this example, we look at wind as an element. Once we determine the direction of the wind (in Melbourne, Australia, we have a cold south-westerly wind in winter, and hot northerly winds in summer) we can plant insect repellent plants such as wormwood upwind of our garden beds. As the wind blows through, it picks up the scent of the wormwood plants, which insects dislike, and carries it over the scent of the garden bed plants, which may include various vegetables which pests might like to eat. Any pests downwind will not be able to distinguish the scent of the vegetables now that it is masked by the more potent and repellent wormwood scent, and therefore will not follow the scent trail upwind back to the vegetables. This is called ‘scent masking’ and is one of the techniques used in companion planting. Wormwood is a good choice over other insect repellent plants such as tansy in this instance because wormwood is an evergreen shrub that maintains its size and foliage all year round, protecting your winter vegetables, while tansy dies down in winter. This illustrates the importance of having a very thorough understanding of the properties of each element utilised in a design, which becomes even more important in our next design principle.
  6. Planting fruit trees along a chicken run provides chickens with a supply of fresh food in the form of fallen fruit, so the waste that we cannot use is recycled. Since the fruit doesn’t get a chance to rot, it doesn’t attract fruit fly. The tree roots can make their way into the soil under the chicken run, where they will receive nutrients from the chicken manure rich soil. The trees also provide cool shade for the chickens, and the chickens will also provide a means of pest control for any insects that should happen to fall out of the trees.

In our designs, it is important to remember that ‘elements’ do not just include the things we add, but existing structures also. These include trees and buildings, as well as the ‘real elements’ of nature such as sun, wind, rain, and various earth features such as soil type, slope/gradient, banks, gulleys, waterways, hills, mountains and so forth.

In summary, we can optimise our designs using the Relative Location principle by locating design element near other ones so that their inputs and outputs flow into one another, or where they interact with another element to bring about the desired effect.

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