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Reflections on Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Course Fall 2016 - Winter 2017

A few weeks ago on March 11, I completed* a six-month Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course through Santa Cruz Permaculture, which is directed and taught by my good friend, co-mentor, and UCSC colleague David Shaw. He had strongly encouraged me to participate in the program after learning that I was applying to the UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture, which I have since been accepted to and will begin on April 10! David shared with me that prior to his time as a CASFS apprentice in the early 2000s, he had completed his PDC and found that it provided him with a valuable whole systems design framework through which he could experience the CASFS apprenticeship.

I am so grateful that David shared this advice and that I signed up for the course. I got to know some amazing people, learned some new methods for observing the world around me, found out about some really practical methods for designing systems that make a whole lot of sense, had my interest piqued about even more, and cannot wait for my next opportunity to design a space with what I learned in the course!

(*I still have three days of the course to make up from a couple weekends when I wasn't able to attend, so I haven't yet received by certificate, but I did complete my design project with my cohort. I will be able to make up those days during the next course.)

 The Permaculture Flower (source)

I've been helping David promote the next six-month course, which begins next Saturday, April 8. As part of this outreach, I've harvested some photos, quotes, and personal anecdotes to share on my blog and eventually on his website to provide a sense of what it's like to participate in the PDC through Santa Cruz Permaculture.

So, what is Permaculture & Whole Systems Design? The Santa Cruz Permaculture website explains that permaculture is an ethically based whole-systems design approach that uses concepts, principles, and methods derived from ecosystems, indigenous peoples, and other time-tested systems to create human settlements and institutions. It’s also been called “saving the planet while throwing a better party.”

Permaculture has three ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. There are also ~12 principles (Holmgren and Mollision each have different ways of describing them), and you can learn more about them and the three ethics at this website.

The 12 Permaculture Principles, as articulated by David Holmgren. Read a complete description of these on

There are PDC programs throughout the world, and while each course is a little different, they almost all follow an internationally recognized curriculum based on the writings and teachings of the "founders" of permaculture, Bill Mollinson and David Holmgren, who introduced their concept of permaculture in the 1970s in Australia. You can learn more about the history of permaculture on this website.

The Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Certificate course takes place every six months--April to September, October to March--and features numerous local and regional Guides, or guest instructors, each with their own areas of expertise and passion. David has done a remarkable job of not only leading workshops himself throughout the course but also curating a fantastic team of guides who are knowledgeable, passionate, and well-connected in their areas of expertise.

The course provides an overview of many different topics within permaculture during weekend-long sessions once a month, and participants have the option of camping overnight at the property in Felton where the course takes place. The many topics covered in the course are described in more detail below. Throughout the six months, participants also work in small groups to put together a fairly comprehensive permaculture design project for real-life properties and people in the Santa Cruz area and surrounding region. My group designed a permaculture garden at a winery in Gilroy because the three of us live on the other side of the hill, but most of the projects were in Santa Cruz County.

This element of the course provides a practical and experiential learning opportunity that is crucial to really understanding the application of the many design theories and technologies explored in the course. It's one thing to understand a concept from a book or class and another thing entirely to actually apply that learning to a design for a property and client in the real world. It also provides participants with a sample design for the beginning of their permaculture portfolio.

Overview of the Course Month-by-Month:
October 8-9, 2016: Introduction to Permaculture Design and Nature Awareness
The first weekend of the program focused on introducing the ethics and principles of permaculture, including design processes and methods for articulating client goals and desired outcomes for a particular design. We also learned about ecology and patterns found in nature.

David also hosted a world cafe in which we had a chance to get to know one another and explore our goals in participating in the design course. It helped us as a cohort develop a sense of community and self-awareness about what we hoped to gain, as well as contribute, and the endless possibilities that could arise from our learning and growing together in the coming months. The questions he introduced during this world cafe are outlined in the introductory section of the Santa Cruz Permaculture Wikispaces website. This wiki is managed by David, with contributions from current students, course guides, and folks on "the Acorn," which is the teaching assistant cohort, made up of people who recently completed their PDC. Throughout this blog post, I'll link to relevant sections on the Wiki.

During the first weekend, we also spent some time practicing nature awareness and observation, an integral part of the initial design process when getting to know a property or space that you hope to design. Design team project ideas were also brainstormed and teams were formed during the first weekend.

November 5-6, 2016: Restoring Watersheds & Soils
The second weekend of the course focused on watersheds, water catchment, understanding climate and microclimates, and the characteristics and management of healthy soils. We spent a full day with Lydia Neilsen learning about watersheds, methods for water catchment and reuse, and how to slow, spread, and sink rainfall to rehydrate the earth. Lydia is a wonderful teacher, full of passion and knowledge about water, how it flows on the land, and how we can better design our landscapes to sink the water into the ground. We learned about greywater, rainwater catchment systems, incredible properties of water, as well as how to design a berm and swale on contour and then built it by hand as a group (pictured above and below).
The second day of this weekend was spent with John Valenzuela learning about soils, which included an overview of the different major climates on earth, how climates affect decomposition and soil development, and an introduction to all things compost. Like Lydia, John is overflowing with knowledge, stories, and passion that make his lessons engaging and memorable. After class time outside learning how to develop and support healthy soils, we built a compost pile and worked in the garden with John.

December 3-4, 2016: Social Permaculture
The third weekend of the course took place shortly after the presidential election, which provided a fitting opportunity to explore the "people care" ethic of permaculture, including social permaculture principles, non-violent communication, Open Space Technology, the Work that Reconnects, issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how to foster resilient communities.

We spent the morning with Palika Benton and David on Saturday learning about the Spiral of the Work that Reconnects and the teachings of Joanna Macy. After diving into concepts like The Great Unraveling and the Great Turning, we participated in a series of pair share and reflection activities that allowed us to experience the four "gateways" of the spiral: 1. Grounding in gratitude, 2. Honoring our pain for the world, 3. Seeing with new eyes, and 4. Going forth. It was a powerful experience and remains for me one of the most memorable activities from the course.

Later that day, we practiced non-violent communication with Rick Longinotti of NVC Santa Cruz (below). The recent election provided a relevant opportunity to practice some real-life scenarios, including how to speak with and really connect with folks on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Palika and Rick, like all of the guides in the course, are wonderful teachers whose unique passion, experience, and presence make the PDC course content come alive.

On Sunday, we explored social permaculture principles, how to design for mitigating disaster, and participated in an Open Space Technology in which we created the agenda and led discussions and on-the-spot workshops on topics that were of particular interest to us. I hosted a session exploring how to build neighborhood community resilience, which included discussions about what it looks like and feels like to know your neighbors, the value of spending time in our front yards, and how simple gestures like inviting neighbors over for a potluck can initiate long-term friendships with those who live nearby.

Another student from my cohort, Kelsey "Kiki" Ringenberg, shared the following about the weekend: "I would really like to speak about our workshops that happened in December, Joanna Macy's The Work that Reconnects and also the Non Violent Communication. These two workshops were rather special to me because I think looking inward and focusing on our role is vital in making a change in our community. As the conscious ones, we are the warriors, and as warriors it is important to continue to look inward in order to build beauty on the outside."

January 14-15, 2017: Home Scale Permaculture: Creating Natural Homes and Edible Landscapes
Unfortunately, I had to miss this weekend for a work retreat, but I know that the group visited the UCSC Chadwick Garden to learn about designing edible landscapes, attended a scion exchange and learned about tree grafting, and built a cob oven with Janine Bjornson.

February 4-5, 2017: Broad Scale Permaculture: Integrated Animal Husbandry and Forest Management
In February, we visited the Mountain Feed and Farm pilot aquaponics greenhouse (above), explored Camp Joy Gardens (below) to learn about raising chicken, goats, and bees, and then drove up the coast to Markegard Family Grass-Fed ranch in Half Moon Bay to learn about holistic planned grazing.

Jim Nelson of Camp Joy Gardens gave us a tour that included a chance to hold chickens, pet goats, taste fresh honey, and walk around the beautiful gardens.

Doniga Markegard gave us a tour of their ranch in Half Moon Bay, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Their website describes, "Our philosophy in grazing is to manage the cattle herd to simulate the large herds of Elk and Antelope which once roamed California’s grasslands. We accomplish this by keeping the herd moving with Holistic planned grazing, so as never to overgraze an area, but to stimulate growth and grass-land health through properly timed grazing. Watershed Stewardship is at the forefront of our management practices." Their methods not only produce "locally born, raised and processed certified grass-fed beef and lamb, chicken and pasture raised pork,"but also restore the natural ecosystem of their ranch.

The next day, we learned about winter fruit tree pruning with David (above) and Sudden Oak Life with Dr. Lee Klinger (below). Dr. Klinger's work with Sudden Oak Life is fascinating and inspiring. Learn more about his methods for improving the health of oak and other trees based on his research at

March 4-5, 2017: Regenerative Community Development & Financial Permaculture
During our last weekend of instruction, we spent the morning at the Resource Center for Nonviolence learning about regenerative community development, Portland's City Repair Project, and other community designs and programs that foster resilient neighborhoods. Later in the day, we visited Riverside Community Gardens, which has a fruit tree orchard. Andy Moskowitz (below) of Seed Culture Labs met with us to talk about the history of the orchard and how organizations like Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project have helped support this community project.
You can learn more about this orchard and other food forest areas in Santa Cruz on this Facebook page for Santa Cruz Community Food Forest.
The last day of instruction for the course, we learned about money, banking, and alternative currencies with Marco Vangelisti (above). Most people don't truly understand the complex monetary and economic systems that control our society, so Marco dove right in and explained how money really works. He asked us to examine what the economy is really for, what's wrong with the current system, and what we can do as individuals to invest our money in alignment with our values. He also shared examples of alternative currencies, such as Bay Bucks and Berkshares. It was absolutely fascinating and pertinent to everyone's lives, and I think many of us were inspired to learn more.

March 11, 2017: Design Presentations & Party!
On March 11, the three design project teams presented their designs to David, Lydia, and another course guide, Ken Foster of Terra Nova Landscaping. The final design project includes a report detailing the site analysis, maps of zones, maps of sectors, an existing and suggested plant and animal list, a detailed design of one element, and some other requirements like a reference page and information about the client(s). Teams turned in these reports and maps and then presented for ~30 minutes about the project and design recommendations. After their presentation, each group received verbal and written feedback from David, Lydia, and Ken. It was really fun to see the results of everyone's hard work and creativity in designing the three different places.

One project focused on the NEST, the property where the PDC course typically meets. Another project focused on a couple's large home property in Santa Cruz County that includes orchards and gardens. The third project, the one that I participated in, designed a permaculture demonstration garden and food forest for Sunlit Oaks Winery in Gilroy. The permaculture garden at the winery that I drew for our project is pictured below.
After the presentations, those who had completed all classes in the course received their permaculture design certificates. We sang a song together as the certificates were handed out, celebrating how much we had learned and experienced in the past six months. After some advice about next steps from the course guides, we had a potluck and make-your-own pizza party using the new cob oven!

One of my design project teammates shared about her experience in the program, and I think many of us who participated would agree: "The Santa Cruz permaculture design course has allowed me to deepen my journey into permaculture. I have gained broad knowledge of many relevant topics related to sustainable human systems. Most importantly, I have come away with a new perspective of what it means to be fully human, and a desire to further this understanding." - Gabrielle Reese 

The next course begins on Saturday, April 8--sign up now at! For more photos from the course, visit the Santa Cruz Permaculture Flickr account. For more information about all of the topics covered in this course, please visit the Santa Cruz Permaculture Wiki.


  1. What a great recap of the program. How wonderful that you had this opportunity to learn so much about Permaculture. Thanks for sharing all this!

  2. Girlfriend this is just marvellous!! Xoxo Kiki


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