How to Start a Garden: It’s not what you think! (Pt. 1)

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

When it comes time to plan out a new garden project, the first step isn’t often what people spend enough time on.

Is it buying all the right books and researching all of the right techniques? It is buying all the right gear or the right app? Is it taking courses or getting a certification?

Nope. It’s much simpler than that. In fact, what you need doesn’t require you to spend any money, have any prior knowledge (other than what I'm about to share with you here), nor have any special tools on hand (although you might want a pen and paper handy). What you do need though is time, and plenty of it.

“So what is it?” you might be asking.

It’s observation.

The first of the 12 permaculture design principles is “Observe and Interact,” and while the permaculture design principles aren’t necessarily linear, starting with number one in this circumstance is beneficial for everyone and everything involved.

Seriously, this is not just for your yard’s benefit, but for you too.

Don’t even interact much yet (we'll get to that in our next post). Focus on carving out some quiet, undisturbed observation time. This observation gives us a chance to practice mindfulness, to see if we can sit long enough to let our thoughts slip away, make nearby animals less weary of you, and offer an opportunity for some shift in perception.

Find a sit or standing spot that allows you to view a good portion of your yard where you intend on implementing a project (you may need to repeat this in different areas depending on the size of your yard).

When you approach your space, below are primary aspects to start paying attention to. You'll have the most success if you notice these things over time, such as through various seasons, or at least through dynamic weather shifts (these past weeks have been a good time for it- with snow, ice, sun and rain gracing us with their presence here in the PDX area).

Sun: Where does the sun come from in relation to your location? How much light hits each area? You’ll want to consider how this changes throughout the year with the changing seasons, when the sun is higher or lower in the sky. What shadows are cast from trees, houses or other nearby obstructions?

Rain and Water: When (if) it rains (to note, we'll primarily be writing from the viewpoint of the Pacific NW), where does water flow and gather? Notice any pooling or natural “streams” that appear after a heavy rain.

What water sources are on your property or nearby? Are you on your own personal well, a shared well or city water? What limitations to water use might you consider?

Fauna: Who and what is already interacting with your property? You don’t need to know their names immediately but pay attention to their relationships with the space. Who is eating what, burying what where, or passing through the space? Listen for the sounds, look out for scat on the ground, pay attention to who might be rummaging through your trash cans.

Are there any significant predators to take note of? When it comes to your yard, you’d be surprised who you might begin to consider a predator. This is said light-heartedly, of course, but the deer that chews up your fruit trees, the rabbits that eat up your vegetables, or the raccoons that massacre your flock in the middle of the night will leave you peeved, especially if you weren’t prepared for them.


What is already growing in your space? Notice where diversity is present- where multiple plant species are growing together. You may notice different layers- larger trees, medium sized bushes, and shorter sedges or ground cover, all existing in a relatively small space.

You may also notice a lack of diversity. Like many urbanites, you may be looking at sprawling monocultures of grass and a handful of the same ornamental bushes.

This isn’t the time to put values of good and bad on anything. We’re not judging, just observing.

Neighbors: You may be in a situation where you have no neighbors as far as the eye can see (ahh, the dream! ...For some of us). If not, consider the following:

Who lives around you? What houses border your home? How much privacy do you have? Are their roads nearby? Is traffic loud? Are there kids playing about? Have you seen gardens in their yards? Perhaps they live a bit more wildly, with their own flourishing food forest. Or they are old school and have a traditional grass lawn that is perfectly manicured on the weekly.

If pertinent, this question may also have you thinking about your neighborhood HOA rules. Better to acknowledge the constraints of this now (or even before you purchase a home) before the fern gully forest you’ve spent so long cultivating is reported and removed because Sheryl down the street put in a complaint.

And last but not least of our observational journey:


This honestly isn’t as obvious as it might seem. There is A TON to consider about how you, personally, fit into the grander scheme that will determine what direction you go in.

Think about the below areas and how they influence your life. This part can be done anywhere, and is a good time to get out that pen and paper to explore your answers:

Time: How much time do you have, honestly, to commit to the work of your garden, yard, home or projects? Maybe you’ll have a chunk of time where you can commit a lot of energy and effort to get it started, but eventually a new job hits or a baby is born, so you have significantly less time available. You may find you have just a few hours to commit per week. What days will this be, and what times?

Just because you have less time doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. It just means you’ll have to work smarter, so you don’t have to work harder later on.

Ability: Can you work on your hands and knees? Climb? Are there any movements that are uncomfortable or unsafe for you? Paying attention to these things now will be important for where and how you design.

Habits: Are you a morning person? Evening? Afternoon? Do you spend much time cooking? How often do you cook with vegetables, and what are they? How do you spend your time outside? How’s your memory with watering any plants you currently have?

Preferences: How do you feel about fluctuations in weather? How about things like dirt and insects? When you look at a space, what type of yard type appeals to you? Do you like order and structure? Do you prefer a bit of chaos and the wild? Maybe somewhere in between?

Finances: How much money do you have to contribute to this project? How much money do you have to contribute to maintenance?

Intellectual Resources: What previous skills and knowledge do you bring to this project, if any?

Material Resources: What is already on the property? What types of materials are easily accessible for you? What tools do you have on hand?

Community Resources: What skills, knowledge and resources do your friends and family members have to share? What tools do neighbors have that they might be willing to share with you?

Family: You may want to consider going back and answering these questions while extending them out to those you live with. This can also make for a rewarding group activity!

Above are many examples of ways you can start observing. It might seem silly to sit around just thinking, but what we’re doing here is much more important than you realize. Paying attention to these types of questions can save you a lot of headache in the long run, along with time, money and resources.

If interested in having this process facilitated, please get in touch with us! Both individual and group facilitation is available with a trained guide. Book a consultation, a coaching session or send us an email ( to receive more information.

We hope you learned something new from today's post!

Let us know, what have you been observing about your space? What are you learning about yourself along the way? Share below!

Keep a lookout for our next post “How to Start a Garden: Time to Interact!”

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