How to Start a Garden: Time to Interact! (Pt. 2)

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

Last week we looked at the very initial step in building a garden- observing! This week we’ll continue to build upon our observations, but also dive into the second part of this permaculture design principle: Interaction.

To review last week’s post, check it out here. We covered the following themes to spend time observing before starting a new project in your yard:


Rain and Water




When looking at ourselves in this mix we explored: time, ability, habits, preferences, finances, intellectual resources, material resources and community resources.

As we move into the next phase, continue to watch out for these dimensions within the space. The more you observe and interact, the more that is revealed! Planning where you place your garden, what to grow, how it looks and functions, and how you’re going to be most successful takes time, patience and consideration.

A garden isn’t just where we plant food. Wikipedia tells us, “a garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, or enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature, as an ideal setting for social or solitary human life.” Often, we ignore the ways a comprehensive garden design can enhance the social and personal benefits derived from such a space.

So that’s what we’re prepping you for here, along with creating spaces that benefit our planets ecosystem's as well.

What separates traditional (modern, or 20th century might be more appropriate) gardening from a permaculture and whole systems garden design is our intention. While we’re still growing plants and food, we’re also seeking to nurture ourselves in a way that makes us healthier and more mindful. Becoming this type of gardener or urban farmer makes us more capable of contributing to not only better environmental systems, but social systems as well.

And there is A LOT that goes into this.

To embark on this journey means we need to sloooooow down, question our beliefs and habits, and become increasingly aware of the infinite relationships that exist around us, within us and between us. Our backyard garden or farm is a great place to put this into practice.

The below activities and questions are designed to aid us in building such awareness, along with prepping our minds and homes for designs that will deeply sustain life and regenerative practices.

Site Exploration

Find time for a walking tour of your yard (or home, office, community space… These principles can be applied anywhere).

If possible and safe, consider doing this activity barefoot. Why? Imagine a small child running through with their little feetsies. Or, imagine you’re walking out your backdoor barefoot to grab some herbs for a dish you’re making. Being barefoot makes you acutely aware of what is underneath you. If you observe sharp rocks, broken glass, or thorny plants that you know will hurt your feet, make note of this (and keep your shoes on- use your best judgement).

Start where you enter into the space. If this is at your home, it may be through your back door or a side gate. If it is a community space, you might enter from the parking lot.

Initial Impressions:

Notice what is closest to this entry. What is nearby? Or what is missing? Notice the feeling of this entry. Is it welcoming? Over grown? Barren? How do you personally feel? Are you inspired? Deterred in any way? Make note of these initial impressions.

As you walk along, take note of the following:

Human Spaces:

When we live and work in a space, it is important to acknowledge how you and other people move through and act in the area(s) in question.

With what is present, how do you currently use your space? At what pace? With what amount of awareness?

How much time do you generally spend outside? Based on what is in the space and what is going on in your life, why do you think this is?

How might you want to experience your space differently, and what do you enjoy and appreciate about your current usage of the space?

Where do you typically like to sit? Are there covered areas to keep you out of the rain? Are there areas to keep you warm, like a fire pit, or an area where an obstruction buffers you from the wind?

Are there areas to gather, to play, to run or to stretch out? Have these spaces ever or are they currently being used in this way? Why or why not?

Accessibility: How accessible is the space as it is? Are there any sharp inclines, muddy slopes, or narrow paths? If you have no problem navigating the space, imagine if you were older, had a disability or were pregnant. Would this space still feel the same? If you weren’t feeling well, would you avoid the space entirely or might it draw you in? Why?

Imagination: As you walk through your yard, allow yourself to dream. You can even get some paper and drawing utensils to play with your ideas. Draw it out exactly as you imagine it. Then, draw it again, this time putting elements in entirely different areas on the paper. Walk through your space and use the observational themes from the previous post to determine how realistic these ideas are (especially based on sun, water and rain). You might also take into consideration wind, elevation and slope of the area, or how convenient the element is from your point of entry (we'll talk about permaculture zones in a future post to help make more sense of this).


Who lives with you? If you have a family home, shared co-housing space or village, this is important. After last week's post where we looked at ourselves, this week you’ll consider the same questions and apply it to those around you. You can refer to those questions here.

This is an observational activity, as well as an interactive activity. Of course, you can observe many of these behaviors, but asking questions to explore individual preferences through conversation helps to avoid assumptions (and you know what they say about assumptions...).

Gauging Interest

To aid you in this pursuit, you might try creating a quiz to gauge interest in certain activities. Let’s imagine you want to add chickens to your backyard garden. This is an especially pertinent example, as chickens can take a lot of work to keep healthy and happy. It’s a duty that requires attention multiple times a day. Forgetting these tasks may lead to extremely dire consequences.

Have individuals answer honestly on a scale from 1-5 how likely they are to remember to complete these duties, how much they actually want to do these duties, or how often they intend on taking part. After these questions are answered by those around you, facilitate dialogue around why each person chose their answers and what this means to them.

If they answer a low score on any of these (especially in regards to how much they want to be doing the activity), don’t take it personally. We’ll go more into community agreements in a later post. In the meantime, use this feedback to make realistic plans for what is possible and manageable in your space. If you ignore these details it can cause problems later on.

Following this example, instead of having a large flock, you might choose to have only a few hens and a simple but secure coop design, or you may determine that having chickens at your home is irresponsible or unfeasible at the present time.

If those around you answer high in these hypothetical categories, practice low expectations and imagine if the other person wasn’t there. Would you still be able to complete these duties without them? What if they are sick, injured, have to leave, or discover they have an aversion to chicken rearing they truly weren’t aware of until they started working with yours? How might you react?

People are humans. Through all of these processes it’s a good opportunity to practice compassion and release expectations (easier said than done, I know). With this, use community responses and potential future outcomes to design various plans of action to make sure duties still get taken care of- especially when we’re considering the life of other creatures.

Hot or Not?

Another important area to gauge is how hot, or popular, certain produce is versus what isn’t. It’s seriously a great question to ask ahead of time. Do you cook with squash? Anybody? No? Never? Then don’t plant 5 squash plants. Maybe don’t even plant one.

Make a list of plants you are considering to plant in your yard. Be sure to do this before you go to the store and buy 20 packets of interesting seeds you have never heard of. Rate personally or as a group: How much do I like this fruit or vegetable? How often do I cook with it? Have we ever been into preserving or canning, and thus will we want a lot of any particular yield? Make the questions fit your home and get to it.

If you find that no one really likes tomatoes, radishes, beets or turnips, or whatever it might be, use it as a clue and don’t put it in your yard.

Gathering Community Input

How might you bring your neighbors, friends and family into this design process?

Make an event out of it: Try out a dinner party or have a friend over for tea. Consider having friends join you on your property walk and ask for their feedback. What do they imagine in your space? What skills or resources might they contribute?

As you reach out to neighbors, explore what they’re currently growing. What do they typically have too much of that they would be excited to trade? What types of produce would they like to see you grow?

Remember also: Relationships are a two-way street! What skills and resources do you have to share? How can you contribute to the development of your neighbor or friend’s yard? See if there is room for a new beneficial relationship to form.


These are just a handful of ways you can begin interacting with your space and those who will be impacted by it. We’ll have more suggestions later on, but in the meantime remember to take a breath and a step back before rushing in.

So readers, in what ways are you currently interacting with your space? What have you been observing? And how are these explorations changing or expanding your perception?

Thanks for reading, and be sure to subscribe for more impactful ideas on integrative living!

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