Designing for Immaterial Yields

In the short time that Luke and I have designed properties the great importance of immaterial yields in a system has become very clear.

In the greater Permaculture community, I find that more often than not, these yields are forgotten or it's assumed that they will just happen if you mimic nature and adhere to the ethics and core values of Permaculture design. This isn't necessarily the case. You can't expect to produce an abundance of food without intentionality in your design and likewise, you can't expect an abundance of peace to show up through happenstance. This is something I've thought a lot about and one of the core considerations of any design that I work on is the immaterial. 

A great joy in our work is getting to hear the desires, dreams, and unspoken needs of the people we work with. Some are better connected to their need for the immaterial than others, but everyone is seeking something beyond productivity and function. We are all looking for the way that we are uniquely created to reflect beauty and truth in a world that is hungry for it. 

There are as many different needs for the immaterial as there are people in the world and thinking this through with people has been one of my favorite parts of designing systems.

Here are a few of the immaterial yields that have shown up as themes as I talk with people along with a couple examples of how to implement them: 


We live in a busy culture, surrounded by constant distraction. People are longing for some distance from all the screens and noise. 

We can make peaceful spaces by creating quiet and pleasant sounds through water or the rustle of wind through leaves. Enclosing an otherwise expansive area can help bring a sense of home and belonging. Or sometimes opening up a boxed in area, or exposing a hidden view, even of something as simple as a tree, can make a claustrophobic space feel more relaxed. Opportunities for these kinds of changes can present themselves just by standing in a place you always stand and asking how it could be different. 


We believe the natural world is fundamentally spiritual and we can strengthen that connection through the use of symbol, meditation gardens, prayer labyrinths and other overt or subtle spiritual elements. 


Many of us have found ourselves reconnected to the land because of experiences of grief or trauma. We have found no more healing place than a farm. But whether you are on broad acreage or in an urban backyard, healing elements can be designed into your system.

We can honor memories with plants, making space for grief through the connection to the life, death and rebirth cycle. The addition of a medicinal garden and introducing healing edibles can change the whole atmosphere of a place and serve as a supportive element in physical, spiritual or emotional healing.


One of the first things most people think of when they are designing their space is people. They want to know how to make the place ideal for hosting and a warm inviting space for friends, family and maybe even strangers that need friends and family. 

We can make spaces that help facilitate community by adding fire pits, gazebos, and play structures for children. Of course outdoor food prep, cooking and eating areas will always bring people together. And even though it's a bad word in Permaculture, even a well placed lawn can make a great blank slate for all manner of gatherings. We are also big fans of community meeting spaces and educational facilities for the more ambitious. 


Many people these days are in creative professions or are bent toward creative pursuits. Even those that just like to tinker are creatives at heart and we can be intentional about inspiring the flow of ideas. 

Using color and smell, shape or ambiance can add interest and inspire the mind and soul. Maybe adding a writers retreat (like one design we're working on right now), a craft area, a place to build, fix or work with wood. We also find that designing for any of the other immaterial yields can feed this one. 


Beverley Nichols (a writer you should read if you ever get the chance) calls this kind of design "recreating the womb". 

Hedges and edges are key in designing for safety. Identify what you want in and what you want out. Again, designing for things like peace will of necessity be connected to designing for safety. 


What is a farm or a property, or a home of any kind if it doesn't produce happiness? The world is meant to be enjoyed and there are many ways to design joy into a system. 

The addition of a children's learning garden or places for you to watch your beloved animals having fun can bring joy. Or, in my case, a Meyer Lemon tree (which you would usually never grow in the Pacific NW) growing in the bio-shelter. What produces joy is surprisingly personal, which is why it also has to be done intentionally. 


Farms and the conventional modern yard have become ugly. Industrialization and the standardization of landscape design has created mono-crop, monochrome and monotony.

Polyculture is really the key to beauty: diversity, intrigue and interest. Add an array of flowers (not just for the pollinators but because you love flowers!) mixed in with edibles. Install built elements like a hand made stone wall, and hand crafted wood pieces. Or, just orient an area toward your favorite view. 

Real life is about so much more than feeding ourselves and those around us. It is also about more than stewarding and healing the earth. It's about the intangibles we all long for; peace, life, joy, safety, beauty, truth. As Permaculture designers, practitioners or just the average person looking out the back door, we must take into account immaterial needs and work to see them expressed in ways that produce an abundant yield.