Brandon Smith (Redwoodtwig)

This section is a discussion of how I am organizing the record keeping for the permaculture project I have embarked upon. 

Concept development

When I first began to get serious about working in harmony with nature on these acres, I'd begun reading various books on Permaculture and surfing around the related sites on line.  I realized that unlike traditional gardening, the permaculture approach would require detailed records of what amounts to hundreds of ecological experiments.  I don't just plant tomatoes or whatever and take care of it by weeding -- I examine each weed to see if it helps or hinders the tomato. And I have to remember what works well with what.  A few tree/shrub/herb combinations on a half acre yard can be "permacultured" using perhaps a pencil and notebook.  But with nearly 10 acres of "natural" land already full of trees, shrubs and various other plants, I want to use modern computer technology for my notes.

My preference would be to simply find a reasonably priced app and some space in the cloud that makes it fairly easy for me to record the kind of detailed data my research is showing that I'll need.  However, there isn't one.  There are indeed many many approaches to permaculture record keeping, from very scientific detail oriented spreadsheets  and GIS to informal notes on paper.  But nothing that I can use "out of the box" so to speak.  So I've designed one, starting with the concept of a permaculture inventory.

The first part of a permaculture plan or project is observation.  And in that initial observation is an inventory of what currently exists on the place -- the numbers and kinds of trees, bushes, shrubs, vines, herbs, etc.  In a discussion group on LinkedIn, I posed the question of just how complete such an inventory should be.  The responses really helped orient my thinking regarding the entire record keeping process, and I put on my database design hat and went to work.  The model at the right provides a solid structure which allows for any level of detail the user might desire.

The basic idea is that we want to identify all the important ecological elements and then we want to record facts about each one over time.  And most importantly, we need to be able to ask questions and find answers because we recorded the data needed to produce the information.  

However, with either pen and paper or with a computer, the volume of data collection quickly makes the work of recording onerous.  Once again, I turned to technology where I find that high resolution photographs and compositing software can at least be used to record the physical appearance of various plants and guilds over time.   The model provides a methodology for linking photographs to the ecological elements and the historical data about those elements.

High resolution photographs are an important part of my approach. Taking the photographs is not hard, in fact it's fun.  Though lugging the tripod and shooting the inventory panos for the formal inventory is a lot of work.  The intensive labor is afterwards, annotating the photos, making the narrative observations about the photo in the caption, and last but most important, visiting the plants and recording measurements and facts in the spreadsheets.

Permaculture Database Model

This design is intended to link togther an inventory of plant resources with periodic photographic records of the process. The green tables on the left define the hierarchy of locations down to the individual plant level and the related observation and view points. The pink table is all of the photos related to the forest, each tied at least to a view point. The Blue tables are the on going journal entries that give detail to the historical record. The yellow table represents internet resources to link to. The grey tables are where the data integrity and useful business rules would occur.


It would be wonderful to have a full-on software development effort, but time and money point towards using resources that are more reasonably priced and available now.  Ten dollars a month for Lightroom and Photoshop, another 20 or so a month for the Smugmug photo sharing account, and trading personal information for Google, Gigapan and other online accounts.  Plus a decently powered desktop computer with big screens and a "full frame" digital camera with a good lens.  And many hours setting up things so they work together reasonably well.

On this site I use both a formal and an informal inventory to record the information I want to work with as the garden grows.  The formal inventory uses a completely arbitrary numbering system to organize a set of panoramic photos that cover the property without regard to the areas and features I wish to deal with as plant communities. The informal inventory is basically just dropping photographs with notes into galleries associated with the areas, feature, and plants I wish to track in my record keeping.

Photographic inventory

The formal inventory attempts to provide photographic records over time that cover the entire area of the project.

The image below is an example of a high resolution photograph where a few ecological elements are identified.  What makes it formal is that the same photograph will be taken next year from the same spot -- but the plants will be different.

I use these formal photographs to also make the formal identification of the features within the various areas.  

This view of the image is about one tenth resolution.  Below that is a detail crop to show the level of detail available.  However,  my host will only let me display images up to 100 megapixels here, and the actual panoramic images I'm making are closer to 150 when doing just one row.  I can also use  gigapan, which has very nice user interface for view super-large images, allowing much easier zooming in on detail, and a better commenting system.

Note:  Software does exist that can scan a photograph and detect both the location and the text of legible labels.  

Note: The labels in this image are samples only, reflecting a four level hierarchy of areas, features, guilds and plants.  I have since determined that three levels of location hierarchy is sufficient. 

Below is a detail area from the above panoramic image.  This kind of detail is not possible with a cell phone, and as a general rule, the more expensive the camera and lens, the better the detail.  When the lighting conditions are favorable, a decent DSLR with a decent lens will give enough detail to easily count the pines in the pine circle, but the Oak Grove inhabitants are hidden by their early winter leaves.

When working with images this size, 100 to 200 megapixels, a lot of RAM is required, as well software that handles this size image well, such as Photoshop.  At this time Lightroom slows to a crawl when trying to render one of these panoramas at 1:1.  However, it does fine in applying the various development tools to optimize the image.  For viewing and doing the formal labelling, Photoshop works quite well.

Workflow for formal photographic inventory

1.  Draw a map of the place and divide it into areas.  (mark up a screen grab of a terrain map)

2.  Create a database in which to store itemized details of the features and plants or items that the inventory will track in detail.

3.  Map in hand, walk property and locate enough observation points that panoramic photographs will cover the entire property, after the leaves have fallen. Set up permanent markers at each observation point.

4.  Capture 360 degree panorama photographs from each observation point.

5.   Annotate the features and plants that are to be itemized in the inventory.

6.   Collect and record the information desired about each itemized feature or plant.       

Repeat 4 through 6 at least annually, but if possible seasonally.  If you have more than a half dozen or so observation points, I'd suggest doing the ones in zone 1 seasonally and the ones that show only the outer zones annually.  

Informal photographic investigations

My approach to observation is two fold: photographs and physical sit in a chair being there.  Simply being there, sight, hearing, taste, touch and other senses turned on, is more important than the photograph, but a photograph does reduce the number of words you need to record your observations, evaluations or designs.

Since I've had extensive experience working with photography, I can usually get an excellent photograph of a particular group of plants I want to apply permaculture observations to. I have found that if I go back to that location and simply sit and stare around at the plant activity that's going on, then later that evening, when I bring up the photo on the computer, I have much better observations to write down for my journal than if I'd simply snapped a photo.

I wish I were disciplined enough to keep observations separate from evaluations and design concepts.  What I end up putting in the EXIF caption data field tends to notes that mix design ideas with evaluations and observations.

However, in order to make things findable later, I do make an effort to be very disciplined in the use of keywords that go in the EXIF keyword data space attached to the photo. I've tried to keep it simple enough that I can memorize the key number/name combinations, making work with the spreadsheets where the keywords are defined easier.

Working with a specific area

  • Eastern walk way to front door and then around to kitchen.

    The front yard is first viewed from one of these two locations: on the left from after climbing the steps and on the right from leaving the west parking area. From the left, the guardian pine will dominate the view, although when the dogwood blooms in the spring, it will dominate. From the right, although the guardian pine is definitely there, the foreground has the master cedar, the dogwood, a curving path, and witch hazel framing the opening.

  • Front yard general concept, eastern part

    On the east side of the front yard there is an existing concrete path. On the right, care needs to be taken to insure rainfall drains down and away from the house. On the left, the former lawn will become beds of some kind.

Workflow for informal photographic investigations

1.  Wander around with camera (or cell phone) in hand and take pictures of what looks interesting.

2.  Download to a computer with a big screen, evaluate the photo:  Is it clear enough to illustrate what you want record  in your investigation?

3.  Apply the correct keywords to locate the subject of the photo in your spreadsheets and then write whatever narrative you want in the caption field.  

4.  Optionally, annotate the photograph directly with labels, notes, circles and arrows or whatever helps you present your observations, evaluations, or designs.

5.  Store the photograph with it's EXIF data intact to a service where you can arrange them into galleries that reflect your project's organization.  I store my informal photographic permaculture investigations initially by date, such as "2015 - June walkabouts."

6.  Using the keywords,  create virtual galleries that contain the same keywords, so that over time you gather multiple images and notes about particular features or items in your spreadsheet database.

Repeat as desired.

In other words, instead of a few jotted down words, store an image with the words added either to the caption or directly on the image.  Under decent light conditions, most cell phones provide good enough quality for computer display.  

Where to store it and how to find it again is one of the purposes of having a database structure in place.  I do all of my initial photographic work in Lightroom with a folder organization that reflects the area/feature/plant hierarchy I'm establishing for this project.  The same organization is applied to the art garden portion of this site.