Permaculture Flower with each petal representing a different topic within permaculture.

What is a PDC?: Permaculture Design Course Reflections [Part 1/8]

This series of eight blog posts by Melissa Ott about the Santa Cruz Permaculture fall-winter 2017 Permaculture Design Course was originally posted on the Green Gal blog in April 2017.

I recently 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 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 that he also completed his PDC prior to his time as a CASFS apprentice in the early 2000s. It provided him with a valuable whole systems design framework through which he could experience the apprenticeship.

I am grateful that David shared this advice and that I signed up for the course! Throughout the six months, I met some amazing people and learned new methods for observing the world around me. I gained new strategies for planning and designing and look forward to my next opportunity to put what I learned into practice!

Permaculture Flower with each petal representing a different topic within permaculture.

The Permaculture Flower (

So, what is Permaculture & Whole Systems Design?

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 Permaculture Principles website.

The Permaculture Principles are 1. Observe & Interact, 2. Catch & Store Energy, 3. Obtain a Yield, 4. Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback, 5. Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services, 6. Produce No Waste, 7. Design from Patterns to Details, 8. Integrate Rather than Segregate, 9. Use Small & Slow Solutions, 10. Use & Value Diversity, 11. Use Edges & Value the Marginal, 12. Creatively Use & Respond to ChangeThe 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. It’s 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.

Santa Cruz Permaculture Design Certificate Course

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.

David has done a remarkable job of not only leading workshops himself throughout the course, but also curating a fantastic team of guides. Each instructor is 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. Often, participants can often camp overnight, depending upon the location of the course that season.

Throughout the six months, participants work in small groups to create a fairly comprehensive permaculture design project. These projects design real-life properties in the Santa Cruz area and surrounding region. My group designed a permaculture garden at a winery in Gilroy because we live in Santa Clara Valley. Most of the projects were in Santa Cruz County.

This element of the course provides a practical and experiential learning opportunity. It is crucial to get hands-on experience to really understand how to apply the 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 apply that learning to a design for a property and client in the real world. These projects also provide participants with a sample design for the beginning of their permaculture portfolio.

The following posts in this series provide an overview of the Permaculture Design Course month-by-month.

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