Keyline planning incorporates keyline design, a broadacre design strategy founded by P.A. Yeoman in the 1930s. Keyline planning is used today to develop drought-proof, water-abundant landscapes and farms. Having begun his career as a mining engineer, Yeoman developed an intricate understanding of hydrology and equipment design. He applied this to land management after taking over the stewardship of a large tract of land in New South Wales (Australia). The Keyline approach begins with observing and understanding the topography, climate, and soils of a landscape; these are the primary factors dictating how water (and, to a large extent, nutrients) flow across land. Keyline design focuses on spreading and sinking water by moving it from existing collection points (“keypoints” where water naturally concentrates in valleys) to new collection points (dry ridges, ponds). Yeoman’s groundbreaking innovation was to design a plow that created distribution paths for water, “keylines”, with minimal disturbance to the soil. The furrows created by the Keyline plow infiltrate water, increase oxygen in the soil, and greatly boost plant root depth and development. In essence, Keyline design allows you to move and store water higher in a landscape with a gravity-fed system. Natural water collection and distribution areas become the driving force behind site layout and phased planning, allowing the land manager to reduce the need for irrigation and protect vital soil biology. The Keyline plow, used in conjunction with crop and pasture seeding as well as beneficial grazing systems, also has the potential to support carbon sequestration in the soil while increasing pasture production, diversity, and water absorption capacity.
Keyline Scale of Permanence
All our design work is rooted in the Keyline Scale of Permanence, a decision-making hierarchy that helps to ensure our designs work with those elements of a landscape we can’t change by properly locating, sizing and managing those we can change. P.A. Yeoman developed this scale in the 1930s along with keyline design to ensure appropriate development and installation of projects, originally calling it “The Keyline scale of the relative permanence of things agricultural”. Since then, it has gained traction among ecological land management specialists as a tool for navigating the complex decision making processes inherent in designing farms and landscapes that work with ecosystem dynamics instead of against them. The Keyline Scale of Permanence’s hierarchy organizes landscape features according to their relative permanence. It also illustrates how fundamental each feature is to creating the conditions necessary for life (from greatest to least, though all are necessary) and, to a certain extent, how the features interact. For instance, water supply is determined by climate and land shape whereas fences can only be sited after the locations of permanent buildings and trees has been determined. The scale is as follows:
- Land shape
- Water supply
- Farm roads
- Permanent buildings
- Subdivision fences
By designing a system progressively with this hierarchy, the longest-lasting elements are placed first and the more ephemeral ones, which are easier to move around, come later. This mirrors the permaculture principle of working from patterns to details. Climate comes first because it is very difficult for an individual to change the climate their land is situated in (although overall patterns may be shifting as global warming continues). The shape of the land is next because it can be altered, though it requires more effort and inputs than, say, modifying access roads or water supply. Working with the scale also steers us away from costly mistakes. For example, roads tend to last longer than most trees we plant, as such they are designed first. If we did the opposite, we would likely find that some trees needed to be moved. This trend continues as we make our way down the scale of permanence and get to soil. While building top soil is a long-term endeavor, we can begin with something as simple as mulch or cover crops which are relatively easy to implement. By rooting our decision making in the Keyline Scale of Permanence, we ensure our designs use resources efficiently and work with the natural patterns in resource flows as much as possible. Rather than trying to alter permanent aspects of a piece of property, it steers us to the more accessible leverage points. Essentially, it helps us mimic stable ecosystems that have developed by supporting positive associations between the living things within them. Striking this balance underpins permanence and stability in the natural world and in our designs.
Harnessing this potential requires a well-thought-out design. Permaculture Artisans offers the following services to help you integrate Keyline planning and design into your landscape:
- Survey of topography and natural movement of nutrients and water
- Mapping of natural water flow throughout the property
- Design of enhanced water absorption techniques over large acreage
- Pond and water capture design as part of whole farm water management plan
At Permaculture Artisans we have decades of experience working with this approach. Contact us to find out if this ecological design strategy is right for your landscape. You can learn more about its implementation here.