Permaculture & Playful Failure

Sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

Sometimes, no matter how deeply you’ve studied a site — spending a whole year mapping out seasonal changes, the path of the sun, rainfall and water flows, etc., etc. — and no matter how much you’ve studied soil conditions and plant possibilities in order to find the best possible solution, it just doesn’t work.

Sometimes, plants that, on paper, should thrive in precisely the conditions you’ve identified, die with (what seems like) no good reason.

This can be really disappointing and deflating — especially if you’ve spent quite a lot on a particular plant(!).

At this point, it’s really easy to give up. In fact, this is precisely what many would-be gardeners do all the time, after they grab a bunch of herbs or veggies from Bunnings, take them home, and watch them slowly die. “This whole gardening thing” just becomes too hard — “We tried that, and it didn’t work!” Then we go back to buying overpriced and chemically saturated produce from Coles or Woolies.

Part of what I’ve learnt in the study and practice of permaculture, however, is that this ‘failure’ is actually all part of the learning process. Of course I need to do all the hard work of the initial observation, but the process isn’t just something I do once and then move on. Everything I do on a particular site is part of the ongoing process of observing and adjusting to find the best outcomes.

The approach I now take is one of playful experimentation, starting small (and making small changes as I go) and seeing what happens when I plant something in one place, or alongside a certain other plant. If it ‘works,’ great! If not, then I’ve gained valuable information about the site and won’t make the same mistake again. This is a win-win situation.

This posture of ‘playful experimentation’ isn’t just something for the garden; what I’ve found is that it’s an incredibly helpful way of approaching life in general (and for modelling to my kids!). Of course, there are times when there’s much more on the line than one dead basil plant but, most of the time, this sort of attitude can be of significant help for my own mental health and wellbeing as well as for those around me. (If I allow myself the chance to ‘fail playfully,’ then I’ll probably be more willing to extend the same grace to those I live and work with.)

I think it’s even more helpful when thinking about the way churches engage with the communities around them.

Part of my work is building partnerships into our local community and looking for ways that we, as a church, can engage well with others for whole-of-community wellbeing. I bring this same attitude to this work. The first task, obviously, is the work of deep observation of our community, looking for partnership possibilities. When some of those opportunities are identified, then comes the possibility for playful experimentation as we choose small tasks to work on together, build trust, and see what happens. Sometimes it works beautifully from the outset; sometimes it doesn’t go quite as planned — and that’s ok! Every part of this becomes a learning opportunity, and if it’s done with a firm, mutual commitment to everything being done in good faith, then there is incredible opportunity to learn and grow together. This, I’ve found, is the best way of building the genuine trust that’s required for doing anything of great significance together.

So, what are you waiting for? Go get your hands dirty, give it a shot, and make sure you pay attention to what’s happening and learn from it all — and always keep that playful attitude!


This post is part of a broader series looking at the applications and implications of permaculture thinking on life, work, and mission. The other posts can be found here:


Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

2 thoughts on “Permaculture & Playful Failure”

  1. I like these posts, it has me thinking a lot about both the organisational aspects and also just plain old biology too.

    One long term project I have at the moment is trying to implement symbiotic fungal relationships with trees. It’s interesting at the very least. Sadly, however their seems to be a lot of destructive testing involved. I have taken some steps to reduce this but I also need to refine the model. Ideally non-destructive testing and observation would be far more beneficial and significantly less hassle.

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