The first principle of Permaculture is to "Observe and Assess". While some might say that just walking around and looking at things is worthless, a waste of time and money, I will counter that often times if this first step is overlooked, the client (or you, the householder) will waste time and money creating features that don't work for your real and daily needs.
What does that gibberish mean, you say? Some of my long-time readers will recall that DH and I reside in a 150-year old house that needed a lot of restoration in order to make it really livable. In fact, it will probably benefit from TLC on an ongoing basis. The house sat empty for approximately 15 years before we came along and decided to purchase it. We had some funds, but put the biggest down payment out that we could afford, so that our offer would be accepted and our mortgage payment within reason. That left us with funds to purchase materials, but not enough... we would need to stage our efforts (repair as funds and time became available). We slept on a futon couch in the living room the first few years, after painting several rooms, including those for the two children still living at home (aged 12 and 15 at the time), and then managed to finish up a room that served as bedroom/office for us (shared with those now-teenagers). Finally, about 6 years into owning the place, we got our 'own room' finished off and that office became a combined office/library/guest room, favored by visiting family for its close proximity to the main heat source and its access to the Internet into the wee hours of the morning.
Along the way, we also got to try out three different locations in the house and learned a lot about how we were living in it. Where did we all want to hang out? How hard or easy was it to stay warm in winter? cool in summer? A few years into the remodel, we turned to each other and said how grateful we were that we hadn't had lots of cash to dump... we would have made a lot of mistakes! We needed to observe how we lived in the house to determine the best uses for each area.
The same is true about land, though there are some general categories that you can readily observe, and quickly size up your options. This is particularly important for those trying to decide whether to purchase a property, and include sun/weather exposure, where the sun travels across the landscape (which will determine much about heating and cooling needs as well as where you will be able to grow things), and where water enters and exits your portion of the landscape. For example, living on the top of a hill might give you a killer view, but you will also get baked by the sun in summer (increased air conditioning costs) and your house will be knocked harder by storms. You could even be at greater risk for fire or landslide in the California landscape!
Many will think I am talking about big pieces of land here, and others will shrug their shoulders, saying "I'm stuck with what I've got", but that is not how permaculturalists look at it... there are often solutions to challenges, that make live much more liveable. I will be gradually delving into many of these solutions over the next several Sundays, but to give you an idea what I mean...if you have a lot of sun in the late afternoon, planting deciduous shrubs to shade your windows can decrease the interior temperature by 10-15 degrees; using a screen can have a similar effect. Either way, you can create a remedy for the problem. If wind is a big feature, your local Ag Extension office will be able to suggest which trees make the best windbreak for your region of the country. I am encouraging planting, and there's that famous old Chinese proverb that says "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now” but once again, "observe and assess". If you hurry to plant and haven't done your homework on sun angle throughout the year and water availability for your new plantings, you might be increasing your problem by shading the best place on the property to construct your kitchen garden or worse, having the plants die because you can't get water to them!
Speaking of kitchen gardens, the name obviously suggests something planted close to the kitchen, once again for ease of regular use. Planting salad greens down in that rocky part of the yard, where it is baking-hot at about 5 in the evening when you are beginning to think about preparing dinner not only will be hard on getting them to grow, but will also make harvesting less-than-inviting... those plants simply won't get as much attention as ones placed in an inviting location near the kitchen, or even on the path you take from the car to the door on the way in from work, where you can easily harvest what you need for supper.
Now that we have established some of the 'whys' behind this principle, let me move on to the 'how' part. We live in a fast-paced and media-driven world, where information is often brought to us, to the point of overwhelm. I am recommending you make quiet time to go out and observe nature. Several times a week, if not daily. I was lucky to be drawn towards that passion through my father, who helped me build up a large botany specimen collection when I was taking high school biology, at the same time teaching me to key out plants to identify them. You can sign up for a community college class if you want to learn those skills, or simply search out nature hikes given in your area by local land trusts, the Sierra Club, etc.
As you look at plants and animals out in nature, you will begin to see patterns... some plants grow where it's wet, and some where it's dry, etc. Plants in their natural habitats often grow much more rapidly and vigorously than those in our gardens, and of course the 'weeds' (i.e., plants we didn't want) are so well adapted to the locations they choose that they are way ahead of us most years!
This particular cluster of pale pink, five-petaled flowers was growing almost right in the water of Cherokee Creek when we went hiking there last Friday... on a narrow spit of silty soil surrounded by boulders. It obviously has a very thick stem, but from past years of observations in the area, I can tell that the whole plant sprung from the ground in the past few weeks! Although it isn't visible in my picture, down at the bottom of that three foot stem is a rosette of leaves, and a few tiny new leaves are getting ready to sprout out mid-stem. If I go back in a month, this plant will look significantly different; the power of its growth spurt is now, in spring, when it can depend upon being well-watered by snow runoff. I searched out the name (Peltiphyllum peltatum, or Indian Rhubarb, Umbrella Plant), but I don't actually need to know it in order to learn a lot about its plant nature.
Soon, if you return to the same types of environments regularly, you will begin to know which plants grow in groups together, and to notice that they don't grow in straight row, more more often in wave shapes or ovals... and with their leaves touching their neighbors. This understanding is the beginning of your appreciation of plant guilds, groups that flourish together, sharing both horizontal and vertical space!
You can stop with a hand lens and examine the soil, and then will notice that it is usually full of very small life, of more kinds that I can name. I just read in Teaming with Microbes that one acre of good garden soil contains several pounds of small mammals; 133 pounds of protozoa; 900 pounds each of earthworms, arthropods, and algae; 2000 pounds of bacteria; and 2400 pounds of fungi. That's a lot of life going on under our feet!
Observation will help you become more aware of weather patterns too. You could sit in an armchair on your porch, in the same spot at the same time every day all year (for instance, drinking a mojito at 5 PM!), and chart where the sun was in the horizon (helps if you face west if you decide to do this at 5 PM). This small alteration of your lifestyle would give you powerful information about how the sun moves over your house. You would have a record of sunny days, rainy days, cold days, and hot ones... even without getting up to read the thermometer. You can easily see ways to add to that simple observation step; keeping track of the birds you see each day, looking at some of your favorite plants or a tree in view. All of these simple tools are free... we just have to start using our observation skills.
The more information you gather, the better you will be able to assess your needs. This practice can work well indoors, in the kitchen or office, to help you re-arrange the tools in a more efficient manner based upon your regular use. What are you going to observe and assess first?
I leave you with this photo of one part of my natural classroom.. the North Yuba River.