Click to view Rain Water Storage Tank, Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Rain Water Storage Tank
Private Residence in New Mexico
Installed by Jeff Adams of Terrasophia
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer

Have you ever looked at a healthy forest and wondered “how do those trees, shrubs, and smaller plants thrive without fertilizer inputs, pest control, consistent watering, tilling, thinning, and being overtaken by unwanted species?” Many in Utah, in striving for alternative ways to grow food and landscapes in general, are turning away from conventional practices and experimenting in a relatively new design process called “permaculture.”

But what exactly does permaculture mean? Permaculture is a design philosophy for producing sustainable landscapes and buildings that work as a system and have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.

Although concepts included in permaculture design have been in practice for millennia by indigenous cultures worldwide, the term “permaculture” was first coined in Tasmania in the mid 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They describe permaculture as “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fiber, and energy for provision of local needs.”

As Utahns lean toward water conservation and self-sufficiency, many are incorporating permaculture into their lifestyles. The first, and most important, principle in permaculture design is “observe and interact.” Watch your landscape during different weather events – in heavy rain, regular rain, high winds, and more. Where do storms come in from? Which way do the high winds normally blow? Which areas receive full sun? Where do you hear consistent noise and do you like or dislike what you hear? How does water flow on your property in a rain event? These observations will serve as the foundation guiding how you will eventually design your landscape.

Following “observe and interact” are 11 additional principles, which can be found in most introductory texts about permaculture design, and in USU Extension’s permaculture fact sheet. After making long and slow observations, you may decide you wish to block noise coming in from a certain part of your property, or capture rainwater from your south-facing roof. This is where various tools and techniques come into play, such as harvesting rainwater and stacking functions. Rainwater is a clean, free resource that falls on our roof and properties. Are you effectively using this free resource by building basins and swales to better capture and infiltrate water instead of mounds where water would easily runoff? Are you capturing and storing water from your roof for drier periods? Stacking functions is the practice of considering the entire spectrum of benefits various elements (such as plants or structures) on your landscape could provide, and then grouping elements in a way that works as system. A common example includes the Native American “Three Sisters Garden” of corn, beans, and squash. Nitrogen-fixing beans provide a stable, slow-release nitrogen source for the corn, whereas corn provides a pole for the beans to grow. Squash forms a natural ground cover to reduce weeds and retain soil moisture, while the prickly hairs help deter pests. The gardener can reap a higher yield through stacking functions like this.

To find out more, search for USU Extension’s permaculture fact sheet.

For Utah State University Extension Sustainability, this is Roslynn Brain.


Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Roslynn Brain
Text: Roslynn Brain, Utah State University Extension Sustainability

Sources & Additional Reading:

YCC Team, Lush Utah garden makes the most of a small amount of rain, Yale Climate Connections, July 25, 2022,