Embarking on an Ecological Transition through Permaculture Design

Ecological Transition through Permaculture Design: Before and After Permaculture Rain Garden USU Moab Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain McCann, Photographer
Before and After
Permaculture Rain Garden
USU Moab
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain McCann, Photographer
Before installing our permaculture gardens at Utah State University, Moab, the only birds I observed from my office window were Eurasian Collared Doves and crows. The space is small. It used to consist of concrete and a mono-planted row of juniper bushes. Seven years ago, over 40 members of the Moab community helped us dream up a new vision for the space. We took out a few parking spaces that allowed my building’s roof rainwater runoff to run-in to our garden and into a rock-lined swale and a series of basins. In an area that receives an average of under 10 inches of rainfall per year, our USU Moab permaculture gardens now harvest an estimated 125,000 gallons of rainwater either directly into the garden soil, or into a series of rain tanks for later use.

Alongside planting the rain through water harvesting earthworks, we installed an ecological design with a fruit and shade producing overstory, and an understory of shrubs, plants, and grasses. The understory performs one or more of four functions: pollinator attractors, nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators (which pull nutrients deeper in soil layers towards the surface, becoming available through a chop and drop technique), and soil stabilizers. Now, broad-tailed hummingbirds, spotted towhees, rock wrens and more can be seen and heard as the garden bounty ripens each year. These birds bring color, song, and delight as they contribute to pest control, devouring aphids, grasshoppers and pesky plant eating beetle grubs.

What we have learned through our small urban campus is that with permaculture design, any landscape can undergo a complete ecological transition – even a landscape that is only a few feet wide and was previously partially covered in concrete.

If you are interested in applying permaculture design to your landscape, start by observing your site as it currently is. See how water flows in a rain event. Walk around during the hottest days of the year and feel where the hot and cool zones are. How does the sun move across the site during summer solstice. During winter solstice. What views do you want to take in and block? What species engage in your landscape and what ones are missing? These are the types of questions you can ask yourself. Then, as you begin to think about design ideas, here are some general tips:

    • Ask elders in your community about extreme weather events and other helpful historical information
    • Think about what your landscape is currently doing for you, and what you would like it to do. Then, develop your goals for the site. This will help you determine what is and is not currently working
    • In the desert, as a general rule, place your paths high and dry, plants low and wet (or at least wetter)
    • Discover what plants might work well together in what is called a guild. For example, if you have a nitrogen dependent shrub, plant nitrogen-fixing plants around it.
    • Harvest as much rainwater as possible through active systems like rain tanks, and passive systems like earthworks that slow, spread, and sink rainwater
    • Plant your high-maintenance plants in your most-frequented areas – alongside the pathway between your house and chicken coop, for example.
    • Birds and humans appreciate diversity in heights, species, and food-producing plants
    • Start small
    • See failures as opportunities for learning

    For Utah State University Extension Sustainability and the Department of Environment and Society, this is Roslynn Brain McCann and I’m wild about Utah!

    Images: Courtesy and copyright Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and copyright Kevin Colver
    Text:     Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Utah State University Extension Sustainability
    Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster
    Additional Reading:

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Rainwater Harvesting, Wild About Utah, October 19, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/rainwater-harvesting/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Permaculture, Wild About Utah, May 23, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/permaculture/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Three-Leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata), Wild About Utah, November 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/three-leaf-sumac-rhus-trilobata/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Dandelion, Friend or Foe?, Wild About Utah, April 4, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/dandelion-friend-foe/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Edible Weeds: Lambs Quarters and Purslane, Wild About Utah, March 27, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/edible-weeds-lambs-quarters-and-purslane/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Yellow-bellied Marmot, Wild About Utah, September 21, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/yellow-bellied-marmot/

    YCC Team, Lush Utah garden makes the most of a small amount of rain, Yale Climate Connections, July 25, 2022, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2022/07/lush-utah-garden-makes-the-most-of-a-small-amount-of-rain/


    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, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2022/07/lush-utah-garden-makes-the-most-of-a-small-amount-of-rain/