Implementing Permaculture at University

Roslynn Brain, Tamara Steinitz, and Emily Niehaus
Thursday, 19th February 2015

Utah State University and the local community have designed a permaculture teaching garden, implementing designs for their high desert climate.

"Permaculture is too eccentric... it won't gain enough momentum here." This was the response we received from select colleagues and administrators at Utah State University (USU) in Logan, Utah, USA, when our team proposed implementing a permaculture teaching garden on the main campus.

The idea sounded straightforward enough: implement a garden in Utah's high desert climate to teach students about water-wise practices, plant guilds, and visually appealing edible landscaping. Besides, all we would be replacing was Kentucky bluegrass – simple!

Well over a year and countless meetings, phone calls, and emails later, the sod has finally been removed and we are working on phase one of three in implementing Utah's first official campus permaculture garden. This article highlights our amusing and frustrating four-year journey in changing the university paradigm.

In the early spring of 2013, following a permaculture design workshop in Moab, Utah with Brad Lancaster and Joel Glanzberg, Emily Niehaus, Founding Director of Community Rebuilds (a nonprofit organization building energy efficient straw bale homes for income qualifying families in Moab) proposed implementing a permaculture teaching garden on USU's main campus in Logan, Utah. Roslynn Brain, Assistant Professor in Sustainable Communities at USU, saw the perfect match between the concepts of permaculture design and her community sustainability outreach program. Roslynn and Emily worked with Tamara Steinitz, an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences (NDFS) at USU to identify an ideal garden site that would be easily accessible to NDFS students to learn about sustainable landscaping and growing food in small, unconventional spaces while harvesting and cooking with the garden bounty. This had been a dream among select faculty for years, but the vision needed funding, expertise, and like-minded and creative partners to become reality.

The next step was to convince administration and university facilities of the benefits and educational opportunities that a permaculture teaching garden could provide. The permaculture team discovered that numerous professors on campus were researching and teaching permaculture-related concepts, but not labeling these as such. One professor, Phil Waite in Landscape, Architecture, and Environmental Planning (LAEP), received a large grant to implement a 5 acre (2 hectares) teaching space for LAEP students, one part of which will include a small permaculture site. Bringing an LAEP professor on board was of great benefit to our movement, especially as he had previously worked in higher administration and could help present the permaculture concept in a way that met upper administration's interests and needs.

The team of four developed a goal for the campus permaculture initiative, which was to: "Provide educational opportunities for students and the public to learn about and practice sustainable food production methods, including wise use of available space, low water gardening, seasonal eating, and a focus on native edible perennials."

Several meetings with upper administration and facilities for over a year resulted in approval to develop a 65 x 72 foot site on main campus, located between NDFS and facilities. This location was ideal for NDFS student use, but also served as a symbol of the relationship strengthened between university facilities and academia.

Collecting Evidence

Any lasting university movement requires funding, and in order for upper administration to recognize community interest in permaculture education and ultimately provide financial support, Roslynn, Emily, and Tamara hosted a two-day introductory permaculture workshop in September of 2013 in Logan, Utah with Joel Glanzberg (main image). Day One of the workshop covered basic permaculture principles and philosophy, while Day Two involved hands-on planning of the permaculture site on campus.

The permaculture workshop helped campus and community partnerships flourish. Over 75 participants attended the workshop and left feedback like: "Plants aren't just plants anymore. They're interconnected organisms that can work together."

"The idea of increasing exchanges (an abundance view, rather than a scarcity view) gives me a more positive outlook when evaluating problems."

"I was starting to feel all alone and hopeless here. The pool of knowledge when that many people are together offers hope for change."

"The permaculture garden is a wonderful idea to bring a new way of thinking to campus and to disseminate throughout the community. I worry that the site may be inconspicuous, but am hopeful that enough communication will bring the attention it deserves."

"Permaculture philosophy has a lot to bring to USU, and it would be great to see this garden started, continued, and then expanded. It was really heartening to have a representative from facilities at the workshop. I really hope the momentum continues!"

After compiling and analyzing the workshop evaluations, the team had sufficient evidence of the demand and potential impact of permaculture design, and dug in to piece together additional components for implementation. An LAEP graduate student who attended the permaculture workshop volunteered to take community ideas and turn them into a landscape and planting plan. Additional community members and students in the College of Agriculture, Caine College of the Arts, and the College of Natural Resources helped finalize the planting plan and took responsibility to meet with facilities to move the garden forward.

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So far; $2,500 has been raised for materials, facilities donated $1,000 in labor to break ground and transition the current irrigation system to a drip system; the University Sustainability Council donated funds for a garden sign; LAEP is now designing a permaculture course for architects; LAEP has allowed access to all tools needed in the build; professors in the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences and the USU Student Organic Farm are donating plants; bricks for keyhole gardens and a herb spiral were donated from a construction site on campus; mulch is being donated from facilities; a student permaculture intern has been hired to implement the first phase of the garden; and three additional on-campus permaculture sites have been proposed.

The prospect of implementing this initial garden was daunting, unlikely, and arduous, but the momentum is now moving quickly. In-depth observation, patience, collaboration, and perseverance were critical in fostering lasting positive change in a conservative system. Perhaps permaculture isn't too eccentric for Utah after all!

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Phases of implementation

Further resources

What is permaculture? - Part 3: Design

Read Aranya's excellent introduction Permaculture Design: Step By Step. Special price of £11.20 (e-book format also available)

Learn permaculture design for free

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