PERMACULTURE ** Design Principle #4 – MULTITASK


Example of Multitasking – Deciduous Elderberry bush shading the front porch in the heat of summer and early fall, providing elderberries, leaf drop for mulch and branches cut during pruning are used for staking young plants next spring

When designing your garden or edible landscape choose elements that overlap and fulfill as many necessary functions as possible.

An element is a feature of the garden that is incorporated into the overall design. It can be:

  • a tree, shrub or vine
  • a trellis, fence or chicken coop
  • a rainwater holding tank, a raised garden bed or pathways leading through the garden

Functions are what the element contributes to the whole. In what I think of as, conventional landscaping practice, a tree has only one function which is to create shade or to just look pretty which is fine BUT it can go so much further, be so much richer and exciting!

Yes, a tree can create shade AND if it is placed thoughtfully in the overall landscape design it can shade the sunny southern side of a house during hot summer months; if a deciduous tree is chosen the leaves will drop in the winter allowing the sun to warm the home during chilly winter months. Thoughtful placement saves energy and creates savings in air conditioning and heating bills. The leaf drop in the autumn creates mulch which holds moisture under the tree or goes to build compost piles of rich compost building material. If the tree chosen is a fruit or nut tree then, when it flowers in the spring, it attracts pollinators to pollinate not only its own flowers but other garden plants.

brandywine_Amish paste_principe borghese_sweet million


When the tree bears fruit or nuts it feeds you and wildlife. Sometimes we have to do things to encourage balance so the wildlife does not get all the fruit, but more on that in later posts. In permaculture, what I’m describing, is called “stacking” functions. In other words, each plant or structure does more than one job.

The, equally important, flip side of this coin is that each “function” or job to be done should be supported by more than one element. So if one fruit tree is good maybe three would be better! Plant three varieties that bear fruit early, middle and late in the season or if space does not permit buy a dwarf tree that has three fruit varieties grafted on to it.

Other examples of this side of the coin in my garden are:

  • I have rain barrels to water the plants on my patio but when the rain barrels are empty I have 1 gallon bottles of water I have saved when I run the water until it gets hot in my kitchen. I use this water to water house plants, my chickens and to water the patio plants when the rain barrels are empty.
  • This year I started with four varieties of tomatoes in a variety of locations. I planted Brandywine tomatoes in the vegetable garden, Principe Borghese tomatoes in the orchard (aka the budding food forest), Sweet Million cherry tomatoes in the front herb garden and Amish Paste tomatoes in the pear tree guild.  The tomatoes in the orchard were raided by squirrels and I had some problems keeping the tomatoes in the herb garden watered enough but the Brandywine and Amish paste tomatoes have done great!

Creating interwoven connections and stacking elements, both in time and space, builds a web that supports the whole gardening effort. Break one strand and the other threads hold the web together.


2 Thoughts on “PERMACULTURE ** Design Principle #4 – MULTITASK

  1. Carolyn Cockrell on October 5, 2013 at 11:13 am said:

    All great things to keep in mind as I ponder the placement of several trees I want to plant at our house this fall. Truly a way to take care of several needs at once. Thanks Mary!

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