Zones are a way of intelligently organizing design elements in an environment so aqs to maximize the ease and effectiveness of each area by arranging them based on the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. The point of permaculture zoning is to group similar things together, or to place the things that require the same amount of attention or resources into a particular zone. This will allow us to minimize the time spent moving back and forth, or to and from place to place, or doing separate activities.
Things to consider
It’s important to note that zone systems, and the things included within them, are very flexible. Their size and shape are determined by personal preference, the landscape, geography, and the energies that are coming into your system via their interactions from outside. Things found within one zone may border the perimeters of another one, or even spill over across lines, so that one overlaps and shares a space with another, especially in the outer zones. In addition, things found within one location’s particular zone may be better suited in a different zone in another place, and so on.
Look at the landscape as a series of zones in which each one lies adjacent to, or comes in contact with, another zone that lies outside it, and is larger and greater in scope. Think of an image of a series of concentric circles, each one representing a zone, with the central one being Zone 1 or Zone 0. And each successive circle, moving from the inside out, represents the next successive zone in the order. And each next zone itself, like the circles, increases in scale and distance from the inner portion, but simultaneously represents a decreasing power of influence in the system.
The zones change in relation to the shape of the land, its slope, which direction it faces, how much shade or sun there is, natural systems, geography, waterways, and the orientation of the sun. All these things will change the shape and form of the zone patterns. Appropriate placement, in relation to the energy needed to work that zone, the frequency of the visits made by people, the upkeep, and your dependency on its yields, will change the size and shape of that zone. The human element that works the land will also change the zones accordingly.
If you’re unsure whether to put something in one zone or an adjacent one, try placing it on the boundaries between them, instead. For example, try putting things like chicken coups and fish ponds on the borders between Zones 1–2 to take advantage of their mutual interactions. Place the chicken coup next to the greenhouse so that the chickens’ body heat warms the greenhouse at night. Also, keep worm farms outside the home but near the kitchen, and put plants that require more shade behind the home away from the sun or under larger canopy plants. Many other examples could be provided.
Before planning your zones, find out the orientation and direction of the sun (for locations in the northern hemisphere) in June (mid-Summer) and in December (mid-winter). In the summer the Sun will be very high, and in winter the Sun will be very low. This will determine things like how to orient your house or garden to take advantage of shading and passive solar energy, where to plant or put ponds, worm farms, compost and waste bins, etc. Full sun suits conventional vegetables and a variety of plants, annuals and perennials, which provide protection for one another against the harsh sunlight and pests. Use shaded areas for a mixed forest growth, and to store resources such as water. Use semi-shaded areas for mixed plants, and to protect more fragile species during harsh summers.
In addition, find out the direction of prevailing winds (to utilize them for cooling your home), how to take advantage of slopes and gravity, as well as the sources of any other energies coming into your zones in order to better harness those energies for production, and to mitigate their harmful effects (fires, floods, landslides, etc.). Before integration of your long-term elements outside Zone 1, first prepare the land by growing nitrogen-fixing plants into the soil (e.g. leguminous plants like beans and peas). Also think of how to attract beneficial wild-life into your system, such as birds, bees, other insects, etc. They will contribute to the diversity of your gardens, creating a miniature ecosystem, and help your food forests thrive while reducing work for yourself.
Placement of elements
Fit together elements so that they interact with each other, and try to stack jobs and energy pathways so that they receive and exchange resources with ones close to them. Place like-things, or things that work well together, in one zone, close together, or placed in different zones close to each other (like on the border between zones) so that their presence benefits each other. Integrate your plants, animals, and structures together so they get multi-purposed interactions. Think of how many visits per year are you going to make to that component, how much time and resources you need to put into it, and what it contributes to you and your location. Put your materials together within their energy requirements and number of visits.
Zones are generally numbered from 1–5, or sometimes 0–5, making a total of 6 possible zones, and get progressively larger as they go outward. Frequently manipulated, tended, watered, fertilized, or harvested elements of the design (systems receiving more energy from human input), should be placed within Zones 0–2. Less frequently used or manipulated elements, wild species, and elements that benefit from isolation (systems receiving more energy from natural sources, and less from human input), should be placed farther away in Zones 3–5.
Zone 0 is the house, or home center, the main zone of human activity, which has things that require the most attention
and resources. Smaller home-made planters, and more fragile devices that are vulnerable to bad weather and pests could go in this zone. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harvesting and recycling of waste, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live and work.
Zone 1 is nearest to the house, and closest to the center of energy. This zone, outside the home, has the most use, most visits, and has the greatest density of elements. Here are things that require frequent attention, and need more care and management. It contains mostly annuals and some perennials, plants you use frequently in your kitchen like herbs, and plants grown from fine potting soils, composts, and mulches.
Includes things you interact with on a daily basis:
- Raised beds and gardens
- Row crops
- Herbs and small shrubs
- Micro-greens, lettuces, and salad patches
- Soft fruits and berries
- Greenhouses and cold frames
- Propagation areas
- Worm compost bins
- Small ponds and water gardens
- Chickens, rabbits, fish, etc.
Zone 2 is larger and broader. This area is used mostly for siting perennial plants that require only occasional weed control or pruning. It has fewer elements, requires less
maintenance, and has food forests, bushes, medium and large shrubs, orchards, food production plots, market crops, forage crops for animals, grazing animals, beehives, large-scale composting bins, and so on. It is the area where main-crops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes.
Includes things you interact with daily or weekly:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Sweet potatoes
- Bee hives
- Hearty perennials
- Rough mulch
- Larger ponds
- Grape vines
- Dwarf fruit trees
- Larger shrubs
Zone 3 is even larger than the previous one, consisting of greater-scale farming-type systems, and a combination of natural systems with human constructions, like grazing animals, large wind-break systems, bodies of water, dams, swales, rough mulch-systems, broad tree systems, agricultural crops, cash crops, and trees for firewood. After establishment, the required care and maintenance for this zone should be fairly minimal. Simply provide mulches and similar nutrient-adding techniques on an occasional basis, in addition to usual maintenance such as watering or weed control, maybe once a week or less.
Includes things you interact with weekly or monthly:
- Large field crops (corn, wheat, rice, other grains, etc.)
- Grazing land
- Nut trees
- Large fruit trees
- Hearty perennials
Zone 4 is a partially wild area, having farm forestry and semi-managed wilderness. This zone is mainly used for forage crops, collecting wild food, pastures, and for producing timber to produce enough wood to be used consistently for construction or firewood. Use 4 different plots of hybrid poplars and harvest 1 plot yearly, and allow them to regrow for 4 years before harvesting.
Includes things you interact with monthly or a few times a year:
- livestock pastures
- wild edibles
- timber plots
- farm forestry
- swale systems
- 7-layer forests
Zone 5 is unmanaged wilderness, having all the original systems found in nature. It can be a large or small area, being used for foraging, inspiration, meditation, or simply to have a dedicated wilderness zone, existing simply for the sake of having one. You may simply have this zone be everything outside of your property line, and the zones within include only 0–4, with Zone 5 being everything outside of what you own. Plant whatever extra plants you want, in addition to the natural surroundings, and build whatever structures you need early-on, as long as you leave it alone in the future and allow it to grow naturally. Once that is finished, then just leave it to itself to benefit the natural plant and animal systems living in the nearby area. There should be no human intervention in Zone 5, apart from the observation of natural environments, ecosystems, and cycles. Through this zone you will be able to build up a natural reserve of bacteria, fungi, molds, insects, plants, and animals that can aid the zones above it.
Includes things you interact with rarely or never.