The Five Zones of Permaculture:

The best way to break down a permaculture ecosystem is into zones. Zones are a great way of boiling down the elements of our design based upon the frequency of human use and plant or animal needs. Elements which are attended to frequently are located closer to the dwelling and those that need limited contact or thrive in isolation are located further away. The zones are numbered from zero to five:

Zone 2

Once more in zone two, we talk about integration. Zone 2 will be closely integrated with zone 0 and zone 1. But what makes a piece of land more suitable for zoning as 2 instead of 1? The answer is usually the distance between the space and zone 0; remember, zone 1 should be mere seconds away from inside your home. Think of zone 2 as a place where you would leisurely stroll to each day and visit often, but is a place that requires less attention than zone 1. Zone 2 can be described as a soft edge between the highly cultivated, high input elements of zone 1 and the more wild, hardy and resilient systems of further away zones. So what does this mean?

We can think about zone 2 as a forest garden that contains patches of perennial production. It can also be a place where we keep smaller domesticated animals. Less frequently visited infrastructures, such as garden sheds or barns, would be best placed here.

Again we have to tend to the water and soil, as we did in zone 1. The health of our water and soil is an extremely important factor in the development of this space. It is never too early or too late to begin to rectify a bad situation.

You should first examine what is already growing in the space. This can tell us a great deal about the conditions of the site. Sit and visualize the spacing for trees and shrubs- does the area outside of zone 1 lend itself to this kind of production?

Zone 2 is our ‘food forest’ and should be designed in such a way that it resembles a natural forest. Plants and animals should interact in harmony, supporting each other and requiring a little maintenance from us. We begin to think back to the seven layers when we are in the design stage. Often we will have crops, interspersed with trees and shrubs, and on those trees will be creepers and vines. Our ultimate goal is to create a self-sustainable system. Big trees can shade smaller trees and plants. Small plants can house insects, which control pests. The entire system should support as many symbiotic relationships as possible.

When planting, it’s great to think about local and heirloom species. These are the species that are adapted to the soil and climate you are in and thrive in the food forest system, providing benefits to the plants and animals around them. By cultivating heirloom plants, you are doing a service to the preservation of their unique genetic properties.

Some of the food plants likely to be situated here include: smaller fruit trees and fruit varieties, vines and brambles, and hardier perennials such as turmeric and ginger. We can also grow plants for livestock, which will also be a big part of zone 2.

Some small creatures can be very helpful to this zone. Chickens are often the first livestock that a permaculturist will keep. They are easily maintained and only require visiting once a day to feed and collect eggs. They provide fertilizer for plants and control insects and weeds. They forage and turn over soil, which helps to aerate it. Last but not least, they are a source of meat. Low-maintenance with tons of benefits, chickens make a great first animal to keep in your area. Bees also fit perfectly into zone 2. They provide us with honey, an edible food, and play an important role in the fertilization of plants. Ducks and fish also feel at home in zone 2 if your plan is to build a pond. Like chickens, they only require visiting once a day.

We have our plants. We have our animals. We have our water feature. Now, let us take a walk through it and bask in our creation. We can relax. Or can we? Are we ever really done streamlining our efficiency in the garden? It makes sense to be efficient. We must visit this zone once a day and we should want to do so as economically as possible. As permaculturists, we have a lot to be getting on with. We should not unnecessarily waste time and energy, but instead, should plan our route so that tasks are completed in a single loop around the garden. We should be able to observe as much of the zone as possible, making it easier to monitor and track changes and to reflect on our successes and failures. In doing so we will learn and adapt, much like our zones do. There is no strict delineation between our zones and they will most likely change over time. The more we observe, the more we can decide what works and does not across our shifting zones.

Zone 3

Zones 1 and 2 have been defined, the distance between them and zone 0 is relatively short. The distance from our home in zone 3, however, really starts to show. Zone 3 has a more classic edge between our cultivated, highly intensive systems and a wild, self-managing system. A balance between inputs has to be sought if we want to conserve enough time and energy to focus on zones 1 and 2. To be able to strike that balance, you may find you interact with the zone frequently, but the duration of those interactions is short. At certain times of the year, the inverse may be true with our visit-time ratio. Zone 3 will be where the majority of our crops (both for personal use and as a source of income) will be located and during harvest season our visits will be less frequent but much more time-consuming.

Zone 3 lends itself well to grazing of small livestock, such as sheep. In permaculture design we try to allow each organism to express its nature as fully as possible, meaning we should limit our interaction as much as possible with the animals.

As with our two previous zones, we should pay constant attention to the water and soil. Zone 3 will typically be larger than the preceding two zones, so your ability to drastically change the landscape will be greatly reduced. This requires some thought as to what tools we need. Given the large scale of zone 3, we would be wise to assess and consider the existing vegetation. Zones 1 and 2 can be modified somewhat, but in zone 3 we will want to more closely match the species to the site.

You may need to begin to make use of water storage facilities in your expanding landscape of animals and crops. If we imagine having to drag a hose from zone 1 to zone 3, it’s clear to see that it’s a waste of time, space, and energy. We should be storing rainwater and maintaining groundwater in ways that reduce the need for waste such as this, keeping water close by where it is needed.

Living mulch is a green cover that we often provide in tree areas. Most living mulch is considered to be weeds. It helps to retain moisture in the soil by absorbing the sun’s rays and keeping the underlying soil damp. These mulches can also be great pollinators, nitrogen fixers, and stack in a food forest extremely well.

Zone 4

We only partially manage zone 4. It is not a completely wild zone like zone 5, but we will grow wild fruits and vegetables here as well as trees for wood. As we talked about before, there are no specific borders between the zones, so grazing animals will often find themselves here in our semi-wild forest. Our forest will be naturally controlled and allowed to regrow.

The domestic plants that flourish in the first two zones would not survive here, but wild varieties of life such as wild strawberries, mushrooms, and sorrel will. With some research, you can find many varieties of wild plants that will grow in any climate; from hot to cold.

As you move out through the zones, the amount of time and energy they require from you dwindles. Zone 4 should be left to its own devices as much as possible. It is almost thought of as an experimental space, seeking to determine the minimum amount of effort we can put in to bring about beneficial change. In a permaculture design, we are striving for balance; we are pursuing a way to limit how much we are taking from a system. By keeping zone 4 as its own ecosystem we can begin to achieve this.

Do the bare minimum and let nature take its course.

Zone 5

Do not touch! Well… kind of. Zone 5 is the “wild child” of all the zones, and one that doesn’t need (and should not have!) any interaction. Do nothing and let nature take its course. Even the smallest permaculture garden should have a zone 5. This zone attracts wildlife, which will encourage diversity and benefit our animals and garden. Zone 5 is a completely wild ecosystem, a great place to observe and learn from nature. If we are striving to recreate nature then it makes perfect sense to include this perfect template in our landscape.

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