Designing a garden — whether it is on rolling wooded acres or in a small suburban backyard — can be overwhelming. Depending on your goals, you might ask yourself: “How can I use my space most efficiently? Where can I grow some vegetables to feed my family?” or “What are high-value cash crops I can grow here?”
If you are planning on homesteading or working slowly towards self-sufficiency, you probably picked out your piece of land with your future goals in mind and looked for possible locations for your chicken coop, orchard or pastures. But these are huge decisions because you cannot quickly move your fruit trees or structure once it’s planted/built.
Thankfully, there is a way to create a master plan that will allow you to prioritize different elements and create useful connections between them to minimize your effort and energy use while maximizing yield. I am talking about the Permaculture concept of “Zone of Use” planning, or “Zonation.”
Permaculture: Purposefully Designing Connections
When deciding where to place all the different elements, such as your greenhouse, chicken coop, potting shed, vegetable garden, and fruit tree orchard, you have to consider how much maintenance is required, how you will be using them, and how often.
For example, if you consider keeping chickens, you will want to let them out of their coop in the morning and collect eggs. At night, you check on them again and lock up the coop. Also, there are other regular, but less frequent tasks, such as cleaning the coop, culling, and planting chicken-friendly treats to lower feed costs. You will want to locate the chicken coop closer to the house than for example a brook on the other end of your property that you only visit once in a while to trout-fish. This will ensure that you will happily visit your garden or chickens — even in the snow.
Another core element of permaculture is to purposefully design connections between components rather than viewing them as separate, unrelated entities. Therefore, you need to consider any possible dependencies between individual elements. For example, you might want to place the chicken coop in proximity to your annual garden and your compost pile.
First of all, you will visit both more if they are next to each other and you can share your garden’s abundance with your livestock by tossing them over-ripe pumpkins and other treats. You can also create chicken tunnels (“ch-unnels”) to keep down weeds or let them scratch and manure your garden over the winter.
So, how can it be done? Let’s dive right into it.
Permaculture Zones Of Use Planning Basics
When planning a garden, usually you would list all the things you want/need. Maybe you even consider possible requirements and dependencies between these elements. Then you will ask yourself how to prioritize all these requirements and preferences in a way they make any sense.
Enter “zone planning,” a Permaculture design concept that gives us strategic priorities and practical guidelines for planning our garden to produce an abundance of food and an ecosystem that is in balance with nature.
There are six zones radiating from the center of activity (zone 0) all the way to the least visited, least maintained zone 5. Because they are categorized depending on their frequency of use and accessibility relative to the location of the house, effort, and distance will be kept at a minimum, while energy efficiency is maximized. While zones can be defined as abstract conceptual boundaries, they do not have actual boundaries like fences to define them. They can blend into each other and can be any shape to fit the needs of the occupant and the landscape.
All other zones relate to this point and radiate outwards. This means the closer you are to the center of activity, the less travel time you have and the more you visit it.
(Please note: While Permaculture zones of use can be used to plan a small suburban backyard to entire villages and their surroundings, I will focus on the example of a 5-acre homestead.)
Zone 0 — Center of Activity (e.g., House)
Zone o is the core of your permaculture design as most of the activity will happen here. It is usually the house or dwelling of the occupant — but it can also be a campsite, a barn, CSA collecting site on the farm, a school, a government building, the outside space between office buildings, or even an entire village.
Usually, this place is easy to access (driveway or street access), overlooks the rest of the property and is suitable to the occupant’s needs. It is designed around creating or preserving energy through layout, solar panels, etc.. Activities here focus on processing and protecting yield (e.g., by canning, or fermenting) as well as waste, producing sprouts, seedlings, and tools as well as water collection, repairs, and education.
Considerations: Important considerations in this zone are energy conservation such as the sun exposure in the summer and winter to better regulate indoor temperature, south exposure for possible solar panels, and wastewater recycling through possible greywater beds.
First steps: Observe the sun angle in the summer and winter — where and when are things in full sun / partially shaded / fully shaded? How warm or cold does the house feel? Are there some rooms that vary in temperature from the rest of the house?
Zone 1 — Immediately Next To The House
Definition: Immediately next to the house is zone 1. This zone is inevitably connected to the occupants’ needs and their activities and is therefore visited daily or even several times a day. Often, access ways, such as the path from the front door to the driveway, mailbox or garage are adjacent to or going through zone 1. Please note: In an urban setting, there might only be a house (zone o) and a small backyard (zone 1).
Elements: As it only takes seconds rather than minutes to reach this area will often include the things you need access to the most or that need your attention:
- A herb, medicinal, and tea plant garden outside the kitchen door
- An annual vegetable or kitchen garden on the south-facing side of the house, potentially including cold frames or smaller hoop frames to extend a short growing season
- Vine crops on trellises and espaliered trees of often used fruits
- Worm farms to efficiently process kitchen waste
- A well, rainwater tanks or rain barrels to harvest roof runoff water
- Gas tanks, firewood and other fuel for heating
- A garage, shed, or other structures
- Children playground structures, a “fake food” kitchen (my children have asked for a mud kitchen) or a sensory garden that engages all senses with its different smells, colors, and textures that can significantly benefit all children, but autistic kids in particular.
Considerations: Since this zone will be the tightest and most detailed managed zone of all zones and its goal is to contribute to domestic sufficiency, you will probably dedicate the most time and energy here. It is advisable to start your permaculture design here following the principle of “small and slow solutions” and expand from there as you are gaining experience with permaculture design. Take a year or two to learn by trial and error, don’t be afraid to make “mistakes” and gain confidence before tackling the rest of your property.
First Steps: The two immediate things that you will need to take care of are water and soil improvement. Start slowly and take your time learning and observing. Think about how to can catch and store water as much as possible. For example, capture water from structure roofs in rain barrels rather than letting it stagnate in rain gutters (mosquito breeding grounds!) or even start a worm farm utilizing access water. Rather than beginning to till the compost and other organic material in right away, get your soil tested and then search for the reasons for soil erosion.
Below, you can see a simple example drawing of zone 0, 1, and 2 of our future permaculture homestead. Since we will use the area between the front door and the entry to the garage/basement at the bottom of the driveway most, I centered zone 1 around that.
On the front side of the house, which is south facing are already raised beds which we will succession plan throughout the year and cover in the winter months with hoop frames. We will use an existing patio to create an outdoor eating area and workspace. This zone will also accommodate my raised beds for annual vegetables and my girls’ garden. Can you tell they are big Star Wars fans? Zone 2 is immediately adjacent and will make use of the land behind the house with an orchard and poultry run.
Zone 2 — Less Intensively Managed, But Visited Daily
Definition: Adjacent to zone 1 is zone 2 which is far less managed but still frequently used. It does include smaller animals that require daily attention, such as poultry and rabbits, as well as larger elements such as grafted non-dwarf fruit and nut trees.
Elements: Because this area still needs frequent attention, it is visited reasonably often (almost daily) and includes for example:
- Perennial vegetables and other crops with a long growing season, such as hops and asparagus
- Fruit and nut trees
- Composting facilities
- Runs, enclosures or free free-range for chickens, turkeys, and other poultry
- Enclosures and smaller pastures for larger animals that require daily monitoring, maintenance, and attendance
- Ponds and other often enjoyed landscaping
Consideration: Zone 2 plantings can employ complete mulching using a system such as sheet mulching, but if the area is too large and this is impractical, then spot mulching around the trees may be employed, and tree guards can be used to protect trees while they get established. These plantings are fully irrigated using irrigation systems such as drip systems.
First steps: Once you have nurtured zone 1 for your more immediate needs, you turn your attention to zone 2 by tending to the water conservation and soil health. Even if you aren’t going to touch zone 2 just yet, consider taking steps to improve your soil. Also, pay attention to what kind of vegetation is already growing. Look out for indicator plants that can tell you about the condition of your soil, e.g., meadow clary (Salvia Pratentis) for alkaline soil or broad-leaved thyme (Thymus Pulegiodes) for nitrogen-poor soil. Think about turning the problems you are facing into solutions, for example, if you are planning to have goats or sheep and you don’t have a pasture but a field of wild blackberries, let them help you clear the brush.
Zone 3 — Occasionally Visited “Farmland”
Definition: Zone 3 is probably what most people would refer to as “farmland.” Here is where you would graze self-feeding animals, grow your main seasonal and wide-ranging crops, and plant larger (non-dwarf) fruit and nut trees in an orchard. Once established, these areas require minimal care and maintenance.
Elements: Depending on your goals, the elements of zone 3 can widely vary, but they may include:
- Main crops (e.g., corn, wheat, pumpkins)
- Large fruit and nut trees
- Perennial vegetables that require low maintenance and can grow without pruning and on natural trellises
- Cultivating seedlings for later grafting
- Rice paddies
- Pastures for large livestock (e.g., cows, goats, sheep) or semi-managed poultry flocks shaded by forage trees
- Ponds or dams for water storage and fire prevention
Considerations: Since this area is usually more substantial than zone 1 and/or 2, soil improvements, irrigation, and other larger-scale interventions will take a more significant time and money investment. Therefore, it is preferable to carefully choose your crop based on the conditions of the land rather than trying to change the land to fit your crops.
First Steps: To keep the area relatively maintenance-free and improve soil conditions, an under-planting of ground cover plants, or green manure, such as comfrey (Symphytum officinale), can be sown.
(Image Credit: Sepp Holzer’s Rye Field on the Kramenterhof in Austria, Flickr)
Zone 4 — Wild Food Gathering
Definition: Zone 4 is further away from the center of activity and is mostly used to forage wild foods, to harvest timber or firewood, as a forage/pasture for animals. It is mostly kept wild but can be lightly managed by letting goats and other animals browse as well as thin seedlings to keep new growth at bay.
Elements: Depending on your region and climate, this can be a heavily forested area or simply an overgrown meadow. This zone can be utilized for:
- Collecting wild foods like mushrooms, nuts, or wild berries and native fruits
- Grazing pasture for brush loving animals to control spreading of invasive plants, e.g., blackberries
- Growing seedlings
- Store water in dams or similar
- As a woodlot and/or sugar shack
Considerations & First steps: While the management is sparing, you should spend time observing. As long as your system is in balance and functions as an ecosystem, very little human input is required or even desired. So, only intervene, if it is degrading. Also, if you are living in a non-agriculturally zoned, suburban or urban area, it pays to keep the town codes in mind before neighbors are complaining about your “unsightly” property.
Zone 5 — Natural Conservation Area
Definition: Finally, zone 5 is kept wild without any or rare intervention of humans. This zone often is used to prevent natural catastrophes, such as wildfires, droughts or hurricanes, but they can also buffer your other zones from air and noise pollution. Usually, it is the furthest away from the activity center but can be designed to the contours of the land, e.g., if a steep hill is behind the house and sector-wise it makes sense, a zone 5 can be located closer to the house. Sometimes it can be linked to adjacent wildlife corridors if needed.
Elements: As a conservation area, most elements are kept wild. Nevertheless, the can be useful in many ways, for example for:
- Hiking, skiing, and other recreation
- Nature observation, such as bird watching
- Meditation or quiet place
Considerations & First Steps: Hopefully, no intervention is necessary, enjoy nature in her pure form.
I hope, you find this information helpful in designing your Permaculture food forest.