Permaculture Zones of Use: A Primer

Ah, an archetypical permaculture zones of use chart. So elegant in its simplicity, yet bewildering to those who wish to transpose it. Just what are permaculture zones of use and why do they matter?

Permaculture zones of use are at once an organizing force during the design process as well as a management tool. They directly aid our efforts by offering simple, but effective logic to the positioning of design elements in the whole system. The closer an element is to nexus of human activity, the more attention it can receive than elements positioned further away. This is because the amount of time and energy embedded in travel always increases with distance. As time and energy are by their very nature limited in quantity, if we spend them simply getting from point A to point B there will be less of both available once we get there.

Therefore, it can be said that zones of use reflect the confluence of spatial relationships, energy use, and time. Even during the ongoing development of a property (which is not to say that design ends), zones of use continue to act as an aide-mémoire, ready at a moment’s notice help make decisions regarding management.

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A property is typically divided into 6 zones of use. Although distance from Zone 0 is often given as the deciding factor for assigning zones, I find that Time is a better core factor.

[Note: some permaculture practitioners choose to teach a Zone 00. Zone 00 is an individual’s mental, physical, and spiritual well being. Still others include a Zone 6, which extends outside of the area of direct design. In this article, I will choose to ignore both of these zones.]
[Note: some permaculture practitioners choose to teach a Zone 00. Zone 00 is an individual’s mental, physical, and spiritual well being. Still others include a Zone 6, which extends outside of the area of direct design. In this article, I will choose to ignore both of these zones.]

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These six zones of use cover the entirety of a property. Pay close attention to the juxtaposition between Zone 0 and Zone 5. The nexus of human activity, Zone 0, explicitly requires the input of people to function properly. After all, humans are its defining element. Zone 5, however, is characterized (ideally) by self-maintaining, self structuring, and natural systems. What I mean by natural systems (because humans are natural) are those that function without human input or interference. A scale emerges from this observation. On one end we have the built environment and its environs that are centered around the needs and activities of people that intervene in natural processes. On the other we have an absence of human intervention, though human presence in the form of close observation of natural cycles is encouraged.

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So let’s recap: the zones of use can be individually defined by the frequency and duration of human interventions. The frequency of interaction varies between “daily” (Zones 0 and 1) and “none” (Zone 5). One way to decide which zone an element should be in is to consider whether it functions well with or without human input. The more natural- or wild- a system is, the further “out” it can be placed in relationship to the center of human activity. Because those systems require less input, the loss of time and energy expended to get there is made up for by the intrinsic quality of self organization found in natural systems.

This framework comes in handy even after a master plan is drawn up. On any particular day it can seem like a million things have to get done. The zones of use can then serve as guideposts to remind you where your efforts are most needed. But do keep in mind that the boundaries between zones are fluid: don’t turn a blind eye to circumstances that need to be addressed.

Zones can and should change over time to reflect conditions on the ground. As one gains experience and confidence, perhaps Zone 1 will expand to meet evolving wants and needs. Or the opposite could happen and one might choose to cede some space to other zones. Every part of your master plan- including the zones of use- should be subject to change.

A closer look at individual zones

Before taking a closer look at each individual zone, I want to stress that permaculture zones of use are but one tool in the designer’s toolbox. To make informed decisions about what is best for you and your site, one needs to use them in conjunction with other planning and design tools. Each permaculture design procedure is going to reveal unique patterns and take them into account. My suggestions here are merely to get the gears turning and should not be considered universal advice.

Zone 0: the nexus of human activity

Zone 0 is the core of a permaculture based system. While it is often a dwelling, it can just as easily be a place that no one actually resides; like an office space. The act of building a structure- or even finding a suitable place for a campsite- always requires some kind interference with the environment. Since it must be disturbed, it makes sense that the rest of our interventions in the environment will radiate out from this center, losing energy as distance increases.

To serve adequately as the core of interaction with the site, it should be easy to access, have good line of sight into the property, and of course provide people with quality shelter. To facilitate its function in the landscape, here are some quick pointers:

-Organize it! Everyone has their own personal level of desired organization, but there is a minimum level of order necessary to make your life easier. A good “spring cleaning” that includes removing unused items and putting them up for sale, repurposing, or recycling off site is a good first step.

-Examine inputs and outputs. This is another permaculture design tool which can readily be applied to each zone of use. Focus on current waste streams and see what can be done to direct as much of it back into the site as possible while also cutting down on items that cannot be put to regenerative use.

-Consider reducing the total amount of time spent indoors. Some activities can just as easily be done outside. Putting yourself in proximity to living systems is the first step towards gaining confidence in interacting with them.

Zone 1: As close to 0 as possible, T input is characterized by high f and d

Zone 1 is inexorably linked to the needs of people and activities of Zone 0. Distance is measured in seconds rather than minutes; locating an herb garden out the kitchen door is the most common expression of Zone 1 in permaculture patterning. Both the frequency and duration of activity is high here simply by virtue of location. Therefore, the potential for dynamic, detailed, and tightly managed systems is the highest of all the zones.

Applying the permaculture principle of “small and slow solutions” starts here where you have the most time and energy to devote towards gaining experience with permaculture design. Experiment, trial, and grow with confidence before extending out into the landscape at large.

The most immediate thing one can do in Zone 1, upon embarking on the permaculture journey, is to consider water and soil together. The impact of soil and water cycle health on the ability of a landscape to remain or become productive cannot be overstated. They are the core ecological functions upon which all terrestrial beings depend.

-How does water from Zone 0 interact with the land immediately adjacent? Where is runoff from the roof directed, if it is directed at all? Is water stagnating in rain gutters, serving as a breeding ground for mosquitos? Repair existing infrastructure if necessary and then consider how to slow, spread, and sink that water in the most passive way possible. I would advise against digging earthworks or other not so reversible water harvesting techniques until a full master plan is developed. Still, rain barrels and redirection of downspouts to living systems and away from a city’s stormwater system are easily reversible and give immediate results.

-How is the soil’s health? Is it “naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever?” Take immediate steps towards alleviating negative conditions by reapplying an organic layer to the soil surface in the form of mulch, living plants, or both. There is no need to “till in” compost or other organic materials at this point. Ask yourself what could have brought these conditions about and record them for use in other site analyses.

Zone 2: The next distance out, T input is characterized by moderate f and d

Zone 2 is very closely integrated with Zone 1 and 0. What makes a space suitable for zoning as 2 rather than 1 is usually the distance between the space and Zone 0. Think of Zone 2 as a place that is visited very often and where you spend a good deal of time, but needs slightly less attention.

Consider Zone 2 as a soft edge between highly cultivated, high input design elements and more wild, hardy, and resilient systems. This translates well to tended patches of perennial production in the landscape such as a forest garden. Keeping smaller domesticated animals can be considered a use for this zone as well. Other built infrastructure such as garden sheds and barns work in Zone 2 too. Adding small buildings extremely close to existing ones usually does not leverage the microclimate creation inherent in structures into living systems.

So what can be done here right away?

-First, tend to water and soil as you did in Zone 1. Water and soil health are the most important factors in site development and it is never too early to begin rectifying a poor situation.

-Next, assess current vegetation. Figuring out what is already growing there can tell you a good deal about site conditions. Begin to visualize the spacing of productive trees and shrubs. Does the area just outside of Zone 1 lend itself to this kind of production?

Zone 3: Distance from 0 is major factor, though T input can vary. Often High f but low d

Once Zones 1 and 2 have been defined, the distance between potential Zone 3 sites and Zone 0 really begins to show. Zone 3 is a classic “edge” between cultivated, highly intensive systems and wild, self managing systems. A balance between inputs must be sought if you will still have enough time and energy to devote to Zones 1 and 2. To strike that balance, frequency of interaction may be high, but the duration of those activities might be short.

Holistic Planned Grazing of small stock (such as chickens, a few sheep, etc.) would fit the bill here: the animals are going to be moving very often, but ideally you will not need to spend much time actually setting up their paddocks. In permaculture design, we try to allow each organism to express its nature as fully as possible. Although in Holistic Planned Grazing we mimic the role of predators by bunching the animals and moving them regularly, it is recognized that the animals have legs and brains. Therefore, we limit our interaction with them to the bare minimum.

At other times of the year, the inverse might be true. Since Zone 3 lends itself to the planting of full size fruit and nut trees, harvest season might mean infrequent visitation, when judged against a full year, but long sessions of gathering in the produce.

-As with the previous two zones, pay close attention to water and soil. But since the area of Zone 3 is typically larger than the other two, your ability to do something about it immediately will be constrained by resources at hand. Tools that work on a broadscale need to be assessed carefully for unintended consequences.

-Even more so than Zone 2, consider the existing vegetation and try to find out what their distribution patterns and overall health are saying about underlying conditions. Whereas in Zones 1 and 2 we may do a lot of site modification to accommodate certain species, in Zone 3 we really want to match the species to site.

Zone 4: Distance from 0 may be a major factor. Often very low f but high d

Now is a particularly good time to recall that our ability to project time and energy diminishes with distance. Zone 4 is going to be a place where existing site processes are best left to their own devices, provided they are functioning with some kind of integrity. Obviously if your site is seriously degraded there are other avenues to take. As the boundary between domestic and wild, Zone 4 can still provide us with a lot of value, however.

Think of Zone 4 as an experimental space in which you are looking to find that minimum amount of effort needed to bring about beneficial change. Push the limits of domesticated plant species habitat and care requirements. Although in permaculture design we are always seeking a balance between what we as humans take from a system and how much is left for the rest of the community, keeping Zone 4 as oriented towards other ecosystem actors as possible is a crucial design imperative.

A copse- a group of trees or shrubs used in coppice agroforestry- is a great design element for Zone 4. Wood processing may not need frequent visits, but can take significant amounts of time. Zoning a woodlot as Zone 4 can lead you to challenge the distance guidelines though- hauling wood takes a lot of energy and depending on your circumstances this particular portion of Zone 4 might be best served if located close to Zone 0.

In some cases, such as smaller properties, Zone 4 may be as wild as it makes sense to go. Bear in mind any municipal landscape use bylaws and “Zone 4” those areas you wish could be wild. Doing the bare minimum to meet the letter of the law can often be a smarter choice than running afoul of it.

Zone 5: A wild zone where human intervention is ideally zero.* T input varies widely.

Zone 5 is an anomaly. While we set a Zone 5 aside as a completely maintenance free place, a place that should see no human intervention, in order to use it as “nature’s classroom,” the fact of the matter is that very few Zone 5s are going to be utterly devoid of human impact. The frequency with which one visits their Zone 5 will, in fact, change the behavior of many wildlife species. If you have a dog that accompanies you on walks or even a free range cat as a pet, your impact on Zone 5 is going to increase greatly (especially with a free range cat). It is crucial to understand that although we interact with Zone 5 by our very presence, we do not seek to actively intervene in the natural processes occurring there.

Although it is true that few places will entirely escape the effect of humanity, the point of Zone 5 isn’t to pretend that some lines on a map are going to create an unblemished primeval landscape. The driving idea behind Zone 5 is that nature is the ultimate teacher. Setting aside one zone is not going to crimp any grand plans; on the contrary, if used respectfully, it may unlock something that has been a source of puzzlement or spark a new round of innovation.

We should never assume that we know everything and Zone 5 is a demonstration of that key understanding.

With that said, I would advise to continue monitoring for the health of Zone 5. This particularly means attention to disease. In Finland, we have had the good fortune to nip Dutch Elm Disease in the bud and thus spare our elms from disaster. If I have elms in Zone 5, I should continue to watch for signs that they are infected to contain any outbreak of the disease. I don’t think turning a blind eye to a serious disease would teach us anything we don’t already know.

Lastly, sometimes a “pure Zone 5” really will not make a lot of sense. Sometimes that may be due to only have a microsite to work with. Other times that may be because the land you are on is so degraded that to do nothing would seriously hamper regeneration. With that in mind, you can designate a “future Zone 5” in your plans whereby you work to rectify underlying ecological processes to an extent where it can be eventually be left alone.

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