What Zone 5 Has Taught Me

Defining those infamous “zones” across your landscape is one of the first and most cherished challenges that newcomers to permaculture embrace. For most people, the idea of defining certain tasks and characteristics to different areas of the land seems like a common sense idea, and the permaculture concept of zones offers a straightforward path towards that end. It also allows people to begin to envision the transformation of the landscape working outwards from where their homes are located towards the wildest reaches of their farms.

When my family and I bought a small piece of land in the mountains of El Salvador, we also embarked on that fun, visionary mission of carving up farm into five different and distinct pieces. We thought about where would be the best spot for our home, and how we could use that location to interact with the rest of the land around us. While we did redraw those zoning lines several times when deciding where zones 1 through 4 would eventually fall, there was never any question where zone 5 would be.

A small stream flows through the bottom part of our farm, though when we purchased the farm the only sign of its existence was the sound of the soft trickle we could from afar. The stream was enveloped by a dense thicket of vegetation that was seemingly impenetrable. Thick vines combined with a vast array of thorns and other underbrush provided all the convincing we needed to simply label this area of the farm as “zone 5.”

Originally, the decision to label this wild area along the creek bottom as zone 5 was done because the wildness was almost threatening. There was work to be done building an herb spiral in zone 1, raised vegetable beds in zone 2, and getting the pastures and orchards prepared in zones 3 and 4. While all of those tasks amounted to plenty of work, it also meant that we didn´t have to confront the mess of weeds and overgrowth hiding our creek.

From what I had read in my permaculture library, zone 5 was supposed to be a wild area; a place where we could allow Nature to do her own thing outside of our human interference. That was a good enough excuse for me to simply steer clear of those threatening weeds for about a year. Once the house was built, the gardens planted, the orchard and pastures thriving, however, I turned my attention to zone 5 to see what could be done. After a couple days of machete hacking, I was able to open a decent sized path down to the creek and along its path as it flowed through our farm. The thickness of the vegetation and the wildness of the apparent disorder differed mightily from the neatly contoured lines of the other parts of my farm.

As I sat in the coolness of the shade, however, I allowed myself to see this part of the land for the first time. I noticed the endless buzzing of insects, the hummingbirds zipping through the tree line above, the thickness of the soil underneath my feet. While many permaculture teachers recommend making zone 5 one of the least managed areas on a landscape (ideally completely free from human intervention) that doesn´t mean that we shouldn´t visit zone 5.

Over the past years, I have continually returned to this spot down by the creek. Perhaps breaking with permaculture orthodoxy, I´ve even put in a small bench with a simple roof so that I can sit and enjoy watching the creek rise during a heavy rain. This spot along the creek´s edge has allowed me to learn several things about how Nature works in this particular spot in the world, and integrate these learnings into how we manage the rest of our farm.

First and foremost, my vantage point from Zone 5 has taught me that Nature abhors bare soil. Everywhere along the creek bottom the soil is covered in dense vegetation and a thick layer of leaf fall and other plants that slowly are decomposing into a rich top soil. During one wind storm, a small cedar sapling was blown over revealing a large swath of bare soil where the roots once stood. In a matter of three days, that bare soil was almost completely covered by pioneer species which quickly covered the upturned soil. In ten days’ time, there was hardly any evidence that the tree had recently fallen over. On my own farm, I try to mimic this lesson from the natural world. I try to cover up any soil disturbance as quickly as possible and maintain as much vegetation on the soil´s surface as possible.

Secondly, zone 5 has taught me that there is wisdom in designing to share your space with other creatures. On any given day at the creek bottom, several hummingbirds will zoom by my ear as they trek from one flower to the next. The presence of these and other birds not only adds beauty to the landscape but also offers a free source of phosphorous-rich fertilizer and help with pollination. The flowers my daughter plants around the farm seek to invite these birds to explore other areas of our farm with the same freedom they roam through the creek bottom.

Lastly, I have learned that zone 5 allows us to tend the wild. Far from being an untouched wilderness, our zone 5 has slowly morphed into a place where we add our human touch to the place we most love on our farm. The vegetation on the edge of the creek now contains hundreds of taro root plants whose roots we simply through on the ground to see if they´d take. When another wind storm knocked over 15-20 small cedar trees, we came in and replanted those trees the next day.

Zone 5 teaches that tending to the wild is another way of farming, one that allows us to find new sources of abundance outside of the meticulously designed and carefully managed other zones on our farm.

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