What Are Permaculture Zones?

If we are going to design a diverse and sustainable system, one of the most important decisions we face is the positioning of our key elements. In a backyard, these may include a chicken coop, a few dwarf fruit trees, a clothesline, a veggie garden, and a play area for the kids. The way in which we place these elements is not left up to chance, rather we have three key tools that we can use to assess an existing site and to plan a new design; zones, sectors, and elevation.

Zoning is central to permaculture design and is concerned with the energy that exists within a system. It is based on the idea that whatever elements we visit and service the most should be placed closest to the house.

Zones are conceptual boundaries that we use to help maximize the energy efficiency of a design. The area of our site is divided up into 5 zones, with zone 1 being closest to the house and zone 5 typically being the furthest away. Zones do not have to have physical boundaries and they can flow or merge into each other.

In a back garden, herbs that are used daily in the kitchen should be accessible in slippers, the path between the driveway and the front door might be lined with plants that need constant attention, while berry bushes and logs that have been inoculated with shiitake mushrooms could be placed down by the back fence as they can often be left for months at a time without needing any care.

On a larger property, zoning is critical because of the distances involved. Placing a chicken coop 200m away from the house across the other side of a field means a 400m walk every time you need to collect the eggs or clean out the coop. It’s a long way back to the house if you forget something and it might also mean carting resources long distances with a wheelbarrow, such as taking soiled bedding from the coop to the compost pile. By recognizing how often you visit an element, what the element needs and what relationships that element has with other elements, you can then create a design that minimizes the distance you must walk to keep on top of your daily tasks.

In this example, it may make more sense to have the chickens integrated into the design of a new greenhouse so that their body heat can help warm up the greenhouse in the colder months. You could run a garden hose out to the greenhouse to water both the plants and to top up the chicken’s water. Any rotten fruit, trimmings or weeds can be thrown to the chickens, and you could even place a compost heap next to the coop and allow the chickens to scratch in amongst the compost. Once the compost is ready, you can then use the compost in the greenhouse as potting mix.

The living area where we spend most of our time is typically our zone 0, however, there are cases such as with an allotment where zone 0 may be a garden shed or even just the front gate. From zone 0, we must consider how we access the rest of the site, such as through a specific door, and whether there are paths that we constantly use such as to the outhouse or the driveway. It may make sense to start using the laundry door to access our zone 1 so that we don’t walk dirt into the lounge room, or we may look to plant edible berries along the front path so we can pick at them on the way to the front gate.

Permaculture Zone 1

Zone 1 is where we typically start a design and it is the part of the garden where we spend most of our time. Zone 1 is where intensive practices are used to maximize yield, sustain any exotic plants, and hold nature at bay. It is where you would locate a kitchen garden or a container garden. Zone 1 will be high in yield and productivity, and it will require large amounts of inputs such as time, effort, and money. We may use heavy mulching and irrigation systems and so our participation and influence on zone 1 is very high. Zone 1 will typically be up to around ¼ acre, which can be enough growing area to provide most of the herbs and veggies a family will need.

Zone 1 should also be easy to access, so just because an area is close to the house does not necessarily mean it will be in zone 1. Some examples of elements you may place in your zone 1 include:

  • Container garden
  • Kitchen garden
  • Tender or exotic plants
  • Edible plants
  • Small greenhouse
  • Garden shed
  • A sink
  • Drip irrigation system
  • Worm farm
  • Cold frames and small season extenders
  • Fuel for heating such as a small stack of wood

Permaculture Zone 2

Zone 2 is where elements need more space and require a little less attention compared to zone 1. We may still find ourselves in zone 2 every day, however, the elements may be able to get by without our help for longer periods of time and we may not need or want this part of the garden right up against the house. Zone 2 will be up to around 1 acre in size, and common elements in zone two include:

  • Fruit trees
  • Chickens and ducks
  • Larger crops such as potatoes
  • Compost
  • Beehives
  • Perennials rather than annuals

In urban designs, it is typical for a garden to only have zones 1 and 2. There can also be some level of interaction between zones 1 and 2, for example, you may let your chickens into a garden bed in zone 1 to scratch around in the soil after you have harvested a crop, whilst bees may fly into zone 1 and help with pollination. From zone 1, you may take worm castings into zone 2 to fertilize the soil, or you may run a hose out to a border garden after a hot day to give the perennials a drink.

Permaculture Zone 3

Zone 3 is farmland and can include fields, orchards, cropland, a market garden, and areas for livestock. Most of the yield from zone 3 is grown for the market rather than for use in the home. Techniques that are used in zones 1-2 would normally be too intensive for zone 3, for example, a commercial orchard may use plastic or green mulch rather than sheet mulching, or we may use large irrigation systems rather than a hose. Zone 3 can vary a lot in size, and most permaculture sites will typically be smaller than 20 acres or so. We would find these elements in zone 3:

  • An orchard
  • Animal pasture
  • Field crops
  • Dams and irrigation trenches
  • Shelter or housing for livestock such as an Earth shelter
  • Large trees for shade or stands of trees for coppicing

Permaculture Zone 4

This where things start getting a little wild. Our influence and management reduce significantly in this area and we may not come here more than every so often. Most of the plants and trees will be natives, and productive yields will be low.

Zone 4 will often be a woodlot where timber can be harvested, as well as wild mushrooms, berries, fish, game, and edible plants. We can manage these areas to be more productive by thinning the trees, removing new growth by hand or by allowing livestock to graze through an area.

We can also remove invasive species and trees that prevent other growth such as spruce. In my village, most farms own a large area of forest up in the mountains. Farmers take their sheep and cows up into the mountains to graze all summer, which frees up the fields to be cut twice a season for hay. These parcels of land are harvested for timber, cloudberries, blueberries, trout, and chanterelle mushrooms. Most farms also have a cabin that is an integral part of the Norwegian lifestyle.

The animals return in the autumn where they are fattened up on pasture after the fields have been cut for a second time. This use of a farm’s zone 4 dates back hundreds of years, highlighting how permaculture often uses traditional knowledge and then combines it with modern technology. Farmers these days can use GPS tracking devices rather than cowbells, which can save days of work locating the animals at the end of summer.

Permaculture Zone 5

This is where we come to learn. Wild and natural ecosystems that are free from human influence can provide us with the chance to strengthen our relationship with nature, to observe nature and to recharge our spirit. Sadly, many parts of the world no longer have any true zone 5 left, such as in Britain and Europe where overgrazing of the highlands has shaped the landscape into barren grasslands devoid of trees. Regulating and restricting the use of wilderness areas can be an important conservation strategy to ensure that wilderness areas remain protected from human impact.

An area or expression of wilderness should be included in every permaculture design, whether it is a bird bath, a wilderness corridor or perhaps by removing a fence to allow wildlife onto your site. By bringing the wilderness closer to our home we can provide much-needed habitat for wildlife and strengthen our connection with nature.

Rewilding is a movement that is a great example of how permaculture can change your perspective and facilitate a new approach to life. Rewilding encourages us to literally re-wild areas of the physical landscape, but it also encourages us to re-wild ourselves, spending more time outside in the natural world and less time in front of a screen. You can take rewilding courses that teach bushcraft and survival skills, while others simply choose to immerse themselves in the wild for a few days, often without any food so that they are forced to live off the land, a process that can be humbling and life-changing.