Let’s have a chat, in fact, let’s have a series of chats. Welcome to the stage, the Simple-Earth Permaculture Chinwags: Short, easily digestible essays intending to share knowledge. While knowledge is one true free thing, that you can take everywhere, these articles will only be available to Patrons. This is to support Simple-Earth’s investment in time and resources to make this available. Many thanks to everyone out there for helping.

Permaculture Zones! What are they, why does it sound so complicated, how large should they be and what do we put inside them? More so, can we add them into our design later in time or should they be there from the start? These are valid questions that plagues everyone. Mastering the enormous body of work and principles that is permaculture, is impossible. Ongoing acquisition of skills, trial and error and learning is at the core of its philosophies. Adapt this, to your own situation where it makes sense!

First thing that troubles the mind is scale… size. There are many accounts of homesteaders, farmers and forest keepers who apply permaculture on anything from a quarter-acre up to many hectares. In fact, smaller is better because it becomes easier to manage and plan and invariably simpler to implement your designs too. You may already know some of the permaculture tenets that say ‘care for people’ and ‘care for the land’. Well, if you are doing more with less land, you will undoubtedly get there sooner, wasting less.

Zones are nothing more than boundaries you design into your landscape to ensure that you give attention to features that demand more attention, more frequently. As you move away from your home, your zones become wilder, until eventually ending with undisturbed areas where wildlife thrives, recovers and natural corridors can form and exist without interruption. We base this model on human movement and thinking, and every home, farm, homestead, factory or even town will have these in some shape or form. For permaculture, it’s best however to mimic nature, and let it do its thing until maintenance becomes almost autonomous. Nature does not follow rigid rules or shapes and sizes. It adapts, and so should you. Your zones can be any shape, size or form and almost have no defined, visible boundaries between them!

In summary, the more often you need to use or manage something, the closer it must be to your center – or zone 0.

So let’s jump in and see what each zone means.

Gardens in Tulbagh – A place of many natural connections

Zone 0

Your inner center of living, inside your house is called zone 0. It’s seldom referred to, because it is a frequently visited (all the time, actually) feature where you live, eat and sleep. As much as it forms part of your system, especially by how you live and operate, it’s not of much consequence to the rest of the article. Keep it in mind for your design phase however, since your zone 0 life affects the other zones very much (grey water, composting, noise, etc)

Zone 1

Zone 1 is your home zone, and you need to think of it as the area where you have to go every single day. Things that need attention, maintenance and care only a daily basis (or multiple times per day) are designed into your zone 1. Workshops and tool sheds are well suited to this area. Fetching eggs from the chicken coop, and feeding the chooks, make the coop another prime example. Vegetable gardens that feed your household, herb gardens needing daily watering and your worm farm slot into zone 1. Outside cooking areas & braai, your irrigation controls and pathways you walk every day also have to be part of your zone 1 design.

Putting your seedlings and delicate plants in this area will ensure that you water them often and discard any notions of ornamental vs functional. If your ornamental garden, rose bushes or water-pump requires frequent intervention, put in zone 1!
How many more examples can you think of?

Zone 2

Zone 2 is the orchard zone or ‘daily zone’. It’s OK to consider this a ‘once or twice a day’ zone for less intensive aspects of your property. This area is also visited often, but not as often as zone 1. Fruit trees for daily picking or inspection, animal pens for providing feed and care or compost bins fit very well into this zone. Vegetable gardens on a less intensive strategy should go here. For some, chicken coops fit better into zone 2 than it does into zone 1, but this will depend on your management pattern and intervention. Don’t forget storage Wendy’s and barns that may be more relevant here than in your zone 1.

Your smaller shrubs, strawberries, beans, rabbits and ducks might fit in well here. Stockpiles of wood used for cooking every day sounds like a good candidate too. It’s common to have mulched trees and bushes here.

Think about it and share your comments on your zone 2.

Zone 3

The Farm zone, or work zone! You may have been waiting for the right place to design your cows, pigs and goats into. Zone 3 is the ideal farm zone for self-feeding animals and things like wood production or extensive vegetable and crops (including your cash crops).

You will almost never artificially mulch your zone 3, as it makes way for natural mulching to take place in what will inevitably be a part of your food forest. Large fruit and nut trees that still require management must be in zone 3. Some articles suggest that zone we only visit zone 3 a few times per season, but this might be too little to service the features found in this zone. An example that comes to mind would be pastures and ponds. These are prime zone 3 features.

Some suggest that zone 4 may be more appropriate for firewood production, what do you think?

by Felix Müller / CC BY-SA

Zone 4

When we speak of zone 4, we refer to the forage zone. It’s a semi-managed zone, in fact, almost unmanaged creating an opportunity for hunting, gathering and foraging of wild mushroom, herbs and other foods. We can do selective, careful grazing here that would form a part of what we deem “management”. Using animals to consume fire-risks (bushes and shrubs) fits into the human-vs-animal pattern.
Harvest firewood, kindling and other resources from this area while you visit it.

In fact, if you consider your 4 a ‘sort of wilderness’, then it should make more sense. The wilderness where you visit from time to time, to do upkeep, swales, water control or other things – but not where you go often.

Zone 5

This is wilderness. Owners of small properties find it difficult to maintain the boundaries and control of a zone 5, while large property owners have it almost too easy. Zone 5 is unmanaged, devoid of visits and disturbance and a very important zone in terms of recovery, wildlife and plant-life. It forms a corridor zone around you, where nature runs the way it should, and the effects rub off into your inner-zones. You and your zone 5 should be in a mutually beneficial relationship with one another.

Zone 5 is the permaculture university, where we learn how to mimic nature. Observing is the only input we give here, and information is the only resource we remove. The knowledge gained from zone 5 is usable in the other zones to enhance the operations, servicing and methods to achieve the goal of self-reliance, ecological improvement and automation (with nature taking control).

About Pathways and Walkways

There seems to be confusion about zoning walkways and pathways in the zoning system. This is normal, because in the operation of daily life we move around a lot. Walking disturbs life-systems, so we need to take it into account when zoning. Your daily walks to feed animals, fetch eggs, water seedlings and visit your workshop are without a doubt your zone 1. The areas directly next to your pathways are also zoned 1, and can (or should) contain any zone 1 aspects (your seedlings will not be forgotten if you walk past them every few hours would they?). Zone 2 will start directly after zone 1 alongside the paths. Any trails you used to manage your zone 5, or other rehabilitation areas, will see less traffic, and can be shaped into whatever zone makes sense for them, but remember that the sides of those walkways or trails will also be in the same zone.

Your Next Steps

You may already have some or all of the zones in place, or perhaps you are just starting with your design and implementation. All properties are different, all land comes with its own difficulties. Your established zones might be conflicting. There are so much variables and dynamics at play, and it would behoove you to not compare or compete with anyone at this point. Take your time and assess what you have, then start a design.

The ultimate aim is to have as many of your systems as possible, work together and benefit each other. Look at the Permaculture Principles, observe, emulate nature and study it. Create patterns and work with what you have. It’s not uncommon to have a zone 4 pond right behind your zone 2, or a river in your zone 5 that you need to visit often for supply reasons. Nature is not as arbitrary however as we think. Look for the patterns and relations, bring them closer and take advantage of the ‘every problem is a solution’ principle.

Last, think about everything in two or more directions of benefit. Chickens eat bugs that may be a pest to your vegetables – their poop becomes compost for the vegetables. Cactii carry fruit, but also protect fence lines from intruders. Edible trellises can block wind, deciduous edible plants can provide shade in summer and warmth in winter, etc.

Permaculture is about more than land plants or animals. It is also about the future sustainability and people. In future chinwags, we will cover these aspects.

Thank you for reading, and your support in sharing, caring and contributing to Simple-Earth. Please comment with your stories and ideas.

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