Permaculture Zones – Everything You Need to Know

The topics of Permaculture design are applicable to a wide variety of homesteading builds. Permaculture design thinking is efficient and is meant to mimic natural ecosystems. However, Permaculture can be an intimidating topic to tackle, knowing that short courses in permaculture are meant to last a minimum of 72 hours.

Zoning is one of those concepts that can be taught on a student’s first day, and it is a useful way to conceptualize design thinking thereafter, from beginner to advanced levels.

Moreover, it is a fairly simple concept that can be explained by a single blog post, which I hope to do here.

In short, a zone is an area of land in which it is better to plan to build certain installations and avoid inefficient design. Zone planning thus allows us to make the best use of our resources and maximize yields.

Land-use zone planning involves starting from a central point in space, most often the designer’s residence or workplace (or the client’s), and then using relative location to designate concentric zones of energy input, activity, and intervention as necessary for the types of buildings, plants, animals, and other elements that are most suited to the particular zone.

In Permaculture design terminology, zones are typically labelled with the numbers 0 through 5, with certain teachers including a ‘zone 00’ to refer to the designer’s own mindset, experience, and practice.

Typically, each numbered zone is successively larger than the previous one, and thus will be located further from the designer’s starting point. As the zone number gets larger, the intensity of energy input per unit area decreases, the complexity of structures tends to be lower, and the frequency of visitation drops.

This article will explain the land use methodology for each zone, and also present some commonly built structures, interventions and maintenance tips for elements in each zone.

You may use this article, also, to generate some ideas for homestead designs that you personally may want to build. One final use for this article would be to use it as a source for your own permaculture design studies.

Land-use zones are best explained on a map, and can also be communicated to clients, visitors, and workers through the use of a land tour of the site in question.

It is possible for zones to overlap, or in certain cases, to be entirely absent from a given site – remember that zoning is a conceptual guideline that must ideally yield to the reality of the geography of the site and needs of those on it.

For a similar reason, zones may be conceived of as concentric circles, but in reality, are shaped by landforms and movement of energy across the site and may not resemble circles at all.

Zone 00

Zone 00 is a conceptual ‘zone’ that refers to the person designing the site. We design from our imaginations – before we go out to the site and work, we have to imagine the work inside our minds.

The individual designer may be experienced or inexperienced, and each designer will have their own way of approaching and creating a design, as well as their attitudes, thoughts, and feelings that they bring into their work.

In this zone of mind-space, you will consider your reasons for planning out your site, and your hopes and dreams for what you wish to achieve on this site.

This zone can also be contributed to through the designer-client relationship, where designers often create questionnaires to assess their clients’ intentions and knowledge, and to predict where their clients might make mistakes or need assistance further down the line.

As an aspiring permaculture designer, this zone in which you can begin to think about your own strengths, be they plants, animals, technology, people, or something else.

All of this will depend on your own personality, and you might ask yourself: What did I grow up doing and seeing? What do others say I am good at? And what can I talk about, at length, to anyone who might listen?

You may conceive of each zone as having necessary energy inputs and outputs. As a ‘human system’, your inputs would optimally include fresh and healthy food, clean air to breathe, water, shelter, and fulfilling relationships with other people.

You can also see the importance of outputs, in which it is healthy to breathe out carbon dioxide, to exercise and burn calories, and to produce creative, useful work that you feel proud of and over which you can exercise autonomy, purpose, and mastery, which are three research-proven ingredients to successful work.

Zone 0

Zone 0 refers to the residence, workplace, or conceptual starting point of the site being designed. If you are designing a homestead property, your zone 0 would be your farm-house or cabin.

Conceptually, this thinking could just as well apply to a large city by calling its City Hall “Zone 0”. One might simply conceive of Zone 0 as the ‘center of action’, or where you might tend to spend most of your time by default.

Zone 0 structures tend to house human beings, their immediate family, and any pets they may have. Necessary functions of Zone 0 appear to resemble the rooms of a house, including a place to sleep restfully, prepare and eat food, take care of basic hygiene needs, complete office work, store important documents, and meet family members and friends for informal, small events.

Such a multi-purpose building need not be in the geographic center of the site; although if it is near the center, such placement will optimize your travel time across your site, but travel time is certainly not the only variable worth optimizing for.

However, for the reason of understanding of what it means to be the ‘center of action’, concept diagrams about permaculture zones put zone 0 directly in the center of the drawing for this reason.

When considering the energy inputs of Zone 0, you might think of the provisions of a utility company: your house may require electricity, clean water, an Internet connection, and cellular communication.

Similarly, garbage removal and sewage may be thought of as Zone 0 outputs. When designing your own site, you will need to determine whether you will be providing these needs for yourself (popularly known as ‘going off the grid’), buying them from an outside source, or doing some combination of the above.

It is homestead wisdom that the most reliable off-grid systems tend to be hybrid ones.

Many local utility companies will buy extra power that you may generate with wind turbines or solar PV panel, and even if they don’t, you can install a battery bank for storage of extra electrical power that you produce. Most homeowners will install solar panels and battery banks in Zone 0.

Zone 1

Zone 1 is the classification for all the land and installations immediately surrounding your residence, workplace, or client’s home base. Zone 1 can generally be accessed on foot in under a minute’s walk from its closest exterior door of the main building.

Large parts of Zone 1, while technically being outside, may be covered by some form of shelter material, including shade cloth, polytunnels, gazebos, or umbrellas. In addition, car garages and small tool sheds can be thought of as Zone 1 structures.

Elements placed in zone 1 tend to be small and require frequent maintenance or visits from people, and should accordingly be placed close to the main house. Plants placed here require full irrigation, full mulching, and much human management including pruning, harvesting, and training.

zone 1 example
Whole Life Learning Center, Austin, TX

Vertical gardens, small sheet mulch beds, container gardens, and small herb spiral installations may all have a place in Zone 1. Permaculture design theory suggests that of all the plants you grow in zone 1, 70% should be annual plants. If you have a small hobby nursery, it will most likely be here (commercial growers may choose zone 2 for nurseries instead).

Installations including greenhouses, espaliers, and trellises belong in Zone 1. This zone is the place for intensive vertical stacking and optimized use of space. Zone 1 plants are often harvested constantly, depending on the season.

peas on a trellis in zone a
A trellis supporting peas in a community garden plot

Small animals such as quail, chickens, and worms are placed here too. If you have an aquaponics setup, Zone 1 is its ideal placement. Zone 1 is also the right place for home-based composting on a small scale, although a possible argument could be made for zone 2 composting if you are processing large amounts of compost soil.

If you are involved in food processing such as drying, canning, curing, or making jam preserves, your food workshop would be well-situated in Zone 1.

There are several examples of elements that could go either in Zone 1 or 2, and a good way to decide between them is often to consider whether you’re trying to make a profit off that element in particular.

The homesteader with 12 hens and 1 rooster will probably want to keep them close by and not need extensive land for them, and so will put them in Zone 1.

Meanwhile, the free-range egg farmer with 200 chickens will most likely choose to put them in zone 2 instead, and erect an electric fence of the appropriate size to protect them.

zone 1 forest farming
Zone 1 forest farming

It is common for Zone 1 land to be at least partially paved over, so the scope for growing any deep-rooted plants in the soil can be limited. For these, we must turn to zone 2.

Zone 2

Zone 2 is the next level out after zone 1. Zone 2 transitions into zone 3 at around the point you’ve walked two or so minutes from the closest exterior door of your home base.

Zone 2 installations tend to include commercial, larger-scale versions of some zone 1 elements, as well as having several new possibilities due to the increased land area available.

If you’re growing fruit trees, these can now be placed in Zone 2, where they are close enough for multiple visits per day, if need be. Generally, Zone 2 is optimized for one harvest session per day.

Zone 2 has the potential of the highest yield per land area, as zone 1 tends to produce small amounts of higher-value products and zone 3 is too extensive to produce a valuable yield without traversing the whole zone.

Inversely of zone 1, Zone 2 is best suited to having 70% of its plants be perennials and choosing semi-hardy species for your climate.

horseshoe garden
This horseshoe garden requires low maintenance, so it can be a little distance away from the main house.

Permaculture elements such as food forests, chicken rotation yards, and intercropping with staple food gardens belong in this zone. If you’re keeping bees, Zone 2 placement puts them at an optimal distance from the house so that unwary visitors or children may keep their distance.

It is reasonable to plant medium-sized windbreak species around the borders of Zone 2 in order to protect your installations. You may also require electric fencing in this zone for your small animals.

In a wet climate, it is not necessary to irrigate Zone 2 year-round, but in a dry climate, it might be. Usually, Zone 2 is the furthest out you’ll be able to take most common hose pipes or electric cables from their zone 1 sources.

Therefore, you can still consider irrigation by hand in Zone 2, but it is the largest zone you should plan for this.

succulents in permaculture garden
The succulents in this garden are hardy enough to survive an extended drought with little irrigation.

One or more small ponds often work well in Zone 2, near which you can keep ducks. Aquatic ecosystems have high yields for their small spaces, and the presence of water helps to moderate temperatures in multiple ways.

Other Zone 2 structures may include animal and dairy housings, wood and metal workshops, and chicken tractors.

Zone 3

Zone 3 is probably what comes to most people’s minds when they hear ‘farm’ or ‘pasture’. Most commercial farms that sell food of any kind require a Zone 3 scale to be profitable for their cash crops.

If you have a larger homestead, it may include some range-land. Zone 3 can be thought of as the halfway point between human-managed land and wild land.

permaculture zone 3 example
This food-growing co-operative plants its production crops in rows for easy harvesting. In the distance, a long Zone 3 production polytunnel is visible.

Some permaculture management techniques of zone 3 include digging canals and small dams, and using gravity to direct water into the field for irrigation.

In mountainous or hilly areas, farmers can take advantage of key point lines to harvest plenty of fresh water. A ‘key point’ is a geographic contour zone where the land gradient changes from steep to gentle.

On a topographical map, you will see the contour line change from convex to concave – the point at which this happens is called the ‘key point’ and if you find a line along your land where the land is at this same altitude, you now have a key line.

Permaculturists who practice agroforestry – including trees, animals, and crops on the same land, often in rows, usually require the spaciousness of Zone 3 to keep them there. This form of farming is ecologically beneficial, and regenerates the soil over time.

intercropping
On this field, you can see intercropping, automatic drip irrigation, and a fairly short walk to the farm-house.

Windbreaks in Zone 3 tend to be high, as the range-lands of this wide area will be buffeted by winds in most areas. For the uninitiated, a windbreak is often a hedgerow or a line-shaped cluster of fast-growing trees around the perimeter an area you’re intending to grow crops in.

This windbreak will protect your crops against the wind, which will result in stronger plants and increased yield.

If you find yourself required to perform active maintenance on your Zone 3 land every day, it may mean that the species you chose were not hardy enough, or the zone wasn’t well enough prepared.

Zone 3 land should ideally require only occasional maintenance and intervention in bursts (such as planting seasons, harvest seasons, and weekly maintenance).

Small grazing pastures tend to suit Zone 3 management, whereas extensive grazing zones for larger ruminant animals will be better suited to zone 4. Sheep and pigs could qualify as Zone 3 animals, and horses might range on Zone 3 pastures.

Zone 3 is the largest zone you’re likely to consider any sort of weed management strategy. Instead of digging up weeds by hand or using herbicides, permacultural farmers at this zone scale prefer seeding nitrogen-fixing cover crops that are able to compete with weeds.

These cover crops also usually have the advantage of providing fodder for animals, satisfying the permaculture requirement of deriving multiple uses from a single element.

Zone 4

Zone 4 is the last, and largest zone that isn’t supposed to have any cultivation or intervention at all. When you hear of Zone 4, imagine grasslands and herb lands, shrubs, wood lots, and large-scale earthworks like berms, swales, and keyline dams.

In this zone, you don’t so much ‘harvest’ as forage, since many of the wild species in this zone won’t be planted by you. Large herds of cattle are best kept grazing around Zone 4, where they will find plenty of nutrients.

texas longhorn cattle
Texas Longhorn cattle graze in a Zone 4 field.

Zone 4, by and large, is not meant to require much maintenance at all. Depending on your plans, it may require a large outlay to perform keyline earthworks or dam construction, or you may end up settling on land with an already-extant woodlot that you intend to use for lumber.

Any species you might plant in this more rugged zone should be very hardy and well-suited to the climate, such as native plants and hybrid species developed in the area.

If you have a particularly extensive plot of land, this is the zone you may expect to want a farm vehicle to traverse, especially if you plan on large harvests of selected plants in the zone. If you have regular visitors, events, or volunteers, zone 4 might be a good place for a campsite.

open plot
This open plot is used for a camp site when visitors attend music events on this property.

Finally, in this zone, there isn’t really any such thing as a ‘weed’. For a related reason, this is also a zone in which you must be incredibly careful to avoid introducing invasive species, because your visits to this zone may be so infrequent that you don’t notice highly invasive species until their influence is already well set and even more difficult to remove.

Zone 5

Zone 5 may be thought of as any wild land that you intend to leave wild. No form of profit-based intervention is recommended here. Any sort of intervention you may take in this site is best done with an attitude towards conservation and letting nature take its course. If you would visit this land, come as an observer for the purpose of leisure and learning.

walking trail and a swath
A walking trail bisects a swath of public land.

Clear a walking trail, gather firewood, camp out, swim in the river, forage minimally, and rest with the knowledge that natural ecosystems like these are the systems that nourish the world’s biodiversity.

As a permaculture designer-to be, your mission is to mimic natural systems to the best of your capability, and so the ability to visit and learn from Zone 5 land should have a profound effect on your ability to do so over time.

You will develop a greater love for nature the more time you spend in Zone 5, and this love for nature and the wish to see it flourish is the prime reason to study permaculture in the first place.

natural pond
A natural pond near a waterfall in Central Texas.

Conclusion

The Zoning system of land-use planning in Permaculture is not perfect, but it is very near to being synchronously sensible: that which requires the most input and attention should be nearby to where you stay, and that which requires infrequent attention and little management is also bigger and needs to be further away.

Using zoning, we can plan for efficient use of land that mimics not only nature, but also the way that human societies used to build villages and towns before the advent of industrialization.

Zoning, therefore, is one of those things that ‘just makes sense’, and now that you understand the technicalities of it, there should be little to hold you back from the next step of your Permaculture learning journey.

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1 thought on “Permaculture Zones – Everything You Need to Know”

  1. An interesting thought exercise. Why is it so difficult to find simple examples to DO Permaculture instead of these thought exercises I find all over the internet?

    For example how about a Zone 5 Apple Tree Guild? That MIGHT INSPIRE more folks to actually get their seed catalogues this winter and Order those items for a Spring Planting.

    In addition to showing us a “Horseshoe ” garden and a herbal spiral garden how about some expansion of what was planted and why? AGAIN would Inspire ME to DO IT instead of shrugging my shoulders and say “nice idea” back to my simple raised beds this year.

    The Zone idea is nothing new. I would have been THRILLED if there was a Working Example for Each Zone to inspire us to start DOING Permaculture.

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