Get into the Permaculture Zone

Start thinking of your farm as a set of concentric circles, all with their own purpose and function, and you’re on your way to success in permaculture design.

by John D. Ivanko
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Permaculture design for farms and gardens incorporates an array of natural features that provide the foundation of healthy and vibrant ecosystems, most notably an emphasis on perennial plants and a productive food forest—a multilayered design that mimics a forest ecosystem with tall-tree canopy, mid-tree canopy, and shrub, vine, herb, groundcover and root layers. As with every aspect of permaculture farming, the design is about the relationships and connections between these layers and the needs and functions they each serve.

While there are several ways to approach permaculture design, the perspective of zones is the most practical for a small farm. Different from USDA hardiness zones, permaculture zones—a series of five concentric circles radiating outward from your farmhouse—each play modestly overlapping roles and functions in the design of your farmstead, as well as the location for various structures, water sources, animals and crops.

Zone 1
Starting at the backdoor of your house is where the most used plants should be planted for easy access. Steps from the back door of our Midwestern 5½-acre hobby farm are garlic chives, lemon balm and bee balm—each used in seasonal cooking while adding beauty to our curved pathway. When they flower, they also provide a cornucopia of blossoms for the bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Our permaculture plan takes into account the four distinct seasons as we prepare for crop production, work flow and energy needs.

Zone 2
Located just out from zone 1, we have intensely cultivated crops and outbuildings used for storage, processing, greenhouse space and water collection. While many of our flower beds and raspberries follow a curved path through the property, for ease of growing, we’ve employed linear raised beds for vegetables. This is all part of zone 2, and the curved shape allows for a greater diversity of plants to thrive on the edges of the growing spaces. We also employ companion planting, interplanting and stacking strategies as a part of permaculture practices.

Zone 3
A few minutes’ walk from the farm, in zone 3, is our small orchard of two apple trees, plus some Concord grapes, serving both as a privacy wall to a peaceful nook under two maple trees and as a perennial food source. For farmers with livestock, this zone is often reserved for grazing sheep, goats or chickens. Farmers often also use this zone for any cash crops, fruit and nut trees, and shelterbelts, such as windbreaks and wildlife corridors.

Zone 4
Little care is needed in this area. Perhaps it’s used for hunting or grazing of larger animals. Raising animals is well-suited to a permaculture design and can often enhance the results. “They can fertilize, till, clip grass, weed, eat scraps and leftovers, hunt insects and slugs, [and] process compost and yard waste,” writes Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden (Chelsea Green, 2001). Depending on what animals you raise, of course, they can also provide food, fiber, cashflow (if you’re breeding them) and entertainment.

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Zone 4 can also be a place where firewood is collected and a pond is located to cool off on a hot summer day. On our property, it’s the site for our 10 kW wind turbine that powers the farm.

Zone 5
Zone 5 is an unmanaged wilderness zone, best thought of as “nature’s share,” where we can sneak off to hike or perhaps forage for wild foods, such as morel mushrooms in the spring. It’s here we’d prefer to keep the native animals satisfied, so they leave our productive growing fields alone.

Notes on Water
Water conservation is an essential element in any permaculture design. The many water-holding strategies adopted in permaculture plans include dense plantings, the use of rich soil and mulch, contouring and the use of swales (ditches created to capture rainwater on your farm) and a careful selection of plants. Water catchment can range from rain barrels filled by gutters to a dishpan used in the kit­chen sink to capture and reuse greywater. The key is to let nature do the work for you by collecting and storing water, plus harnessing gravity to move it where you need it.


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