When I bought my 4.8 acre property last year, I spent many mornings and evenings walking the land just feeling and observing, which happens to be the first of the permaculture principles. I would have been lost as to where to begin without my new understanding of permaculture zones. I was so grateful to have learned how to design the flow of the land with permaculture zones, and most significantly, where to start.
Permaculture incorporates five zones:
Zone 0 is the house
Zone 1 is the kitchen garden
Zone 2 is the food forests
Zone 3 is the farm or market area
Zone 4 is the harvest forest
Zone 5 is the wild spaces
I strolled my land with all these zones in mind, mentally weaving all the zones together until I could see the whole picture, and how each zone could flow one into the other. Now, however, after my first summer rainy season, along with Hurricane Dorian, the big picture needs tweaking due to low lying, flood prone areas. You could say that I jumped the gun by planting trees in these areas, rather than slowly working my way through the zone sequence. As a result, I lost several orchard trees and 22 of my 27 Leyland Cypress trees planted along the road. I was eager to get my windbreak up and growing before realizing that more work was needed in Zones 2 and 3 to redirect water via culverts, swales and drains. A good, but painful lesson about water…and waiting.
The house is the main hub and center of all the permaculture zones. It is a good investment to update your house where needed for both value and increased equity, and make these changes before moving on to Zone 1. How can you increase your home’s energy efficiency? Where do you want to plant some good shade trees for cooling and protecting the house? Where do you want some nice flowering beds and kitchen gardens for easy picking? Where might you want added outdoor living space like decks, porches or patios? How might you use rain to water the gardens close to the house? This is where you want to begin, and get your house in order before moving on to the next zone.
Gardens of flowers, herbs, veggies and small trees make up the permaculture kitchen garden, as well as broad beds that are a short walk from the house. Kitchen gardens that are close to the house make for easy care and picking, while gardens that are at a distance are prone to neglect. You will be picking your greens for salads and herbs for cooking daily if your kitchen garden is just a few steps out the door. I love beds with veggies, herbs and flowers all mixed together. Your kitchen gardens will include plants that grow more compactly, leaving the sprawling plants for the broad beds. Carrots, beets, radishes, leeks, onions, garlic, lettuces and bush beans mix beautifully with edible flowers and herbs. Create a broad bed a bit farther away to handle the larger, sprawling plants like watermelon, squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, tomatoes and potatoes.
The permaculture food forest can be an orchard area near the house or a larger food forest somewhere else on your property. These forests and orchards are designed to mimic a real forest with canopy layers: tall trees, dwarf trees, bushes and ground covers. In lieu of a broad bed, all the sprawling veggies and herbs can be used as ground covers in the food forests. My kitchen orchard is full of tall and dwarf fruit trees with assorted flowers and herbs planted between them. I created a food forest in the shape of a half moon overlooking the pond. I call it my survival, gourmet food forest because it is full of delicious foods that I could easily survive on. It includes a moringa, Mexican avocado and sapote as my tall trees; with a red banana, carrie mango and a cacao as my dwarf trees; cranberry hibiscus, kama sutra mint, Texas blue giant fig, rosita de cacao, blackberries, and a coffee and tea plant as my bushes; and soon I will add cuban oregano, purslane and longevity spinach as my ground covers. The final touch will be the vanilla bean orchid to grow up the cacao tree.
If you have enough land for creating market gardens or orchards, or raising animals, this is your permaculture Zone 3. I have two large fields that will both become Zone 3 areas. One will include a shade house for growing and selling native plants, and in the other will be a large greenhouse for growing micogreens and micro veggies for market, a large food forest, a fig, feijoa and olive orchard surrounded by raised beds and a sustainable, French dome in the field corner for workshops, classes, events and the space for creating garden products. Zone 3 is wide open for many possibilities.
A harvest forest is a semi-wild area bordering natural forests where trees can be planted for providing timber, special woods, fuel, nuts, medicines and whatever product one can gather from these trees. The east border of my land is all trees, mostly invasive Brazilian pepper trees, so I started a native plant bed along that border. My plan is to continue the native plants, along with some nut trees and more bamboo, in hopes that I can eventually thin out the pepper trees.
We cannot forget all the wild animals, birds and insects with whom we share this planet, and whose natural habitats we are diminishing. Creating the wild spaces of Zone 5 will be an invitation for them to come visit, and to provide them with some shelter, water and food. My natural wild spaces are along the east border with trees, behind which is a ditch that drains from a canal so there is often water there that attracts wild animals. Planting native plants here is best as they not only attract a multitude of butterflies and birds, but helps to keep both the native plants and the creatures that love them from extinction. Native plants are able to survive with little or no fertilizer, endure weather extremes more effectively while providing easy care and good conversation for their unique appearances. My pond is surrounded by a lot of bamboo, and both the trees and the water attract the many beautiful, Florida birds that visit frequently.
In short, knowledge of the permaculture zones will enable you to design the flow of your land with greater vision and wisdom. As you build and create each of the zones over time, you will see and feel your land begin to harmoniously flow from one zone to the other, resulting in an integrated whole. For the permaculture way of life is ultimately about creating and living in balance with our natural world, and nature will thank you for doing so.