Have you ever tried to design your new or existing homestead only to run into several questions that need to be answered before you can complete the project? In this article, we brainstorm some of those homestead layout questions with you, as well as helping you answer them with the permaculture practice of dividing your homestead up into zones of use. Never heard of permaculture zones before? We explain that, too! Keep reading and have a rough draft of your homestead design by tonight! Look for our special offer for homeschoolers at the end…
Permaculture Zones on the Homestead
Whether you’re trying to design a homestead layout for your new or existing homestead, the questions to answer are often the same.
Where should the house go to best make use of winter sun and summer heat?
- If the house is already built, we can ask the same question for the barn or any other structure we need to build like a chicken coop.
If the house is here and the barn is here, where should the chicken coop go so we can easily access it?
- Even if the chicken coop is moveable, is there a better way to move it around the homestead?
What about the gardens – where should I put them to get the best sun and rain?
- If your gardens are already in place, the question still applies in that it’s possible your current layout could be improved! Or added upon!
It can make your dizzy trying to account for every homestead element and every eventuality! So, what do we do to accomplish the sometimes overwhelming task of creating a workable homestead layout?
We break up the homestead elements into bite-size pieces by organizing them into permaculture zones.
What is Permaculture?
To give you a brief overview, permaculture is the combination of the words permanent and agriculture. It was developed as a way of teaching people how to create sustainable gardens and farms.
Which means that permaculture teaches us how to grow food and create abundance in ways that are self-sustaining, environmentally and human friendly, and which create abundance of harvests.
Permaculture creates that abundance through good design and natural materials that produce long-lasting, self-sustaining systems. For example, in permaculture there is an emphasis on putting perennial plants into our gardens to maintain nutrient-gathering roots in the soil year round.
There are many aspects of permaculture that are relevant to homesteaders, so plan to do some permaculture reading as homesteading homework!
Useful Permaculture Articles
How to Create a Permaculture Homestead Layout
What are the Permaculture Zones?
As I mentioned, permaculture uses good design to create abundance, or to obtain the yields we’d like. One aspect of design is organization and the permaculture zones help us organize our homestead according to frequency of use.
We look at each space and roughly calculate how often we go there per day, per week, per month, per quarter, per year.
Other factors should also be considered when determining how to divide the homestead into permaculture zones.
- specific buildings
Let’s look at dividing the homestead into permaculture zones more specifically.
Permaculture Zones Divided by Frequency of Use
There are five permaculture zones that have developed out of the original permaculture literature. More recently, three more have been added.
The original five permaculture zones are:
Zone 1 = Daily Visits
Zone 2 = Daily/Weekly Visits
Zone 3 = Weekly/Several Times a Month
Zone 4 = Monthly/As Needed
Zone 5 = Wild Space
Added more recently are:
Zone 00 = Your inner landscape and personal way of being.
Zone 0 = The space inside your home, which includes the people and even animals that live there.
Zone 6 = Your local community, or more generally speaking, the communities in which you contribute, live, and participate (congregation, tribe, extended family, neighborhood, city, state, country, the world).
Permaculture Zones with Examples
The following is a brief selection of examples from a homesteader’s life and experience with the first five of the permaculture zones. Zones 0, 00, and 6 will be addressed in other articles.
In the following section we’ve outlined what might be found in each zone, as well as the activities that might be occurring in each. Please note the use of the words “might be” – these examples are not gospel!
When explaining the permaculture zones, we use concise language in order to convey information as succinctly as possible. However, the wonderful reality is that many elements and activities cross zones on the homestead.
Some end up being seasonal – we frequent the beehives a lot in later summer for honey harvest, but then leave them to their business in a semi-remote part of the homestead for most of the rest of the year.
If your homesteading personality inclines you to be rigid or exact when defining a form or function on the homestead, try to see the permaculture zones for what they are. Namely, a design tool that helps us organize our future plans in a logical way that conserves energy and streamlines function and form on the homestead.
Permaculture zones are not a box, they’re a picture.
Pictures can be modified, improved upon, and constantly be perfected until they are beautifully complete.
(Until we improve upon them again, which is the whole reason we take time to design a permaculture homestead in the first place!)
Permaculture Zone 1
Zone 1 = Daily Visits
Examples: laundry lines, the veggie gardens, the chicken coop.
Zone one is hoppin’! This is the zone directly around a central space, which is usually your home. In zone one, you’re coming to and from the driveway, going out to the chicken coop, watering the veggie garden, and playing with the kids in the backyard.
You may have storage spaces like a garage or shed in this area, too. Which means, you also have tools and equipment close by for the work that seems to always be taking place in zone 1.
One of the most important design elements to consider in zone 1 is the necessity of good pathways and corridors for moving people, livestock, supplies, and equipment. You have these highways in other areas of the homestead, but most of them originate in zone 1.
For small space homesteaders, you might be tempted to think that this is your only zone but I encourage you to read through the rest of this material and really try to see your micro-homestead in this permaculture zone way. The size of the homestead is relatively irrelevant when it comes to organizing it better for maximum efficiency in design and function.
Permaculture Zone 2
Zone 2 is really a transitional space between zone 1 (the activity hub and central space for people) and zone 3 (an more outlying area where grazing livestock and larger crops often live). That’s not to say that zone 2 isn’t important because it is!
This homestead area often sees the placement of barns and other useful structures like the dairy, honey house/beehives, potting sheds, etc. This keeps these facilities near enough for the people to work them but also close enough to the livestock or crops that go out beyond zone 2.
Perennial gardens and even fruit trees can often be found in this zone, too. Perhaps an herb garden or specialized growing space like a botanical dye garden might be placed here. These growing areas don’t have the intense demands of a veggie garden but still need to be visited often for tending and harvesting.
You may also find people-centric spaces like an outdoor fire pit or even an outdoor kitchen.
This is where good pathways and access start to be seen as vital! All these areas need to easily accessible by people carrying equipment and supplies or toting a wheelbarrow. If they’re not, we just won’t make the effort to see to all our varied duties around the homestead and work will fall through the cracks.
Especially if we’re counting on kids or teenagers to get their homestead chores done on slippery slopes or footpaths blocked by overgrowth! We employ good design to keep the homestead humming, not just to establish it at the beginning.
Permaculture Zone 3
Zone 3 = Weekly/Several Times a Month
Examples: greenhouse, livestock grazing, orchards
Zone 3 is sometimes referred to as the “farming” zone because in this area you’ll often see pasture land, areas for growing grain or a higher volume of specific crops (perhaps for market gardens), as well as orchards and vineyards. Permaculture favors guild planting and forest gardens, so these areas won’t always look like you might be accustomed to because there will be A LOT of plant life and foraging animals.
Speaking of foraging, zone 3 is a great place to look around for free food to gather by way of foraging wild plants!
You might see a greenhouse or growing tunnel in this zone, too, probably tucked up against zone 32 for easier access. These growing structures take up space, even the small ones. Sometimes, we decide to sacrifice a longer walk in favor of being able to orient the building in just the right spot.
Every design decision is just that – a decision.
You weigh the pros and cons and make the best choice you can. Sometimes, elements of a design can be relocated if you discover they would perform their function on the homestead much better in a new location.
Which is one way of saying, weigh your decision carefully if the element in question is a structure. Moving a beehive is one thing; moving a greenhouse can be something else entirely!
The Zones Aren’t Rigid!
I Repeat: Zones are adaptable to each homestead and some zones will overlap and even end up broken into sections.
For example, orchards might only be visited once a month after harvest to check for deer pressure. When it’s time to harvest or prune, the homesteader is in the orchard much more often! This means that the same spot can be in both zone 1 and zone 3 in the same year.
Additionally, you may have an outlying zone brush up against your zone 1 if, for example, your pastures sit immediately adjacent to your home because that’s how the land was laid out long before you got there. You may have zone 4 spaces that start and stop and stop and start all around your home.
As Bloom and Boehnlein write in their fabulously useful book, Practical Permaculture,
There is no hard-and-fast rule about whether a given element should be in one zone or another. Remember, this is a tool to help you create an efficient design, so define things in a way that makes sense for you.
For example, when we draw the permaculture zones, we often represent them in perfectly symmetrical circles ringing a little house. Something like this:
However, the reality is more like this:
Don’t worry about getting it right in general;
strive to get it right for you and your homestead!
Permaculture Zone 4
Zone 4 = Monthly/As Needed
Examples: mushroom logs, nut trees, ponds, beehives, grain beds
Bordering on the wilderness zone (zone 5), zone 4 is the least intensively managed of the zones so far. This area can include more pasture land for larger ruminants that don’t require daily interaction like beef cattle (as opposed to dairy cattle which need milking).
Here you might find the beginning of hunting blinds or ponds that are kept stocked for fishing, indicating a human presence and level of management that is more subtle than zone 1.
Zone 4 might be just the place for your nut trees, too, since they’re not quite as demanding as fruit trees can be. Mushroom logs can sit undisturbed here, too. Perhaps some auxiliary beehives can be found here in the quiet space of zone 4.
Permaculture Zone 5
Zone 5 = Wild Space
Examples: wildlife, open spaces, forests – every homestead has this zone although we don’t always realize it.
This is the zone, or zones, on the homestead that remains largely untouched by people but not by nature.
This is where nature does its thing.
Zone 5 is a fantastic place to observe nature and its systems, which further informs our design development because permaculture application seeks to mimic nature.
Consider: Is the ground of a forest ever just bare soil? No, of course not! The ground is littered with leaves, pine needles, scat, dead wood, seeds, feathers, berries, perennial plants, and more!
And beneath the surface, the soil is teaming with microbial life! Above ground are growing systems that function with limited to no human management and achieve abundance season after season.
This is what we’re trying to do with permaculture design on the homestead; create natural and self-sustaining cycles of abundance through good design.
Even though zone 5 doesn’t NEED human management, it’s still a great place to spend time hiking, picnicking, fishing, hunting, and simply sitting quietly observing.
Small Space Homesteader Applications
There will be a whole article dedicated to the topic of permaculture applications for small space homesteaders but let me just say this for now.
Becoming self-sufficient in an apartment is a journey, just like it is on a sprawling 40-acre spread. That mostly has to do with the fact that we’re all human and we learn in very human ways.
Which is why the processes of observing, taking note, researching, applying what we’re learned, brainstorming, and designing are useful for every homesteader all over the world. Small space homesteaders, whether they live in an apartment or on a tiny urban lot, probably know this better than most.
In a small space, there’s very little room to invest sections of the homestead to haphazard experiments or to methods that simply don’t work. They learn that small and slow solutions are best. That the answer is usually in the question. That things of little note are often the very things that can change the world.
If you’re a small space homesteader, don’t despair thinking that zones 2-5 can’t exist in your reality because you’re surrounded by them every day.
Small Space Zone Examples
Here’s an example: Perhaps your compost bin isn’t out in your backyard but under your sink in the form of a vermicomposting system. Great! That’s a zone 1 or 2 area for you even though it’s technically residing in your zone 0.
Remember, it’s the frequency of use and the purpose of the zone that really matter when it comes to using permaculture zones in homestead design.
Here’s another example: Maybe your zone 5 is hard to spot because your balcony or the half-yard you share with your duplex neighbor is the only open space nearby.
Again, recall that zone 5 is meant for observation – you’re not required to do anything in this space except to watch and learn. That means that the overgrown fence line or the weedy lot across the street are your zone 5 spaces!
Spend some time watching the insect and wildlife populations; make note of which useful wild plants grow there.
- What does it look like in winter?
- What are the first plants to emerge in spring?
Apply what you learn to your own homesteading efforts!
Permaculture Zone Homestead Homework
The following section will run you through a quick design exercise applying the idea of permaculture zones to improved homestead design. Even if you think your homestead is fine that way it is, it can always be run more efficiently!
Why Should Homesteaders Use Permaculture Zones?
One element of good design is observation. Another is organization. Permaculture zones combine those elements into one step.
To figure out how, spend time observing several things on the homestead:
- Which paths do we travel daily?
- Which areas do we only visit once a week? Once a Month? Once a year?
- Which spaces see the most action – where do you do the most work?
- Which structures are already in place? Which ones do we need to still build?
It’s good to take notes answering these questions in our homestead journal. However, we can also display the information visually by drawing a picture and sketching out the permaculture zones on our homestead.
Sketch a basic outline of your homestead – house, barn, gardens, sheds, animal areas like chicken coops, and anything that is permanent/fixed.
- Consider the areas you travel daily, even multiple times a day. Where do you spend the most time? Car? House? Work? This is your zone 1.
- Do the same for all the permaculture zones. Use a pencil and eraser at first as you are brainstorming.
- When you’re satisfied with your zone markings, pick one color per zone and mark the zones with each color.
This is your existing homestead with the permaculture zones marked. Now, make another zone map with the way you’d LIKE things to be.
- What changes would you like to make?
- Are there glaring issues like ease of access that can be fixed with a few tweaks?
- What about areas where you’re working all the time but they’re really far away from your central area?
- Or are thee elements that are taking up space in zone 2 that would free up great space if they were moved to zone 3?
Re-draw the permaculture zones of your homestead as many times as you need until you find 2-5 improvements you can make this month or this year.
Now, just for fun and information, go make these permaculture zone maps for your neighborhood, your school, your office, your church!
To learn more and to practice more of what you’ve learned, visit the article How to Create a Permaculture Homestead Layout.
If you have homeschool kids or any student, grab the Permaculture Zone Matching Game
which is being offered as a free bonus for a limited time!