Monday, 26 November 2012

Zones and Sectors

Zones and sectors, sectors and zones. These are the first, most basic place to start when assessing any site with an eye to Permaculture. It doesn't matter the size, shape or planned purpose of the area you are looking at, zones and sectors are where you start.

Okay, so lets get to explaining these terms;


In one phrase, all energies entering and leaving a site. This takes in sun exposure, wind exposure, intruding noises and smells, watercourses, erosion, and even the odd stampede of quadrupeds. It is all the energies and forces that impact the site, including human and animal.

The one that seems to give most problems to people is the Sun Sector, so here is a website that calculates it for you (opens in new tab) based on your location and the dates entered.

By the way, same as any other map that has to be used in the real world, mark North and South to keep yourself straight.

Pic 1; Sun and Wind Sectors

The wind sector is the second-most important energy concern for your site. The wind tends to come from different angles at different seasons with different temperatures and force. This means you need to think about which winds you block (like the damaging winter winds), which ones you welcome in (the warm summer winds) and which ones may have some effect but are not constant or strong enough to warrant action (the spring and autumn/fall winds). A very handy formula to keep in mind when planning wind-breaks is;

H x 10 = D
where H = height of windbreak and D = distance the wind is deflected. Wind is never truly stopped, only deflected and when wind is sent up over a windbreak, it comes back down again with greater force. So if you have a windbreak of 5m, the formula becomes 5m x 10 = 50m i.e. the wind comes back down again 50m downwind of the 5m windbreak. Geddit? This is an important consideration when surrounded by neighbours, please don't forget it.

Depending on the location of your site you may or may not have any other concerns like traffic, noise, pollution, privacy, smell. If you do however, put them in the map too (adding those here would have resulted in a visually messy picture). We have a smell sector from when they clean out the local chicken farm and there's a constant background of traffic from the main roads surrounding us (funny, we moved out here to get away from traffic!). These are important things that will bear on how much you really enjoy your property. So take a moment, and really think about what prevents you from being able to enjoy your garden the way you want. Can it be considered as an impacting energy? If so, put it down on your sectors map. If not, can it be considered as a chore, or some kind of enforced activity? If so, it may belong in the Zones section.


Zones are a formalized way of separating tasks and elements by the number of times they have to be completed or visited and the effort involved each time. Zones are all about 2 things; Labour and Attention. Thankfully, the emphasis is on the latter and not the former, “100 hours of thoughtful observation followed by one hour of careful labour is better by far than 100 hours of thoughtless labour” (Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture). So, while you might think you want to have a BBQ area with veggies for the kids to learn where food comes from, you don't really. You want to engineer a space that you feel happy in and want to take the time to enjoy. And yet, at the same time, certain jobs still have to be done on a regular basis.

One central concept to keep in mind is the minimization of work. And this is where the recognition of energy usage and therefore zones come in. You see, not all activities are equal, some need to be done more often than others and some require more effort at less frequency. There is a certain categorization of what appears in each zone that most Permies work by. There are 6 zones and go from your house to the very edge of your property.

Pic 2; Zone Diagram (stylised)

Zone 0 
-House or village or other structure that you are centring the design around
-Serves residents needs re heat, light and shade, water, electricity

Zone 1 
-Elements that require the most number of visits, most attention or most complex techniques should be placed here. Culinary herbs, intensive annual beds, laying boxes, quiet food animals like fish or rabbits. If you're planning on a tree nursery or require large 'mother' planets to take cuttings and grafts from, they should also have a space in Zone 1 to ensure that you catch any damage before you lose the whole lot.

Zone 2 
-Elements that still need daily check-ups, and some intermittent work, but don't need continuous attention. Here go your chicken coops (with a good source of water to make sure its kept clean!), your spot-mulched orchards, free-range pens and 'tractors' for animals, larger annual beds, also a representative of your larger tree crops should go here so you can keep a daily eye on the overall progress.

Zone 3 
-Pastures and buildings for larger animals and the main 'farming' area. If there are dairy animals, the dairy shed can be placed at the edge of zone 1 and zone 3, leaving out zone 2 for that section altogether. That way, you will be able to see your animals every day without trekking unnecessary distances out and back (see below for diagram). Zone 3 is also for larger water storage, and the use of large-scale windbreaks and other site remediation features.

Zone 4 - Too awkward for daily travel, the main tree-planting happens here. Whether you are after an edible crop, a timber crop, or restoring a habitat to bring back game animals, this zone does still need some planning and some attention, but this is much more long-term and you do not want to be wasting a lot of energy on it on a daily basis. This area, depending on its state, can also be a good place to supplement resources through foraging.

Zone 5 -Wilderness. This is the zone that you aim to impact the least. Keep some walking trails maintained, or do some responsible hunting in there, but on the whole, you want to leave that zone to the others, to the wild creatures that need that kind of isolation to keep going. Does this mean you can't have a Zone 5 when you're on an urban plot? Nope. You are only limited by your imaginations, by your creativity.

How many people really have zone maps that look like the stylized map above? That map does not take any surface features into account at all, so the only place where you would have it looking exactly like that is in a salt-pan. Its more common to have it look like this;

Pic 3; Example of zones on 'real' site


Pic 4; Example of zones in a 'real' site

Or this;

Pic 5; Example of zones on 'real' site

Using zone and sector maps means you can plan the location of your various garden elements based on minimizing the work and maximizing the enjoyment you receive from your property. Now here, I'm afraid you're going to have to do some work.

Using any source you like, create a ground map of your site, (from window box to fields it doesn't matter the size), then a sector and a zone map (on parchment paper or over-heads). Place the sector and zone maps over your ground map. Now, take a look at your maps and answer the following questions;

What is it that you really want from your property? What would make paying the amount of money that you pay to keep it worthwhile? Do you want it to be the social centre of the neighbourhood, or a maze that only you can penetrate? Have you always wanted an apple tree, or a fountain? What about places to meditate, practise martial arts or music? What is it that you want?

Nothing's ever as easy as a blogger makes it seem I know, but knowing what impacts your property and your enjoyment of it, and knowing what it is that would make you happy, gets you on the road to being a happy, satisfied human being in a functional, balanced setting.

Now wouldn't that be nice?

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