Category Archives: Permaculture Design

Zones in Permaculture Design


The main objective in zoning a farm is to define the location of the functions and elements in order to optimize human logistic and resources distribution in the integration between Technical and biological Closed Loop.

Zone 0 is defined as the domestic center of the farm, Zone 5 as the wilderness center of the farm. The subsequent zones 1 to 4 inherit in different proportions the properties of zone 0 (human domestication) and zone 5 (biome autonomy).

The current representation on the left shows a bipolarity and differ from the 1 polarity circles you may find in usual documentation which shows an anthropomorphic view not so adequate with Permaculture philosophy.

The graphical representation of zones in circle is  theoretical and get reshaped by physical constraints like relief, existing infrastructure and vegetation, water flows, exterior influences (sectors), soil composition, the dimension of the elements included in the zones, etc. The objective is to optimize movements, resources (including fauna and flora) distribution and ecosystems interactions within the zones.

This picture below shows how a slope may influence the zoning of the farm; (See vocabulary ; Keypoint)


– In ecosystem design two concepts need to be considered; the system and its boundaries. If a zone represents a sub ecosystem the interface between 2 zones needs as well special attention and represents an ecosystem in its own.
– every design will tend to drive away the Permaculture functions in order to keep close to zone 0 only the functions or sub-functions which require frequent attention. This rule allow to minimize the need for movement.

Zone 0

Zone 0 is the human habitat. It includes usually the office, the living room, the bedrooms and the kitchen. In tropical countries the shower may be situated on the interface with Zone 1 or in Zone 1 to facilitate the integration with the garden and gray water recycling.

If the toilets are connected to a bio-digestor they can be located in Zone 0. In case of dry toilets with urine/feces separation they can be located in Zone 0 assuming that the ventilation will be adequately managed in order to avoid residues of smell. If there is no feces/urine separation then it is advisable to locate the dry toilets in zone 1 and install an urinal in the habitation in order to avoid unpleasant smells. These advises are based on a tropical context. In temperate climate the dry toilets can be located in zone 0 assuming large efforts made on the design in order to optimally manage ventilation.

In tropical countries the kitchen is often an open space with only one or two walls, allowing air circulation and heat evacuation.

Zone 0 interface with Zone 1

The kitchen has 2 particularities;

– it is an area of communication with zone 1 allowing resource exchanges in both directions (kitchen scraps for animals or composting system, vegetables harvesting, spices harvesting, gray water recycling, etc.). The kitchen can be considered the interface in charge of food transformation (both ways) between the house (Zone 0) and the garden (Zone 1)
– the kitchen is the most frequented space in zone 0, specially if food is served here.

For these reasons the kitchen is the space which needs the most attention during the design phase in order to integrate the large number of parameters related to the resources exchange optimization with zone 1 and the comfort of living.

Another element to locate at the frontier between zone 0 and zone 1 is the herb spiral. In absence of herb spiral spices can be grown in pot at the limit of the kitchen, specially plants like coriander, thyme, mint and lemon grass.

Zone 1

Zone 1 is the ecosystem visited everyday for collecting and recycling resources or for monitoring. It includes spices and herbal tea plants, vegetables used/cared all year around or very frequently for long periods, worm farm, shed and hardware storage, compost piles, green house or plant nursery, lemon tree in tropical countries, etc.

Zone 1 interface with Zone 2

If chicken monitoring is light. E.g. if chicken are able to enter the coop on their own using a system of ladder or if they are protected from predators by an efficient edge the chicken coop can be located in zone 2 assuming that eggs are collected every 2 or 3 days and the chicken manure once a week. An extension to the coop can be included in Zone 1 dedicated to growing chicks as well as a trap between Zone 1 and Zone 2 for giving food to the chicken.

Hybrid systems using Mandala and African Keyhole Garden can be used as an ecotone between zone 1 and zone 2 as defined in this picture;


If you decide to have a fish pond connected with a natural swimming pool then the rest area and the entrance of the swimming pool should be located in Zone 1 although the rest of the pool should be located in Zone 2.


Zone 2

Zone 2 gather plants and animals which need reduced maintenance (e.g. once a week). In this zone can be planted fruit trees which have more than one period of harvesting during the year or which have an elongated period of fruit production (Mangaba, banana trees, coconut trees, …) or edible part (sugar cane, Moringa, pigeon pea, …). Can be included in Zone 2 elements like ponds or water tanks.

Another criteria to consider is the shape of the trees present in this zone. Small trees will allow reduced light and root competition with annuals present in the same zone. You may as well consider the capability of the trees to handle frequent pruning/chopping for mulch harvesting and clearing for sun light availability. The absence of winter in tropical/subtropical latitudes allow more flexibility in this area since perennials can recover all year along after pruning.

Zone 2 interface with Zone 3

In the interface with zone 3 can be planted fruits vines which locations depend on the sun course, taking advantage of larger trees available in zone 3.

Another plant useful to locate at the border with zone 3 is large clumping bamboo. The clumping bamboo are not invasive and propagation can be controlled by harvesting the young shoots in the springtime. (Chinese used to walk barefoot on bamboo field to feel the new shoot arising from the soil). A giant bamboo located at the interface with zone 3 will produce large amounts of leaves on the floor located in zone 2 which can be harvested for dry toilets, compost piles or bedding for animals.

Zone 3 and 4

These 2 zones are dedicated to elements like timber trees, large wind breaks, large fruit trees, nut trees, certain plants like cassava, sweet potatoes, trees and plants used for handcrafting, etc. In these zones can be included pastures for large animals and plants producing large quantities of biomass (anapie, large bamboo). These zone can be used as well to store building material (making sure to be located at the up side of a slope).

Zone 5

Zone 5 plays as an important role as Zone 0, being the counterpart of the farm, where a natural ecosystem can develop without the necessity to feed humans. Here the ecosystem is entirely autonomous and self-sufficient.

There are 2 essencial goals in having a Zone 5 ;

  • allow endemic biodiversity, including the impact of global warming over biodiversity drives
  • learning about your local ecosystem. This is maybe the main objective if you are really serious about Permaculture and wish to adapt to your local context.

The idea that Zone 5 should be left untouched is true only once Zone 5 has reach its climax. It is not true when it comes to ecosystem rehabilitation starting with a land which has been deforested and over used. In this case human can participate to fauna and flora species reintroduction to help succession to take place toward endemic vegetation. Human can as well help this succession by creating vegetation corridors between Zone 5 and the natural surroundings (e.g. primary forest or any other endemic types of vegetation)

In classical Permaculture documentation the bipolarity between zone 0 and zone 5 is often omitted, showing mainly a human centric perspective. This necessary bipolar vision provide with a reminder that an ecosystem possess an autonomy and gives tools to better consider the mechanisms at work in the natural interactions.

Western culture, starting in the 17th century, defines nature as exterior to human sphere, an object of study of secondary importance available for modification and transformation without limitation. It is called Naturalism.

Opposite to it is Amerindian culture where human communicate with the animals and the plants. We should not depreciate this behavior and may instead wonder if this communication is indeed physically effective in a certain extend, considering the complexity of exchanges between biological organisms (symbiosis, hormones, sound and vibrations, contact, chemical interactions, etc…).

However the important part in this dialogue is about ethical education. In this act of observation, understanding, respect and reduced intervention toward independent ecosystems human find a framework to educate himself. It could be associated to the healing psychoanalytical process of overcoming our oedipal wish to possess the parent of opposite sex. Two Oedipus equivalent factors play a role in the resolution of this infantilism;

– the realism of the “ego” who sees the necessity to protect a now vulnerable nature and refrain the “id” which desires only uncontrolled predation.
– the identification to nature as a biological model, a mirror to our own humanity.

In Amerindian culture a forest, a lake, a river are elements of the community and either respected or feared. If a company or a government intend to destroy an ecosystem to extract minerals or petrol the main resistance is not about dispossession and destruction of the conditions of life it is indignation against injury made against a member of the community. Digging into the foundations of such a vision of the world allows to question the notion of value and yield in Permaculture.

To summarize; Naturalism (Western vision) does not see any continuity between the different subjects of the ecosystem (human, animal, plants, abiotic elements) but a continuity only in the constituent (materials, atoms, structure) of the elements of the ecosystem.

All other cultures sees a continuity, an exchange, between the different subjects of an ecosystem and recognize the discontinuity as being represented by the different forms and functions, adaptations of the elements to the ecosystem. A fish is different than a mammal by its capability to stay and breath inside water. It is however identical to another organisms as it is a subject of the ecosystem in relation with all other organisms.

The first approach allowed human sphere to make rapid technological progress but cause the danger of ecosystem destruction. The second approach allows to develop a society and its complex relationships beyond the human sphere, integrating nature in its network.

Human should be able to handle both perspectives in Permaculture.

When walking in the different zones and observing an ecosystem phenomena we enunciate a first concern : can I cope with this natural mechanism or organism. If not directly useful to the farm; may I accept its presence on the different zones I have defined. What is the nature of its impact, what are its qualities ? Removing a species from a specific zone may represent a threat to the zone food web, biodiversity and resilience. A series of questions raise which get deeper and richer as we get familiar with our environment and overcome many preconceived ideas we may have.

Zone 5 is an important if not the main source of feedback on how our farm environment should be designed (or left alone) for higher yield (in a broad sense of the term).


Biological and Technical closed loop in Permaculture Zoning

The zoning in Permaculture is as well a way to design a framework where will be integrated Technical and Biological Closed loops.

More we go to zone 5 more we find biological independent closed loops, more we move to Zone 0 more the loops are either domesticated or integrated to technical loops.

It is per definition easy to see that Zone 5 biological mechanisms are independent from any human impact. Let’s see how the integration works when getting closer to Zone 0. If you grow vegetables in Zone 0 you’ll use compost which is maybe originated both from mulch or green vegetation harvested in Zone3 produced by biological loops. The manure can come from a chicken coop part biological part technical, maybe you’ll shred the green vegetation using a shredder (technical) then use simple tools to form the piles, use “technical” methodology (Berkeley composting) to make your compost, etc… The vegetables after processing produce scraps which are recycled in a worm farm (Technical and Biological) and the worm casting will feed newly planted tree seedlings in Zone 3 to speed up the growth of the wind break you realized was missing.

This is just an example and if we take into account the multitude of closed loops we will integrate in the farm operations we assume that the zoning can help in this integration by facilitating the most permanent or structural hybrid Biological/Technical Closed Loops processes.

With this in mind you could design your zones not only in term of simplistic logistic consisting in counting the annual frequency of presence in an area but by defining the annual presence in an area when operating (or piloting) a specific hybrid closed loop. Resources areas within zones are then bound by the most frequent hybrid processes. And path logistic is then designed to facilitate these processes.

For example egg production can include the following steps of the technical process; chicken care, egg harvesting, chicken food complement, located in the limit of zone 1 and zone 2 and let the biological steps of the process (mainly chicken going errand); controlling insects, controlling weeds, scratching the soil, etc, located in zones 3 and 4.

Another example is the presence of predators coming from Zone 5 and impacting the actors (as preys) of a specific process. You decide to use a non permeable interface to these predators between zone 5 and the areas where the process take place. This may change the localization of Zone 5 to use natural existing edges.

When your Permaculture farm mature, together with a more precise involvement on specific processes you want to focus on, you may use this “process orientated” methodology to redesign your zones and optimize the predominant hybrid closed loops.


In this schema a hybrid process is represented inside the zones. Next step would be to modify the zoning to better adapt to this process.

An example of patterns in Permaculture Design or elaborating on El Niño

The 2 main principles in Permaculture Design are 7 e 12 (see the development framework in systemic approach)

7 – Design from Pattern to Detail
12 – Use and respond to change creatively

They cover the spatial and temporal dimensions and cannot be separated one from each other when creating or when observing an existing design for adaptation.


When considering principle 7 it is necessary to see that it includes as well the time dimension. The following diagram shows a pattern on the evolution of El Niño over time;


Source :

From this diagram I can project a situation in the future. Here, going from Pattern to Detail means going from a global vision (global model) to a local situation (a reduce period of time in the future).
Since I need as well to restrain my analysis to a local part of the spatial dimension I’ll focus on Brazil / Bahia where I’m located. Weather spatial modeling (Walker circulation) show that El Niño creates currently a zone of high pressure (anticyclone) on the Northeast of Brazil, preventing clouds formation (rain) and compensating the low pressure located west by producing constant dry winds.

El Niño / La Niña evolution as shown in the diagram indicates the trend for the 2016 summer with precipitation back to normal or a bit higher in the northeast.

My response to this change will be to

-Take advantage of upcoming humidity next year by planting trees and
-Create a situation able to stand more adequately to the next influencing El Niño in approximately 5 years time; a more densified forest with tree species having deep root
-Orientate the roadmap toward more rain harvesting and water storage capacity.

From existing patterns to adaptation

This example shows as well that Patterns and Designs may already exist and need to be identified before to elaborate on them. Principle 7 applies not only in the creation of a new design but as well in the adaptation of existing design, either man made or natural.

Systemic approach and Permaculture

Considering the world as a complex system has given birth to a set of methodologies and tools able to define comprehensive models and find patterns driving this complexity. These methodologies allow to identify systems interactions, experiment through tests or simulations, reverse engineer the complexity in order to find global behavior and better understand the notions of synergies and emergence, phenomena that cannot be explained easily by classical analytical approach.

The link between the 12 Principles of Permaculture and the systemic approach in a agroecological perspective is described here.

These are 2 definitions related to systemic perspective versus analytical approach (called reductionism);

Quote “In a broad sense, a systemic approach is a general methodology that applies a ‘systems’ or ‘holistic’ perspective by taking all aspects of the situation into account, and by concentrating on the interactions between its different elements.” External resource – Read more at:

Quote “The analytic approach (on the contrary) seeks to reduce a system to its elementary elements in order to study in detail and understand the types of interaction that exist between them. By modifying one variable at a time, it tries to infer general laws that will enable one to predict the properties of a system under very different conditions…” External resource – Read more at:

A systemic approach considers a system in a global (holistic) way giving special attention to
– the boundaries of the system (interfaces) and corresponding input and output flows
– the preponderance of interactions/interrelations between elements in the system
– the identification of, and decomposition in, subsystems and internal flows (set of rules, triggers, elements and relationships responsible for subsystems behaviors)

Computer simulation is often used to deduct system behavior based on rules, interactions and flows monitoring. In mathematics, systemic approach can even be used to deduct theorems, showing the increasing power of such an approach when associated with Information technology and computation capabilities improvements.

Quote; “The computational power required to take a holistic approach to modeling ecosystems has only recently become available” – External resource : Read more about the project of Moorea Island digitization.

When it comes to ecosystems analysis and Permaculture, systemic approach put emphasis on flows, interfaces (ecotones), and relationships between functions or elements.

In Permaculture it is agreed that the interactions of an element with the system is more important that the element itself.

When it comes to designing a Permacultural ecosystem, increase its resilience and optimize the output value (yield) one orientation is to reduce the number of elements and increase the number of beneficial interactions (stacking function). It can be compared to the saying : “A design becomes perfect when all unnecessary elements have been removed from it”

This exercise is however perilous since the more recent studies show that a loss of a small percentage of the biodiversity can have an extreme impact on the structure (set of interrelations) of an ecosystem and provoke its destruction. An example; the presence of a bear controlling the population of ants has the effect of reducing ants negative impact on the flora and increase plants growth and health. Removing the bear would maybe cause the disappearance of some plants through fragility and competition with other plants. etc…

Systemic structure modeling

Systemic Approach (4)

At start the system is a black box and can be analyzed through measuring the output flows by tuning the input flows.

Systemic Approach (5)

A second step is to investigate the internal process of the system and identify subsystems within.

Systemic Approach (7)

By decomposing the system into subsystems we transform the black box into a white box. The subsystems have the same fundamental structure. They communicate between each others through sub-flows.

Systemic Approach (8)

Above is an instantiation of the structure with real elements that could be found in a Permaculture system.

The interactions between elements are supported by flows (with different natures ; physical, chemical, biochemical, thermodynamic, triggers, etc.).

For example an egg can represent a flow of protein from the chicken to the farmer.

We can define some vocabulary correspondences as;

Element = Subsystem = Stacking function

Flow = Interaction = Functional Event = Trigger

Interface = Limit = Ecotone = Edge = Transition zone … etc.

In Permaculture a Sector is an input Flow to the global ecosystem of the farm with a direction attribute associated to a time dimension (the flow supported by a sector vary in space and time).

In Permaculture a Zone is a subsystem of the farm.


In a systemic modeling the Zones are separated from each others and communicate through flows.
Here is an example of the flows between Zone 0 and the other Zones. Usually the level of interactions attached to Zone 0 (here represented by the size of the flow) decrease with the augmentation of the Zone increment. You may have an absence of flow if there are no shared interface between specific zones. Some flows can cross a zone to reach another zone although they do not have geographic interface (e.g. wind).
It is important when considering the model of circles usually given to represent zones to understand that they do not represent a systemic decomposition (e.g. Zone 0 being a sub-zone of Zone 1 is erroneous). Each zone is at the same systemic level than the others.

The specific attributes useful in the Permaculture Zone modeling are the spatial dimensioning of the sub ecosystems, the interfaces emphasis and mainly the human flows (logistic of paths). Of course specific designs could show in a zone perspective additional instances like animal flows, resource flows, etc.
See as well External resource : Systeomics or Systems Biology

The 12 Principles of Permaculture

David Holmgren has defined 12 Principles as a foundation for Permaculture design and monitoring. These principles can be split in two families of 6 each with a different typology, and each principle can be attached to a systemic structural object or an agro-ecologic systemic development process, which is described in this page.

6 Principles related to the design process in a systemic approach

Systemic Approach (11)

In this perspective the 6 Permaculture principles are defined in a way to guide the construction process or its monitoring through top/down and bottom/up design methodology.

The main 3 Phases impacting the development are : human objective of integration, design in an ecosystemic paradigm, monitor and simulate the model.

It applies to the landscape, the functions and the integration of the elements within the farm. These principles are typically an anthropomorphism of the best process practices found in the natural world. Each principle gives equal value to the forward and reverse engineering movement. The bottom / up movement is based on observation, conceptualization, inspiration from nature, critical vision of the solutions or the necessity for change. The top/down movement is based either on design enforcement, guidance, optimization, pragmatism and tuning.

This set of principles is related to the “Process of implementation”.

6 Principles related to the systemic structure of an ecosystem

Systemic Approach (10)

The systemic perspective in Permaculture emphasizes the necessity to respect what makes nature so resilient and efficient; It’s systemic constitution built on functions and interconnections. The main concepts referred to in these 6 principles of the systemic structure are;

– functions stack (or elements, or features stack, or subsystems)
– flows of resources or energy (or interactions, or trigger, or functional events)
– boundaries (or envelop, or edges, or interface, or ecotone …)

If you consider all of these 6 principles you realize that each of them qualifies a system descriptive objects.

The 12 Principles apply in the structure and the dynamism of an ecosystem in an agroecologic and sustainable perspective to reduce entropy, in other words give order to chaos, conserve energy and resources and produce yield.

The ethic dimension is mainly a projection of the 6 structural rules in a human perspective, e.g. value diversity means value human and cultural diversity, etc…

Permaculture site design simulation

The following 3 dimensional Permaculture site simulation was done with Casey, on a north hemisphere context.

Here is the site context to start with;


Year one (below) consists in the settlement of an habitat, creating swales to address erosion and facilitate reforestation. Zone zero has been chosen taking into account alternative keypoints, the capacity to irrigate a large portion of the land by gravity and to receive sun light even in winter;


Year 2 is focusing the Permaculture design on vegetable production. We realize that the green house need to be but in between the wind break in charge of violent rain protection and the house to get enough sun and be close to keyhole gardens. The first simulation is as following;


Analyzing the 3D Permaculture model we realize that the green house need to be integrated to the house for rain protection. We analyze as well the water overflow cinematic to make sure we do not create a risk situation since water can be very destructive.

Discussing further on future steps we realize we forgot to protect the zone 1 from constant and drying dominant winds and create a wind break.

The year 2 design alternative is as following;


Year 3 we take conscience that reforestation, specifically on productive trees (orchard and pioneer fruit trees) become a priority. Having the plan to build a guest house we decide to integrate this resource (nutrients coming from the guest house) to nurture an orchard, and position the integrated subsystem on the right of the model. We plant trees in between the swales as well being conscious that this new forested zone will represent a flow of nutrients (mulching and humus) to zone 1 by gravity.

The simulation for year 3 is as following;


Then Casey realize an issue; the lack of winter sun in the orchard area, therefore she decides to move the guest house and the orchard to the left as shown in the following simulation; The following scenario shows as well that a wind break needs to be added to protect the orchard from dominant wind and that this wind break should have been planted at least in year 2 if not year 1.


At this step is seems sterile to define a plan for the following years since year 3 already integrate too many new features and only during year 2 a decision will be taken on how to prioritize the development of shown functions as : an event stage, a shelter for the cow and integration of a cow, a parking lot as an infrastructure for hosting the events and associated landscape architecture to absorb the visit of important population at once (dry toilets, recycling of humanure, etc.)

Every step allows to make an effortless reverse engineering to envision what was missing in the previous step. This way no decision are made that could impact negatively the project evolution.

Compared to a drawing a 3D simulation platform add a 3rd dimension of space (helping to project the dynamic of gravity) and a lot of flexibility to travel in time and make simulations.

This simulation was made in 2 days only with a simplified set of contextual rules. A deeper context definition (pluviometry and rain frequency, climate change evolution, air flows and temperature, etc…) and longer simulation analysis would have given more scenarios and more appropriate results. The same way a zoom on zone 1 could have been made in order to optimize the incoming (nutrients) and outgoing flows (material for composting and genetic code for plantation) of this sub ecosystem considering that the veggie garden was a priority and could be considered a critical feature to focus on.

In this specific context simulation can be considered as a way to reverse-engineer potential  entropy through the observation of natural rules (biomimicry.)

A check list for property survey prior to venue is available here in case a student aims to make a design of an existing landscape.

See more about the importance of simulation in the systemic approach here : the genesis of the 12 Permaculture principles in a systemic perspective