Diving Your Garden into Practical Zones

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Plants that require the most intensive care should be placed in Zone One.
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At the author’s home, a grape arbor over a dining table takes a prominent spot in Zone One.

How many times have you seen a vegetable garden tucked away in the back of a yard, choked with weeds and unharvested zucchini the size of baseball bats? Instead of standing outside the kitchen window where those weeds and past-due vegetables can alert someone who is washing dishes, the garden is hidden. And because it’s not on the way to anywhere, visiting the garden means a dedicated journey, not a casual stop. The garden is in the wrong place.

Here’s an indoor example of the spame problem. You get a craving for a steaming caffe latte. But the cappuccino machine is in a cupboard high above the fridge, stashed behind the turkey roaster and the fondue pot. Excavating it is a little too much work, so you abandon your decadent impulse and settle for a simple cup of coffee.

Such small hurdles are just enough to keep us from fully enjoying the things around us. Proper placement is integral to good design. Even if we’re not professional designers, we’re constantly arranging our living environment, from furniture to desk drawers to flower beds. A few simple principles of placement can save time, resources, and energy, and help us do more with our days.

Architects and designers have long known the importance of proper placement. Well-designed buildings have plumbing clustered in a “wet wall,” so that kitchens and baths often share walls or are stacked over each other. Such placement saves plumbing pipe and conserves time, water, and energy (we’ve all dawdled next to a blasting faucet as hot water makes its snail-paced traverse from a distant water heater).

Close encounters

You don’t need an architecture degree to learn how to put things in the best place. From the permaculture gardening tradition comes a simple method of proper placement called the Zone System. It works at almost any scale: in landscape layout, in the home or office, or even for the arrangement of a desktop or a kitchen cupboard. The cardinal rule of the Zone System is to place closest to you the items you use the most or that need the most frequent care. The gourmet will want a mesclun bed and herbs by the kitchen door, and baby carrots not much farther away. The “come on over after work” type will make the patio a place of pride. Whether it’s a salad bed, a favorite ornamental shrub, or a cozy porch swing, what you enjoy most should be right outside the door. If it’s farther away, you simply won’t use it as often.

Rather than thinking of objects in static classifications–pots, chairs, trees–think of how you interact with them: during meals, when you sort the mail, on sunny weekends. Then, the right location will become clear.

To understand zones, imagine a space overlaid with a set of concentric circles. Your base is Zone Zero, and radiating outward are Zones One through Five. If you’re designing a landscape, Zone Zero is the house. Zone One, where often-used items should go, is a roughly circular area within about twenty feet of the house. (The vagaries of topography may distort that circle.) A steep hill, even if it’s near the house, won’t get much use. And a well-worn path to the garage or mailbox will be in Zone One, but a walkway from a rarely opened side door may be in Zone Two.

Larry Santoyo, an ecological designer in San Luis Obispo, California, is savvy about zones. He tells his clients, “Put your garden somewhere between your front door and your car door.” When you get home from work, you can pluck a dinner’s worth of greens and cherry tomatoes while walking in from the car. Saving a second trip outside means you’ll remember to use your fresh produce rather than just what’s in the refrigerator.

The refrigerator itself should be in the kitchen’s Zone One. Since the 1950s, interior designers have endorsed the “kitchen triangle” as an efficient layout: The refrigerator, stove, and sink should form a triangle with sides totaling less than twenty-six feet. This triangle defines the kitchen’s Zone One. Often-used kitchen tools should lie within the triangle. You can store less-needed items farther away. Many people keep odd bakeware behind the everyday pans (in the kitchen’s Zone Two) and formal dishes in a hard-to-reach upper cabinet (Zone Three). This system relegates those old cans of pumpkin pie filling to the back pantry (which in our house is truly a wilderness area, or Zone Five). These aren’t new kitchen ideas, but thinking about these decisions within the zone framework allows us to be systematic and efficient.

Santoyo offers another example. “We had a house with the compost bin under the kitchen window. It was great fun at dinner parties to see the guests’ reactions as we scraped the plates right out of the window. Very medieval!” A less unusual use of a kitchen window is as a place to grow culinary herbs in window boxes–no need to go out in the rain to get seasoning for your omelet.

In Colorado, permaculture designer Jerome Osentowski has used the Zone System to advantage in his garden. A neighbor gives him spoiled hay, but as any experienced gardener knows, mulching with hay–loaded with seeds–will saturate a garden with weeds and grasses. The solution for Jerome is the steeply sloping chicken yard in his Zone Two. “I just toss the hay in the top of the chicken yard,” he says. “The birds eat the seeds, add manure to it, keep busy playing with it, and it protects them from the mud. In a week or two, gravity and the birds’ activity work the hay to the bottom of the yard, where I’ve put a gate to catch it.”

Jerome uses the weed-free, well-fertilized hay to mulch his Zone One and Two gardens, which adjoin the chicken yard. This clever placement–rather than hard work–turns a waste product into a valuable resource, and grows chickens as well.

Pleasure zones

Sometimes good use of zones has multiple benefits. Adjoining our kitchen is a 5,000-gallon concrete cistern that catches rainwater. I constructed a cedar deck over this ugly box, but the deck was too hot to use in summer’s glare. So I built an arbor over the deck and covered it with jasmine and seedless Himrod grapes. Now, just outside the kitchen door, we dine in shady comfort, plucking overhead grapes in season. The shaded deck and kitchen stay cool in summer, but the leaves drop to let in winter light.

Zones can turn labor into pleasure, too. Our old garden was a deer-fenced enclosure and was 100 feet from the house. I grew weary of the tool-laden trudge–it felt like leaving home for work, and the garden showed my neglect. Finally we found an unobtrusive way to fence in part of the yard near the house. Now we have a real Zone One garden. Even in the foulest weather, I just step out the door to pick salad greens, herbs, or flowers. When my wife and I are chatting in the yard, it’s easy to stoop and yank a couple of weeds. It’s no trouble to toss a handful of mulch onto a patch of bare soil, or to squirt the hose on a drooping seedling. And best of all, we live in this garden, instead of just work there.

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