Diving Your Garden into Practical Zones

Dividing your garden and interior spaces into easy-to-use zones of use saves steps and time and truly personalizes your home environment.

| May/June 2002

  • Illustration by Gayle Ford

  • Plants that require the most intensive care should be placed in Zone One.

  • At the author’s home, a grape arbor over a dining table takes a prominent spot in Zone One.
    Photo by Toby Hemenway

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.



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