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Cultivating your home

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by cecilia.macaulayLeave a Comment


Permaculture zones for getting things done.


When the year is new, willpower and good intentions are zinging around the air like electricity. It’s a lovely time, being given a fresh start, new permission to dream of how good life can be. The triumph of hope over experience, some may say. Visions of ourselves as people who learn to play music, cook gourmet organic meals, create a herb garden or practice yoga; these visions may soon become straggly. ‘Three day monk’ is the old Japanese expression made manifest in the diaries, gym memberships, and bicycles that only were used about that often: three days. We think we should just ‘have the willpower’ to get things done, but as anyone who has ever depended on it knows, it’s a highly inefficient energy source. Expecting willpower to change how you do things is like giving a new and innocent resolution an order, and expecting it to fend for itself. Of course the wily, weedy old habits will be clamouring to take back their territory.

Making a change in your physical environment will go a long way to redirecting your actions so that changes take hold. Permaculture design principle of using ‘zones’, putting ‘the right thing in the right place’ can be miraculously helpful. Classically used only for gardening, or “permanent agriculture’, here lets explore how permaculture zones can also be used inside our homes as part of transforming ourselves into generative, interdependent creators of a low-energy ‘permanent culture’.

Zones’ for classical ‘permanent agriculture’: a template for life.

When we design a Permaculture garden, things that we enjoy using every day are planted or placed closest to the house, while the space-consuming and unalluring things are placed further out, where they get along perfectly well without our constant surveillance.

Zone 1 is the area closest to where we will be – near the back door, along paths we travel daily. Here we have a worm farm, raise seedlings, grow salad and herbs so we will see and remember to eat them. An often-used potted lemon would be allowed. It the ‘intensive care’ place for things we need often, or things that often need us.

Zone 1 can only be as big as your reach and attention. In permaculture, you learn gardening basics in the intimacy of zone 1 and get that perfect before expanding any further. Zone 2 may be a couple of meters from the house. Here we plant bigger things needing less frequent care or harvesting: maybe sweet corn, sunflowers. Its outer edge may be the place for a frog pond, maybe a chook shed too – close enough for daily egg collecting and chicken surveillance.

In a larger garden, chooks can play during the day in zone 3, maybe forage in an orchard, cleaning up pests and dropped fruit. A zone 4 would be further still, probably unirrigated, with space-taking, low-attention, low yield residents: cows, horses, trees for firewood and furniture. Zone 5 is the area we keep protected in its natural state. It is for all the non-human creatures to go about making their own lives and homes. We only come here to enjoy the beauty of nature and learn from it.

Seeing zones in your homes

When I started learning Japanese, I promised myself, “I will study every day”. Sadly, it wasn’t happening. Then, remembering the power of systems in a Permaculture garden, I decided that ‘if Permaculture works for tricking plants into being productive, it will work for tricking me”, and designed a study system using zones. Before going to bed, I took out my textbook from its hiding spot in the bookcase (zone 3), and put it on the breakfast table (zone 1) open at the page that I was to study.

Just as I thought, when having breakfast the next morning, my eyes strayed over to the page, and before I knew what happened, I was studying without even deciding to.

When there is some task you want to remember to do, or get motivation to start, just put it in zone 1 – places your hands and eyes naturally reach – and tasks will seem to just ‘complete themselves’ for you.

I have finally learnt that if I find a loose button or dropped hem, the wardrobe fairies aren’t going to fix it. So now mending gets tossed onto the coffee table by the sofa. The sewing box gets put beside it – that bit is important. Then when my day’s work is done and its sit down and chat time, there is a pre-packaged task, ready to go. I don’t have to think or decide anything, and the mending gets done as effortlessly as doodling. Humans avoid trailblazing, doing things we haven’t done before. Deciding where and when to perform a new task is half the battle. Separate that decision from performing the action, and things get done. If you are taking up diary writing, decide when. If it’s evening, put the diary with a pencil by the bedside lamp. Maybe set an alarm to remind you to get ready for bed a bit earlier, then wait and see what happens.

By setting up many small systems like this, you can get ‘out of debt’ of the many small chores that have piled up behind you, and get the power make micro-progress on big, new tasks.

Review your interior zones

The happening place

Walk throughout your home to decide where your zone 1 spots might be. The kitchen shelves and sinks area, the dining table, near the bathroom mirror. Places your eyes and hands naturally reach, places where things naturally pile up.

Zone one is precious; so don’t waste it on storage. Put those dusty piles of magazines out of sight; throw away those empty pens that sit around without hope.

The inner side of the toilet door: poems you want to recite, dreams to realize, irregular verbs to memorize – exercise you memory and keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

Around the telephone: Reading material, so being put on hold won’t disturb your serenity. Brochures to read, act upon and recycle. Labels and a pen so you can get organized and find what you are looking for.

The entrance: library books to be returned, sunscreen, plastic bags for taking shopping. Filled drink bottle. A small table to hold it all, constantly updated.

Around the kettle: You can do a lot of things while waiting for water to boil for 2 minutes. I just had a batch of empty jars soaking there, and now their tatty old labels got absentmindedly peeled off, ready to grace my larder as jars for homemade summer chutney. I don’t think I would have bothered otherwise.

The fridge door: A classic place for inspiring quotes, recipes, “to do” lists, beautiful postcards. A screen saver combined with a Google image search can be vastly more of an adventure; find you pics of the garden you wish to grow, the serenity you wish to have, or whatever reminds you that you, and your world are amazing. Freshen regularly.

Not too heavy, not too light:

Some houses have a barren Zone 1. Clean and nothing else. They are like alpine streams: perfectly pure, but no nutrients, so cannot support life. In these houses I am bored.
In the other direction, some homes have tables and shelves that are so full of stale, abandoned things that nothing new can happen. I don’t dare start cooking for them – I couldn’t find things. That is like a river choked with runoff fertilizer – again, no life.

Some houses have just the right balance of creative clutter in their Zone 1: home-picked olives soaking in brine, herbal hand-cream for after dishwashing, a kite in need of re-stringing. When I visit such houses, these current objects let me be useful, help me connect with people and their interests, make life seem endlessly interesting.

Useful storage

If you aren’t using it, but are looking at it, it takes and scatters your energy. Vacuum cleaners, bottles of wine, they’d like some privacy too, till they are ready for action. Storage needs dividing up into high and low use areas. In the kitchen, Zone 2 would be the front part of cupboards, front of fridge shelves, where you put things you need to use, or should use often. So if you are trying to go organic, or vegan, or healthy or low waste, the lentils go in Zone 2, up the front, and the chocolate hides in the back of the cupboard, Zone 3. This way when you open the cupboard and ask it ‘what’s for dinner?’ you get a virtuous answer, despite yourself. Look how the supermarkets use layout to trick you into buying chips, and make you walk whole aisles of temptation for milk. You can beat them at their own game.

Area for storing low-use things

I have a large shed at the back of my place, and that’s were everything goes that I am not regularly using. This makes my house a place for people and life, not stuff. Japanese tearooms do this too. A rich, interesting and organised Zone 4 will yield materials for future projects, objects to recycle into useful things, and a place to hold the best of your history.

Wide world

Zone 5 is outside the house. It’s the rest of the world. There we put things we don’t need any more. Some people live in a way so that their zone five has more forests, less landfill, and they are my heroes.

A well-zoned house balances the calm and clear with the interesting and generative, just like a well-designed permaculture garden. Permaculture’s 12 design principles, including zones, can be applied to any area of life, empowering your everyday self to make the changes your higher self desires. Care of earth, care of people, share the surplus are the three goals, or ethics. A ‘permanent culture’ is one which you would be happy to see yourself AND everybody living – rich human connection, constructiveness – work without drudgery. Wouldn’t that look good on your screen saver?


Cecilia works as an eco-illustrator, permaculture teacher and Japanese translator.

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