How many times have you seen a vegetable garden tucked away in the back of a yard, choked with weeds and lurking with unharvested zucchini the size of baseball bats? Instead of being outside the kitchen window where those weeds and past-due vegetables would alert someone washing dishes, the garden has been hidden. And since it’s not on the way to anywhere, visiting the garden means a dedicated journey, not a casual stopping by. It’s in the wrong place.
Here’s an indoor example of the same problem. You get a craving for a steaming café latte. But the cappuccino machine is in a cupboard high above the fridge, stashed behind the turkey roaster and fondue pot. Excavating it is a little too much work, so you abandon your decadent impulse and just grind some beans for the Krups on the counter.
Those small energetic 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. Knowing a few simple principles to guide what goes where can save time, resources, and energy, and help us do more with our day.
Architects and designers have long known the importance of proper placement. Well-designed buildings cluster their plumbing in a “wet wall,” so that kitchen and baths often share walls or are stacked over each other. This saves material by trimming pipe runs, 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.
However, you don’t need an architecture degree to learn how to put things in the best place. From permaculture 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, even for arranging a desktop or kitchen cupboard. The cardinal rule of the Zone System is to place the items you use the most, or that need the most frequent care, closest to you. 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 give the patio pride of place. Whether it’s a salad bed, favorite ornamental shrub, cozy porch swing, or your personal miniature golf course, what you enjoy most goes right outside the door. If it’s farther, you simply won’t use it as often.
The key to using zones is: Rather than thinking of objects in static classes—pots, chairs, trees—think of how you interact with them: at every meal, when you sort the mail, on sunny weekends. Then, the right location will become clear.
To understand zones, imagine the whole space you’re working with as being overlain with a set of concentric circles. Where you are based is Zone Zero, and radiating outward are Zones One through Five. For example, if you’re designing a landscape, Zone Zero is the house, your base. Zone One, where oft-used items should go, is a roughly circular area within about twenty feet of the house. I say roughly because the vagaries of topography and hardscape will 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 might 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 be more likely to dine on fresh greens than on that frozen dinner in the fridge.
That refrigerator itself should be in the kitchen’s Zone One. Since the 1950s, interior designers have endorsed the “kitchen triangle” for efficient layout: The refrigerator, stove, and sink should form a triangle whose sides total less than 26 feet. This triangle defines the kitchen’s Zone One. Kitchen tools you use often should lie within the triangle. Whether those tools be microwave, Cuisinart, or mortar-and-pestle depends on your personal cooking style.
Less needed items can be stored farther away. Many people keep odd-ball bakeware behind the everyday pans (in the kitchen’s Zone Two), and formal dishes in a hard-to-reach upper cabinet (Zone Three), with this system culminating in those old cans of pumpkin pie mix in the back pantry (which in our house is truly a wilderness area, or Zone Five). These aren’t new kitchen ideas, but placing those often unconscious decisions within the zone framework lets us be systematic and efficient.
Larry 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 the window. Very medieval!” A less unusual use of a kitchen window is to grow culinary herbs in window boxes; no need to go out in the rain to season your omelet.
You can also apply the Zone idea in the office, again according to your own personal patterns. In an office, Zone One might include computer, phone, pens, a writing space, and frequently used files. Because I’m a writer, I keep a dictionary and favorite English-usage books in arm’s reach—the office-scale Zone One—and it’s a short roll of my chair to the main bookshelves, in Zone Two. Even my books follow the Zone System: Important reference works are at eye level and closest, and from there, books radiate outward according to frequency of use, grouped by subject.
In Colorado, permaculture designer Jerome Osentowski has used the Zone System to good advantage in his garden. A neighbor gives him spoiled hay, but as any 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, manure it, keep busy playing with it, and don’t get muddy. In a week or two, gravity and the birds work the hay to bottom of the yard , where I’ve put a gate.”
Jerome grabs the weed-free, well-fertilized hay and mulches 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.
Sometimes good use of zones has multiple benefits. Adjoining our kitchen is a 5000-gallon concrete cistern that catches rainwater. I nailed a cedar deck over this ugly box, but the deck was too hot to use in summer’s glare. So over it I built an arbor that’s covered with jasmine and seedless Himrod grapes. Now, just outside the kitchen door we dine in shady comfort, plucking overhead grapes in season. Plus, 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 a good hundred feet from the house. I grew less enamored 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 a part of the yard by the house (deer make it impossible to grow any food outside a fence here; I’ve tried everything). 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 nothing to stoop and yank a couple of tiny 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 working there.
Zones help us place the pieces of our design in optimal relationship with each other and with ourselves. They allow us to weave order not by static categories, but by how often we use or need to care for something. Well-planned zones save steps and time, make it easy to keep up with both tasks and play, and truly personalize a home and landscape.
Copyright © 2002 by Toby Hemenway
(Published in Natural Home, May/June, 2002)