Bringing Zone 5 Back to Permaculture


Hi, this is just a half-formed thought I want to see if anyone will add to or discuss.

My only real interest in permaculture depends entirely on the central importance of zone 5 in the whole concept. Holmgren and Mollison did a good job of stressing how zone 5 underlies everything in permaculture, but they didn’t anticipate the slipperiness of the new-age umbilicologists who would do their utmost to bury it in the self-indulgent baggage they bring with them.

Whodathunk we’d see first zone 0 and then zone 00 get added, while zone 5 would be relegated to an afterthought, if thought of at all. Time after time I’d visit a permaculture project and get the ‘tour’. First thing? How We Generate Our Electricity! Every time, honestly, not just a lot, but always. And every time, I’d have to ask, where is your zone 5? If there was one, it was invariably an awkward patch of land they couldn’t figure out what to do with yet. It would be where they dumped their trash, and often their coppice woodland (showing the truth of the saying that people can’t conceive of more than 4, any more being “many”).

So I was wondering if anyone has ideas of how we can help to re-inject the true core of permaculture, and keep it on track. To me, permaculture is like a journey towards the primitive (i.e. first or prime) living. hunter-gatherers essentially practice near-perfect permaculture, and live in zone 5. We only need the other zones temporarily to enable us to have a soft landing.

It’d be a real disaster if permaculture ended up twisted into yet another extension of the collapse of civilization. The permaculture ‘movement’ offers a great opportunity to promote common sense among a lot of people, but only if we can keep zone 5 at the core of it. Otherwise permaculture will move away from reality and slide back into the fantasy world of the solipsists.

It’s worth the effort, because permaculture is quite unique among the new ‘green movement’ type stuff in that it isn’t up for being changed by people’s opinions. It was defined clearly at the outset and though it evolves and adds to the body of knowledge, the definition stands and is copyrighted to protect it from “everyone has a part of the truth” type of crap. If you want to fuse some permaculture techniques with yoga and self-development programs, fine, but you can’t call it permaculture.

Although it is supposed to be about the principles, most of what I see is obsessed with techniques, which are really only examples by which people can learn the principles. It’s like learning katas in martial arts, they’re only there to help you grasp an underlying principle, yet many people get so tied up in them they miss the principles completely and think the katas are what it’s all about. When ‘gurus’ add in other stuff they dilute it even further and present al danger that the possibility for real personal development gets subsumed under yet another new-age diversion.

For many, it’s not enough to say something once, and then assume it’s got across. If it was, then one of the first things we learned in science at school would be remembered and all our ‘scientists’ would freely admit that most of what they say is probably wrong. The principles are not easily taken on board, except on a very superficial level, whereas the techniques are relatively easy to learn. The principles, the underlying philosophies, have to be accentuated, repeated, drummed in until they are heard and understood.

Maybe a zone 5 module could be produced for teachers to incorporate into their courses? I dunno, there must be ways we can promote it.


Have you seen these guys:


Here is a podcast where Wilson Alvarez and Ben Weiss talk about the importance of Zone 4.

Not zone 5 but still some progress?


Andy, I wholeheartedly agree. Looking at a number of permaculture sites, many describe zone 5 in terms that make it seem unimportant, e.g. because they require “no attention”, should “be left (alone)”, etc.
Another thing I notice that many draw only one set of circles to explain the five zones. When you put yourself at the center, the wild zone becomes automatically lies at the perimeter of your vision and beyond. But when you add your neighbor’s circles, and some of their homes lie lose to your perimeter, that same area suddenly ceases to be a place that is “left alone, far away from human influence”. Then you find that you need your neighbors to create these places together…


Thank you for bringing to my attention a concept of permaculture I havent studied much (zones). Upon looking at it briefly I confess, it strikes me that most of the permaculture teachings I learnt through didn’t mention zone 5!
I’m European, here land is scarce, often polluted or eroded, and extremely expensive. The latest topic that caught my interested on rewild facebook forum was about how money is a barrier to rewilding. well I didn’t know until I got to your topic.

Money is THE barrier to establishing a zone 5 in permaculture systems. Lets take most permaculterers who have gardens around their houses (like me), we don’t even have a zone 4! Maybe the beach in front of my house and the woods between the houses and the supermarket is my zone 4… Could I say that the Baltic sea is my zone 5? or would that be totally forgetting that millions of people throw their garbage, their sewers and fish millions of fishes there ?
Would I have to buy the whole sea to turn it into a real zone 5? if so I measure how much money is a barrier, because I’m not a billionaire. And I cant afford to buy the local wood , let alone a whole sea.


I don’t know what to think! My initial reaction may well be unjustified, marketing people can do strange things to a concept.

Is this a new forum or just a new theme? Or is my memory getting worse? It’s nice, anyway.


Thanks, downloading it now. Podcasts are good, you can subscribe to them and get loads of stuff automatically.


Yes, I agree, this really annoys me too.

The problem, at least here in england, is there are a lot of people who are trying to make a living teaching permaculture, and land is all in the hands of a few people, notably the royal family (see this and this).

So in order to accommodate for a typical handkerchief-sized english garden and get as many client as they can, many people have to resort to this woo-woo zone 0.0 stuff. Saddly i’ve seen quite a few designs being just straight out of the crack pot with no actual “culture” and no “perma” in it.

To me, I would welcome a shrinking of zone 4 to almost none as zone 4 is really agriculture, and an expansion of zone 5 (when i have a minute i’ll be working on a theoretical design aiming at this). I would however disagree with any permaculturist that would say zone 5 is the one you don’t do anything about. I think, on the contrary, at a time where our environment is badly damaged, the most positive impact we could have is in zone 5, by actively rewilding and restoring the environment. Permaculture techniques can and should help there, especially all there is to do about water harvesting, succession planting, and so on…


More and more I see permaculture as a barrier, not a solution. It becomes ideology and a new agriculture when people with no understanding of ecology - nor any real desire to interact with the wild - begin to consume it. There are no zones - only natural processes and communities. What zone is a river? The bank of the river? The riparian forest near the river? The terraced woodlands above the river? The savanna beyond the floodplain? Foothills? Mountains? Seas? Each produce food/materials/relationships.


Yes, what they all seem to forget is that zone 5 is the underlying thing that every design draws from to make the other zones. Without wildness, there’s nothing to work with. I’m trying to find out if I can make the whole thing a sort of zone 5 and just interfere with it to make suggestions of things I can eat,

It’s an experiment still!. I’m sure we can learn to look at what goes on without interference, and then make suggestions of similar substitutions in different places.


I agree with you on that. I think Paul Shepherd portrayed it accurately as “a world inhabited solely by humans surrounded by their genetic slaves and mutants”. But I think we would be better trying to influence that “movement” rather than abandoning it and trying to start from scratch. After, their great guru said this:

The people who have hijacked permaculture and made it into a thing compatible with government grant schemes, or the solipsistic new-age crap that comes ultimately from the same place, will just as easily hijack anything else we do if we have any level of success. We have to stand our ground eventually.

Well, at least, I am sick and tired of moving on all the time, and seeing good initiatives get diluted down just to make them easier. But maybe it is too late for permaculture?


For sure, money is the trap we’re in, and it’s a catch-22 situation. It’s always possible to have a zone 5, though. I mean, in reality, it’s all zone 5, we just imagine we’re “designing” what we call 1 to 4, but that’s like smudging the Mona Lisa with solvent and calling it art.

I posted a video from my garden above in this thread. It’s not finished yet, but I’m trying to get some food without straying much from the zone 5 idea. I think in a small area that might be the best thing. The main lesson I got from permaculture was to learn from the wild, and to me, that’s more important than all the other stuff together.

If I don’t have room for all the zones, then I have to adapt my plan. The zones are only there as a learning tool, they’re not fundamental in the same way as the wildness as teacher thing is. The reason for the zones is to make things you use a lot be closer to your dwelling place. It follows logically that if you don’t have space for zone 5 (or even 4!) then you really don’t need zones! Or you could have a zone 1 right outside, and the rest can be just where you practice permaculture, by which I mean the pronciples, not the techniques taught based on the principles.

If your space is insufficient for the techniques already developed, then use the principles to come up with new techniques that do fit your space. And if you want to grow loads of veggies instead, that’s fine. The only thing that’s wrong is the people who do that and insist on calling it permaculture.

Does that make any sense?!


This is crucial I think. Yes, people mostly believe that you just leave zone 5 alone, but all over the Amazon (for example) it’s becoming apparent that the local primitive people have a huge impact on the forest. I think probably every species does. We just need to learn how to fit in and be beneficial to the whole instead of detrimental.


It’s really funny, over here in Ireland people keep mentioning “the queen” and I say “which queen?”. They look confused and say “THE queen”. It’s amazing.


In so much of the world, where we know something about how indigenous people interact/ed with the land, there is little distinction between “gardens” and the wild. That might, in some way, fit a permaculture vision, but not in the form permaculture is typically taught. Its taught to fit into our urban existence, and to that end I really don’t have a problem with it as a transitionary force. I do have a problem when wildness is relegated to some portion of your world that you rarely interact with, while other portions of your world are intensively managed. I also have a problem when certain portions of the natural world that have retained some wildness are converted to a drastically different state for the sake of permaculture. For example, sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who questions Sepp Holzer terracing mountains to raise pigs and out-of-place sub-tropical fruits in the Alps. Its impressive, but is it appropriate for his landbase?


Why is zone 5 so important? And if you plant a nut forest, how does it differ from a wild forest? Thanks.


Good question, and sorry for not being more thorough. Here’s what I think, I’d be grateful for any discussion/different perspectives though.

A nut forest could just be a load of nut trees with everything else suppressed. The diversity that’s crucial to the health of the ecosystem can be entirely missing.

It differs from a wild forest in that the organisms who inhabit it are dominated by one species, humans. The will of everything else is put under the will of that species. In a wild forest, everyone’s will is in competition and cooperation, no-one has the final say on anything. The wild forest is the expression of the will of countless self-willed (wild) beings. The nut forest exists only to serve the will of one, who might not even live there.

As a whole, the wild forest adapts itself to changes in its environment, and fits in with whatever is happening in the universe it’s a part of. The nut forest doesn’t do this, and its dogged determination to continue producing nuts for the humans who dominate it give it a distinct disadvantage when changes happen, making it less resilient and less likely to survive the changes that will inevitably happen. It’s like the difference between a diverse, healthy gut flora and the devastated one you see after a course of antibiotics.

Zone 5 is to me a crucial aspect of permaculture. Zones are purely in the imagination of the human doing the work. They’re just a way of making categories out of infinite complexity, so that our limited intellect can believe it “understands” what’s going on, and how to proceed in a way that will produce food for us while we learn more about our world.

Zone 5 refers to the only real “zone”. The rest of them (1 to 4) are derivations, simplifications of zone 5. If we ignore it, as most “permies” do, then we can’t really learn anything about the source of the other zones, and end up in a self-referencing circle of illogical deductions and notions based on our own preconceptions or what we would like stuff to be, not on reality.

Without zone 5, permaculture is like a science project with no references, I think it’s so important because with it, permaculture can be a beginning for people to learn how to live within reality, as opposed to the fantasy world we presently occupy. It can provide the grammar and logic out of which we can become wiser. Without zone 5 it’s as worthless as all the other new-age, self-obsessed diversions from the truth of how things work here on earth, which we must understand if we want to survive.

Zone 5 is just another word for wildness.
something like that…


Well said, Andy! I think that landscape homogenization and anthropocentrism are the major flaws with the typical “food forest” design. Enthusiastic permaculturalists are typically provided a list of maybe 100 or so species that work best in their climate. But those 100 species are from around the world and are not specific to one’s place. 100 might sound like a big number, but if we plant them over and over again in our food forests, we displace the thousands of species that would exist there otherwise. And with the displacement of those species goes the immensely complex set of relationships they have co-evolved with over millennia. Furthermore, it shifts the directionality of relationships from cyclical and convoluted to simple and directional: everything moves toward the human epicenter of the system. We like to convince ourselves that that’s not the case, that we are supporting pollinators and soil microbes and nesting birds, but in reality we are only supporting those who tolerate our control of their world.

This is also why I have a problem defining our goals as regeneration rather than restoration. We too often celebrate the introduction of a handful of species that maintain the soil conditions that we prefer or that we value. We applaud the creation of honey bee habitat. But those are not necessarily restoring the complex web of diverse species interactions that we’ve mostly forgotten ever existed.

I also like your point about resilience. Are food forests (as they are typically designed, not native/natural forests that can be tended for food productions) resilient to changes in disturbance or climate? Should they be resilient? Should we be manufacturing resilient, non-natural systems where others used to reside? What about the human cultures that used to have relationships with particular ecosystems? Should we recreate those relationships with novel, human manufactured ecosystems?


Wow just looked at this thread, definitely some interesting stuff! I agree with this sentiment, that permaculture has some things to offer but is also seriously flawed on some levels. The more I learn about foraging the more I learn about how many indigenous peoples constantly tended the land through controlled burns, selective harvesting and even propagating favorable food species. In terms of things like resilience to climate change, water supply for a homestead or small, high-intensity areas, I think permaculture is great. That said, I think it is limited, as many of y’all have mentioned, by its lack of focus on wild plants. Personally I think that food systems should be based around mimicking the ecosystems of an area, not just nature in general, as many permaculture food forests seem to do. I see serious problems and complications with the idea of “designing” a natural system, particularly when this system needs water. Systems should be largely self-sustaining. Also annuals are way too big of a deal even on many “permaculture” farms I’ve been to. I’m of the mindset that pretty much nobody should ever garden with them because they are such a massive waste of time.


The Feralculture project is an attempt to address a lot of the flaws of Permaculture and take it a more Rewilding direction. Check it out:

Here’s an interview that Andrew (of Feralculture) did with Kevin Tucker (of Black and Green Review):

Here’s an interview with Toby Hemenway (Gaia’s Garden) about these issues too:

I’m actually hoping to find accomplices who want to do a Feralculture-like project in Cascadia.