Roots and Shoots: Zone in on Planning

Vegetable garden

Vegetable gardens can go in Zone 1 or Zone 2. Only nine weeks until spring! (Photo by P. Doan)

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While laying out a map for where to plant each vegetable and herb is a worthy goal at this time of year, I’ve found that working with a master plan for the landscape can save a lot of effort, time and money. Whenever you have the impulse to start a project, whether it’s adding a section for compost, a planting bed, a patio renovation or planting fruit trees, a master plan can help you assess priorities, build in sustainable systems, and stave off costly mistakes and future regrets. 

A professional consultation can certainly get the work done but creating a master plan can also be a DIY undertaking that will make you much more connected to your landscape. 

Observe 

Sit and look around. Make notes about what you see. Try drawing a simple sketch. It doesn’t have to be accurately measured or to scale at this stage but include the relative space between all of the built and natural features like trees. If there is lawn, describe it: dense turf grass, bare patches, weed patches, yellowing, etc. What can you note about where water flows in the landscape? Show where it settles or puddles. 

Also include in your map how the sun moves across the area during the day with shady and sunny spots marked off. I’ve found that assumptions I made about how much sun an area receives are wrong and I need to visit a location frequently to get a better evaluation. 

Go inside your house and look out your windows. How does the landscape contribute to nice views? Make notes on the drawings of where you spend a lot of time near windows and would appreciate flowers or foliage at different times of the year. Where do you want more or less shade? 

Don’t forget to notice how you feel. Does the landscape evoke wonder, peace or joy? Does it make you want to linger or be active? We can create landscapes that fulfill these basic needs for natural connections. 

Make zones 

Visualize your landscape as five zones. The space that is closest to your home is Zone 1. This should include all the landscape features that need to be close and convenient. Primary outdoor entertaining and cooking spaces are here. If you love cooking with fresh herbs, locate an herb garden near the kitchen. A favorite fragrant plant could be situated near a window. Rain capture systems could be included here, as roofs provide a perfect place to collect runoff. 

Zone 2 could be the best location for a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, compost, a garden shed and recreation like a swimming pool, children’s play equipment or a hammock in a shady spot. Flowerbeds and aesthetic landscaping can flow in Zone 2. 

Zone 3 could also be the vegetable garden, depending on your layout, but remember that grouping things together that you use frequently is key. In my landscape, the chicken coop isn’t close to the garden or compost. It’s convenient for keeping an eye on the hens and gathering eggs but when we clean it out, we have to haul a wheelbarrow uphill to the compost pile. Not ideal. 

In Zone 3 there might be fruit trees or a berry patch. A seedling tree nursery, pollinator gardens, a mixed hedge with habitat and food for birds and wildlife will happily exist here. The idea is that in each band or zone, you have features and plants that need less care and maintenance and become less cultivated. 

The next band is Zone 4. Here things can go untouched and be wilder. This is a great location for a brush pile that wildlife can use and for leaf piles that can be added to compost in batches. And the best part is you can keep the lawn mower away. Overgrowth is OK. 

Just keep an eye on this area to make sure that invasive weeds don’t take over. It’s a zone for natural systems, not neglect. Letting Japanese barberry, stiltgrass or mugwort dominate, for example, will lead to other landscape problems. 

If you were including animals like goats, horses or cows, shelters and pastureland would be Zone 4 and Zone 5 would be the wild edge. 

The sketches and zones can help you prioritize and make decisions about what you want in your landscape and provide a map for how to make it so. Hopefully your observations become valuable tools in understanding your yard and transforming it into a sustainable and productive space for you and nature to coexist.

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