Abstract We present a mathematical framework that combines extinction–colonization dynamics with the dynamics of patch succession. We draw an analogy between the epidemiological categorization of individuals (infected, susceptible, latent and resistant) and the patch structure of a spatially heterogeneous landscape (occupied–suitable, empty–suitable, occupied–unsuitable and empty–unsuitable). This approach allows one to consider life-history attributes that influence persistence in patchy environments (e.g., longevity, colonization ability) in concert with extrinsic processes (e.g., disturbances, succession) that lead to spatial heterogeneity in patch suitability. It also allows the incorporation of seed banks and other dormant life forms, thus broadening patch occupancy dynamics to include sink habitats. We use the model to investigate how equilibrium patch occupancy is influenced by four critical parameters: colonization rate, extinction rate, disturbance frequency and the rate of habitat succession. This analysis leads to general predictions about how the temporal scaling of patch succession and extinction–colonization dynamics influences long-term persistence. We apply the model to herbaceous, early-successional species that inhabit open patches created by periodic disturbances. We predict the minimum disturbance frequency required for viable management of such species in the Florida scrub ecosystem.