By Ken Wilson – Homesteading land is neither a farm nor a rural residence; therefore, it presents design challenges that are different from the others.
A rural residence is basically nothing more than a suburban house plunked down on a larger lot, and any outdoor design will be largely concerned with landscaping, with appearances. A farm, on the other hand, is more like an industrial complex. Depending on its type, it will involve several or even many buildings. It must make accommodations for the passage and maneuvering of very large equipment and the handling and storage of many tons of products that might range from seed and fertilizer to hay and grain to milk or meat. Efficiency and convenience take precedence over more aesthetic aspects.
Homesteading land? Well, that’s more than a rural residence and less than a farm, in terms of size and output. A productive homestead should be attractive and pleasant, and at the same time convenient and efficient in terms of personal food production. How can the various pieces of the productive homestead be put together to achieve these ends?
There are no stock answers or plans, if only because no two homesteaders (or homesteading lands) are the same. But if we look at what might be called a “basic” homestead, we see some principles that, while not engraved in stone, at least deserve consideration.
Elements of the Productive Homestead
For design purposes, the productive homesteading land consists of five main parts: the dwelling, work areas (some of which are a part of the dwelling), garden and orchard areas, livestock areas, and livestock feed production areas. There may be others, such as a woodlot and pond, which won’t enter into this discussion because even though they will have a major bearing on the design of the homesteading land, their location is usually dictated by natural circumstances.
The task of homestead planning is to locate and link these areas so as to provide maximum efficiency and convenience without sacrificing economy or beauty.
Location of the Home
In the olden days, many farmhouses were built right next to the road, which not only provided easy access but also afforded the opportunity to sit on the front porch and wave to neighbors passing by in wagons and carriages … many of whom, no doubt, stopped to chat. Internal combustion vehicles roaring past and leaving clouds of fumes and dust have taken the fun out of that, so today most countrysiders would prefer to have their homes more isolated. Indeed, many jurisdictions dictate certain minimum setbacks.
On the other hand, the country homes of the gentry were set far back, accessed by long, graceful (and space-wasting), tree-lined drives which were flanked by wide expanses of lawn. Private and elegant, perhaps, but expensive, and hardly productive.
The productive homesteading land should fall somewhere between these two extremes. On the small plot of five acres or less (three to five acres is the minimum size for a productive homestead in most regions if animal feed is to be produced), the size and shape of the parcel will readily dictate the location of the house. If the tradition is followed that the street side of the home is for show and the backyard for utility, then the front yard will be kept small. Of course today it’s not uncommon to find vegetables in decorative beds in front yards. The landscape of a front yard can easily incorporate fruit trees. There’s no law that says orchard trees have to be laid out in straight rows in rectangles.
On larger tracts of land, keep in mind the construction and upkeep costs of a long private road or drive. What may be an elegant grand avenue in the summer and fall might well become impassable when it turns into a mudhole in spring or is packed with several feet of snow. Then too, unless you have solar and a cell phone, the cost of telephone and electric service can be prohibitive if the house is located too far from the main lines.
Even if your house isn’t too far from the main road, consider such items as fire protection. Maybe you can easily get to the house with a four-wheel-drive, but can the fire trucks make it in with room to turn around to go after more water?
Location of the Garden
Obviously, the ideal garden site is sunny, well-drained, with fertile soil. Water availability may also be a consideration. If you use greywater from the sinks in the house or runoff from the roof to water the garden, naturally it would have to be located downhill from the house.
In addition, the garden should be close enough to the animal housing area to minimize transporting manure to the compost pile, and compost to the garden. The garden should also be close enough to the house for transporting produce to the processing area. The latter includes not only major space-utilizing crops such as corn, potatoes, and canning tomatoes, but even more importantly, the herbs and vegetables that are used on a daily basis during the season … and often harvested at the last minute when a meal is already being prepared.
For this reason, a “kitchen garden” located as close to the kitchen as possible is a necessity. It may be a portion of the main or only garden or a smaller separate garden, but its function is to serve as an extension to the kitchen. Instead of walking a quarter of a mile for a sprig of parsley when dinner is already on the stove, the cook can merely reach out the window, as it were.
The kitchen garden might also be called the “salad garden,” since its main purpose is to provide produce that will be used fresh. Even if the main garden contains several dozen tomato plants, there should be one or two in the kitchen garden, particularly if the main garden is any distance from the kitchen. This is where the lettuce, scallions, radishes and similar crops that are grown in limited quantities and used fresh are grown.
Of course, the kitchen garden may be incorporated into decorative beds and border plantings right around the house.
This begins to illustrate some of the principles of homesteading land design, namely, that the productive homestead is composed of many separate functional elements, and they are all tied together by one or more threads.
Location of the Animals
There are two schools of thought on locating animal housing: one is to have the animals as far as reasonably possible from human habitation; the other is to have them as close as reasonably possible. Just as some people wouldn’t think of letting the dog in the house while other people let theirs sleep with them, homesteaders have different ideas about how close crowing chickens and perfumed pigs should be to open bedroom windows. On small homesteading land where no space is to be wasted, closer is better. In some areas, the location of animal housing is restricted by zoning regulations, but there have also been situations where animals and humans lived under the same roof. ”
One such example was given by Charles H. Eisengrein about his boyhood home in Upper Austria. Three generations, including aunts, uncles and nine cousins lived on the farm called “Grauholtz.”
“The family, and everybody else except some of the Hungarians, lived in the vierkanthof, a large building completely enclosing a central courtyard. (Vierkant means “four-cornered.”) This courtyard or hof was about 20 meters square, mostly paved, except for a few planting beds.
“The living quarters were on the south side, although they did not extend entirely across the building-the southeast corner was a large granary. Between the granary and the living area was a large passageway, big enough for a loaded hay wagon to drive through into the hof. Heavy iron-bound wooden gates protected the outer entrance; the other end of the passageway had lighter gates, mostly left open except in very cold weather.
“The kitchen was next to the drive-through passageway, and beyond that a parlor (very seldom used), several storerooms, and several bedrooms.
“The kitchen was far more than a simple food preparation center. It was that, of course, but we also ate there. There was a big dining table plus smaller tables, cupboards, clothes racks, chests, a vast tiled stove and oven, and an open fireplace. The stairway to the second floor was entered from the kitchen.
“On the second floor, there were only bedrooms.
“The part of the building on the west of the hof was mostly occupied by cattle–the milk cows, young stock, the bulls and oxen–and related facilities: a room for turnips and similar feed, a milk room and a place for making and storing cheese.
“Across the far side much of the space was used for storing and working on plows, harrows, wagons and other tools and equipment, but there was also enough room for all the chickens, geese, pigs and sheep.
“The horse stables were on the east side of the hof and there was also another drive-through passageway, somewhat smaller than the main entry, more space for wagons, and some ground floor hay storage. The rest of the hay, of course, was in an enormous loft that formed the upper story of the west, north and east portion of the building.”
According to this account, there were 60 or 70 buildings of this type in that part of the province, and they were all built between 1700 and 1730. “Why people built such buildings then, and not before or after, and why they were built there and (so far as I know), nowhere else, would be an interesting puzzle for some architectural historian to unravel,” Mr. Eisengrein said.
While a Grauholtz is far too elaborate for the average homestead family, the same principles could apply. If the living quarters are scaled down to single-family size, the rest of it would be reduced to homestead size. The basic idea will appeal to some. People who like being with, watching and protecting their animals would certainly enjoy such an arrangement, and no doubt could devise a very attractive and decidedly efficient plan. Providing water and electricity would be greatly simplified. On the other hand, odor and rodent control would be of major importance and the resale value of such a place might be in doubt.
Obviously, most people will opt for something between having to commute to their animals or having those animals in the next room. The question then is, what kind of animal housing should be provided and where should it be located?
Many homesteaders like the idea of having all their animals in one barn. It makes chore time easier, it’s efficient and they think it looks better. It can also offer a certain amount of flexibility. For example, it’s easier to reduce the goat herd and increase the poultry flock if both are housed in the same structure than it is if there is both a chicken coop and a goat shed.
Others feel that building a structure for each species is a better alternative. For instance, having the poultry house downwind of the house will help reduce odors in hot weather.
However, most people inherit buildings already in place with a homesteading heritage all their own, and often those buildings are too large for the average homestead. Incidentally, no matter what a building’s shortcomings, it’s good advice to live with it for a few years rather than “cleaning the place up” by tearing it down as soon as you move. In many cases, such a building turns out to be entirely usable, and after checking on the price of new construction, valuable as well!
But what about the new place carved out of the wilderness or rural subdivision, or “country home” that is being made into productive homesteading land?
Resist the “Barn”
One possibility is to resist thinking in terms of a “barn,” or any central structure.
For example, the family that keeps half a dozen hens for eggs has no need for a farm-size henhouse. There are many excellent plans available for a small chicken coop. Some of them even movable-that will be an attractive and productive addition to any country place, and at a reasonable cost.)
Likewise, a small goat shed will be entirely adequate for the family dairy. (A show or commercial herd might be another matter.) And because goats are much more active than cows, a cow really doesn’t require any more room in a shelter than a couple of goats do.
Two feeder pigs can be handily kept and cared for in a small house with an attached pen, say about 5′ x 7′ for the shelter and 7′ x 10′ for the yard.
While the benefits of hanging wire cages for rabbits have been amply demonstrated, it’s safe to say that more homesteaders raising meat rabbits are using wooden outdoor hutches than in hanging cages in buildings. But even where hanging cages are preferred, they can easily be installed in simple shelters that in mild climates need be little more than a roof and a means of protecting them from the wind.
Waterfowl, being quite messy, should have their own area, but their housing requirements are simple.
Chickens raised for meat are kept only a few months, and normally during the milder ones, so there’s no need to erect elaborate and expensive facilities for them. In fact, if your climate is less than balmy and your broilers need fairly good protection even in spring and summer, and your rabbits need protection in the winter, devise a system whereby you hang the rabbit cages outdoors while the broilers are growing in the house, then bring the rabbits in the house for the winter.
There are many possible designs for all of these small structures, but some thought should be given to compatibility in appearance. That is, the general designs, construction materials, and colors should blend harmoniously so as to provide a pleasing picture to the eye.
Now back to the question of homesteading land layout. Where are all of these structures placed?
One consideration is access. If you’re going to be bringing in 100-pound sacks of feed and pickup loads of hay and straw, and perhaps loading 220-pound pigs to take to the abattoir, you’ll want to be able to drive right up to the pens. While this little animal village might look charming on a grassy expanse bordered by trees and gardens if you can’t get to it with the pickup it probably won’t work.
Another consideration is water. In a mild climate or during the warm season you might be able to run a hose from an outside faucet at the house, even though this is neither attractive nor efficient if you have to move the hose to mow the lawn or you keep tripping over it. A water line should be buried below frost depth. One homesteader changed his planned barnyard location when he realized that the water line would have to go through, or around, the septic system, at considerable expense.
Drainage, exposure to the sun (both too much and too little) and winds (both those that carry odors to the house or neighbors and those that will stress animals) must be considered.
Beyond that, your tiny animal village can be arranged to your personal preference and available resources.
Whether you prefer a quaint village where the buildings border a central square (perhaps paved or graveled), a broad tree-lined avenue, or interesting, narrow twists and turns, you need to plan ahead. Chances are you’ll enjoy your animal village so much, you’ll want to expand it. Don’t let it grow haphazardly, as some human habitations do when you want to add a dovecote or some peafowl.
This last point is one of the factors in favor of a set of individual structures rather than one central barn, particularly for the new homesteader. A barn is rigid. While expansion may be possible, additions generally look tacky and detract from whatever efficiency was designed into the original structure. But no matter what its size, it lacks flexibility.
On the other hand, many people do prefer a central barn, at least after they have some experience and are satisfied with the mix and numbers of animals they’re raising.
It can be easier to design and construct one larger building rather than several smaller ones, and the larger one may be less expensive. To many people, a single building of some size is more attractive than a conglomeration of sheds, pens, and hutches. And there’s no denying that a single structure is more efficient in terms of labor, and furnishing water and power.
It is possible to design a homestead barn that can be rather easily altered as times change. A single structure can be rearranged to house various species and numbers of animals at different times if it’s not constructed with permanent partitions.
In most cases, the food handling area is the kitchen, but also in most cases, the modern kitchen falls short of a homestead’s needs. A tiny carpeted alcove with a refrigerator, sink, and microwave is in no way a homestead food processing area. Old-time farmhouse kitchens were actually miniature food processing factories, and so is the modern homestead kitchen. A major requirement is room to work, and to store the many utensils and tools needed. There should be plenty of counter space or a sturdy table where the tomato strainer, cherry pitter, sausage grinder and similar tools can be used conveniently and comfortably.
A carpeted kitchen provides no great joy on homesteading land. An easily cleaned floor is a must as a carpet can be expected to see the juices of fruit and berries, vegetables, garden soil, leaves, blood and the inevitable spilled milk.
Ventilation is more than a luxury, especially when grating horseradish or rendering lard. The ideal country kitchen has cross-ventilation.
As another aspect of space, the kitchen should be large enough so that even with dozens of quarts of newly canned tomatoes on the countertop, the stovetop, and sink cluttered with large kettles, strainers, funnels, baskets, rejects and skins, and other equipment, there is still room to make supper. What a shame it would be to spend a whole day canning to be self-sufficient, and then driving to a fast food chain to eat because there’s no room in the kitchen!
For all of the above reasons, the ideal homestead has a summer kitchen or harvest room. This was a common amenity in the better homes when cooking and canning were done on wood-burning ranges.
The summer kitchen is frequently a separate, small building, containing a stove, plenty of worktop surface and a storage room for equipment and utensils. Ideally, it will have hot and cold running water, but some homesteaders run a hose to the summer kitchen for washing fruits and vegetables.
Your summer kitchen could be a simple screened enclosure that sees occasional use for canning, butchering, soap-making, boiling maple sap or sorghum, but could also serve as a summer living room, shady bug-free place to read, or a place for rainy-day picnics.
Again, the chief requirement is room. If two or more people will be working together, they need room to move. The work surface should be large and sturdy enough to support a side of pork or a beef quarter, with enough room to store the numerous large pots and pans.
In addition, it should be well-ventilated, well-lit, pleasant, and easily cleaned.
At its most basic, the homestead shop is a well-equipped, neatly organized specific space where you might repair the garden tiller, refinish a chair, or make a cheese press.
At the other extreme, a homestead inhabited by very handy or mechanically inclined people can be quite elaborate. If you will be repairing (or constructing) farm machinery, furniture or other major projects, your shop might contain a full line of woodworking tools, a welder or an array of small engine or automobile tools.
If your hobby (or business) is music, you might store the guitar in a closet and keep the stereo in the living room. But if you’re really serious, it might be nicer for you (and other family members as well) if you had your own special music room.
The construction and location of the shop or hobby area are perhaps more individualistic than any other component, but it demands consideration.
Whether you own a business or not, don’t neglect the office! The productive homestead requires records–data on egg, milk, meat and vegetable production is necessary in order to plug leaks where dollars and cents may be dribbling away. You’ll have breeding, garden, machinery maintenance and maybe even weather records. There will be owner’s manuals on tools and equipment; you’ll accumulate receipts and other financial records.
Your homestead library might be part of your office-catalogs from seed companies, animal supply companies, reference books, and of course your collection of COUNTRYSIDE!
The office need not be elaborate, but it should be inviting, pleasant and efficient-not a seldom-used notebook and shoebox stuffed with receipts. There should be a small filing cabinet or box with room for such things as insurance policies, medical records, household expenses and tax information.
Is there any home that has enough storage space? Homesteading land is different in that the problem is much more severe! In addition to the normal accumulations of an American family, there must be space for storing a year’s worth of food, firewood, kitchen and garden equipment, animal feed and equipment, etc.
A woodshed is highly desirable. Wood should be cured and properly stored for six months to a year. That can require a considerable amount of space on a small homestead. And it must be accessible to the pickup, trailer or wagon.
Food storage takes several forms. For modern homesteads, the freezer is basic because of its simplicity–many homes have more than one.
Shelf space for home-canned products is essential. A cool, dark basement generally serves well, but an unused closet can also be adapted to store jars in a pinch.
A root cellar requires somewhat more planning, particularly if storing crops with different demands for temperature and humidity. Most modern basements are ill-suited for root cellaring. A separate, outside root cellar might be considered, with its location in relation to the kitchen of great importance on dark and blizzardy winter evenings when a trip to the root cellar can become a major event.
While root cellars are generally cool and damp, grains require a dry environment. Don’t store metal garbage cans of grain on concrete or near a concrete wall. Honey will crystallize in a room that’s too cool (although it can be easily liquefied by gently warming the container in a water bath). Aged cheeses, stored in insect- and rodent-proof but airy cabinets may have varying requirements depending on the variety, but they should not be stored with cabbage, onions and other strong-smelling goods.
Kitchen-related equipment might logically be stored in the kitchen or harvest room, but the harvest room is much more convenient.
A garden shed is a welcome addition to any homesteading land, and tools get better care when the shed is handy and convenient. When the serious gardener has a tiller and an assortment of hoes, rakes, shovels, forks and other tools, proper storage requires more than just a corner of the garage, which will more than likely end up in clutter. Clutter almost always inhibits productivity, and it certainly interferes with both efficiency and pleasure.
A garden shed can also provide a place to start or harden off plants; to transplant; and to store items such as flats, pots, potting soil, gloves, string, stakes, etc. A roomy, well-designed garden shed is a delight to any gardener, but it can also be justified by the increased efficiency it will bring to the productive homesteading land.
For homesteads with tractors and other farm-size machinery, a machine shed is a must. The size and amount of machinery will naturally dictate the size, and to some degree, the location of this structure. The machine shed may house a tractor, plow, manure spreader and more. Or it might house little more than the chainsaw, wedge, and sledge. But it will still take space not provided for in the average homesite.
Animal feed storage can take up considerable room, and therefore construction dollars. If you purchase feed in small quantities, grain and pellets can be stored in metal garbage cans in the barn, and a few bales of hay can be stacked where animals (including dogs) won’t be able to reach them.
But if you put up a year’s supply of hay, it will require more space than the animals themselves. If you grow or glean a year’s supply of corn, a corn crib will be necessary; and proper storage facilities will be required if you grow other grains such as oats or barley.
The picture-perfect homesteading land might be viewed as a small village. Whereas the simple “country home” may be nothing more than a house and garage, the productive homesteading land is a complex network of buildings and functions.
Now, tie it all together. Plan it as you might a house or even the layout of a single room. Using graph paper and cutouts of the features and buildings you intend to incorporate into your homestead, lay it all out on paper. (The closer to scale it is, the easier it will be to envision the actuality.)
Sketch in features that are already in the place — the house, buildings, roads, ditches, trees and slopes, and anything else already there that you don’t want to move including homestead fencing. Also bear in mind the location of the well, water lines, septic systems and underground electric, telephone or cable lines.
Place your cutouts where you think you want them: remember to think of drainage, shade, and shadows during the course of the day (and throughout the year), where the snow piles up, and which way the winds blow.
Envision what it would be like to actually live and work on your paper homestead. Imagine the paths you’ll wear between one function and the next. Think of getting in and out of work areas with a truck, trailer or four-wheeler. Where will you turn around? If the goats or pigs get out will they immediately enter the garden or is there some type of buffer zone?
Don’t forget play areas, of course. It may be a place for a swing set and sandbox, a wading pool, a badminton net, or an inground pool or hot tub and a place to grill those great steaks your steer is going to provide.
Don’t make any hasty decisions. Move the pieces around to see how any changes might affect the efficiency, workflow, and appearance of your homesteading land.
Then, you’re ready to begin. . . but it is only the beginning!
All this work and planning will pay off in several ways. First, what you end up with might not be perfect, but it will almost certainly be closer to perfection than it would be if you started without a plan. It will make your homestead more efficient, more productive, more fun to live and work on. It will make allowances for expansion and for changes in plans or direction.
But perhaps most of all, it will help you set goals. You’ll have something to work toward, and every time you complete another segment of the master plan, you’ll have something to be truly proud of.
You might never complete the homestead of your ideals (if only because with a comprehensive plan, things will go so smoothly you’ll make still more ambitious plans!) but you’ll almost certainly enjoy your homestead — and homesteading — a great deal more than if you just putter along.
Originally published in Countryside January / February 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.