Read this Before You Start a Homestead
Imagine looking out your backdoor and seeing a lush garden filled with vegetables, fruit trees and berry bushes waiting to be picked, and chickens running around scratching for bugs. This vision drives you to start a homestead. But you don't know how to get there.
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Time to Start a Homestead
You have this great vision. But how do you start a homestead? Don’t grab the shovel just yet! To start a homestead and get where you want to go, you need to know where you’re starting from.
4 Things to Know Before You Start a Homestead
- 1Know Your Land
- 2Know Your Climate
- 3Know Yourself
- 4Know Your Priorities
Believe me—you don’t want to start down a certain path and then realize it’s not going to work for you or your property. So much time, energy and good old fashioned will-power will be wasted if you have to go back and make major changes after you start laying the groundwork.
For example: Does your homesteading vision include starting a garden? Before you start planting, you should figure out what parts of your property gets the most sun. Otherwise your garden will struggle, and your efforts will feel wasted.
I want to help you start a homestead and save you time, energy and frustration. The companion worksheet “The Wild Homesteading Foundation Toolkit” will help you get off the ground. By the end of this post and worksheet you will know your land, your climate, yourself, and your priorities.
Get your free copy of The Wild Homesteading Foundation Toolkit and let me help you start a homestead. As your read this post, keep the worksheet next to you, so you can complete it as you go.
Know Your Land Before You Start a Homestead
Your land is the foundation of your homestead—the land is where everything happens. If you take care of your land and get to know it, the land will take care of you.
Not all your land will be suitable for production—for vegetables, fruits, berries, animals, and so on. It might be too steep, too wet, etc. The goal is to work with your land by working with nature and not to try to force it to be something it is not.
Parts of your land may be better left as wild land. These wild areas can provide homes for wildlife and also areas for you to observe and learn from nature. Having wild areas is at the core of what it means to be a wild homesteader.
You can use permaculture zones to quickly create an overall layout for your homestead to help you make sure everything is in the best spot and that you still have wild areas.
Available Space for Production
It seems obvious, but really, this step is so easy to overlook when you are excited to start a homestead. Take a moment to think about your land. How much of it can be used for production?
When I think about my own land, here’s what I find:
There is a portion that is within a wetland buffer, and certain uses are restricted by local regulations. I could get angry about this, but instead I planted wetland plants that will slow the seasonal stream flowing through my property, allowing me to keep more of the water on my property and harness it for my wild homestead.
This area will also provide nesting spots for birds.
My house is built on a relatively flat area with some great spots for a garden. Keeping the garden close to my house will make it easy to manage and harvest.
Most of the field to the north of my house could be used for production, and the same goes for the field downhill and to the east of my house.
But the wetland area, the seasonal stream, and the far north parts are not ideal for production and would be better left for wildlife.
What about your land? Take a moment to fill out this question on the worksheet. This will help you choose the best areas to prioritize when you start a homestead.
Determine the parts of your land that can be used for production and focus on these areas when you start your homestead.
Available Sunlight On Your Land
The next part of knowing your land is understanding how much sunlight you have available. Garden plants generally need full sun (6hrs+) to be the most productive.
When you start a homestead, you don’t want to get excited and put the garden in a spot that does not get enough sun. I see people doing this all the time.
But if you are raising animals, then it is good to have some areas where they can take shelter from rain and the intense summer sun.
What percent of your property gets full sun? How about partial sun? How much is in the shade? Do you notice anything about these different areas? Look at the vegetation growing in each area and look for any differences.
Take a moment to fill out this section of the worksheet.
Suncalc.org is a great tool to figure out how sunny or shady different parts of your homestead is during different seasons.
Available Water Resources
Along with sunlight, water is one of the most important resources for your homestead. The more water from rainfall that you can keep on your property, the more productive your land will be.
But you can also have areas that stay wet year-round. These wet areas could be wetlands, ponds, streams, or even lakes.
The seasonal stream on my property flows from the beginning of the fall rains till the dry spell begins at the end of spring. The area around this stream can become flooded during the winter, making it a poor location for many fruit trees.
Are there wet areas on your property? Describe them on the worksheet.
Identify Sources of Water Runoff
Beyond these wet areas, you also need to identify sources of water runoff. Roads, roofs, patios, and driveways can all be sources of runoff.
If you can slow the runoff and get it to sink into the ground, you can keep the water on your property longer, which will greatly improve how much abundance your property can produce.
I share a dirt road with my neighbor. During the winter a fair bit of water can run down it. For privacy, I built what is called a hugelkultur bed (sort of a fancy kind of raised bed that mimics a nurse log) along it, and I planted a wide range of plants to form a hedgerow or living fence.
While this gives me privacy, it also keeps the water flowing down the road instead of onto my property. That is a lot of wasted water that could benefit my plants! But there is a gate midway down, where the water can flow onto my land.
The area near the gate used to be flooded during the winter months, even before I built my hedgerow and directed more water to it. To solve this issue, I created a ramp for the water to flow down off the road and into a mulch pit. This pit often fills with water during the winter and spills out onto one of my fields.
The result is that the water from the dirt road is captured on my land. I planted native willows around the pit that are very happy with the setup.
If I had not identified the dirt road as a source of runoff, I would have lost out on this source of free water for my land.
What sources of runoff do you have on your property? Describe them in the worksheet.
When designing your homestead there is one general rule regarding water:
- Slow it
- Spread it
- Sink it
Resources to Help Hold Water on Your Property
To help you start a homestead and learn more about how to take advantage of the water resources on your property, I highly recommend these two books by Brad Lancaster.
Together, these books cover everything you need to know to take advantage of all the water that falls on or flows over your property. This is key when you start a homestead.
Summer and Winter Wind Directions
I love sitting outside under my cherry tree listening to birds sing and feeling the breeze blowing over me. It is moments like this that make homesteading so enjoyable—this is the life I want to live and why I chose to start a homestead.
The southern breeze that makes the summer day so comfortable is also drying out my land, taking away the water my plants need to grow and prosper.
In the winter, instead of a southern breeze, a cold northern wind often blows across my property, bringing in frost and making it harder to grow a winter crop of vegetables.
This also raises my winter heating bill.
What about your property? Do you know which direction the summer and winter winds come from?
Knowing the direction of the winds will allow you to plant trees and shrubs to block the winds. If strategically placed, this can stop your property from drying out in the summer and reduce the impact of the cold winter winds
On my own property, the privacy hedgerow I mentioned earlier will also block the southern winds, reducing the water loss of my garden located to the north of the hedgerow. The garden is far enough away not to be shaded by the hedgerow, but it still benefits from the reduced wind.
Take out the worksheet and write down the directions the winter and summer winds come from on your property. While they may change from time to time, there will likely be one direction that most of the winds blow from.
If you don’t know the direction of the winds, don’t worry. Keep this in the back of your mind as you plan your homestead, and commit to watching the winds over the next year. Try setting up a windsock or weather vane, or simply notice the direction the plants and trees are typically blown.
Summer winds will dry out your property increasing how much watering you need to do.
Winter winds will increase your heating bill and potentially cause more frost damage to your plants.
Know Your Climate
Your climate will determine what you can and can’t grow on your property. While you can stretch things a fair bit—I’m hoping to grow lemons in Western Washington!—there are limits, and understanding these limits will save you a lot of frustration when starting a homestead.
3 Aspects of Your Climate That You Need to Know
- 1Your USDA plant hardiness zone
- 2The length of your growing season
- 3The amount of rainfall your area gets and when the rains show up
How to Determine Your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone
Have you ever looked at one of those tags on a plant at the store and seen something like “Zone 8” or “Zones 5-8”? This is referring to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone or Zones that the plant will grow in.
You can find your zone by entering your zip code at this site: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
When I enter my zip code and click “find”—and after I copy the Captcha code and enter it wait, why does this need a security check? I really don’t know… moving on… my zone is displayed right under where I entered my zip code.
As you can see in the picture, my zone is 8a and there is also a temperature range displayed: 10 to 15 (F). This means that my area should not get colder than 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit during a typical winter.
Most years my area does not even get that cold – I think the coldest I have personally experienced here is around 18 F. But there is always the chance one of these winters could get colder.
What about you? Did you get your zone? Get out the works sheet and write down your zone.
Permies is a great site filled with homesteaders that can help you answer your questions and help you start a homestead.
What Does the USDA Zone Mean?
A quick note about the USDA zones – the lower the number, the colder the area can get in winter.
If the tag for a plant (or the catalogue or online description) says zone 8, that means that the plant will likely be killed by winter temperatures if planted in any zone lower than 8.
But what about tags that say zones 5-8? That means that the plant can survive winters down to zone 5 but will likely not do well above zone 8. Some plants need cold winter temperatures to produce fruit. I want to grow apricots, but they’re hard to get fruit from in my area because the winters here are too mild.
Of course, this doesn’t affect my choice of whether or not to plant annual crops like lettuce or tomatoes where (in my area) I would expect to have to replant in the spring. This is mostly important for choosing your fruit or nut trees, berries, and perennial vegetables.
What about the tag that just said zone 8? Can you grow that plant if you are in a warmer (higher number) zone?
I know – not that helpful. Often a single zone being listed means the plant will survive in warmer climates. But it does not tell you how much warmer you can go. In the case of our hypothetical zone 8 plant it might do fine in zone 9 or even 10 but 11 nope.
The problem is, the tag does not tell you.
What do you do in this case? I would talk with the nursery you are buying the plant from and do your own research. Ask other homesteaders in your area and see what they say.
Pick plants that are listed for your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. Plants with a lower zone to your area may do fine but plants with a higher zone will likely struggle and die.
Determine Your Growing Season
The USDA hardiness zone tells you if a plant can survive your winter. It tells you nothing about your summers or how long your growing season is.
Annual vegetables and some perennials need a certain length of hot, sunny days each summer in order to be productive. Understanding your how long your growing season is will help you decide which plants – especially annual vegetables – will provide a harvest for your new homestead.
The growing season is defined as the time between your last frost in spring and your first frost in the fall. To find out your growing season and your last / first frost days I recommend this site: https://www.almanac.com/gardening/frostdates
Once you have your first and last frost days and the length of your growing season from the site make sure to record them on the worksheet.
When you start a homestead a lot of your work will be scheduled around these two days.
If you live in an area with a short growing season some annual vegetables may struggle to produce within the short season.
The Creative Vegetable Gardener has a post that groups vegetables by how long they need to grow before harvest.
Determine Your Rainfall
When starting a homestead, you need to know how much rainfall your new homestead gets. My homestead is in the south Puget Sound area of western Washington, about an hour or so south of Seattle. As you can guess, it rains a lot here – 49.95 inches on average each year! Even more than Seattle!
But almost all of that comes in the winter. It is very dry here in the summer. This can make growing vegetables and getting new plants established a bit of a challenge without irrigation, which I try to avoid.
In 2018, my area got less than 1.5 inches of rain over May, June, July and August. Most gardening sites recommend 1 inch of water per week!
Knowing how much rainfall your homestead gets, and when it shows up, will help you plan. If your summers are hot and dry like mine, you will need to either have an irrigation system setup or use methods to reduce how much water you need until you don’t need to water.
The worksheet has a place to record how much rainfall your homestead gets, and also asks if your growing season is wet and what your driest month is. To look up this information I recommend going to US Climate Data and looking up the nearest city to you.
Make sure you know not just how much rainfall your area gets but also when it tends to come. If the rain does not come in the summer you will need to figure out how to keep your garden going.
Yup, we are going to get personal.
Homesteading is not just a hobby–it really is a way of life, and it will become part who you are. Most people don’t want to wake up early in the morning and, rain or shine, go and open the chicken coop. It’s far easier to just go down to the grocery store and buy eggs.
The same is true for lots of other homesteading tasks.
I grow my own food because I love being outside and working with nature, I love the freedom of growing my own food on my property, I love the way homesteading can bring my family together, and I love connecting with my land in a way most people never do.
Homesteading gives you a sense of place that is largely absent in today’s modern world. Its why we want to start a homestead.
But it is also a lot of hard work, and this lifestyle is not for everyone. The following questions will help you decide if homesteading is right for you, and if so how much you can take on today.
How Much Time Do You Have to Start a Homestead?
Being busy does not mean you can’t start a homestead. I’m currently working full time, I’m happily married, and I have a little toddler. Plus, I’m building my wild homestead and running this site with my wife.
All in all, I don’t have much time for homesteading.
I mention this because you don’t have to have a lot of time to be a homesteader. But if you’re like me and have a lot of other obligations and responsibilities, then you need to make sure you don’t take on too many projects at once.
When you start a homestead, there are likely dozens of potential projects that you will want to start. If your time is limited like mine, you need to focus on a few key projects.
So how much time do you have to put towards starting a homestead? Fill out the section on the worksheet that goes with this question.
Break your homesteading projects down into these three categories:
- Major projects that take more than a full day to complete - 1 to 2 per year
- Medium projects that take half of a day to one full day to complete - 6 per year
- Small projects that take less than half of a day to complete - 12 per year
Your daily, weekly, and monthly homesteading chores such as letting chickens out and harvesting your vegetables don't count. If you take on too many projects you will be stressed and fall behind on your regular chores.
How Physically Able Are You?
I believe you can start a homestead even if you are not the most physically able person. But it does mean that some projects might not be right for you, or you may need to hire someone or get help to get the work done.
Ideally, friends or family will help regardless of your physical condition, and in return they will get to share in your abundance of fresh food. But there will always be tasks you need to do.
Knowing your physical limits will help you determine what is right for you.
Be honest with yourself and fill out this section of the worksheet as a reminder to yourself not to overdo it.
Also, take a moment to fill out the question about your support network. Do you have people who can help you with your homesteading tasks?
Don't take on more than you can physically handle. If a project is too big try to find help from family, friends, and neighbors. Offer them some of your amazing harvest in exchange for helping with your project!
Know Your Priorities
Now the fun begins. Take a moment and picture your ideal homestead. Think about the food you want to grow. Do you have animals on your homestead? Are you planning on preserving the extra food you grow?
What else comes to mind when you think about your homestead?
Growing Your Own Food
There are lots of different types of food you could grow. You could grow vegetables, fruit trees, berries, root crops, herbs, and grains – I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
Which do you choose to focus on?
On my homestead, I want to grow them all. But at the same time, I recognize that my family uses fresh vegetables the most, and tree fruits and berries are a close second.
When starting my homestead, a vegetable garden was my top priority, but I’m also planting some fruit trees, since they can take several years to start producing fruit.
I would love to grow my own wheat, and have homemade flour for homemade bread, cooked in a homemade rocket oven.
That would be amazing!
But it will have to wait until the vegetable garden and fruit trees are in.
What is your priority for food growing? Fill in this section of the worksheet with your number one (and two and three) food growing priorities.
You can grow vegetables, fruit, berries, root crops, herbs, grains, etc. But when you start a homestead it is best to pick one to focus on. This will keep you from getting overwhelmed and help you learn all the tricks to being successful.
Raising Animals and Starting a Homestead
What about raising livestock on your homestead? Animals can provide numerous benefits, from helping to prepare space for a garden, to producing eggs and meat.
I know for a lot of people, having animals is part of what makes a homestead a homestead.
What about for you? Do you want to raise animals? Answer this question on your worksheet.
It’s important to keep this in mind as you build your homestead. If you are going to raise animals, you will need to have shelter and space for them. Some animals will need a pasture, while others can make do with relatively small areas.
I want to one day raise chickens and perhaps some other animals (rabbits and/or sheep). Because of this, I’m planning on planting my fruit trees so there are lanes between them where I can let chickens or other animals run.
Chickens are often recommend as a great animal to start with when starting a homestead. Chickens can help prep soil for gardening, provide eggs, and potentially meat for you and your family.
Don't rush into getting animals when you start a homestead. Make sure you take the time to
- figure out which type of animal is right for you and your land;
- learn how to take care of your animals;
- learn how to harvest eggs, meat, etc. from your animals;
- build a shelter for your animals.
What to Do With Your Extra Harvests?
You will be growing all this amazing food, but what do you do with the extras? There will always be too much of some vegetables – I’m looking at you zucchini! – and some fruit will fall to the ground.
Canning, freezing, and drying these extra harvests can be a great way to make use of it all. But this takes time, knowledge, and a place to store it all.
It can all be overwhelming when you start a homestead.
But if you leave the extras where they are, you can attract pests. This is especially true with fallen fruit from trees like apples.
What do you do if you don’t plan on preserving your food?
One option is to run animals such as chickens through to clean it all up and turn the extra harvests into scrumptious eggs or meat. You could also collect it all and put it in a compost bin or leave it to decompose where it falls.
But that does come with some negatives.
You could also invite people over to help harvest the extras.
Or you could make a less ambitious growing plan.
Knowing what you plan to do with the extra harvests will help you start a homestead without being overwhelmed.
Make sure you fill out this last section in the worksheet.
When you start a homestead you will get a ton of great food if all goes well. Make sure you have a plan to use all this food. You may need to preserve some of it or give it away to keep it from going bad.
Next Steps to Start a Homestead
Great job! You made it to the end!
By taking the time to understand your land, your climate, yourself and your priorities, you have the information to help you start a homestead.
This is the foundation that will help you take off on your journey to start a homestead.
Print out The Wild Homesteading Foundation Toolkit and put it somewhere you will see it. Use it as a guide when you are planning which homesteading project to do next.
Having a guide can help you get started, but also keep you from taking on too much and getting overwhelmed.
To further help you along your journey, I’ve put together some resources at the end of the worksheet that will give you more inspiration and knowledge to build your homestead.
Please share your experiences starting your homestead in the comments below and don’t forget to get your copy of The Wild Homesteading Foundation Toolkit.