this has been updated by Ryan Buford on Mar 21st 2019
Living off the land and being self-sufficient is a captivating idea for many people seeking a slower pace and a more self-sufficient life. Those committed to taking the leap into this lifestyle are working toward starting a small homestead from scratch.
Your dream may be one of convenience: reaching out your back door to find a delicious, ripe, red tomato to add to a fresh-picked salad. Or, you may want fresh, cage free eggs for breakfast or baking without paying the high market price.
The potential for a healthy, home-made breakfast, harvested from your yard and produced by your own hands is perhaps the greatest draw to the homesteading life.
Even top-notch restaurants tout the farm-to-table fare is by far the best tasting meal – and for the homesteader it is one you can draw from your own backyard.
But how do you get started? The list of tasks that you will need to complete if you want to start a homestead from scratch can be downright overwhelming, but I’ll provide you with a helpful guide on everything you need to do in order to get started.
Your first step in starting a homestead from scratch is going to be figuring out where, exactly, you are going to do it.
If you already have a chunk of land in the country, you’re in luck! You don’t need to do anything else, and you can keep reading. But if you’re like most people and can’t possibly imagine homesteading where you are right now, you might want to start looking for land.
There are a few things to look for in particular. First, do you have property access rights? If you don’t have property access rights that are specified in the deed, you aren’t going to be able to work your land at all.
Don’t assume that, just because a piece of land is on a county or state road, you automatically have access. You need access and a right-of-way.
You should also check what the water and soil drainage look like. Sure, it would be nice to have a creek running across your land – but do you have the right to use it? And what happens in the springtime, when the water is high? In some cases, you may have to build bridges, and in others, you may be prohibited from keeping your livestock near the water.
You might also have to install septic systems or drill wells. In some places, outhouses are illegal – so you’ll need to hook up to a public sewer system.
Also pay attention to things like timber and mineral rights. It might not matter just to you now, but it very well could later on down the road. Other things to pay attention to are land easements and utility availability.
Even if you don’t think your homestead needs electricity, having the option for these kinds of amenities will pay off tenfold later on.
While you may love the seclusion of a homestead property located way back in the woods – or way up in the mountains – think about what that location will look like in an emergency situation.
If there is a blizzard, how are you going to get snow out of the way to travel out? What will you do if somebody in your family has a medical emergency and needs to get to a hospital? Work through every possible scenario in your head before you spend your money on a parcel of land.
Finally, check out your local land permits and zoning. The best possible land for a homestead will be in an area that is agriculturally zoned.
If you’re agriculturally zoned, you will be able to do just about anything you want with your homestead. However, most residential zoning laws are also quite friendly to prospective homesteaders.
What If You Can’t Move to the Country?
You can be a homesteader on less than an acre! You can have a small homestead just about anywhere you are right now! As many homesteaders point out, homesteading is more about a feeling and a way of life than it is about living in a certain area.
Many small communities are opening up to the idea of access to locally grown food like produce and livestock. Farm-fresh eggs are a hot commodity among office co-workers who can tell the difference. And some micro communities are lifting restrictions to allow small-scale farming and animal husbandry.
In addition, community gardens are gaining in popularity as people see the benefit in contributing time and energy to a small garden plot for a mutual benefit: access to fresh garden produce.
In some cases, yard restrictions are being lifted to allow people to scrap their front lawn in exchange for raised garden beds.
Those taking full advantage of this opportunity are making great strides in small urban homesteads and vertical gardening techniques.
If you live in an urban or suburban area and are restricted by zoning or by the amount of space you have available, here are some easy ways that you can incorporate homesteading principles in your everyday life.
- Start a rooftop, patio, or terrace garden: If you don’t have a lot of room to grow a full-sized garden, you can easily start a vertical garden, container garden, or another space-saving garden to grow some (or perhaps even all) of your own food.
- Keep a few meat rabbits indoors: You can keep a breeding population of rabbits inside as long as you have the cages and cleaning equipment necessary to keep things sanitary. The same can be done with certain meat birds, like quail!
- Learn some rural skills: Teach yourself how to sew, cook, knit, can, or make candles. All of these skills represent homesteading at its finest, and all you need is a small amount of space in your home to do so.
- Consider garden sharing: If you have zero space to start a garden, consider the concept of garden sharing. Garden sharing involves working a shared plot of land with other gardeners (often referred to as a community garden) and it will allow you to garden even if you don’t have your own land.
Homesteading from Scratch: Where to Start
Ditch the Lawn and Draw a Plan
Whether you are maintaining a lawn or maintaining a garden, it’s important to recognize that both take a significant amount of work and care.
Weeding, manicuring, fertilizing and watering are careful considerations for both. But the final product of each is very different. One has curb appeal and the other has a more self-sufficient appeal.
If having a source of fresh, organic food is will be more important to you than having a blanket of green, luscious grass, a small homestead is likely in your future. You would rather have access to fresh tomatoes than spend an entire Sunday afternoon mowing anyway, right?
There are numerous wild edibles out there, just waiting to be discovered, but it’s hard for them to thrive under a mower’s blade. Ditch the lawn and come up with a plan that enables you to use every square inch of your lawn instead. You’ll be glad that you did!
Visualize out Your Homestead Plan
Before you dig up your lawn, throw up a chicken coop or add a fruit tree or two, you’ll want to know where the best placement for your plants and animals will be.
The homestead plan will help you decide where you want to put things, such as your garden, animals, and trees. Be mindful of the sun’s path along your property and which areas get morning sun, full sun, or evening sun.
You should also consider things like irrigation and the natural slope of your land, as this will influence the drainage of your garden as well as whether it’s possible to run supplemental water sources to your plants and animals.
Once you’ve got a basic idea, get ready to put the plan on paper. Using graph paper is the easiest. It’s perfect for laying out proper dimensions and scaling your yard, so you can get a true feel for the space you have.
It is easy to overplant for the amount of space you have but when it comes time to maintain or harvest, this pre-planning will serve to prevent problems.
In making a homestead plan, you first need to map out your yard – All of it.
Then, grab that graph paper. Each of the squares should count for an adequate scale unit compared to your yard space.
If you have lawn furniture, patios or sprinkler systems, be sure to account for these fixtures and include them in the sketch. Add in the property boundaries, structures and other areas that won’t be impacted by the conversions you are planning for. Add in any fences, border walls, retaining walls, or dog runs if you have them.
If you are familiar with topography, draw in your elevation lines and consider any hills or valleys that could affect drainage or access. Be thorough and meticulous as this vision on paper will help to guide your planting space, irrigation, and animal pens down the road.
Working your homestead plan
When starting a homestead from scratch, the garden should be top priority. This can provide you with a few vegetables just a few weeks after sowing seeds. Additional work can be performed as the plants are growing.
If you have space for fruit trees, plant them in the early spring if possible and place them strategically. It is best to plant trees early on, so they can become established and potentially produce in the next few years.
After planting, you may consider adding animals like rabbits or chickens, but proceed with caution.
Potential conflicts with local laws or neighbors could derail your animal plans, so check with the governing authority in your area.
It would be an unfortunate thing to spend time and money building a chicken coop, adding chicks, and buying equipment only to have your neighbors complain and be forced to remove or harvest them.
Start with Your Garden Area
First, consider whether or not you want to till the ground and plant directly, have raised beds, or containers. Knowing which you’d like to use will give you an idea of how much space you need to save for the garden. Raised beds are a good option for smaller spaces where open soil is ideal for larger crops.
Consider the soil in your area and the plants you intend to grow as you may need to amend your soil for proper drainage, pH, and growth consistency. Containers and vertical gardens are ideal for plants that need special care, environments, or can’t be directly sown. These are also useful for apartment homesteads and leased land that cannot be tilled.
You’ll have a better idea of how much you can plant and where you should plant. Revisit your diagram to determine where to plant perennials and annuals. Delineate where recurring growth plants will be so they aren’t accidentally tilled out.
Arrangement of fruits and vegetables can pair well with flowers and herbs. In many cases, certain flowers or herbs can act as natural pesticides by simply planting them near other plants. They also help to attract helpful insects, birds and bees.
When you’re planning out your garden, you should also do some rough math to figure out how much food your family actually needs.
Think about your eating habits and which fruits and vegetables your family members enjoy. There’s no point in growing ten pounds of zucchini if nobody in your family likes zucchini!
As a general rule of thumb, you will want to multiply the number of plants per person by three or four. This will allow you enough for a family-sized planting.
There are some exceptions to this rule, however – vine crops like cucumbers or squash don’t need to be planted in these mass quantities.
Starting your homestead from scratch and need help with container gardening? Read this post here.
Careful Consideration with Planting Your Fruit Trees
Fruit trees will produce every year and can provide several pounds of food that can be eaten on the spot, dried, fermented or canned. Select fruit trees that compliment your diet and purpose and select varieties that grow well in your region.
Some fruit trees may produce fruit that is not edible so select your species wisely. If in doubt, look around at other fruit trees in the immediate area that are performing well.
When planting fruit trees, keep in mind that this is a long-term decision. So think of your intentions 5- 10- or 20-years out.
Location will be critical as you won’t want the canopy to impact your garden by producing too much shade, you won’t want the roots to destroy sewer, power, or gas lines, and you won’t want the branches to cause problems with structures, fences, neighbors, or overhead power lines.
And, perhaps most importantly, after you’ve decided where to plant, be sure to get your property marked for all utility locations before you dig!
Some of the most common plants for initial homestead gardens:
- Root vegetables
- Tomato varieties
- The “Three Sisters”
- Leafy Greens
- Collard greens
- Fruit trees
- Leafy Greens
- Collard greens
- Perennial fruits
Purchase and/or Start Your Plants
You will next need to decide if you are going to purchase your plants as started seedlings (or saplings) or whether you want to grow them from seed yourself. If it’s your first time ever gardening, I recommend investing in started seedlings.
Although they are slightly more expensive, they are better for a newbie who is prone to error. This will allow you to learn the ropes during your first season of gardening without having to wait for all of your seeds to germinate.
Just about all crops can be purchased as seedlings, with the exception of corn, carrots, potatoes, and most other root vegetables.
If you want to try starting your vegetables from seed, all the power to you! Consider your growing zone before you do anything else.
If you live in a colder growing zone that experiences winter freezes and heavy snows, you will want to start your seeds indoors well in advance of the last expected frost date.
For gardeners hoping to plant their gardens in May, that usually means starting seeds indoors in February or March.
To do this, you will need a sunny windowsill (at the very least) or, at the very best, a room where you can set up grow lights and heat germination mats.
This will provide your seeds with all the heat and light they need to get off to a good start. When it comes time to transplant your seedlings outdoors, make sure you’ve waited for the soil to warm considerably and harden off your delicate seedlings before making the full transition.
Lay out Space for Shelter, Food and Water for Your Livestock
Small animals, like chickens and rabbits, need a safe home away from predators. They also need to be in the shade in summer and have protection from the cold, wind, and snow in winter. Once you have a general idea, keep in mind how to best serve the animals needs and how they can help out your garden.
Castings and rooting behavior can either destroy or develop your garden depending on where your animals roam. For example, our favorite place for our rabbits in the summer is underneath our apple trees.
They are safe from predators in their outdoor hutches, and they have shade. There is also plenty of pruned apple wood for them to have as a treat. The extra rabbit manure by the apple trees also helps the trees to grow!
Before setting out to buy as much as you can afford, be mindful of animal needs for foraging, security, and space. Some animals require more space and freedom to roam, where others are fine in small pens.
But be mindful that too many animals in small spaces can lead to sanitation and health problems that can destroy your dreams of a healthy homestead.
When you are considering how much space each animal needs, I recommend adding on a few square feet per animal just to be safe. That way, you won’t have to worry about overcrowding – or about your neighbors complaining about the smell!
You also need to consider what kind of fencing you are going to use, as well as what kind of housing. Where are you going to get these materials?
Can any of them be repurposed from items you have lying around (for example, you can often make fences out of old pallets)? Can you barter or trade to get any of these items inexpensively? Places like Craigslist and your local swap meet are great places to look for deals.
When it comes to fences, remember that you can keep some types of animals in the same pens – even if they are different species.
For example, chickens can be allowed to graze with goats or sheep, and rabbits can often be housed with chickens.
By doing this, you’ll be able to make the best use of your pasture and you often won’t have to worry as much about parasites, either. Plus, less work for you in building fences, feeding, and watering your animals!
Locate Animals Away from Your Garden
As far away as possible. Trust me on this. If a chicken escapes their area, your garden could pay the price. Our chickens can still get into the garden faster than a bolt of lightning.
Animals in the garden will eat leafy tops, scrape topsoil and seeds, or completely uproot your root vegetables. By maintaining separation and fences, your garden will stand a better chance against damage caused by your livestock.
The one exception is at the end of the season. If you house your animals in portable structures (for example, putting chickens in chicken tractors) it can be quite beneficial to let the chickens graze over the garden at the end of the season.
They’ll till things up for you, get rid of garden pests, and also fertilize the garden with free manure.
Local Laws, May Impact Your Layout and Planning
For example, chickens, pigs or goats may need to be placed a certain distance from your neighbor’s property. Ours say that they have to be at least 100 feet from a neighbor’s dwelling.
Remote locations typically have fewer restrictions. If you have a smaller yard or if you live in a highly regulated area, you could be restricted by the number or type of animals you can own.
Discreet homesteaders can sometimes barter with neighbors to prevent conflicts, but one annoying rooster may be all it takes to put an end to your flock or drive a wedge between a neighbor.
Some of the most common forms of new homestead livestock:
- Game hens
Get a Compost Going
It doesn’t matter where you live or how large you want your homestead to be – starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest ways to begin homesteading at any scale.
There are many types of compost piles you can create. From an open compost to a contained compost system like a compost tumbler, you have all kinds of options.
You can even vermicompost with worms in your basement if you don’t have any outdoor spaces to compost (or if your neighbors or zoning laws object to composting).
Composting is a smart way to begin homesteading for many reasons. Not only will it allow you to recycle all of your kitchen and garden waste in a smart way, but it will also let you get rid of your animal manure without having to send it to the landfill.
When allowed to age properly, compost is odorless and serves as excellent soil and fertilizer for your new garden, too!
You don’t need to add a huge garden, chickens, rabbits, goats, bees, and a greenhouse with aquaponics all in one season. As a matter of fact, DON’T.
Take a year for each if you can before adding another. This will give you time to learn and make mistakes.
It’s frustrating enough for a beginner to try and figure out how to grow tomatoes without having to worry about cleaning out a chicken coop or clipping a rabbit’s nails.
Adding a goat to milk or bees, to harvest honey, can send you into overload. Take it one year at a time. Add animals, structures, crops or other homestead essentials as you gain confidence and maintain what you have.
Seven common list of common mistakes homesteaders make:
- Taking on too much
- Not preserving harvests properly or at all
- Neglecting security from predation or disease
- Cost of animal care
- Soil considerations
- Local laws/restrictions/CCNRs
- Poor garden or livestock placement
Homesteading Skills to Swear By
Once you have a grasp on your garden and your animals are living well, you can dig into other some homesteading basics to help make the most of your harvests year after year and improve your overall sustainability. Here’s a few examples to help demonstrate some of the ways you can expand your knowledge and abilities as a homesteader.
Soap making. Making your own soap is a great way to save money and prolong some of the scents of summer. This skill can be very beneficial for personal sanitation while providing a product for barter.
There is a bit of a time commitment in the process of soap making, but if batched properly it can produce a significant amount of sundries in a relatively short timeframe.
Cheeses. Making your own cheese can be challenging but very rewarding. This is a great way to use up excess milk from goats, sheep or cattle and produce a product that can have more flavor than most are used to buying over the counter. This skill takes time to perfect, but it is not as difficult as it may seem. Many home brewing suppliers sell starter kits that demonstrate the process.
Canning. Canning is a critical part of homesteading. It is the best way to preserve excess harvests for winter months.
There are a few versions of canning – water bath or pressure canning – and both have different equipment and skill requirements. Either way, this is a skill that can go a long way in long-term survival on the homestead.
First aid and survival skills. Many people neglect learning proper first aid and survival skills on their homesteads, but it’s so important – even if you don’t have a homestead.
Familiarize yourself with basic medical skills like tending to a wound or setting a broken leg – you’ll be glad you did, especially if you live in a rural area.
Knitting, crochet, and sewing. You may find that clothing gets ruined a little faster on the homestead and knowing how to mend clothes will help save costs on constant repairs to your outdoor gear.
In addition, crocheting and knitting have a place on the homestead that allows for creating blankets, winter clothing, kitchen rags, or even gifts. These are tasks for the patient and often help pass the time during dark winter months.
Chainsaw skills. If you live in a rural area, one of the smartest things you can do is to acquaint yourself with basic chainsaw work. That way, if a tree falls down or you need extra wood for firewood, you’ll know how to cut and buck it up yourself.
Woodworking. Knowing your way around a wood shop can help if you ever need to fix tools, wheel barrows, cabinets or other things around the house. But it can also be beneficial for building furniture, children’s toys or custom art.
Knowledge of wood types and uses, paired with the right tools and and a little bit of skill can go a long way in creating extra income on the homestead.
Hunting, fishing, and foraging. You can live off the land without having a garden or any livestock at all! You can live as the first hunters and gatherers did, turning to nature for your sustenance.
Teach yourself how to hunt and fish, and you won’t regret it. You can also learn which herbs, berries, and other plants are safe to eat in the wilderness. This includes mushrooms, too!
Welding. If you have heavy equipment or pre-existing structures, you may need to learn how to make your own repairs and work with metals. This is an essential skill that often helps to keep heavy equipment running during harsh workloads.
But it can also help to keep fences and gates solid, or to repair structural components like barn door sliders or metal tanks and stands.
Fencing. Keeping your animals in and predators out is paramount to the survival and well-being of your animals.
Fences help, but when they break or when weak spots are exposed, you’ll need to know how to fix them, stretch them, or erect them from scratch.
In many cases, you won’t be able to wait on a contractor to correct a problem and will need to maintain your own fences.
Do laundry the old fashioned way. Quit relying on an expensive, energy-wasting washer and dryer to get your clothes clean. Instead, learn how to do laundry by using a drying rack or clothesline. You’ll save money and your clothes will be just as clean.
Small engine repair. Whether you are tilling, mowing, weeding or snow-blowing, small engines will prove to be effective tools around the homestead. By knowing how to maintain, repair, and replace components on your small engines (and the equipment they run), you’ll be able to keep your equipment in top shape and ready for the next big job.
Tinctures/extracts. Medicines are readily available on the homestead and can be factored into your garden planning. Specific roots, flowers or leaves can be used to create essential oils or extracts.
These potent agents concentrate healing properties of plants and are fairly easy to create. However, they take a significant amount of plant mass and study to determine what desired effects to generate.
Animal husbandry. Animal husbandry goes beyond the basics of feeding, watering, and housing animals. It covers everything from veterinary care to breeding to butchering.
Acquaint yourself with all of these skills – even if you don’t have your new animals on site yet – and you’ll reap the benefits immediately. You’ll also benefit later on down the road, when you don’t have to pay for extra help to get these jobs done!
Cooking. This may sound basic but knowing how to prepare meals from scratch will help insure that your efforts in the garden don’t go to waste.
A good cook can turn raw ingredients into a healthy, nutritious meal and without this skill, your vegetables may not have the same glamorous appeal after the fourth or fifth serving of straight beets, corn or peas.
A good eye for herbs, seasonings, and complimentary foods will go a long way in a successful homestead and a happy, well-fed household.
Cooking has so many offshoots, too, of skills that you can use in your new homestead adventure. You can learn how to make your own bread and maintain your own sourdough starter, you can learn how to butcher and cut up your own meats, and you can even learn how to bake.
Beekeeping. Apiaries are easy to start and at times can be easy to maintain. Some consider bee behavior and management to be a daunting endeavor, but the benefits are well worth it.
Bees provide essential pollination, they help to indicate success, and they provide a bounty of sweet honey that can complement your pantry or your medicine cabinet.
Most ranch and home stores carry bee boxes and beekeeping supplies, and some county extension offices will provide contacts for other beekeepers who can help to collect queens or swarms and get you started on the right foot.
Fermentation. Whether you intend to ferment food or drink, basics of fermentation are essential for successful preservation. This skill is easy to learn and requires an initial investment of bottles, jars or large glass containers.
But once you have the equipment, the rest is easy. Fermentation can provide a homestead with preserves like sauerkraut or pickles, adult beverages like beer or fruit wines, and even sweet carbonated drinks like kombucha or sodas that are great alternatives to store bought soft drinks.
Are you starting a homestead from scratch? What did your homestead plan look like? What will be YOUR first homestead addition to your property? Be sure to pin this for later!