Homestead Design from a Practical, Tactical, Agricultural Survival Perspective

from Survival Blog:

Let’s talk about practical, tactical, and agricultural survival principles and details that pertain to developing land in a way that will facilitate agricultural productivity, sustainability, and security.

Prepare thy work without, and make it fit for thyself in the field; and afterwards build thine house. Prov. 24:27.

Assessing the Land

The Land

First of all, we are likely to be constrained by property boundaries. Therefore, in selecting property, what are our priorities?

Not everyone has the same priorities, and priorities change as the world around us changes. For example, a property that is perfectly usable today may become untenable if grid power is cut off. This occurs because the ample well water is too deep to access effectively by primitive means. Or, it may be too public, or too inaccessible.

Agriculture being our focus, the first priority is soil. Meadow silt, especially when found on a bench partway up a mountainside, is nice. However, less hospitable ground can be utilized if it offers other advantages.


Bottom land is generally less desirable, especially in cold environments, because of the fact that cold air and frost settles into the low lands. Other considerations are air quality (mephitic, stagnant air), likelihood of flooding, undesirable vegetation, and tactical vulnerability.

Ridge-tops and mountain peaks, likewise, have some opposite issues. While tactically strong, they are subject to high winds, lack privacy, and frequently lack good backstops and backdrops. More important, they are generally lacking in water.

Sun exposure is critical, especially for horticulture. Southern, eastern, and western exposures each have definite advantages. But I tend to favor eastern and southern exposures, since they warm quickly in the early morning and are not as prone to overheating as western exposures. Northern exposures have the advantage of more moisture and shade but generally are less productive and more prone to molds, mildew, and similar pathological elements. Yet, in a dry climate, they may offer valuable resources. One of the most prominent of which is timber and crops such as berries that function in an understory environment. They are also more likely to offer water sources.


This is often the difference between life and death, for agriculture. Some climates receive enough rain for year-around growing without artificial irrigation, but many do not.

Mountains are God’s water reservoirs. The upper elevations generally receive more precipitation than the lowlands. Often, this comes in the form of deep snow as well as rain. The snow releases its treasure slowly, soaking the ground, and filling these massive reservoirs. Then, the water is released through springs, seeps, and wells, watering the earth and creating streams and rivers. Living in the mountains means that water will be more available and more dependable than in the flat land. Also, since there is less human presence in the high mountains, this water is generally the purest. There is hardly a purer source of water than freshly melting snow, as it releases its load of hydrogen peroxide, and then filters through the soil.

How much water do we need? A typical household may use a hundred gallons a day. With diligence, this can be reduced. However, 100 square feet of garden needs about nine gallons of water per day. An acre needs about 3800 gallons a day. If we plan on using sprinklers and the humidity is low, it may require twice that much, because so much water evaporates.

A water source that gives one gallon per minute of water, in the driest weather, supplies 1,440 gallons per day.

By consulting weather records for the area, it may be possible to determine how much of the needed water is likely to be supplied by rain each month. If it is possible to create large enough cisterns, water may be saved from the wetter months to use during the dry time.

Water Delivery

If there is water in a well or at the bottom of the property, can we get it up to where it is needed? In time of peace, we can pump water very efficiently using electric pumps or gasoline pumps. However, in times of distress, even independent alternative energy systems are likely to break down all too quickly.

The advantages of a gravity-flow water system are obvious. Once the system is in place, there is no energy requirement except for gravity, and plumbing is relatively durable and repairable. So, in selecting land for survival in times of national distress, having gravity flow water could be the difference between the land sustaining life or not.

Dry-land/Rainwater Potential

Does the land have growing potential without irrigation? If it is growing trees or grazeable vegetation, yes! Are there wild fruit trees? Wild strawberries often grow in surprisingly arid environments. Give special notice to what routinely grows under the natural conditions, and work from that point. These plants are obviously able to survive and reproduce. Is there any preferable crop that would work in the same conditions?

Mulch is another valuable moisture-conserving aid. Simply mulching heavily before the rains cease can preserve moisture for crops for weeks and even months, allowing us to reap a harvest that would never happen without it. Straw, sawdust, leaves, et cetera act as a blanket that holds moisture near the surface while limiting evaporation.

Dust Mulch

Another form of mulch is dust mulch. Shallow discing or roto-tilling of the soil, producing a dusty “fluff” over the soil, has been used by orchardists for conserving water. This is also a common fact of desert ecosystems. Below the sunburnt sands, lie cooler sands, and increased moisture. However, this dust mulch is not, itself, in a condition to nourish plants or other life forms very effectively, and the soil beneath tends to become hardpan, unlike soil covered by organic mulches. Dust mulch does not feed the microbial life in the soil, as organic mulch does.

If the land has good dry-land farming potential, and you are able to sustain your family by this means, there is a chance that the domestic water needs could be supplied by a rain-water collection system and large cistern. If carefully used, a 10,000 gallon cistern (12 feet cubed) has the potential to supply a household for quite a few months. One foot of rain on 1,500 square feet of roof should refill it. Most house-barn combinations should be able to provide this area, if the eaves are fitted with gutters and appropriate downspouts. If the cistern is sunk into the ground at (or somewhat above) the ground-floor level of the house, the water can easily be lifted to the kitchen and washroom with a hand pump or buckets.

Gray Water Potential

Every household must use water for cleaning purposes. The byproduct is gray water. Any homestead that has water shortages would be wise to consider using this for watering crops of some kind. Ideally, this water should be applied to the soil immediately and not stored, because of the putrifaction that will occur if held in a sunless, anaerobic environment. Also, it may be best applied in situations where exposed leaves and fruits are not scheduled for immediate harvest. And finally, it is important to avoid using chlorine and other toxic cleaners that can harm the soil as well as the people who employ them.

House Above The Garden

The use of gray water is one important reason why the house should be at a level above the garden, or at least an amount of garden that can utilize the volume produced. It may be possible to plumb the house so that the sinks, laundry facilities, and bathing facilities can be switched between the garden and the regular septic system. This way, if the water is not needed in the garden, it can be disposed of in the drain field.

Growing up in the mountains of rural Mexico, my mother noticed that the natives often had a patch of garden where they threw out their wash water. This little patch was usually extraordinarily healthy. Plants love wash water. It is like a steady supply of fresh compost, and soaps and detergents enhance nutrient absorption.

Don’t Poop In The Water

People are not marine animals, and when they dilute their feces it creates black water. This stuff is seriously nasty, useless for irrigation, and often needless. (Diluted livestock manure is almost as bad.) A typical septic system is a type of anaerobic composter, with a constant liquid effluent leaching out into the soil and evaporating. Human waste can, and should, be covered with soil or vegetable material, retaining nitrogen and keeping the flies away. So, if it is possible to set up a water-less system for dealing with human waste, it eliminates two problems—pollution and wasted water (hundreds of gallons per month). This system can be used alongside existing septic systems.

Arranging the Homestead

We have looked at several elements of productivity and sustainability in property. Assuming that we have settled on a piece, how can we best arrange our facilities?

Different people will have different priorities. However, I would suggest the following:

  • Productivity,
  • Efficiency,
  • Security,
  • Defensibility.

As we discuss these points, the various items will be woven together.

Privacy and Access

First of all, let us take a quick look at privacy and access. There is nothing quite like having peavish neighbors, who have your operation as their living-room view and complain about everything. In a time of distress, this could easily turn ugly, since lack of privacy gives a serious disadvantage in operational security.

Is the property accessed from above or from below? Is the prime agricultural land visible from the public road?

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