I am forever indebted to Storey’s Basic Country Skills. It is, itself, a perfectly comprehensive and useful book but of no remarkable distinction compared to the numerous all-in-one homesteading, country skills and home how-to encyclopedias also available for sale. Personally, I am more inclined to reach for The Encyclopedia of Country Living, which is similar in content, but with a friendly, slightly frazzled character that appeals to me.
But I digress. The point is, Storey’s Basic Country Skills introduced me to a magazine-sized booklet on homesteading (first published in the 1940s as a more substantial hardback book) called The “Have-More” Plan. I find nearly everything about The “Have-More” Plan charming, even if parts seem hilariously old fashioned.
Written by the husband and wife team of Ed and Carolyn Robinson, the standard assumptions of the era slip into things like gendered household division of labor. “Because a homestead offers a woman an unlimited field of creative activities, it removes the complaints against housekeeping,” says Mrs. Robinson. She goes on to assure us, “how ridiculous it is to judge a woman’s housekeeping ability by whether or not her country house is spotless” given that the homesteading woman will “want to pick strawberries that are just ripe, wrap a chilled lamb for the freezer or go fishing with [her] children” instead of doing dishes and making beds. Well, on that last part I can agree!
There is a section dedicated to the “newest” technology, like battery-raising chickens at home. “This efficient new way of raising eating chickens has become increasingly popular among the large commercial poultrymen during the past few years, but only recently have small broiler batteries been made for family use.” Imagine any modern homesteader waxing on about the cleanliness and advantages of chickens kept tightly confined in crowded wire cages their whole lives! Similar suggestions about “new” (i.e., industrial) methods of animal-keeping appear for pork and other poultry production.
Nonetheless, I loved the tone of this booklet and the very 1940s-style illustrations. The suggestions for homestead layout and organization are timeless.
Storey’s Basic Country Skills summarized 17 homestead “rules” from the The “Have-More” Plan and it was this summary of essential principles for a successful, lower-effort productive homestead that initially caught my eye. I found these rules completely fascinating, and kept thinking about how they applied to my little suburban homestead.
Here are those 17 Homestead Rules, along with my assessment of how well we are doing in each area.
1. Every bit of land should be used advantageously.
Our 1/3rd acre manages to house annual vegetable gardens, fruit trees, bushes, chickens, ducks, a large pantry and food storage, and solar energy production. Compared to most suburban properties, I think we are very productive! There is still plenty of space that could be utilized more effectively or more intensively, but questions of time and maintenance commitment limit our ability to push further into production right now.
Overall grade: C+
2. Garden rows should be of good length for easy cultivation, and should run north and south for equal sunlight.
I have always gardened in wide beds, not narrow traditional rows, so this isn’t hugely applicable to our garden. My current vegetable garden has winding, loopy, mounded beds. The majority of the growing area does run north-south, but since some of the beds are basically strange U-shaped things, it’s not consistent.
The growing area in the small greenhouse is mostly east-west, and if I could go back and re-do that, I would. In general, I think the north-south advice is very good for northern-hemisphere homesteaders, but growing in wide beds is a better choice for space-constrained gardeners.
Overall grade: B-
3. Pasture should be fenced into plots for rotation. Pasture gates should be wide enough for entry for haying and plowing equipment.
I don’t have pasture, since I don’t have animals that are allowed to graze. I wish I did! If I had more space and was designing my ideal poultry yard, or if I were to take on sheep, goats, or cows, I would design a silviculture/paddock-shift style enclosure (something like this), where animals are moved frequently to fresh paddocks that include both pasture and productive fruit trees.
In terms of wide gates, I’m going to apply this advice to paths. In earlier efforts to make everything as productive as possible, I short-changed paths. “Why have a path if you can have a tree?” was basically my approach. The problem is, you have to be able to get to the tree, to harvest, prune, and otherwise maintain. I now think wide, gracious paths and lots of access makes everything better and easier.
Overall grade: C for access paths and gates, otherwise non-applicable.
4. Vegetable gardens should be handy to the kitchen.
I cannot agree more with this. Even on 1/3rd of an acre, I find the inertia of laziness a compelling motivation to avoid garden work. A garden placed so that you nearly trip over it is far more likely to be a garden that is used and cared for.
In terms of our layout, the herbs growing just off the back step are used nearly every day. The garden bed that sits astride the driveway is impossible to ignore, and even the “far away” main garden is really less than 30 seconds from the back door. All my garden spaces are extremely convenient to access from the kitchen.
Overall grade: A
5. Lawn and shrubbery arranged attractively, yet easily cared for.
This is a hard one to assess. I just re-graded and re-seeded an area that was once a lovely eco-lawn, became a failed duck pond, and is now being returned to eco-lawn. Lawn and I have a long and not-always-cooperative relationship.
In general, the non-productive areas of the property are fairly low maintenance. I don’t have anything like roses or complex hedges that require frequent trimming. We do have a cedar hedge along the back property line that requires trimming about every 6 months, but typically that slides to a yearly job. Are they attractive? I mean…sure? We have functional background plantings of various shrubs. I don’t think about them often, so at the least they are visually inoffensive, I suppose. The hedge of Burkwood osmanthus smells delicious in late winter. That’s a winner.
Overall grade: B+
6. Child’s play area screened from street and located so it can be watched from the house.
We don’t have a dedicated child’s play area. We are close to several nice parks, but those are not near enough that I can watch them from the house!
Oliver mostly plays directly out back, in an area that is easy to monitor. The area is supposed to be a relaxing patio area – the sort of place one would elegantly entertain if one did not have children. Instead, it is Oliver’s fireplace-building, micro-road-creation and welding-experimentation area. It’s a mud and gravel pit, basically.
Although it’s a bit painful to see what’s become of my patio, I guess it meets the technical standards of a safe, easily observed place for kids to play.
Overall grade: B+
7. Compost heap should be placed between barn and garden.
My main compost tumbler is inside the chicken run area, as close to “between the animal area and the garden area” as it’s possible to be in my yard. This setup has worked very well, and I support this “rule” completely based on my own experiences. Compostable high-nitrogen poop from the animal area combines with low-nitrogen bedding and garden waste to make excellent compost for the garden. Positioning the compost area central to both ensures that the path to and from the compost area stays short. This in turn ensures that it’s easier to keep the magic compost dance going.
Overall grade: A+
8. Trees should be spaced so as not to be crowded at maturity.
Do as they say, not as I do. I became enamored of this concept called Backyard Orchard Culture, which is deliberate overcrowding of fruit trees combined with regular intensive pruning. When done correctly, this method should give you a nice gradual supply of fresh fruit over a very long season. Perhaps I simply did not do it right. Or perhaps the whole thing is all a clever marketing scheme to get people to buy 4-times the number of fruit trees they otherwise would.
In any event, my experience with deliberately under-spaced trees has been mostly negative. Fruit production is limited, disease loads are high, the treadmill of pruning is exhausting and easy to neglect, and overall yields from crowded dwarf trees are far less than what I get from a standard 3-tier espalier. The espalier, by the way, are also far easier to prune and care for.
So, based on my experience I would say this is an important rule, and I wish I had followed it.
Overall grade: D-
9. Shower, bath, and dressing room should be accessible from outside.
This would be so great! What if your house was set up with a mud-room transition area immediately accessible from the garden. You’d open the backdoor into a sturdy, practical room. There would be a toilet, sink, shower, and changing area. If you had garden vegetables in hand, you could rinse them in the sink.
You’d leave your grubby garden boots and pants and gloves in the mud-room, change, and slip into comfy clean slippers and appropriate clothes before entering the home. Garden dirt would stay outside, and the house would stay cleaner.
What a fantasy!!! Alas, I have nothing like that and my best case scenario is I manage to kick my muddy boots off before running through the dining room and living room en route to the bathroom.
Overall grade: F
10. Barn should be to the lee of the house, and close enough to make supervision of livestock easy.
I assume they want the barn in the lee (or downwind) from the house primarily so that barn smells are carried away from the home. Another advantage to this positioning would be that the house would serve as a wind break to the barn, helping to keep the animals more comfortable. But I suspect the smell thing is the main point.
In the Puget Sound region, the general prevailing winds tend to come from the south or southwest in the fall and winter. In summer, winds usually blow from the north or northwest. In Cascadia, with mountains, urban cores, water and other features that lead to crazy microclimates, it’s hard to say what the wind will do in any particular yard. When the wind is noticeable in my yard, it tends to come from the south.
Since our poultry yard is south of the house, this is not ideal from a smell perspective. However, only on the hottest of summer days do I really notice any sort of smell coming from the coop area, and this time of year is when we are more likely to get winds blowing in a favorable direction for smell dispersal.
I think for the urban or suburban homesteader, cleanliness and maintenance is the most important factor to keeping animal smells down.
Overall grade: C on the technical specifications, B+ on general odor management.
11. Adequate closet and storage space in the house.
I used to live in a home built in 1917 and can say with confidence that American cultural standards for “adequate storage” have changed a lot. I suspect compared to any 1940s home, my spacious suburban American home has kingly levels of storage.
We do not have a basement or an attic for storage, which means our 2-car garage is overtaxed trying to serve multiple storage and functional roles, but in general I think our storage is more than adequate and any inability to work within our existing storage is a function of having too much shit, not having too little storage.
Overall grade: A
12. Space for good home workshop.
One of the many functions that crowd our garage is “workshop.” But that space is haphazard, constantly put-upon, disorganized, crowded and suffers from vague boundaries. It is space, and it contains the essential trappings of a home workshop – tools, a bench, etc. – but it is not a “good space” or – perhaps more fairly – a “well utilized space.”
Overall grade: D+, but with better organization the current space could probably get to a B.
13. Housing for garden tools, wheelbarrow, lawn mower, small tractor.
Similar to the home workshop area, we have several areas which serve as storage for yard and garden tools and essentials, but these areas are not rationalized. Large bulky items like concrete mesh panels and PVC garden hoops live in one spot. Weather-sensitive tools like the pressure washer and push mower alternate between the garage and a spot near the garage. Small hand tools are mostly in a 5-gallon bucket on the back porch. Others are in another 5 gallon bucket with my seed starting equipment. It’s too distributed.
Probably the core tenet of organization is to have a specific place for everything, and to put an item back in its place when you are done using it. Without a clear, comprehensive storage solution for yard and garden tools, many of these tools don’t have a firm place. This leads to ineffective put-back of gear and occasional lost tools or unnecessary wear.
Overall grade: C-, but with better organization this could probably get to a B.
14. Cold storage room for vegetables and canned goods.
I do not have a root cellar, cold storage room, or similar. I do have a good-sized and well-ordered pantry, with backup storage for canned goods, deep-store dry goods, fermented foods and similar.
We are certainly not going to build a root cellar (the water table in the winter is often within inches of ground level) so I think we have utilized our existing space for food storage very well. I’d say my only real limitation is the ability to root cellar fresh fruit and vegetables like apples, carrots, cabbage and potatoes, but in the Pacific Northwest, savvy garden timing and cultivar choice, plus simple season-extension techniques, allow harvest of fresh produce year-round anyway.
Overall grade: B+
15. Fencing arranged so that livestock may be turned loose from barn.
If fencing includes the fence around the chicken coop, and “barn” means the coop itself, then I totally have this! At a very scaled down level, I think we have implemented this perfectly. Larger scale implementation isn’t applicable to our current situation.
Overall grade: A
16. Space for home freezer, laundry, fireplace wood.
Man you really can tell that this comes from a different era can’t you? A home freezer and laundry space is more or less standard in single-family American homes these days, and we have both. In addition to the standard fridge/freezer combo, we also have a separate freestanding freezer that holds bulk meat purchases, homemade pesto, frozen soups and similar.
We do not have a wood burning fireplace, but do keep a limited amount of firewood on hand for backyard fires, camping, fueling the rocket stove, and preparedness.
Overall grade: A
17. Orchard should not shade garden.
Nothing on my property substantially shades my productive garden areas. Because I’m in suburbia, large neighboring trees, houses, and similar do impact the total sun my garden receives, but within the existing constraints I think we optimize sunlight fairly well.
I’m going to dock one grade for my garden shed, which does block morning light to the perennial bed, and stops afternoon light from reaching an ornamental planting area. Without the shed, which we installed and for which we must therefore take responsibility, sunlight utilization would be slightly but not substantially better.
Overall grade: B
What I learned from this exercise
The 17 rules really do get to the heart of the lifestyle from a function perspective, and following them will tend to lead to an organized and well-planned homestead design.
In general, our homestead does well in general storage and in the design relationship between kitchen, coop, compost and garden. Since that’s the core of our productive home, I feel very positive about that. Areas for improvement for us include task-specific storage, especially for garden tools and a workshop area. Also in need of revision is my backyard orchard scheme, which simply hasn’t paid off as I hoped.
If you were to assess your own homestead within the context of these 17 Homestead Rules, how would you do? Are there any principles that help you identify key areas for improvement?