Home, Garden and Orchard Layout

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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Cleared and staked out area.
 Photo by Ron Melchiore

The Off-Grid and Free series recounts one homesteading couple’s journey to build a new homestead in Nova Scotia.

The last time we corresponded, we had cleared out a section of property, flagged out the location of house, garden, orchard, well, septic and solar array and were ready to do the nitty gritty on the house.

A Quick Personal Update

But first a bit of house keeping. As many of you know, we moved from the wilderness of Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia to start our third and final homestead build. It was my intent and desire to write occasionally to bring you along on the journey and share some of what we’ve been up to.

To be honest, I’m still finishing the “eternal house,” have just started building our greenhouse, am working on getting ahead on firewood etc. and I’m simply maxed out. But we still have the pep to get things done; in fact, part of the last year was taking some of that pep and training for sprints to compete as an old guy. I used to run sprints as a younger man and then gave it up for about 35 years. I paid a high price last year in terms of time and pain (torn quad, gimpy knees, torn hamstring) but I set the Provincial records this winter in my age group. I have no desire to toot my own horn and I mention it to offer encouragement to all that no matter your age and aspirations, it’s never too late to follow your dreams, including living a more self-reliant life.

In regards to this self-reliant life we’ve enjoyed, a little over a year ago, we were asked by a publisher to write a book about self-reliance. That book, The Self-Sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader took an enormous amount of our time to write. We compiled 40 years of experience and knowledge into one comprehensive book and we can now breathe a sigh of relief that it is on the market and we can get back to building our homestead. I’ll provide a link below for anybody that cares to check it out. Now let’s get back to our post.

At the time we had the roadwork done to access our small clearing in the forest, we also had the excavator dig a well to confirm we had a viable water source here. Based on the positive results, we installed the well and staked the house location properly in relation to that well.

One of the reasons we chose this exact location is because the view of the ocean is directly in front of the house which faces south. Perfect! We want the house to face south and having a view of the ocean as well is a bonus. With my properly set compass and 100-foot tape measure, I set out to locate the corners of the house.

Compass and Declination

I should mention that it is important at this stage to have a compass set with declination factored in. In North America, you might be off plus/minus 20 degrees from due south if declination isn’t taken into account.

In a nutshell, the earth’s core is molten iron and it creates a magnetic field that is slowly migrating around. The fields created by this molten iron core are in a northern “zone”. This is magnetic north which is what your compass will point to whereas the axis the earth spins on is true north. Depending on where you live, true north might be east or west of magnetic north. Declination is the difference in degrees between true north and magnetic north based on your particular location. There are websites dedicated to showing declination for all areas and then it’s simply a matter of finding your particular area with the amount of declination and adding or subtracting those degrees from magnetic north (what the compass points to) to find true north. Once you have true north, 180 degrees from that is due south. Most compasses have a way to modify and set the declination and many modern GPS units do so automatically or have a user entry.

House Layout

Getting back to locating the house, I drove a stake in for the back corner (NE corner) of the house. To be the most accurate, I then set my compass right on the top of the stake and used that as a stable platform for siting the next corner (SE corner) due south. I didn’t pound any stakes in too deep since they will need a bit of tweaking. I ran my 100 foot tape measure and measured the appropriate length for the house and set the southeast corner. I repositioned the compass on top of that stake and repeated the process with tape measure and compass to find the last 2 corners. In my case corner 3 was due west (SW corner of the house) and corner 4 was due north which was the northwest corner. I then took my tape measure and measured both diagonals. The idea is to make those two measurements exact. By doing so, I know I have a perfectly square outline.

It may take some tweaking to get a perfectly square shape. If the diagonal measurements are unequal it means I have a parallelogram. The idea is to turn that parallelogram into a rectangle or square which will be the ultimate shape of our house. Equal tape measurements signify we had right angles for all 4 corners. Now we knew exactly where the house would sit.

We needed to make sure the solar array was also facing due south and we needed to consider if the nearby trees would shade those panels on the short days of mid-December when the sun is at its lowest angle. It’s easy to overlook that when you are laying everything out in summer and the sun is high in the sky. It will be a huge problem if one sets the solar array and doesn’t take potential shading in winter into account. It is deceptive how low an angle the sun can track in winter especially the further north one lives.

Our greenhouse would be attached to the south side of the house. We needed to clear and make sure trees would not be a shading issue there as well.

Garden and Orchard Layout

The garden and orchard were the next areas to tackle. Johanna researched the proper spacing for the various types and quantities of fruit trees and fruiting plants we wanted to grow and using graph paper laid out where everything was to go. To start with, we wanted to plant cherries, peaches, plums, apples and pears along with grapes, blueberries, currants, strawberries, black berries and raspberries.

Once again using tape measure, stakes and sledge hammer, we tentatively pounded stakes in where every tree was to go in a logical, orderly manner. The corners of plots where asparagus or strawberries were to go were marked out as well. Each row of fruit trees was staggered from the previous row so that the sun had the best chance of reaching each tree once they were fully grown.

Photo by Ron Melchiore

When the excavator was finishing the driveway, we also had the man rip out the roots from some of the orchard and garden sections and rummage around for any boulders it could find. And it did find numerous boulders which were piled off to the side. The excavator saved us weeks of back breaking work by wrestling with stumps and rocks in both the orchard and garden areas. As it was, we still wrestled with boulders and rocks every few feet while tilling. Slowly but surely, we have lugged or dragged them out one at a time and tilling is becoming easier with each passing season.

Boulder wrestling.
Photo by Ron Melchiore

By the time the excavator had plucked rock and roots out, we were well into June but decided to try planting a small garden. It was a pathetic garden since the soil needed some serious work but it still gave us a sense of accomplishment to have a small harvest by summer’s end.

The last thing we used an excavator for was to dig out the basement. It was our intent to only have a partial basement that would house a few supplies and be a cool area for our root cellar. The rest of the area under the house would be more of a crawl space. We figured this would save us money on building costs. Less concrete having to be poured for the basement floor; less digging with the excavator which charges by the hour. But at the suggestion of the operator, he advised us it would be easier in the long run to dig the whole area out for a full basement and in hind sight, it made the job of laying out the footings a much easier task.

We ended up only pouring concrete in one area of the basement while the rest was left with a vapor barrier and foam insulation as a floor finish. Now we have lots of room for storage as well as our root cellar.

Frost level in our area is 4 feet so our excavated hole was 4 feet deep. We had to make a split second call on taking the advice of the operator since he suggested digging the whole thing out after he had started. But in hindsight, I wish we had given it a little more thought. I would have only had him dig down 3 feet and then all the fill taken out of the hole could have been banked up around the house which would have made a good grade for water drainage. Additionally, and this would apply to anyone, being a foot higher would have lessened the chance of water in the basement. Less digging also would have saved some money.

Next time we get together, we’ll discuss why we chose a dug well over a drilled well and why we chose a new construction technique of ICF (insulated concrete forms) as opposed to traditional wood framing.


Ron Melchioreand his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published byMoon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors ofThe Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron atIn the Wildernessand onFacebookandPinterest.


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