Off-Grid and Free: Siting a House and Elements of Our New Homestead

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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The Off-Grid and Free series recounts one homesteading couple’s journey to build a new homestead in Nova Scotia.Read the full series here. Find the author’s book, Off-Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, at Moon Willow Press.

In our last installment, we built the road in to the new homestead and did the land clearing with our trusty chainsaw. Now that we had an area cleared for the new homestead, it was time to site the house and from there, lay out the rest of the elements. Where would the garden, herb garden, woodshed, compost bins, solar panels, septic system, water well and orchard go in relation to the house? Where were the best paths to access views of the ocean and branch out for firewood gathering as well as walking paths?

House Location is Priority

As you can see, everything really hinges on where the house is situated so that was our first task. In our case, because we had a large chunk of land with a great deal of flexibility, we had no concerns about building near property lines. We wanted to have an ocean view but we also took into account future shoreline erosion. The house will ultimately end up as an oddity for the fish to explore once it tumbles into the sea, but it’s our hope that is a long way into the future.

We staked out the 4 corners of the house as best we could and I used a compass properly set to take into account declination so that the house would be oriented facing due south. Using the northeast corner as a reference point, I sighted down towards the southeast corner and made sure it was a line oriented due south and then repeated for the northwest/southwest line. It took some time to make sure the dimensions of the house were right, the house faced south and the 4 stakes we pounded in were for a square home. I checked squareness by measuring the diagonals. If the 2 diagonal measurements are equal, you can be assured of a square building.

Locating the Rest of the Homestead Elements

Well water. Once the house placement was finalized, the other homestead elements could be figured out and located. To a large degree, locations are logical and fit into place easily. We had a test hole dug for a well which produced water. That gave us confidence we had a supply of potable water. Once the well was located, the septic system was placed at least 100 feet from our water source.

A woodshed should be handy to the door closest to any wood burning device. No point lugging firewood any further than necessary and the closer the stove is to the entry, the less mess is created moving firewood around the house.

The gardens and orchard should be an easy walk from the house. A garden will grow just fine no matter the orientation to the sun. We’ve had a garden oriented north/south as well as several gardens oriented east/west. The important thing to take into account is the location of the tall vegetables in relation to the shorter ones so the tall items don’t cast a shadow on the shorter vegetables.

Barn. If you plan to have a barn, locate it so that it’s relatively handy for lugging water from the well. But keep in mind animals generate copious quantities of manure, so pens and compost bins should be as far as possible from your clean water source. We want to make sure no contamination ever gets to the well. If the animal pens and compost bins are on higher ground with drainage in the opposite direction of your well, so much the better.

A Small Start to the Garden

Once we had the house and elements located, it was time to get a simple garden planted. In our case, while the excavator was out building our access driveway in to the homestead, we had it rip tree stumps and large rocks from the garden and orchard area. The teeth on the bucket also semi broke up the thick, dense forest sod. This sod was brutal to deal with. I’ve split a lot of firewood in my day and tried using the splitting maul to chop up manageable pieces of the sod, but many times, my whack simply bounced off the ground. The stuff was that dense. Forget trying to chop it with a shovel or spade.

Ultimately, as each smaller chunk of sod came out of the garden area, all dirt and organic matter was shaken back on to the garden and the remainder was piled to dry for later processing with the chipper. Once shredded, the material would also be returned back to the garden. I’ve found that using an old chain on my chainsaw is a convenient way to cut up small pieces to feed into the chipper. I’ve also found that our chipper clogged up at the outlet screen when we processed the sod. Our screen has about 1 inch holes. We didn’t have a larger screen so I temporarily removed the screen thus making it much easier to run the sod through. That screen is a protective mechanism preventing a hand from being lost so please keep safety in mind when that screen is off. Only use a long handled shovel to keep the area cleaned of chips. Never hands or feet anywhere near that output chute.

Our first garden was pathetic. I used our rototiller to churn up a small spot for planting and it was a real workout. Till a few feet and hit a boulder, dig boulder out and go a few more feet. Many of the boulders required pry bars and straps just to get them to the surface. I can now understand why there are so many rock walls as property lines. The new settlers had the same dilemma of starting anew on cleared forestland, although they likely had a draft horse or oxen to help with the load.

By the time we had the ground ready to plant it was July, so we got a very late start. Note also I’m wearing a bug net. Rarely do I use one. The black flies were thick that first year. We figured mosquitoes would be a problem but they turned out to be nothing compared to the black flies.

The garden gave a taste of various vegetables but after the wrestling match with establishing a small plot, we considered it a victory to get anything at all. We also learned that while the soil looked rich, it was deficient in everything.

Foundation Digging

The last thing we needed to do was to invite the excavator back to dig our house foundation. The intent was to dig a partial cellar and leave the rest at grade, essentially creating a crawl space under most of the house. But when the excavator showed up, the operator suggested doing a full basement since it would be easier to dig and lay out the footings etc. Excavating a basement was new to us so we deferred to his experience and went with a full basement.

The excavator operator brought a transit to help with determining how deep to dig. All valuable top soil was scooped off the surface and piled for use in the gardens. No point having all that good earth go to waste. All the roots of small trees and shrubs were piled separately and over time will be cleaned of soil and organic matter. Any stems that can be salvaged for firewood or the chipper will be utilized. The bigger roots will be burned in campfires.

So I’ll leave you with the big hole in the ground, the start of a garden and a plan in my head on how this will all come together. Next time we’ll lay out the footings, make a start on the orchard/fruit plants/asparagus and discuss building with ICF versus conventional framing.


Ron Melchiore and 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 by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron atInthewilderness.netand on Facebook and Pinterest  Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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