Here’s your guide to begin living off the land using permaculture principles. What follows will help you realize your dreams in an efficient, effective and holistic way.
This guide is for you, whether you’re dreaming of getting a place of your own, you’ve just bought property, you rent or trade for your land, or you’ve owned for a while.
The Wild Abundance team has several decades of experience, including lots of successes and failures to learn from. Plus, we’ve supported hundreds of students and clients as they learn this way of life, too. Students in our permaculture classes have gone on to develop amazing projects of all sizes.
To learn more about us (and why you might want to take our advice), read this.
Everyone’s dreams and specific situations are slightly different. That’s why we’ve included lots of questions to ask yourself throughout this guide. They’re all aimed at getting you thinking about the many interrelated elements of a land-based life. Additionally, look out for links and resources to help you navigate each step with confidence and the right information.
Let’s get started!
This guide is broken up into four main sections, based on where you’re at in your land search or development. Use the graphics below to skip around to the information that’s most relevant for you.
Looking for Land – Considerations, Questions and Resources
Getting clear about your “why” will help to hone your vision and plan for living off the land. With this concrete vision, you’ll be able to make choices more easily that move you in that direction.
In most cases, when we’re drawn to learning permaculture and living more sustainably, we’re simultaneously wanting to move toward something and to get away from other things. In view of this, here’s a great exercise to help you get specific about what you want and don’t want.
Take the time to explore these questions, adding any and all details that feel important to you. Write down your answers! The resulting document can be a touchstone you’ll revisit as you search for the right place, or as you work on developing where you currently live.
What are you hoping to get closer to, or get away from, by living off the land?
Here are some examples of what many folks want to embrace when they dream of living off the land. Throughout this guide, we’ll offer suggestions of how to move toward the things you really want. Write down any of these that are true for you, then add others if there’s something we haven’t thought of.
- Getting closer to the land
- Connection (with the Earth, plants, animals, self, community, family, seasons, ancestors, seasons, etc.)
- Growing food (food self-sufficiency, selling food, relationship with food)
- Growing and making herbal medicine
- Building community
- Having ownership
- More autonomy
- Building Soil
- Construction and tinkering (a more handmade life)
- Building your own house
- Children feeling connected to the land
- Feeling safe
- Self-sufficiency (energy, water, materials, etc.)
- Clean air, water, food
- Slower pace of life
- Actively combating climate change (or at least contributing less to it)
- Living in line with your values
- Remembering the old ways
- Trying out permaculture ideas and principles in practice
- Anything else? Add your own hopes and dreams here!
Here are some examples of what many folks want to escape from when they dream of living off the land. If you’re hoping to get away from something that’s not on the list, add it! Throughout this guide we’ll offer practical tips on the reality (and complexity) of disentangling yourself from parts of the modern world you may not like.
- Rent traps (i.e. paying rent forever on a place you never feel secure in; “throwing money away” on rent)
- Lack of Privacy
- Lack of Autonomy
- Kids growing up disconnected from nature
- Fast-paced life
- Anything else? Add your hopes and dreams here!
Reality Check: Some common misperceptions about permaculture
Work and money while living off the land
Outside jobs vs. earning money off the land
No matter how you slice it, you’ll need some money to live off the land. Some folks prefer to keep an outside job to earn income, while others want the land itself and their work on it to generate money. Both are good options, and only you can decide which is right for your situation. Some factors to consider are: How far away are you from potential employment? Can you work from home? And is the climate/weather where you live such that having a part-time desk job might actually be nice? If you think you might want to earn a living off the land, consider a gardening job to start, so you can get a sense of the workload and earning potential. To dive deeper into this question of how to earn money, read more about ways to make money off the land and jobs that are compatible with land-based life.
After you buy a place, it may increase or decrease in value. This is something to consider, especially if you expect to sell at some point. Even if you don’t plan on selling, land acts as a kind of savings account, in case of emergency; so resale value is something to keep in mind.
How to determine resale value is a bit of a guessing game, but you can consider some concrete factors. For one, proximity to a popular destination town or city usually means stable or increasing value. Similarly, natural resources like waterways or established forest usually have a positive impact on value. On the flipside, extreme remoteness (and lack of access to resources and amenities) and prevalence of flooding and other natural disasters may decrease land value or make it hard to sell. Access is another key issue, with good access being a boon versus poor or limited access making it harder to sell or fetch a good price.
Consider and value your time
So many of us don’t place value on one of our most important resources: ourselves. But, our time is valuable! When you’re trying to live off the land and lead a balanced life, time quickly comes into focus as a finite resource. The foundational ethics of permaculture are “Earth care, people care, and fair share” – and for good reason. Taking care of ourselves while we tend to the land allows us to keep living this lifestyle for years to come.
Here’s an exercise that can help you evaluate if commuting a long distance while also living off the land makes sense for you. It will help you decide whether you’re actually getting a “deal” by getting cheaper land that is further from a town or center.
Let’s say you have a 45-minute commute five days a week.
Consider valuing yourself at a rate of $20/hour.
Let’s say you commute 50 weeks of the year.
The math comes to $7,500/year ($625/month) just for your time, not counting gas or wear and tear on the vehicle.
It also means 375 hours/year (30 hours/month) in the car instead of developing, caring for and enjoying your land-based life.
Consider this investment when you evaluate the “price” of a piece of land that is far from your work or school.
Will you get locked into your job to pay back a big mortgage?
This question relates to the one above. If you buy expensive land, you may get stuck with a job in order to pay it off. In this case, you might not have time to develop or enjoy the land you’ve bought. As a general rule, if you’ve got lots of time, you can spend less money, and if you have lots of money, things will go more quickly. Therefore, if you’ve got no time at all because you’re working for money, and all that money is paying a mortgage, things won’t move very quickly.
If your dream is to free yourself from the 40-hour workweek (or from your particular job, from needing a regularly high income or from stressing out about money), this is an important question to ask yourself.
Here are 3 tips for avoiding a debt trap.
Permaculture living and community
Human beings are social animals. Keep this in mind as you approach living off the land. You may want to get away from people. On the other hand, you may imagine living in a spacious, natural environment while also being surrounded by like-minded people as part of a thriving community. Whatever your particular preferences and hopes, social needs are a basic part of the human experience.
Here are 7 ways to include community building in a land search. Additionally, you can explore the following questions to solidify what you want in the realm of social engagement and community. Then, use your answers to guide your land search or land development.
What kind of human engagement do you want and need?
- Ideally, will you see others on a regular basis, or from time to time, or hardly ever?
- Do you have a need and desire for chance encounters and meeting new people?
- Do you like and feel nourished by large gatherings like concerts, festivals or conventions?
- Do you prefer small groups of people, particularly people you already know well?
- Is it important to you to engage with diverse populations?
How far do you want to be from town?
In asking this question, list for yourself all of the various reasons you would go to town, plus how often you need or want to visit those places. Also take into consideration your car’s gas mileage, maintenance costs, seasonal road conditions, and your interest and ability to carpool. Here are some examples of reasons to go to town:
- Retail stores (food, building materials, animal feed, etc.)
How many acres do you need to live off the land?
How many acres you need to live off the land varies greatly and depends on many factors. How many people are in your family or group? How much rainfall does your area get? Will you be raising animals; if so, what kind? What kind of land is it (hilly, rocky, pasture, etc.)? Here are several factors to consider.
How much do you want/need? If neighbors or passers-by can see your home, (and therefore might stop and say hi), would that be pleasant for you – or a bother? Will seeing lights or hearing sounds from neighboring houses bother you? Sound can travel a long distance, especially on open, flat land. Do you plan to have late and/or loud gatherings that might irritate neighbors? Even in rural areas, industries like rock quarries and sawmills can cause a lot of noise and traffic during operating hours.
Two or three acres can feel private, if there are lots of trees and some hills nestling you in. On the other hand, in open, flat areas, you’ll need much more (20 or more acres) in order to feel private.
A final consideration is future development. One way to explore this is to research zoning laws. You can usually find these online (search “[your county]) zoning laws”), or in some cases, you’ll have to visit your county or municipal clerk’s office, the library or the city attorney’s office. Zoning information will tell you what kind of development is legally possible in your area. Additionally, GIS maps can tell you whether undeveloped land around you is in a conservation easement (unlikely to be developed), or whether it’s a private holding that may someday turn into a subdivision or other development.
Future building sites
Try to imagine all of the possible buildings you might want. Then write down how much space you may need for buildings in total. To get started, you may only need a small house for yourself – or yourself and one or two other people. But, do you want to raise a family? Do you envision your children eventually building their own homes on your land? Will your parents come to live there at some point? Would you like to have a community with other folks living there too, and maybe a community center type of building? Would you like to generate income by renting out buildings? Where will everyone park, and on what roads will they reach their parking spaces? Do you want animals? Where will they live?
Here’s an example of roughly how much space various buildings take up
(Remember, one acre is 43,650 square feet):
- Single family home: The average for new construction in the US is 2,500 square feet. We think that’s huge. In our opinion, a comfortable size for a family of four is 1,000 to 1,500 square feet. Add to that about 750 square feet for a septic leach field.
- Rental/granny unit: 600 to 1,000 square feet, plus 500 square feet for a septic leach field.
- Barn for a few goats, hay and tool storage: 1,500 to 2,000 square feet.
- Parking area for five cars: 800 square feet.
- Community building: 500 to 800 square feet.
Potential to parcel (subdivide) land in the future
As mentioned above, buying a large tract and then parceling it off to friends or family can be a great way to build community. It’s also a prudent financial decision, if you’re going to buy a large piece of land, to choose one that easily can be parceled in the future. You may need to sell off some land to generate income at some point. In some rural counties, tracts of land cannot be parceled into anything smaller than three acres. Look into local regulations before you buy.
Animals can take up a huge amount of space. Ideally, you’ll be able to practice rotational grazing, which is better for animal and ecological health. Exactly how much space you’ll need for animals depends on many factors: soil and rainfall, how much supplemental feed you want or are able to provide, your fencing strategy, topography, and the species and breed of animal(s).
It’s important to realize that animals need shelter, along with outdoor foraging and exercise areas. In addition, hay for ruminants (cows, goats, sheep, etc.) and horses takes up a lot of space and needs to be kept dry.
Generally speaking, if you’re pasture-raising animals, you can stock:
- 2 to 8 goats/ acre
- 3 to 6 sheep/ acre
- 1.5 to 3 acres/ cow
- 10 Chickens/ 1,000 square feet
Check out these Housing and Space Guidelines for Livestock for more detailed information.
Open spaces for play and projects
Do you love soccer, frisbee, capture-the-flag, or other outdoor games? Are there children in your family or community who enjoy open spaces to run? All too often, when you plan to live off the land, every square foot of flattish land gets dedicated to food production. But this leaves nowhere to run around. Play is an important aspect of living (happily) off the land, and is worth considering. Fortunately, such open spaces can double as staging areas for carpentry and other projects which will also bring ease to your land-based life. As a reference, the smallest regulation-sized soccer field is just over one acre.
Unconventional food production
For the majority of us, living off the land and practicing permaculture will involve growing lots of food. While tending a garden or field is the most obvious way to do this, there are unconventional ways to produce food, too.
Along with annual vegetable gardening, most permaculture systems integrate trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables as well. These longer-lived plants can help utilize hilly or rocky space that’s unsuitable for vegetable gardening (see this perennial primer to learn more about these kinds of plants). In addition to familiar fruits and vegetables, undertaking activities like mushroom cultivation and wild harvesting, plus other kinds of woodland foraging can increase the food production potential of a piece of land, particularly a shady one.
Annual vegetable production
Here’s a handy vegetable production chart that breaks down about how many plants of various vegetables you’ll need to feed a family, plus how much space each of those vegetables can take up. Keep in mind, charts like these provide generalizations. Your growing conditions, management, and the varieties you choose to grow will have a huge impact on yield. See this guide to growing enough food for a family for more on management.
As a general rule, more intensive management (i.e. heavily amending the soil, diligent weeding, mulching, and pest control, season extenders like greenhouses, etc.) will yield more food than less management. With intensive management, an area as small as 1/5 acre can yield enough vegetables to feed one person for one year.
Some other factors to keep in mind are crop rotation, fallow years (to restore soil), irrigation and water systems, and access to soil amendments (like compost, manure, and mulch). For self-sufficiency (low to no external inputs), the above-mentioned ⅕ of an acre is probably more like ½ an acre.
Access to forest
Woodlands have many benefits for permaculture and living off the land. On one hand, wild forest are sanctuaries for biodiversity and beauty. In addition, they provide habitat for animals, plants and the wild mushrooms that you may periodically harvest. On the other hand, more intensively managed forest can serve these same purposes to an extent, plus provide significant fuel, building materials, craft materials and food.
It’s wise to choose land with significant forest (3 to 5 acres or more) on it if you plan to heat with wood, cook with wood harvest timber for building, or cultivate mushrooms on logs on a medium to large scale. As with every other thing on this list, there are many factors that determine how much forested land you’ll need, including tree species, rainfall, soil type, access, etc.. However, a general convention is that a managed forest can sustainably produce about half a cord of firewood per acre, per year.
Simply put, wildlands are places where the main goal and focus is not on people. This doesn’t mean wildlands can’t be managed or that they need to be huge tracts without human residents. In fact, many places that seem “wild” have already been altered by humans at some point in the past and could actually benefit from thoughtful care.
Ask yourself if you want to have wild places or if you’d prefer to use every square foot that you can for production and human-focused function. It’s possible to maintain wild spaces even in small areas. Here’s a handy resource with 12 wildlife habitat tips for small acreages.
Soil and water testing
Before you begin to live off the land, get the soil and water tested. If the land you’re considering is in the floodplain of a river, has been farmed commercially in the past or is within range of industrial activities like power plants (especially coal-fired), it’s entirely possible that there are toxic residues present. Additionally, it’s critical to understand your soil nutrient levels. This will give you a sense of how many inputs you’ll need in order to grow the healthiest plants. Fortunately, there are great and inexpensive resources out there that make soil and water testing fairly simple. Here’s more about soil and water testing, including the labs and tests that we recommend.
Essential Infrastructure: Considerations and Costs
Living off the land requires infrastructure. Indeed, there’s a vast range of what might be necessary or desirable for your particular situation. But, at the very least, we all need some shelter, water and warmth. It’s likely that you’ll be using vehicles, so road access will be important. Similarly, electric power will probably be a piece of the puzzle, either making/collecting it onsite in an off-the-grid situation or tying into the grid.
Consider your infrastructure needs as you approach a land-based life. Many of us have the romantic idea of disconnecting entirely from “the system”; but in most cases, this is neither practical nor enjoyable. Furthermore, it’s easy to get excited about buying raw land for a good price, without factoring in the costs of setting up the necessary infrastructure. Use this section to brainstorm your infrastructure needs and to get a rough idea of how much they might cost.
Existing infrastructure vs. new infrastructure
There are pluses and minuses to getting a place that already has infrastructure. It might save you money, or it might cost you money. When permanent infrastructure – such as roads and buildings – is already there, it’s harder to customize as much as you can with raw land. On the other hand, basic infrastructure can provide a starting point. It may give you comfort and ease as you get to know the land and develop your vision and plan.
Pros and cons of an existing house
- In most cases, you won’t need to get a certificate of occupancy
- You and your stuff will have a place to live
- It’s easier to get financing for a liveable house than for raw land
- Possibility for rental income even if it’s not the home you want
- Could have toxic materials
- May or may not be possible for passive solar or solar electric
- Mold, termite, water or other damage may be present or looming
- Cost and hassle of demolition if necessary
Digging or drilling a well
Until you dig or drill, you won’t know how deep your well needs to be, which directly affects the cost. Even here in the Southern Appalachian temperate rainforest climate, we’ve got friends with wells that are more than 500 feet deep.
The average cost per foot is $10 to $25 for digging and $15 to $30 for drilling. Add to that the cost of a pump and plumbing: $1,000 to $4,000. Read this article to learn more about different kinds of wells, including the permitting processes.
Septic systems and greywater
Many variables go into the cost of septic systems, but a general range is between $1,500 and $4,000. Check out this article on wells and septic systems to learn more about the installation process, including some DIY options.
Other options for greywater and blackwater management are composting toilets, outhouses, and ecological greywater systems. Click the links for more info on each of these options. Please note that all three are regulated state by state, so check with your local Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office and/or Department of Health and Human Services. Composting toilets, outhouses and ecological greywater systems aren’t legal in all US states.
Surprise, you’ve got several options here, too. If you’re close enough to the grid, you can get an electric pole installed. Often, when the distance from an existing pole to your house is relatively short, the electric company will cover it. When it’s a longer distance, however, the cost can be $25 to $75/ft. This translates to $33,000 to $99,000 if you want power to be a quarter-mile in from an existing source. Here’s where you can learn more about how to install power on vacant land.
Another option is an off-grid power system. The most common of these would be photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, but small-scale water and wind power systems exist, too. Check out this off-grid calculator to determine approximately what size solar system you will need based on your location, sun exposure and the appliances you plan to use. It’s pretty awesome.
To give you a sense of cost, a home with “basic” amenities like washer and dryer, blender, electric hot water heater, lights, power tools, rechargeable electronics, etc. would require at least a $25,000 system.
Propane (natural gas)
Some uses for gas while living off the land include cooking food, heating water, running an off-grid LP refrigerator and heating a structure.
In rural areas, it’s not possible to get hooked up to natural gas (which is primarily methane) from a city or county utility. Therefore, depending on where you are, you may need to acquire and fill propane tank(s).
One option is to buy small propane tanks for each appliance and to refill them yourself. Another is to purchase or rent a large tank, have it serviced by a propane company and then pump the tank to your various propane appliances. This second option requires a larger investment and commitment up-front, but the per-gallon price of propane will be significantly lower.
Building roads can be a much bigger expenditure than you’d expect. It’s truly amazing how much gravel can get sucked down into a roadbed when cars drive on it.
Furthermore, the machinery needed to cut a road is heavy and expensive, so hiring someone to bring it to your site and operate it can be quite costly. Also, roads need to be well-planned and take into account the natural contour of the land, soil type, erosion, drainage, and more. You may need to purchase culverts or metal water bars to help water move under or over your road in a nondestructive way.
The general cost of building a gravel road ranges from about $1 to $2 per square foot, with minimal grading. That means if you have just one road you’d like to build that’s 10 feet wide by 100 feet long, it will cost you about $1,000 to $2,000. If you’ve got hilly land that requires more grading work, the price goes up significantly.
Land Vision Worksheet: Big dreams, ideals, non-negotiables
Hopefully, all of the prompts and info we’ve shared thus far have gotten you thinking about details. Now it’s time to solidify your vision in order to guide your search. Write down your big dreams, ideals and non-negotiables for each of the items below. Here’s the Vision Worksheet for Living off the Land in spreadsheet form.
- Price range
- Access (including potential to parcel)
- Geography and topography
- Aspect (which cardinal direction your land faces: east, west, north or south)
- Open, flattish land (pasturing, easy gardening)
- Forest and forest type
- Wild food and game
- Water – wild (streams, creeks, springs)
- Water – pressurized (well or water system in place)
- Soils (and erosion)
- Toxics and trash
- Existing infrastructure (roads, logging roads, fencing)
- Electric power
How to implement a permaculture land search
Once you’ve gotten clear on your dreams, your ideals and your non-negotiables, it’s time to start your search. There are two main avenues for finding the right place to live off the land and implement permaculture projects. They are 1) social networks/ word of mouth, and 2) working with a realtor. Here are some helpful resources for each approach.
Social networks/ word of mouth
- Real Estate Forum at Permies.com
- Find Facebook pages/groups by searching “[your state] permaculture land for sale”
- Find Facebook pages/groups by searching “[your state or county] permaculture”, “..homesteading”, or “…gardening”.
- Foundation for Intentional Communities: Land, Houses, Real Estate page
- Foundation for Intentional Communities: Communities with Opening page
Working with realtors
- Be extremely clear with realtors about what you’re looking for. If they don’t know what you’re talking about when you say things like “solar exposure” or “intact/established forest,” find someone who does.
- Permaculture Real Estate Facebook page is geared toward realtors with a specialty in permaculture properties.
- Joshua Rosenberg: “The Permaculture Realtor” (South Florida only, a graduate of our Permaculture Design Course)
- SurvivalRealty.com has search categories like “bunker/bomb shelter” as well as “off-grid/solar” and “homestead. Includes all US states and some other countries.
Skills For Living Off the Land
Up to this point we’ve covered the “what” and “where” of living off the land. This section is all about the “how.” After all, even if you’ve got all the most amazing resources (a beautiful piece of land that’s easy to work with, a community of supportive friends and family, an adequate income and budget to develop your dream…), you’re still going to need the skills to actually do it!
That’s really our passion here at Wild Abundance. In fact, we’re a skill-building school, and we’ve taught hundreds of students about various aspects of land-based life through our permaculture classes. Indeed, many of them have gone on to create their own homesteads, revitalize property they’ve lived on for years, build their own homes, and/or grow and forage for their own food and medicine.
So, naturally, we think taking classes is a great way to learn the skills you’ll need to apply permaculture to your life. There are lots of other ways to learn, too. Here we list many additional practical, accessible ideas to begin learning the skills you’ll need to live off the land.
Hands-on and online classes let you learn something specific in a concentrated period of time. What’s more, when you take a class, you forge relationships with the instructors and the other students. This builds your network of peers and mentors, which will provide valuable support in the future.
Seek out programs on the subjects you’re interested in, like permaculture, wild plants, or natural building. Or choose classes that will introduce you to skills you don’t yet have. This way, you’ll get a bit of hand-holding as you explore something new.
A great way to find local classes is by simply searching online for “[name of class/subject] class near me.” For basic and advanced gardening and farming classes, check out what’s on offer at your local Agriculture Extension Office.
A Permaculture Design Course is one amazing way to get a synergistic overview of many land-based skills, including planning and design. We consider this to be indispensable.
Accumulate tools and learn how to use them
Even before you have a place to build, you can learn to use power tools. Similarly, you don’t even need your own garden to own a hoe and know how to use it. One step you can take today toward living off the land is to gather useful tools and mastering their use. A few of our favorite tool suppliers are:
Even if you don’t own tools, you may be able to borrow them from a local tool library. Similarly, if you volunteer at a school or community garden, there may be tools available for you to get comfortable with them. Read this to learn more about taking care of tools.
Gather building materials
As you peruse local flea markets, salvage yards and garage sales, you just might find some treasures. Often at places like this, you can save big on building materials. So, if you’ve got the space, snatch up items that will come in handy later. Here are some things to look out for:
- Double-glazed windows and doors
- Hole-free roofing metal
- Well-made wood stoves
- Butcher blocks
- Hardwood flooring
- Cheap star-drive screws
- Carriage bolts
- Pex fittings (for plumbing)
- Canning jars (okay, not exactly building materials, but so good to have around!)
Learn the wild plants in your area
This is a really fun step! It means you get to go outside and explore the green world. When living off the land, it’s important and helpful to know which wild edible plants are around, plus which ones are poisonous. Additionally, learning about medicinal herbs will be sure to come in handy when someone gets injured or sick. Learning with basic botany is a great first step – and one that will serve you for the rest of your life.
Trees are plants, too! Learn the trees in your area, including what their wood is good for. Here’s a handy chart about heating with wood that tells you about the qualities of lots of species of trees, including how difficult to split they are.
If you’re considering taking a permaculture course in a beautiful and exotic location, keep in mind the plant communities you’ll get to know. We strongly encourage folks to choose a bioregional Permaculture Design Course so that the plants they learn in class are the plants they’ll be working with after the class.
Get to know peers, mentors and collaborators
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and mentorship by more experienced people is one of the best resources. Of course, each of us will be innovative and creative with our particular systems and situation. But, that creativity can be better-informed with the support and guidance of others who are exploring the same sorts of projects. Plus, living off the land can feel lonely at times. When you get to know local folks who are interested in the same things that you are, you begin to cultivate a network of peers and collaborators with whom you can share the joys and challenges of a land-based life.
Hint: they’re probably pretty busy; so helping them out is likely a better way to get to know them than asking for their uninterrupted attention over coffee.
Camp or hike in all kinds of weather
Living off the land isn’t a fair-weather activity. Before you dive in head first to a land-based life (especially if your dream is to buy and develop raw land), get a feel for living with the elements by camping and hiking in a variety of terrains. This will also give you opportunities to learn about the wild plants and animals in your area, to explore how to find streams and springs, to familiarize yourself with orientation and the cardinal directions, and to tune into the natural systems that can teach you so much and which are the foundations of permaculture.
Learn and practice cooking and food preservation
Learning to cook and preserve food are important parts of living off the land. If you can grow it, but you don’t know how to cook it (or you don’t like it), it’s not going to do you much good. Similarly, if you grow a ton of something but don’t preserve it well, it’s a big loss. In this case, you may end up feeding fungus, insects and rodents through the winter – instead of yourself and your family. So, learn to cook and preserve food.
Delve into hands-on, homestead-scale food preservation in our permaculture immersion. Plus, explore pickling and canning, root cellaring, food dehydrating, butchering and meat preservation, and basic critter-proof food storage. You don’t need to wait until you have your own garden to begin learning these skills. Simply buy in bulk and play around with different techniques.
For guidance in farm-style cooking, two online options that we like are Prairie Homestead and Foodwifery. You’ll also find lots of detailed recipes and extensive reviews of kitchen gadgets and gear on Cook’s Illustrated. Additionally, our Earthskills and Permaculture Immersion includes hands-on instruction in food preservation and wild foods cookery.
The First Year (ish) of Your Permaculture Project
You’ll probably feel very excited to start everything all at once when you begin a permaculture project and land-based life. Perhaps you’ve just bought or acquired land, joined some friends on their land, or secured a long-term lease or trade agreement for a place of your own. It is exciting! But curbing this excitement, just a little bit, will have many long-term benefits.
Try to moving more slowly then you might want to…more like the pace of nature. Additionally, be sure to tend to your own needs and set up a foundation. This will make everything smoother as you expand outward into bigger and bigger projects. Here are some specifics about what to get into right away versus when to have a bit of patience.
Observe natural systems
Observation is the essential first step to any successful permaculture project or land-based living endeavor. When you take the time to observe what’s already there, you’re way more likely to work with the natural cycles and patterns, rather than struggle against them.
What’s more, paying attention to the land feels really good. It will help you to have a sense of connection with your place and all the other inhabitants there. This may be the first step, but it’s never over and done with. Observing natural systems will continue as your permaculture project matures and will inform most of your decisions far into the future.
Pay attention to the winds, soils (there may be many soil types present), plants, movement of water, animal activity, human neighbor activity, road noise, movement of the sun, and any invisible influences on the land. Take the time to walk around your land frequently, whatever its size. Make sure you visit places outside your “zone 1” (the area that you naturally frequent every day) on a regular basis, to get to know them.
Especially take walks after big rain events, temperature fluctuations, strong windstorms, or other unusual climatic happenings. Here are some more specific exercises to help you really get to know your place through thoughtful observation.
Observe and identify wild plants
Watch and notice the wild plants on your land for up to a whole year before you decide where to put stuff. This is so that you don’t accidentally disturb what’s already wonderful – or decimate wild populations of rare or useful plants. As a bonus, you can forage for wild foods and medicinal herbs that you may find abundant and which you know how to identify.
Use a compass or other tool to identify the cardinal directions. Use maps and exploration to identify your watershed and surrounding area, including every mountain that you can see and what lies to the north, south, east and west of you. Talk to folks who have lived in the area for a long time to learn alternate, vernacular and indigenous names for places and landforms.
Practice just sitting still in nature
Watch and listen, without making plans or assigning value to what you observe.
Track the path of the sun
Take photographs of the horizon at sunrise and sunset on the summer and winter solstices. Notice where the sunlight touches during summer and winter.
Record your observations
Take photographs, especially “before” and “after” shots. Write notes and reflections in a journal or diary. Note first and last frost dates as well as other ecological milestones like the return of songbirds, the leafing out of trees, the emergence of wild plants, and the like.
Tune in to the rhythms of the seasons
Living off the land means living with the seasons. There are different activities and projects that make sense during each season. Plus, tuning into the seasons allows time for busy-ness as well as for reflection and regeneration. Get our Seasonal Living Handbook for monthly reminders of what to do in the garden, kitchen, orchard, and wildlands – plus recipes and how-to’s to go along with each month.
Take care of your basic needs first
If there is no housing on the property, consider bringing in some sort of mobile housing that can be sold or repurposed later. This could mean a camper, mobile home or a tiny house (our favorite). In the future, this temporary home could be rented out for passive income or could become housing for apprentices/interns or family members.
Set up a small outdoor kitchen as a great complement to a tiny house or other small dwelling. Make it simple and functional; this way, you’ll be able to cook your meals and preserve food easily. Of course, power, water and bathroom facilities are the other basics. See the infrastructure section for more information on these.
Create a small plant nursery
One of the first things many folks want to do when they start a new land project is to plant trees. This makes sense, since they take some years to get established and start producing, plus they’re a classic symbol of “rootedness.” However, our advice is to hold off.
Unless you’re starting with a wide-open pasture, it’s likely that you’ll want to do some clearing of existing trees and shrubs to open up space where you’ll eventually plant an orchard. Additionally, trees (and other perennials like shrubs) are relatively permanent. If you plant them right away, it won’t be easy to move them later – which you might want to do! It takes time to get to know a place, including where and how the water flows, noticing wild plant and animal populations, etc.
A great option for the first year (or couple of years) is to create a small plant nursery. To do this, begin collecting potted or bare-root plants (see sources below). You’ll save a lot of money buying bare-root stock, but you’ll need to “pot them up,” or put them in a prepared nursery bed right away.
A nursery bed is just like a garden bed where you plant directly in the ground, but with the intention of digging up and relocating within a year or two. Trees and shrubs get planted much closer together in a nursery bed than in a final orchard site. “Potting up” requires pots and potting mix. Here’s a great discussion of DIY potting mixes, including recipes. When you’ve figured out and prepared your orchard site, you can then transplant the trees or shrubs to their final home.
Build and nurture community
It’s all too easy to get absorbed in your own projects once you’ve got a place to work with. But building and maintaining connections is particularly important when you live a land-based life. In fact, collaboration (and celebration…and commiseration) with others can greatly improve the experience of living off the land.
Relationships will suffer if neglected, so even if you feel busy, take the time to connect with others. Talk with your neighbors. Even if you don’t share the same lifestyle choices, find common ground.
Attend work parties, both in order to cultivate community and to earn “cred” for when you call on others to help you. Even if it’s a long drive, go to the nearest town from time to time for classes, events, etc. If social events don’t happen regularly in your area, start some!
Get and use maps
There’s nothing like the bird’s-eye view that maps can provide. In addition, aerial maps are the basis for permaculture design plans (see below). As you get to know a place and start deciding how to work with it, collect maps and learn to read them.
For a nominal fee, your county clerk or planning office can usually provide you with a printed map of your property. My Topo sells customized topographical maps for less than $20. You can also download free plat maps that include soil type and agricultural use history.
Make imaginative permaculture design plans
Use your maps and your growing knowledge of the land you’re working with to create “practice” permaculture design plans. Do this every six months or so. If you can, take a permaculture design course to get guidance about making such plans. Record all your wild ideas, including far-out dreams. Periodically show these design plans to friends and family, and ask for their input.
Grow a small, simple garden
You’re probably really excited to grow a huge garden. And yes, this is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of living off the land. However, when you’re first starting out, try to tone it down. Grow what you know how to grow, what’s easy, and what others in the area suggest as “sure things” – nothing you need to baby. Also, consider planting in just a small area. It’s entirely possible that your main garden spot might be somewhere different than you first think. Starting small allows for adaptability.
You are unique. Your place is unique. This time in history is unlike anything that’s ever happened before. Chances are, you’re a creative and innovative person; those of us attracted to permaculture and living off the land seem to share those qualities. Continue to experiment as you get to know your place, learn from others and observe natural systems!
Try out different things, and explore the possibilities. It’s worthwhile to ask local folks if they’ve done the same experiments you feel inspired to do. If they had horrible results, perhaps put less energy into trying that same thing yourself. But at the same time, allow your creativity and inspiration to guide you. The world needs your unique ideas and approaches to things. If your experiments work, please share them with us!
10 Things NOT To Do Right Away
- Grow a giant garden, with new-to-you crops the first year you’re at a new location.
- Get attached to getting it all done quickly, or staying attached to your initial vision.
- Make big, hard-to-undo changes the first year: earthworks, big buildings, fruit-tree planting, etc.
- Sacrifice relationships and community connections to get more done on your land project.
- Spend lots of money on the newest and fanciest technologies and gizmos.
- Get overwhelmed by weeds. Mow or till them before they set seed, but remember that they will all die back come winter.
- Build houses for animals before building your own shelter.
- Get down on yourself if you buy food or other things from the store.
- Expect to make all the right decisions (or letting the fear of making the wrong decisions paralyze you).
- Neglect or overextend your physical body. Your energy and health are necessary to keep it all going