The anatomy of a homestead landscape
From Gene Logsdon's Organic Garden and Small Farm Skills (1985)
I am always struck by the simple attractiveness of the Amish home where we have our sorghum pressed and cooked into molasses. Its very plainness, like Shaker furniture, is its beauty.
There is some lawn around the house, but not much. Fences and gates, of woven wire and 1 by 6-inch boards, respectively, are strictly of no-nonsense utilitarian design. Gardens are extensive but heavily in favor of food. The flowers are grown in the rows with the vegetables in accordance with old traditions of companion planting, not just for pretty.
An 1800s 60-acre Farmstead in Union Springs, New York
The orchard extends in a narrow band along the south of the house and barnyard, the trees protected by rings of fencing so the sheep that mow it and eat the windfalls won’t gnaw on the bark. The driveways are of gravel. There are sidewalks but only what is necessary from driveway to front door and from back door to barnyard and privy. There is no attempt, or not much, at purely decorative landscaping.
The hand pump and windmill are not decoration but necessity. The Montadale sheep are allowed occasionally into the yard to keep the grass smooth and low, not just for whimsy. The noises they make, as well as their appearance, are certainly far more pleasant than those attributes of noise and metal that characterize a riding mower. The house itself is straight, cleanly rectangular, again like Shaker furniture, evocative of a peace, security, and spiritual freedom one does not feel in the presence of bay windows, split levels, and large but forever empty foyers.
While most homesteaders today may not wish to live like the Amish, they will find life much easier if they begin to build upon that kind of model rather than the typical suburban landscape, with its extensive, machine-manicured lawns, ample patios, and exotic ornamentals. They must begin yard and garden design with an eye to practicality and achieve beauty as a reward.
The first order of business around the homestead landscape is to control mud, that is, to be able to move about without sinking to your knees in the stuff and leaving, by late spring, great yawning ruts or jagged paths across dooryard or barnyard. Between February and May in my part of the country you cannot drive to the barn even with a horse, without gravel lanes. No sod will endure frequent traffic—even of human feet. So one must figure where to place driveways and sidewalks leading to the barn, to the woodshed, to the mailbox, and so forth. If you don’t want lanes, you must learn to get all the work that requires horse or tractor or truck done when the ground is dry or frozen and move only on foot in mud time—with big boots.
Fencing is the next consideration. Even if you never intend to graze sheep on your lawn, you will want to fence it to keep out livestock that occasionally escape their lots—yours or your neighbors’. There is no sound more sickening than mud sucking at the hooves of a herd of cows stampeding across your lawn in March. And in many cases, you will want the chickens running loose in the barnyard, but rarely in the dooryard. If you have an orchard, it will be a great advantage to fence it so that you can let chickens and livestock in there regularly to keep windfall fruit cleaned up, a great aid in minimizing orchard insect pests.
The wood pile’s place in the landscape should be as close to the house as possible if wood is used regularly for heating, no matter how much its presence there violates the more sensitive tastes of the House Beautiful crowd. A well-stacked rick of wood is a thing of beauty in itself (and if not well stacked will soon fall over from frost heaving). Unfortunately the panels of corrugated tin most of us use to cover the ricks are anything but beautiful, but will have to do until a proper woodshed can be built.
The kitchen garden should also be located as close to the house as possible, handy for a last-minute gathering of salad greens. The root cellar, if not an integral part of the house cellar, should also lie close by so that in preparing a meal, you need not bundle up in winter as you would for a long trip to the barn.
Just as the wood shed has come back into favor in many households, so could the summer kitchen of the pre-electric era. The summer kitchen usually was an annex to the main kitchen, a roofed step or two from the back door. The idea was, of course, to do the summer cooking where it did not heat up the whole house. If you have electricity, but not air conditioning, a summer kitchen is still a great idea when it’s time to can tomatoes, beans, and peaches—always in hot August.
The orchard should, ideally, be closer to the barn than the house so that livestock can be turned in and out conveniently. An apple tree under which sheep stand all day to escape the hot sun always produces bountifully. The scuffling hooves of the sheep “cultivate” the ground under the tree, and the sheep’s manure fertilizes it wonderfully.
When a privy is planned, locate it handy to the house. We have a theory in our family that some of our constipation problems trace back to the time, when as children we hated the long, cold trek to the privy and put it off as long as possible. A well-made privy should never cause a problem of seepage into groundwater, but nevertheless, shallow wells should not be dug nearby or downslope from either privy or barn.
Ideally, the barn should be downwind and downslope from the house. Thus. if your prevailing winds are westerly, the barn should be eastward of the house. However, this is very much a matter of custom. There are plenty of homes in Europe where people still live above their livestock or at least in houses directly connected to their barns. Where barns are cleaned as fastidiously as the Swiss and Austrians once cleaned theirs as a matter of course, there is no more odor or fly problem in the house than there is in the typical American house whose typical American barn is situated 75 yards away. The traditional barn in Maine is connected to the house by a series of sheds so that a person can walk from one to the other under roof. If you do not have a woodlot or a really good shelterbelt of trees to protect a homestead in winter, this Maine design is still very practical anywhere north of the Ohio River.
Many other small buildings dotted the landscape of the traditional homestead, giving it a pleasing attractiveness while serving practical functions. The icehouse that stood near the house may be gone forever, although its return may be more practical than we imagine, but the smokehouse, the toolroom-workshiop where all manner of repairs were made, and summer house or gazebo, are as useful today as ever. And with some innovative thinking, the old summer kitchen mentioned earlier might be converted with a large, long firebox and chimney into a maple syrup-sorghum molasses boiler used also to heat water for hog scalding. The unit could be converted into a Hahsa-type furnace similar to the kind made today in which the furnace is in a shedlike structure separate from the house during winter; they are supposed to be supersafe.
See also Gene’s A Grove Of Trees To Live In
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Excerpted from Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills: A Revival of Forgotten Crafts, Techniques, and Traditions
© 1985 Gene Logsdon and Rodale Press, Inc.
Illustration Credit: Barbara Field
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