How to Layout your Self-sustaining Permaculture Farm

A self-sustaining farm can provide a stable lifestyle and allow you to better manage resources. In a self-sustaining system you can produce enough food for yourself, your family and the community.

It takes a lot of discipline and farming to establish a self-sufficient permaculture system. A self-sustaining farm means that you have little dependence on the outside world. You have to learn how to grow, make and sell almost everything that you need.

When deciding where to plant, keep, and build on your permaculture farm, the main factors to consider are water source, sunlight, slope, soil, microclimates, existing vegetation, and road access.

Plant across the slope

plan for planting along slope contours

It’s generally best to plant crops and trees across the slope (along contour line). Planting across the slope can help to reduce erosion by intercepting water as it flows down the slope, and it can also help to stabilize the soil by creating a network of roots that anchor the soil in place.

Dig swales along contour lines

Swale with water
Ria Baeck/Flickr

Swales are shallow trenches that are dug along the contour of a slope in order to capture and hold water, reduce erosion, and increase soil fertility. To dig a swale in your garden, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the contour lines. The contour lines of a slope are the lines that follow the same elevation. To locate the contour lines, you can use a topographic map or simply walk around the site and look for level areas.
  2. Mark the location of the swale. Using a string line and sticks in the ground, mark the location of the swale along the contour lines.
  3. Dig the swale. Using a shovel or other digging tool, dig a shallow trench along the marked line. The width and depth of the swale will depend on the size of your garden and the slope of the land, but a good rule of thumb is to make the swale about 1-2 feet wide and 6-12 inches deep.
  4. Slope the sides of the swale. To help the swale capture and hold water, slope the sides of the trench slightly towards the center.
  5. Mulch the swale. Once the swale is dug, cover it with a layer of mulch to help retain moisture and reduce erosion.

Establish terraces on steep slopes

Terraces are flat areas that are created on a slope in order to create more usable land and reduce erosion. They are an important tool in permaculture and other forms of sustainable agriculture, as they can help to not only stabilize the slope but also retain soil moisture by slowing down runoff.

James Preston/Flickr

Set up your pond close to water source

Ideally, Ponds should be located on relatively high ground to take advantage of gravity when piping for irrigation. They should also be located near a natural water source, such as a river or stream, to ensure a consistent supply of water. If a natural water source is not available, you may need to consider installing a pump or other irrigation system to fill the pond.

Areas with clay soil are ideal for digging ponds to reduce the rate of ground seepage. Alternatively, you can use pond liner.

Locate your pond a safe distance from buildings and other structures and have spillways and overflow pipes, to reduce the risk of damage in the event of a flood or other emergency.

Allocate areas with poor soil, rocky areas for structures

Do soil tests to find out the most fertile areas of your land. If the area is fertile, has very few rocks and is well-drained, it will be ideal for planting your crops. Rocky areas will provide a good foundation for your structures. Rocks can also be used for construction, paving paths, and creating natural borders around gardens or other areas of the farm.

Set aside area for recreation

backyard recreation relaxation area
Chun Kit To/Flickr

Not all your land should go to farming and structures. Set aside a flat well-lit area for your kids to play. An area with a nice view close to your house and away from the barn noises would be great. You could use this for your swingset, outdoor fireplace, barbecue grill, swimming pool, or just set up a bench and enjoy beautiful sunsets.

Place water tanks close to your garden, animal shelters and house

Water tanks should be located in an area that is easily accessible for maintenance and repair. It also helps to be close to the garden and housing structures to reduce the length of piping and cost of pumping.

Water tanks should be placed at a higher elevation than the areas where the water will be used, in order to allow gravity to flow the water to where it is needed. You can build steel or concrete platforms to raise your water tanks on flat land.

Build your home and shed close to the access road

There are several reasons why you might want to consider building your home close to the road on your farm. One reason is accessibility – building close to the road can make it easier for you to get to and from your farm, as well as provide access for delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, and other services.

Additionally, it can make it easier to connect to utility services such as electricity, water, and sewage. Building close to the road can also increase the visibility of your farm and can make it easier for people to find you, as well as increase the security of your property.

You’ll be more connected to your neighbors and the broader community. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there may be potential drawbacks to building close to the road, such as noise and pollution from traffic, so be sure to carefully weigh the pros and cons before making a decision about the location of your home.

Build animal shelters close to your house

Build animal shelters close to your house but far enough so that the noise will not bother you, especially at night. Livestock can be a bit noisy, and their manure can stink up the place so try and build the barns and chicken coop downwind.

They need to be relatively close to your home and garden for easier access. You’ll be making frequent trips there to collect eggs, fill their water, feed them vegetable scraps, etc.

You need a huge piece of land to raise cows in a self-sufficient system. An adult cow will require about 1 acre of pasture. Think about the housing needs, and pasture needs for the animals when allocating land for livestock rearing. Typically, open-field grazing will require you to accommodate enough pasture to allow rotation. During the winter months, you will mostly keep your animals indoors. Therefore, you have to plant enough feed to sustain them in the cold season.

In a smaller farm, you can keep rabbits, goats, sheep and chicken. Build chicken coops in an open space about 50-100ft from your house from your house. Goat and sheep housing can be located on the grazing field.

Goats and sheep can coexist in the same space and they can openly graze on the available space you have. If you intend to sustain your family only, there is no need to keep a large number of goats and sheep. Chicken can be allowed to roam freely in your farm as they feed on small insects and seeds.

A chicken coop does not require much space. You will want to keep both egg laying and meat chicken on the farm. Meat chicken mature at 10-12 weeks. Egg laying chicken will begin producing at around 3-4 months old. Therefore, keep enough feed to get them through the aggressive stages of growth. Rabbits can be kept in small raised cages. They can also be allowed to roam in the grass.

Allocate land to grow your own animal feed

Allocate at least a quarter of the land to planting animal fodder. This is to ensure that through the winter, your animals will have enough to feed on.  Alfalfa,legumes, shrubs and grasses are adequate for your small farm. The goal is to ensure that the animals graze efficiently. A paddock system will regulate grazing and allow for the regeneration of depleted grasses and weeds. 

Animal products are rich in protein. Eggs, goat milk, rabbit meat and chicken meat are adequate sources of protein. 

Set up your vegetable garden near your house

Vegetables are often sensitive plants and a day without watering some plants in the heat of summer could wipe them out. You need to be checking on your vegetables every day, weeding them, watering and spotting and dealing with pests and diseases.

Plant trees further on the edges of your land

Trees are relatively low-maintenance once they have rooted and are a few feet tall. A little pruning annually is all they’ll need so it makes sense to plant them further from your house than the vegetables, and safe away from animals like goats and cows that like to nibble on bark and branches.

In general, it’s a good idea to plant trees in areas that get the right amount of sunlight for the species, have access to water, have good soil quality, and are on gentle slopes with minimal erosion risk.

You should also consider the existing vegetation and microclimates on your farm and choose trees that are well-suited to those conditions. Finally, think about the role you want the trees to play on your farm – do you want them to provide shade, wind protection, food, or some other function? This will help you determine the best location for them.

Draw out paths to access all parts of your land

The paths and roads should be easily accessible to all areas of the farm and designed to serve their intended purpose. For example, a road used for heavy machinery should be wide and well-maintained, while a walking path might be narrower and more winding.

Proper drainage is important to prevent waterlogging and erosion, so make sure to consider the slope and elevation of the land. It’s also important to consider the safety of all users, including pedestrians, vehicles, and livestock. While not the top priority, the overall appearance of the paths and roads can have an impact on the farm’s aesthetic appeal.

Lay underground pipes and wires along the main paths

The wires and pipes should be laid in an area and depth that won’t pose a risk of leaks or electrocution when using farm machinery like diggers and mowers, while also allowing for easy maintenance and repairs.

The cost of installing the wires and pipes, including the cost of any necessary equipment and labor, should also be taken into consideration.

Make sure to follow any applicable regulations and guidelines, such as obtaining necessary permits and adhering to codes and standards. It may be helpful to consult with a professional engineer or contractor to ensure that the wires and pipes are installed correctly and safely.

Identify important existing vegetation

You will want to keep pre-existing fruit trees, shrubs and groundcover that are beneficial to you, your livestock and the local wildlife, especially pollinators. Be observant before you clear your land. Watch the nesting sites for birds, the flowers that butterflies and bees are flocking to and research on indeginous species in your area.

If there’s a space you want to use but it is occupied by a plant you want to keep, you could consider transplanting or grafting a seedling from it. Permaculture and sustainable living is all about using the resources available to us efficiently while emulating and respecting the natural environment.

In Summary

Living off the land is a great way to grow healthy food and preserve the environment. With the proper research, you can turn your small piece of land into a self-sufficient system. It is possible to produce enough fruits, vegetables and animal products for you and your family. Self-sustaining systems allow efficient use of resources to meet your needs and those of the community.