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Buying Your First Country Property

ReneeMy friends, there is so much I want to tell you about buying your first country property I almost don’t know where to start. So many people have this dream but they absolutely don’t know what they’re getting into and then, realizing the truth of it, they pack up and leave before they ever get to the joy. There is joy in living in the country. I can tell you that for sure. If you are prepared and go in with your eyes wide open you can make the best of it and get to the joy all that much faster. Living in the country comes with its own set of challenges and I’m here to tell you what they are from my point of view.

country home

Living on their own rural property is the dream of many people who live in an urban setting. I don’t blame them at all and I’m right there with them. I don’t feel “at-home” unless I can see the horizon and I also feel better if I can’t see my neighbors. Don’t get me wrong. I love people but I love wide open spaces even more. However, if you’ve never lived in the country – and especially remote country – I’m here to tell you that it’s a whole other kettle of fish when compared to living in the city. Let me give you a few insider tips if you’re thinking about making the jump.

What Do You Want to Do?

The first thing to do is decide what you want to do. Do you want to grow vegetables? Do you want to have livestock? Do you just want to sit on the porch and admire the view? Maybe you want all of this. Whatever you want to do informs you of what you should be looking for. Then get the map out and start taking road trips. Find an area that inspires you. Find an area that lifts up your heart and gives you peace. I really feel that it’s important to find an area or two or three that makes you feel happy first.

The Internet and Finances

While you’re driving around and you see an area that particularly appeals to you make a note of it and then go to the internet to one of the big search engines and see what’s available and what it costs. You can make adjustments to your dream then. Maybe you can afford to buy it outright with cash. Or maybe you’re most people and you can’t. You need a loan. There are programs through the United States Department of Agriculture called USDA loans for people who want to buy rural property. If you have the right income – or lack of income – you may qualify for assistance and not even have to pay a down payment. Meet with a qualified lender to find out details on what’s available to you.

Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Now it’s time to make your must-have list and your want-list. I’m telling you at the outset that there are almost no “perfect” properties. There’s going to be give and take. If you have these two lists you have a reference point from which to evaluate each property you look at. The first thing on your want list should be what kind of land you want.


Let’s talk about terrain. If you want to grow your own food, it’s best to have level land. If you can’t find level land within your budget then try to find rolling hills. Take a look at Switzerland. Do we find the Swiss farming? Of course, we do. What are they farming? They have livestock that doesn’t mind going uphill and down. Dairy cows and goats. The food growing is done in the valleys. You might find inexpensive land on steep hills but you’re going to get really tired really fast of schlepping everything up and down. Mechanical equipment helps but is that in the budget? Even so, if you can afford it, mechanical equipment can be challenging on hills. The Incas did not invent the wheel and for good reason. Wheels go where gravity wants them to. Did you remember to put the brake on? Is the incline too steep and then you’ll have a rollover and get squashed? If you can’t find flat land then rolling hills are next best. You can have success gardening with a little terracing on rolling hills. Still and all, flat land is best.

I’m going to end Part One here but I want you to notice that I have not talked about the house even once. This is because in the country the house is the least of it. Not unimportant. Just not the most important. Grampa always said "You can make a house but you can't make land."

Next up in Part Two: Soil and Water – The Foundation of a Country Property

Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.

One Hour Body Scrub

Renee headshotI am an inveterate do-it-yourselfer. I like making my own cosmetics. I like growing my own food and making my own clothes and household items. I began doing this years ago when I was growing up in Iowa. I got a bee-in-my-bonnet, so to speak, about making soap from scratch, and my mom helped me find a little old lady who lived out on a farm and cooked on a wood stove. Her name was Lily, and she was one of those amazing old-timey people who knew how to do everything and did it. She generously offered to show me how to make soap from beef tallow. I gathered the beef tallow, and she got the lye, and there in her warm kitchen on a wintry day near Iowa Falls, Iowa she and I made homemade soap. I was hooked.

In keeping with that do-it-yourself tradition I am making homemade body scrub today.

As usual my system is flexible as to what ingredients I use. I always try to use ingredients I have on hand or, barring that, that are easily gotten from local vendors. I believe in supporting local business and reducing packaging waste.

Here are my guidelines for making your own body scrub. I say guidelines because there are many acceptable variations.

The basis of this scrub is organic salt. I don't use sugar because it dissolves and becomes mush. You can use organic sugar if you don't have to store it. It's for a one-time use. This salt-based scrub can be stored.

The other ingredients are an organic oil, some kind of unpasteurized honey (although regular honey will work, too), an essential oil for a good scent and soap.

Here is my basic recipe:


  • 1/4 cup oil (sweet almond, olive, sunflower, avocado. A fruity oil. Not corn or safflower.)
  • 2 tablespoons organic honey (unfiltered, raw, unpasteurized if possible)
  • tablespoon soap, grated coarsely (castile, goat milk, pure)
  • 1 cup salt, fine grain (any organic salt is good; I used Himalayan pink salt, don't use salt that has additives)

Mix everything but the salt together.


The oil and honey will not cooperate, but do your best. You can use a wire whip. Try to mix it thoroughly. It may take some elbow grease.


Then stir in the salt. I put my scrub in a plastic container with a wide mouth. I am going to store it in the shower, and I don't want any broken glass in there. I don't usually advocate the use of plastic, but for things where safety is a concern I will recommend it.  I don't think we can get rid of all plastic, but we sure can minimize its use. When you want to use the scrub, grab a handful (keeping water out of the container) and rub it all over on your wet skin. Avoid getting it in your eyes, mouth, and sensitive areas. Rinse it off with warm water and enjoy your smooth skin!

Cooler Yogurt

Renee headshotYou might be wondering about my choice of words in the title. It's just a little joke or play on words. I'm not talking about yogurt that is hip or more hip than other yogurts. I'm talking about the device in which to incubate the milk to make it turn into yogurt. Get it? I guess I could have called it "Picnic Cooler Yogurt," but what would be the fun in that?

There are all sorts of fancy devices on the market today that incubate milk and turn it into yogurt. I can think of at least two right off the top of my head. While these fancy contraptions are great and make the job easy, they are not available to everyone and especially folks on a budget. That's me! Besides, my granny never used these fancy contraptions and her way is good enough for me!

with honey

All you need is milk and culture, a picnic cooler, sterilized jars with lids, and a milk thermometer. The optional things are rennet and gelatin.

I like to start my yogurt about an hour before bed time. That way I can leave the milk to incubate over night. Yogurt in the morning!


Here's what you do: Heat the milk to 180 degrees in a heavy bottom stainless steel pot. If you only have an old electric stove like I do, you must keep a close watch on the temperature gauge. Using an old fashioned electric cook top to heat milk makes it a necessity to have a heavy bottom pot. Otherwise, it is so easy, too easy, to scorch or burn the milk. If you have a gas stove, you have an easier time controlling the heat. When grandmother made yogurt on a woodstove, it must have been challenging indeed! As you stir the heating milk, you'll see that the temperature on the gauge rises. This is because the milk is hotter in the bottom of the pan, and you are mixing that hot milk throughout. Once it hits 180 degrees, take the pot off the heat. (If it rises past 180, don't panic. Going above 180 is not a disaster. As a matter of fact, sometimes it is recommended to heat the milk to 190 and hold it there for 20 minutes. This makes the final product thicker. Because I have a temperamental electric stove, I have a very difficult time holding the temperature steady, so I don't do it.)

Cool the milk to 112 degrees. I put my pot in the sink with water and a bunch of ice so it cools faster. Again, keep an eye on it. When it gets to 112 degrees, add a packet (1/4 tsp) of yogurt culture to the milk and let it dissolve for a couple minutes. (You can also use plain, organic yogurt that you already have or that you buy from the store. Use 1/2 cup if you're using pre-made yogurt to culture.) Stir the culture in well. (If you want, this is the time to stir in a couple drops of rennet to make it turn out thicker. You can also use some organic gelatin to make it even thicker. With Greek yogurt being so popular, we are all used to super thick yogurt. Ordinary, highly probiotic yogurt does not have to be thick! Still tasty!)


Pour your milk into jars, cover with lids and place them in a picnic cooler. Take a pitcher, fill it with hot tap water, and pour it into the cooler until it reaches about a inch below the top of the jar. Don't pour the water over the lids! Pour it in from the side! And then don't disturb! Tuck your little jars to bed and let them sleep! No peeking! The children are all right.


Incubate your yogurt for about 8 hours. You can let it incubate longer up to 12 hours if you want the taste to be tangy. The longer it incubates, the thicker and more tangy it will be. I like mine mild after about 9 hours. I like it with a little bit of organic, unfiltered honey drizzled on top. Trés simple!

Photos by Renee-Lucie Benoit.

Good at Not Falling

Renee headshotNear the warmth of the woodstove we listened raptly as Gramma told stories about life-threatening experiences on the Illinois farm when it was dangerous to go out in a blizzard to take care of animals in the barn. You had to know how to get back to the house. There were stories of men who froze to death because they got lost in the white-out conditions. My Grandpa strung a clothesline from the house to the barn so he could navigate safely.

We kids had a different viewpoint of a blizzard. It was not something to be feared. It was a time of rejoicing! Invariably, school would be cancelled, and we could go out and play after the blizzard had done its worst. The sky would be crystal clear blue and so cold. We blew giant puffs of condensation out of our mouths into the air like steam locomotives, puff, puff, puff, and the snow would be deep and powdery. Sometimes the whole family would go to the timber and pick a strategic slope that seemed clear. Steering your Flexible Flyer sled was not a precision event. Laying on your stomach with your hands on the wood steering bars or sitting up with your feet on them you could avoid tree trunks and unknown obstacles if you were planning ahead, but if you didn't plan, and you saw something at the last minute, you were toast.


Old Timey Flexible Flyer sleds. Photo by Wikimedia

Sometimes we would pile in the car and go sledding on the local golf course. This worked really well, because the golf course was clear of tree trunks and hidden stuff that could spell disaster and injury for the careless. We took our Flexible Flyer sleds, but we also took inflated inner tubes, and once we had a toboggan. The snow depth was perfect. Not too deep, not too shallow. Deep snow is not good for sledding. At the ski lifts in the Sierras' they tamp down the snow for the skiers and people sledding. The snow in Iowa would not be deeper than a foot and, boy, you could go fast! We kids would be airborne most of the time on those long slopes. A little bump and whoo-wee, up you'd go, sled and all if you were holding on. If you weren't, you were ejected and flying on your own. I wish I had a video.

ice skate

Our Weimaraner dog Heidi (in silhouette), my sister, my mom and me. Photo by R.L. Benoit.

My dad had the brilliant idea to take his tractor with the scraper attached and scoop out a shallow depression out behind our house in the near field. He did it just before he knew it was going to freeze hard and then he let the water hose run to fill the depression with water and make a small skating rink. Then with our classic white figure skates we girls would tentatively swoosh around. My brother would swoosh around on hockey skates, because no self respecting boy would be caught dead in figure skates.  We were all right at skating, but it was not very smooth ice, so we never became experts. I mostly got good at not falling.



Beat Winter Blues!

Renee headshotAre you huddled by the wood stove? Is a blizzard raging outside or has the thermometer plunged off the bottom end of the read-out? Then it's time to thank the postal worker who goes out in every kind of weather to bring us seed catalogs! "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." I would add polar vortexes!

Don't you love seed catalogs? I do! They are a bright little light when the skies are gray for days at a time or when it's clear blue and cloudless, and venturing outside makes you want to scurry back in because the snap of the cold hair takes your breath away.  Seed catalogs are like a little garden you can hold in your hand that fills your eyes and your hands with warmth, imagined delicious scents, and anticipated textures. When I get one it reminds me that this (winter), too, shall pass, and pretty soon the lilacs will be in fill bloom and planting season will be here. They remind me that it's time to plan my spring garden on paper and start my sets indoors. What shall I plant? My mind goes crazy and I want to plant everything! How to choose?


First and foremost I have to think about what grows well here. What tolerates hot daytime temperatures? What tolerates less than stellar water availability? Will I want to save seed at the end of the growing season? I have to know my climate and my soil. Do I want plants that will bear all season, or do I want my harvest to happen at one time and then be done. Determinate happens all at once and then ends. Indeterminate bears all season long. Don't get hybrid seed if you want to save it later for growing next year. Get specialized hybrid if you've been going going mano-a-mano with certain diseases and insects and you'd rather not do it anymore or ever.

Read the descriptions. Study other sources to make sure you've got the low-down. Talk to your neighbors about what is successful in their gardens. This is a good time to meet at the local coffee shop and talk shop. Then plan your garden. Sounds like a very fun thing to do when the weather is a challenge. 


Photo courtesy Renee-Lucie Benoit

It's the Most Prune-able Time of the Year!


Renee headshotArmed with my trusty pruning shears and humming my little made-up ditty to the tune of that holiday classic "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,"my leaping, cavorting dogs and I make our way to our fruit trees. We have persimmons, nectarines and pomegranates. The trees need pruning and this is the time of year to do it. The trees are dormant and all the pesky leaves have fallen.  The structure of the tree is visible.

I started my "career" in pruning years ago when I discovered an apricot tree in my back yard at a previous home. It was struggling to survive and I wanted to help it do so. So I dug it up and put it in a place where marauding dogs and children weren't going to mash into it any more. I thought to myself, "If it doesn't make it no big loss." It didn't cost me a thing.

As time went on, the tree made it and made it big time. I even got apricots from it. It's marvelous how nature really wants to do its thing. To help, I cut it back some using tried and true pruning guidelines. That's when it really took off.

Since then I have simply enjoyed the process of pruning and shaping a tree. It's kind of an art form in my opinion. You look at the bare branches and you think, "If I took off those how much stronger and prettier the tree would be." Like an artist you take action here, step back to observe there and step forward again to make another cut somewhere else. Pretty soon something nice takes shape.

Last year I worked on my nectarine trees that had been terribly neglected. They had never been purposefully watered. They had loads of fungus and were obviously very stressed. They still hung on and even produced shriveled fruit. They really were crying out for some help so I cut them back drastically because like a soldier on the battlefield, the poor tree was suffering from its version of gangrene. I cut away all the diseased limbs down to a few strategic branches. It looked like I killed it. My husband said, "Why did you do that?" He was sure that I had killed it. I said, "Dear one, trust me, it's hard to kill a tree. You'll see."  It was exactly what the tree needed. This year it came back and fluffed out so beautifully and next year I'll get some really tasty nectarines.


My Tools

I use the best tools I can afford and in the past I have not been able to afford very much! These are my trusty pruning shears, loppers and pruning saw. I don't recommend any brand but I will say don't get the cheapest. Cheap tools are a waste of money if you don't already know. They wear out fast and don't work very well in time and you'll be buying more cheap tools making them expensive.

A word about using the heavier tools

You'll be using the heavier loppers and saw for the larger branches. Try to support the branch when you cut it. A helper is great. If you cut a heavy branch without support you are running the risk of tearing a strip of bark off underneath the cut. This is not such a factor in cold weather while the tree is dormant, but if you can avoid it the tree will be that much more attractive later on.

Basic pruning guidelines:

  • Remove branches that point down
  • Remove branches that criss-cross each other
  • Remove branches on the underside of the limb
  • Remove branches that point in toward the trunk
  • I usually look at my tree and imagine it looking like a open vase.

criss cross
In the very center you see branches that are crossed. One of them has to go. Probably the one on the left because it's also pointed in to the center.

Branches pointing down need to go. 

Crossed and downward pointing branches aren't strong. Branches pointing toward the middle of the tree clog up air flow and block sunlight making disease easier to flourish.

Here's where the art comes in: you have to decide what stays and what goes. I do this by moving very slowly and contemplating my next cut like a chess player. I try to imagine the over-all tree and make decisions based on that. I also cut very conservatively. It's not important to get it perfect every single time. If you under prune you can always come back next dormant season and do more. It all doesn't have to be done right now.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Most people have budgets for only one cutting tool each, so dip them in alcohol between trees so as not to spread disease.
  • You can remove buds from on the underside of the limb. Carefully flick them off with your fingers. If you do this they won't grow out and you will have less to prune later.


  • Pruning when the tree is dormant helps the tree heal. Diseases are less likely to occur on the cuts in cold weather.

               Before: Some dead wood and criss-crossed branches.            

After pruning:Open vase shape. Ready for spring.

My parting advice: be brave! You can do it. Get in touch with your inner artist, go slow, and contemplate each cut. You'll be ok.

Photos Property of Renée-Lucie Benoit

Gardening with Mr. Jeavons

Renee headshotI've always been a dirt aficionado. I grew up in Iowa where the dirt is like champagne. What didn't wash away to the gulf of Mexico in years past is still lush and fertile. I grew up enjoying this champagne and it's been a difficult adjustment to deal with soils that are not like that. I've written about this many times. This is not news.

Healthy soil is what makes healthy plants. Nobody disagrees with this. However, there is some disagreement on how to make soil healthy. Some say this. Others say that. Most agree that the laborious process of amending and composting is the best way but not all farmers and gardeners have the stamina or patience to work this way. Too many still resort to unnatural fertilizer. It works great in the short run. But is it great in the long run?

I've tried these short cuts. I've tried fertilizer. I've also tried compost but only (as it turns out) in an incomplete way. I've bought soil and made raised beds. I've tried straw bale gardening. I've tried doing absolutely nothing and let nature take its course. All of these ways work to a degree. What is best?

The soil here in the Central Valley of California is great in some areas and not so great in others. Unfortunately in my area it is not so great. It is not the worst I've encountered but it is far from the wonderful soil I grew up with in Iowa. I've got sandy clay loam with emphasis on clay.

When I recently heard about a lecture sponsored by the Fresno master gardeners group and given by a local truck farmer on soil improvement I signed up right away. During the lecture Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms mentioned a book by John Jeavons called "How to Grow More Vegetables". I said to myself, "I have to get that book".  So I did.


It's all about one thing at its core: great natural and fertile soil and how to make it. I've decided to make this book my bedtime study for the next few months. I'm going to distill it to its essence if I can and tell you all about what I find in an effort to make it understandable and digestible to me and, finally, to you, my readers.

To that end I will be reporting through the next few months until it's time to start planting again.

As a prequel here's what I've done so far:

I mulched my garden heavily with straw and veggie bodies. The bodies are the remains of crops I grew this past season. I chopped them down and just left them there. I imagine I will get some volunteers growing next year and I may decide to let them grow. Or I may pull them out. I haven't decided. My garden is boxed but not raised beds. They are just enclosed long beds about 5 feet wide. I have laid deep straw mulch in the aisles between the boxed beds and over the beds themselves.

Here's what the corner section looks like right now. It's pretty rough but it's ok. I'm letting it be as wild as it can be. There should be legions of microbes beneath the mulch working hard at what they do best. Build soil!



From No-Knead to Sourdough

Real Food

Decades before the terms "eco-friendly" and "sustainable growing" entered the vernacular, How to Grow More Vegetables demonstrated that small-scale, high-yield, all-organic gardening methods could yield bountiful crops over multiple growing cycles using minimal resources in a suburban environment. Order from the Capper’s Farmer Store or by calling 800-234-3368.

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