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Renee-Lucie Benoit"Spring has sprung. The grass is riz. I wonder where the flowers is?"

Answer: They're everywhere!


In the meantime I'm getting ready to plant my victory garden. First I need to see what I'm working with.

Do It Yourself Soil Sediment Test

Soil is where the garden starts. If you don't have good soil you're not going to have healthy plants. Healthy plants resist insects and disease. Plant health begins with what they're sitting in.

People used to think all you had to do was add fertilizer. Then compost became all the rage. All that is good and fine, but the best approach is to know what you have. Then you can amend according to what you actually need without guessing so you'll be gardening more accurately. Take a tip from commercial growers. They know their soil inside out.

On our new place I have decent soil to work so I'm getting with the program. When I put the fork to the soil it goes in easy and turns easy. I'm so happy after 4 years of terrible, awful, very bad, no good, heavy clay soil.

This simple, low cost test will help us get off to the right start for the rest of the garden.

What You Need:

straight-sided, flat-bottomed clear jar

something to measure with

dish soap (optional)

calculator (if you're fractionally impaired, as I am)

First, dig a soil sample from the plant root zone in the area your garden will be. Discard any plant material as best you can. Dig enough to full the jar by 1/3.

 soil in jar

If you find any worms, of course, remove them and put them back in their habitat! Yay, worms! Crumble the soil and pick out any pebbles or roots, etc.

Fill the jar to 1/3. I add a little tiny drop of dish soap. This helps get the soil particles wet and separated but this step is optional. Now fill the jar with water within an inch of the top, put the lid on tight, and give it a good shake to get all the soil wet and suspended. Keep shaking until nothing is left on the bottom or sides. Set the jar on a flat surface and watch it settle.

Sand settles first because the particles are large and therefore heavy.  The sandy layer will look coarse.  If you look close you will actually see the sand particles. The silt and clay layers do not look coarse. They will just be a color. Dark brown or light brown. Mark where the sand ends and the next layer begins.

Silt is the next layer to settle out. This will take about an hour. You will notice it is a different color. Most often it is darker. Mark where the silt layer begins and ends.

Clay is the slowest of the soil particles to settle. Heavy clay layer will settle out in a day. Finer clay might take two days. You can let the clay settle for up to a week. It all depends on your soil.

Measure the depth of each layer and the total soil depth. These measurements are used to calculate the percentage of each soil component.


My jar shows 1-1/2 (1.5) inches of sand, 1/2 (.5) inch of silt, and 1/4 (.25) inch of clay, for a total of 2-1/4 (2.25) inches. Divide each particle depth by the total soil depth to get the percentages:

1.5 divided by 2.25 = .66 or 66% sand

.5 divided by 2.25 = 0.22 or 22% silt

.25 divided by 2.25 = .11 or 11% clay.

Interpreting the Test

Using a soil triangle chart, I am able to figure out what kind of soil structure I am dealing with. It gives me a foundation to work from for how to amend my soil as needed. Here what the triangle chart looks like, you can find all sorts of variations on the web.


Here's how I use the chart. (For fun you can download an excel version from the USDA that will calculate it for you).

Find the numbers that correspond to your percentages. You're basically drawing a line from your percentage number to where the 3 percentage numbers intersect. From the clay side draw a line from left to right until the intersection. For the silt draw from right to left until intersection. For sand draw from bottom to top until intersection. My test results in sandy clay loam.

So I'll be adding compost, manures, bio-char, and old mulch to enhance the moisture holding properties.

What will you do with your soil?




Renee-Lucie Benoitgarden

This is where our huge garden is going to go.

Dear Reader,

We finally did it. It took months — maybe even years when I think about it — to find our own place and now it's happened. We bought a few acres of arable land, with plenty of water and a few outbuildings in need of repair. We're thrilled and terrified at the same time. I think of my grandmother Frieda when she was a young woman starting out and she's going to be my mentor. I wish I had been able to do it the way she did it and maybe the terror would be less. We always welcome the thrill but the terror... it's a big job. Are we up to it at our advanced age? We know how to work smarter instead of harder so maybe that will help us.

Anyway, Gramma did not fall far from the fruit tree and stayed close to where she grew up. She had all her many sisters and brothers to help her, not to mention Mum and Dad. Well, I had to be different so I strayed far from home into a "foreign" land and now I'm paying the price. I'm also benefiting on other levels, so it's not all one-sided. You know the old saying you get what you pay for? There's another saying: Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.

If I had stayed in Iowa I would have made it a lot easier on myself in many ways. But harder in other ways. For one thing, even though the weather is a lot more user friendly out here in California — most of the time — the subject of soil is a completely different kettle of fish. When I first came to California and encountered adobe soil I was shocked. Up to that time I had been spoiled by the incredible glacial soils of Iowa where all I had to do — practically — was put seeds in the ground and sit back and watch while they grew gangbusters. Ever since I've been in CA I've had a hard time of it — no pun intended. But I've had some success and it's been a very interesting learning curve. Stuff does grow here, and well, I might add. After all, California is the truck farm capital of the US of A, isn't it?  You just have to know what you're doing, and isn't that really how it is in real world farming?

So we embark on our project. I lay awake at night and have a hard time getting to sleep. I'm making plans in my head. What about this? What about that? On the positive side I already have some posts written in my head. How to make your own almond milk. Almonds grow here like gangbusters. Raisin and table grapes are grown all around us. How about: how to make your own raisins the natural way and grapevine wreaths? Then there's homestead projects like an easy rose trellis for the garden entrance.

This is the thrilling part. Sharing all our experiences with you, my wonderful readers. Gramma would be proud. I wish she was here to give me advice across the kitchen table over a cup of tea or coffee with some of her famous coffee cake. Well, maybe she is.


Renee-Lucie Benoit"In times like these it helps to recall there have always been times like these." — Paul Harvey

I don't know what made me think of Paul Harvey the other day. I guess I was sick with one of the worst head colds I've ever had and I was sending a letter to my sister to let her know what was going on in our side of the country. The phrase "Now you know the rest of the story" popped into my little pea brain which is been known to be full of useless information but, oh, so interesting. At least to me.

Paul Harvey was part of my life growing up in Iowa in the 50s. We'd turn on the kitchen radio in the morning and there it would sit blasting away the Farm Report and everything all day long every day. Our local radio station was called KFJB. We kids decided that this acronym stood for Krazy Farmer's Jazz Band and we looked forward to listening to Man On The Street every day at noon when the guy would walk down to the local Kresge dime store and there, by the donut machine, he would interview people passing by.

Sometimes the radio would play Patsy Cline singing one of her famous songs. I still love "Sweet Dreams" to this day and it reminds me of piles of French fries, cherry cokes and dinner plate size pork fritters at the counter at that very dime store.

Mr. Harvey was not a shock jock. He never said a bad word and he was always entertaining. I guess he was the Rush Limbaugh of his day because he was known to be conservative but I never thought of him as anything except a good story teller. He didn't say stuff just to get people riled up. That was true conservativism.

He always said "Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for NEWS!" at the beginning of his program. He always ended his program with, "Paul Harvey ... Good day." A story might be called "This day's news of most lasting significance" and at the end of a report about someone who had done something ridiculous or offensive, Harvey might say, "He would want us to mention his name," followed by silence, then would start the next item. The last item of a broadcast, which was often a funny story, would usually be preceded by "For what it's worth."

I also think that in a lot of ways Paul Harvey was a precursor to Lake Woebegone because of the folksy nature of a lot of this stories. One famous broadcast was called "So God Made a Farmer" and it just seems like something you might hear on that radio show.

The speech began as a continuation of the Genesis creation story and referred to the actions God took on the 8th day. In it, Harvey stated that God needed a caretaker for the land he created. In the speech God expressed the characteristics needed by the person he was creating:

"I need somebody with arms strong enough to wrestle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild; somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to await lunch until his wife's done feeding visiting ladies, then tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon, and mean it."

They just don't make 'em like that anymore.


Photo by Fotolia/tanawatpontchour


Renee-Lucie BenoitWe're packing and packing getting ready for our Big Move to our four acres in Madera. I reach back into the recesses of our closets and cupboards to remove everything and carefully wrap and box it up. Things that I put in the cupboard up high and back are things I forgot about. Now that I bring them back into daylight I re-visit some nice old memories.


When my mom and dad went to Mexico in 1948 they took my Aunt LuVerne with them. Aunt LuVerne is my mother's sister and she is a great lady still with us very much so at age 95. She served as a WAC (Women's Air Corps) in World War II and later she was an English teacher. She still corrects my grammar for which I am very grateful. Nothing like having a living, breathing "Elements of Style" in your family if you're a writer.

They drove a classic Ford Woody all the way from Chicago to Mexico City. My mom bought the car with her wages from teaching art at the University of Illinois in Chicago and it was her pride and joy. All along the road the three friends had adventures and they told us the stories off and on during the years. In a little nameless village my mom and her sister went shopping while my dad took a nap with his brand new Panama straw hat over his face. When he woke up the hat was gone. A brazen thief had taken it very carefully from his face and my dad did not wake up once.

Later a total stranger proposed marriage to my beautiful redheaded Aunt LuVerne. Everywhere they went the local people were enthralled with her. One day the three of them enjoyed at day at the beach and thought it strange that everyone was packing up to go while the sun was still high. Minutes later they were covered with biting flies that the locals knew all about but did not know how to warn the English speaking gringos. After finally arriving in Mexico City they got pick pocketed at the Post Office. But that deterred their enthusiasm only a little bit. They kept going and outside Mexico City Mom found a St. Christopher's medal on the lava at the ruins of an old city after a volcano erupted. Only the church steeple was still visible. She made up a story about a villager fleeing the volcano and dropping their necklace never to return.

My mom brought home many treasures. When she passed away the most beautiful treasures were given to us kids and her surviving brother and sisters. The rest was sold to pay expenses as is often the case. I got The Plates. They're most certainly painted with lead based glaze so I never use them to eat off of. I just look at them and think about the artisan who made them and then I remember my mom and dad and the good times they had before I was born.



Renee-Lucie Benoitrainbow

This is not our new farm but isn't it beautiful? Our old ranch.

We bought the farm.

Not the way you think but you've probably figured that out already. We bought a small farm. Just north of Fresno near the little town of Madera. Madera is in the middle of California and the raisin growing capital of the world. But the road to get to Madera was anything but fun. What got us through is that we are stubborn when we really want something. We don't give up easily.

By the way, I'm going to re-name my blog once we get there so I'm entertaining any ideas from out there in the peanut gallery. Bring 'em on!

I'm going to miss this ranch a lot. What I'm going to miss most is the utter peace. No freeway noise. No neighbors mowing lawns. No nothing. The only thing breaking the silence is the honking of geese flying in to the lake or the random motorcycle way out on the road. Our new place will be peaceful but not like this. The neighbors will be within a stone's throw and there isn't a lake for the geese to fly in to.

But this will be a place where every little dirt clod kicked over has a purpose and makes a contribution. A place where we can build things that make sense to us. According to our plan. That we come up with.

We almost didn't get it though. It's a seller's market for fixer upper property in California. Buyers from all over the world and mostly the Orient are coming in to California and buying up property cheaply with cash, fixing it up and re-selling it for a profit.

We started looking in July of last year. We made offers on 3 places only to be skunked by cash buyers every time so when we saw this place on the internet we called up the listing agent and, sight unseen, we made an offer. We knew from painful experience that we needed to get our foot in the door immediately or the place would have an offer on it and we would be left out in the cold. This way we might have a chance. We could always back out if we saw and it wasn't right.

So we made an offer for more than the asking price that was still in our comfort zone and not out of line with the comparables. Then we took a chance and agreed that the owner could stay on a bit after closing to move herself out. Lo and behold, we got it! Just so you know, we did see the place and we did decide it was perfect.

Honestly, it feels like a bit of a miracle.

Four acres, flat and arable, with plenty of water, trees, outbuildings (in need of repair but, so what, we can do it!) and a modest house. You're going to be hearing a lot about our homestead in the next few months. We're starting from scratch on just about everything including the kitchen garden, livestock, chickens, pigs, geese, and ducks.

Now we just have to get a mule!


Renee-Lucie BenoitAt the beginning of January 2016 I posted an article about how to preserve lemons. It takes at least a month for them to be ready to use. Here's one recipe that worked out well for us. I've added some notes that may help you make it even better. The olives, olive oil, onions, chicken and lemons were all locally grown foods.

Chicken With Preserved Lemon And Green Olives


Makes 2-4 servings

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, grated or very finely chopped (I grated mine in a food processor)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
4 large chicken breasts (or 1 whole chicken, cut up in pieces; thighs work, too)
Black pepper
(Since the olives and preserved lemons are salty I suggest adding salt to taste at the table)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Peel of 1 large or 2 small preserved lemons
12 to 16 green olives, pitted and sliced

In a heavy-bottomed pan that can hold all the chicken pieces in one layer, heat the oil over a medium flame and add in the onions. Stir over low heat until they soften. Do not burn. They may brown slightly but mostly keep them soft.


Add in the garlic, saffron and ginger and mix.

Lay the chicken pieces in over the onion and season with pepper. Then pour in about 1 cup of water. Simmer, covered, turning the pieces over once or twice. Add a little more water if it becomes too dry. If you are using dark meat, to avoid overcooking the white meat lift it out after about 15 minutes and put it to one side. Continue to cook the dark meat for another 25 minutes or so, after which time return the white meat to the pan.

Take your preserved lemons and peel away the flesh. Cut the quarters into strips.


Add the lemon juice, chopped coriander, parsley, preserved lemon peel and the olives.


Simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes, until the reduced sauce is thick. If there is too much liquid, lift out the chicken pieces and set aside while you reduce the sauce further, then return the chicken to the pan and heat through.

Put the chicken on a serving dish with the olives and lemon peel on top. Enjoy!


Renee-Lucie BenoitIt's 1889. My husband's grandfather's family has just immigrated from France to Bakersfield, California to open a bakery. They bring their old country ways and embark upon creating a little French community where they've finally settled. In later years my husband remembers the smell of the loaves coming out of the oven early in the morning. It brings back fond memories of "Papa" and now French bread is his favorite food.

Nowadays we go to the grocery store and I have to bite my tongue as he goes around to each potential bread loaf to "squeeze the Charmin." If it's hot and soft he buys it. Yesterday as I was cleaning I wasn't expecting to find loaves of bread in the pile of stuff my husband got from his dad after he passed but I was hoping to find a French bread recipe. I didn't find one. No doubt the recipe was never written down and if it was it would probably be "wheat flour and yeast mixed, kneaded, then baked in a hot oven with the steam at the right time."  Steam makes the wonderful crunchy crust and soft interior.

What I did find was an old tabloid newspaper. A treasured memento of times gone by. "Pacific Rural Press", 24-page edition. As I held it I could see it coming off an old fashioned Guttenberg printing press sheet by sheet into the hands of the pressman. He hold it up and looks for imperfections and finding none he puts it in the pile for collation and folding. Who was he? What was his life like? A closer inspection reveals  the publisher's name: Mr. A. T. Dewey. Nothing further is noted.


On the front page there's an article about "A Pen of Premium Berkshires" at the State Fair. On another page is a letter to the editor from a writer who makes a good, strong case that coyotes should not be killed. There's an article on how to make cheese at home and three pages concerning affairs of The Patrons of Husbandry also known as "The Grange." There's medical advice, a Young Folks Column and a recipe for getting rid of ants (half full saucer of molasses to which is added a tablespoonful of Paris green, stirred well) (what is Paris green, I ask you?). How about this cake recipe? "One teaspoonful of soda, one cup sour cream, one cup of sugar, one egg. Flavor with lemon. Flour to make a moderately stiff batter, and bake slowly." Why, the newspaper even has international news. How timely this news is one can only guess but it's there nonetheless.


When I read it I see how similar are our interests to the people of 1889. The only differences are our technological advances. Otherwise, we are the same.


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