Two go forest gardening

…or how to live at one with nature and the French…


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Sheltering from the wind

windyThe French like to give names to their wind.

Whether it’s the Cers, the Sirocco or the Mistral in all its various guises, these French names make wind sound sexy.  You can hear it whispering through the branches of olive trees as you say it.

But there’s nothing sexy about the wind that blows through Bournac.  The Autan missed out on the sibilance of its southerly sisters and blows mercilessly from the south-east across our forest garden.  It flattens everything that’s not tied down as it barges down the valley.  When it loses its puff and takes a breather, another wind takes its place, this time blowing from the north-west, up the valley.  This one is so strong that all the trees are bent over like old men hunched against the cold.  Our cherry trees were only planted three years ago and already they’re exhibiting a definite lean.

When I asked Monsieur Pioche what the north-westerly was called, he shrugged and said, “C’est un vent du nord.”  Not strictly true and not even slightly helpful.

So we have un petit problème.  How are we going to protect our forest garden from the ravages of the Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield of the wind world?

You will recall from Chapter 9 – Not such a grand design that I have already done a rough sketch of the garden layout.  Fortunately, although our winds blow in opposite directions, they are on the same trajectory so that means we can prevent wind tunnels developing by laying out the paths at right-angles to the prevailing wind.

But we will still have wind unless we create a shelterbelt at each end of the garden. This is a row of trees/shrubs that will reduce the impact of the wind and help to create a mini-climate within the garden.  And because this is a forest garden, we need to find plants that will also produce food.

Sea buckthorn berries

Sea buckthorn berries

After reading a variety of books on edible hedges, I decided on sea buckthorn and rosa rugosa.  I remembered Hugh Fearnley-Doodah making a rather tasty champagne cocktail out of the sea buckthorn berries which contain high levels of anti-oxidants to counteract the effects of the alcohol.  The rosa rugosa, a variety of wild rose introduced from the far east, much beloved by bees, has massive hips in the autumn (rather like me except that mine are permanent).

I bought 6 bare-root plants of each online and was somewhat surprised when they arrived in a package that looked like it contained an umbrella.  Once I unpacked them and spread out the roots, they looked ok, if a little twiggy and dead.  But this is how bare-root plants are supposed to look apparently.  You get them in winter when they are dormant and don’t mind being wrapped in bubble wrap and shoved in the post.

The vibrant bloom of rosa rugosa.

The vibrant bloom of rosa rugosa.

So off I went with my pick and shovel to make 12 holes. Naturally, the Autan decided to blow its hardest and brought along some rain just to make my digging experience all the more pleasant.  I had managed to dig three holes when Johnny arrived on the scene wielding yet another tool he had bought on the sly because he knew I wouldn’t allow him to get if I’d known about it.

It looked like a giant corkscrew and is known as an auger.  As you screw it into the ground, the earth is spiralled up out of the top of the whole…or it would be if you had lovely loamy light soil.  But you will recall that we have stones, cemented together with a bit of clay and Johnny’s smile soon because a grimace as he twisted his new toy around and around.

And its big hips...

And its big hips…

Never one to be defeated, he created the remaining 9 holes in fairly short order, except that they were all twice the depth I needed and I had to go around after him filling them in…

Eventually, our shrubs were all tucked up in bed and we were able to retire to our lovely warm kitchen for a wine or three, safe in the knowledge that our forest garden would soon be basking in the lea of a rosy bower…

P.S.  When we visited last week a month after planting, one of the sea buckthorns and two of the rosas were really dead.  The others have got tiny shoots and are growing at 45 degrees to the ground, already subjugated by the winds.

P.P.S. According to Wikipedia, “Rugosa rose is naturalized in many parts of Europe, and it is considered an invasive species in some habitats. It can out-compete native flora, thereby threatening biological diversity. It is also considered a noxious weed in the USA.”  Bugger!


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In Bournac this week

For once, I am writing in real time from our kitchen table in Bournac.  On it sits a vase of lilac which is perfuming the entire room.  Bushes everywhere are weighed down with the mauve and white blossom of this most elegant of flowers.  The countryside is finally waking up after what locals tell us has been the worst spring they can remember.  Given that some of them are ancient, that’s a long time indeed.

On Wednesday when we stepped out of the plane at Toulouse, we were hit by 30 degree heat and the sweet scent of things growing.  I even managed to get sunburn because I’d forgotten what it’s like to be in sunshine.

But since then a dastardly north-westerly has been blowing, flattening everything that’s not nailed down.  I have been tying raspberry canes to stakes and attaching extra ties to our fruit trees for fear they blow over and snap.  This morning when John went to use the garden hose, he discovered it had frozen up.  It’s not always Jean de Florette hot down here.

So we’re here to tame the weeds that have a party every time we leave for a couple of weeks.  The warmer temperatures and constant rain have provided the ideal growing environment.  But I am pleased to announce that the grass clipping mulch I put around the raspberries and blackcurrants last month has worked a treat.  They are sprouting away happily with nary a weed in sight.

Johnny as usual reserved the fun of strimming for himself.  I guess it’s a boy-thing, but he just can’t wait to wreak havoc with his petrol-driven brush-cutter.  I remind him that a vital part of self-sufficiency is to be independent of oil products, but he comes out with some reason why he can’t use his scythe.  He hasn’t got the right type of blade or his peening anvil is back in London.  I give up the argument and rush out to the garden with my shears to cut around all the plants that are not weeds.  I have learned the hard way that a boy’s eye doesn’t distinguish between weeds and fruit bushes.  Unfortunately, I forgot to mention the violets and cowslips.  The former are now bald and the latter quite decapitated.

It's wine o'clock after a hard day of digging.

It’s wine o’clock after a hard day of digging.

Our days follow the same timetable: breakfast, a bit of work, elevenses, a bit of work, lunch, a bit of work, cake o’clock, a bit more work, dinner, bed.  It’s easy to lose track of time here, but every day at 12 o’clock and 7 o’clock, the chime of a distant church bell reaches us on the wind.  For ten minutes, the bell of St Pantaléon (otherwise known as St Trousers) faithfully calls its parishioners to lunch and dinner.  The fact that the bell has never called us to a church service says a great deal about the importance of food to the French.  In my mind, I saw an elderly, bent-over, little priest in a black robe and Don Camillo hat tugging on the bell-pull for dear life, crying, “Allez, tout le monde à table!”  My fantasy was shattered when someone told us the bell was on a timer…  Such is the price of progress.

Speaking of French food, we thought that we had had all the surprises that French cuisine could present to us.  In this part of France, hunting is a way of life and restaurant menus are a long list of various bits of game: wild boar, venison, hare, guinea fowl.  These dishes usually involve a generous helping of goose fat.  Then of course there are the various bits of insides that the French love so much: sweetbreads, kidneys and our all time favourite…gizzards.  I had to look this up and, according to Google, it’s the “muscular, thick-walled part of a bird’s stomach for grinding food, typically with grit” and it’s particularly delicious served in a salad (yes, a salad).  We like telling our French friends that gizzards were our little dog’s favourite treat and watch them trying to hide their look of disbelief.  Anyway, we passed a menu board this week announcing the starter of the day to be nems aux gésiers aka gizzard spring rolls.  It almost made me regret being a vegetarian.

And then we went into a supermarket and at the till, right where shops like to put sweets and chocolates to tempt customers as they queue, we saw the most delectable-sounding confectionary: bonbons au lait d’ânesse…donkey milk sweets.

We took our pulses, veg and yoghurt and hot-footed it back to Bournac to cook dinner.  I can just hear Monsieur Dubois’s voice, “Mais on n’est pas des oiseaux…”  But we’re not birds…  Being veggie in France is not easy.


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Shake, rattle and rotivate…

What do you do when you find that there used to be a house in your garden?

We had discovered that the land we were planning to turn into a luscious forest garden had once been the site of three homes. If you recall from Chapter 7, Farmer French had simply bulldozed them out of his way when he bought a mega-tractor. Now we were faced with the back-breaking work of preparing the soil and bringing it back to fertility.

John makes sure his trousers don't fall down while Rob does the hard work.

John makes sure his trousers don’t fall down while Rob does the hard work.

As you may remember, John is always itching to get his tools out and, for months, he had been resisting the siren call of the concrete base of an old electricity pole firmly embedded in the garden.  With the purchase of an even more powerful electric drill, John was unable to resist the lure any longer and he set about digging the hulk up.  He even co-opted one of our vicarious children, Rob, who was staying with us for a few days.  I decided to hide in the kitchen and wait for the cry of victory/anguish depending on the successful/piercing of a member outcome.  But no matter how hard they tried, the concrete was staying put, much to John’s frustration, but fortunately so to did all their body parts.

John started saying we would have to find a big plant pot to put over it when, yes, you guessed it, Monsieur Pioche appeared like Mr Ben’s shopkeeper to hoik out the concrete with his all-purpose tractopelle…

Tractopelle 2: John 0

…although Monsieur P did manage to reverse into and over a tree which might have been quite interesting if only we’d noticed what kind it was before he demolished it.

So now we had a clear piece of land to start planting.  Or so we thought, until we heard the story about the three houses that used to stand there.  Remembering the convict-level-hard-labour of making holes to plant the fruit trees, we realised that we would need to dig up most of the three houses before the site was capable of becoming a garden.

Fortunately, we had learned all about rotivating while on the self-sufficiency course in Ireland so we hot-footed it down to the local garden equipment hire place and got ourselves a motobineuse to make short work of the stones.

And here is just how easy it was…

[If you’re reading this via email, you’ll need to click here to see this video.]

We hired the rotivator for two days to be on the safe side, after all we were sure that it would slice through the ground and we’d be done in a day at most. But no.

The ground was as hard as rock itself so needed a first pass just to create some grip for the rotivator’s blades to grab onto. Then once they were able to start churning the soil, huge rocks were flung out behind, more than once causing Johnny a great deal of pain in a rather sensitive area.  Finally, the rotivator bucked and reared as though possessed which meant he had to hang on for dear life to keep it in a straight line, meaning he had even less strength than usual for washing up.

Lucy snores on oblivious to the racket outside.

Lucy snores on oblivious to the racket outside.

My job was to make sure that I cleared any stones in front and behind him to minimise the risk of damage to the blades and further injury to husband.  Monsieur P had lent us a nifty little mechanical dumper which we filled over and over again with rocks which we moved to the other side of the house where we need rubble to level out the land.  Waste not, want not.

On the third day, we weren’t quite ready to “produce vegetation”.  Instead, we heaved the rotivator back into the trailer and drove it very tiredly home to the hire shop.  We then fast-forwarded to the seventh day and rested from all our work and saw that it was good.

Slowly, slowly, doucement, doucement, we were getting closer to being ready to plant things.  All we needed was to revitalise the soil which right now featured clay and limestone, but mostly clay, which became sticky and slimey in the rain and baked hard as concrete in the sun.  Lovely!  Thank goodness we like a challenge.

Next week: Making compost on a shoe-string


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Not such a grand design

Given that all the tomes languishing in my bookcase say that we should plan out our garden, it seemed like it was time to buy an exercise book.

20130331_173222I love exercise books.  Perhaps it’s a throw-back to school when I had a different colour book for each subject so I could tell at a glance if it was chemistry, history or Latin.  Now I needed one that said “forest garden” and I found the perfect one in a bargain bin on the Boulevard St Michel in Paris.  Of all the places, you might think, but it’s in the student district near the Sorbonne so there are heaps of shops there selling random stationery, even for forest gardeners.  What makes this exercise book perfect is that it is already covered in flowers so I’m not likely to be able to lose it or forget what’s in it!

Patrick Whitefield talks at length about creating a design for a forest garden to ensure that all the plants are in the correct position from the outset*.  It’s nigh on impossible to transplant a canopy tree once it is more than a few years old so it’s best to get it right the first time.

2008-04-29 (79) blogSeems like we may have tripped up at the first hurdle because our garden is already flanked on one side by a row of mature, uncared for ornamental cherry trees.  I still cannot fathom why Farmer French thought it would be a good idea to plant ornamental cherry trees when he could have chosen apples or pears or even quinces.  I’m also still quite peeved with him for getting my hopes up when I first caught sight of the fat little fruit that hang voluptuously off the branches in July.  Fortunately, Mr Pioche told me that they were “pas comestible” just before I put one in my mouth.  A bit like that scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indy is about to swallow a poisoned date…

The cherries are pretty for about ten days in the year.

The cherries are pretty for about ten days in the year.

These then are our existing canopy trees.  Apart from acting as a wind break, they are not a whole heap else of use.  It’s true that in the summer they provide shelter from the blistering sun, but they also guzzle up precious water out of the surrounding soil.  Ah well, we’re stuck with them and they are really very pretty.  In fact, we have been on a course to learn how to prune them and save them from even more damage by time and the weather (more of that some other time).

Next are the orchard trees which we planted in 2010 before we had any idea what a forest garden was.  Fortunately, we put them in sufficiently far apart that they won’t compete with each other.

Now it was time to work out where the actual beds should be put in and for this we would need to measure the distances between the existing trees and bushes to work out the right proportions.  I spent a very happy afternoon ordering John around.  Stand there.  No, not there, there!  No, there!  Oh, for goodness sake, I’ll do it…

What could be easier than pacing between the trees with a tape measure?  Well, lots of things, apparently, because despite taking meticulous notes in my flowery exercise book, when it came to drawing out the plan, I discovered that the garden was related to the TARDIS.  It was most definitely bending in time and space, or why did none of the lines join up with each other?

In desperation, I took the very unpermaculture step of using my IT skills to measure the lines and move them around the computer screen.  When that didn’t work, I got out a ruler and literally went back to school, working out the dimensions using long division.  But to no avail.  And because I was by this time back in London, there was no popping outside to do a quick remeasure.  Grrrr….  The neat little designs in the PW book were laughing at me.

And then I had a revelation.  I was working in 2D and the garden is a definitely lumpy 3D.  Where we had taken measurements from the foot of one tree to the next, we hadn’t taken into the account that the ground wasn’t flat.  Hurrah!  Mystery solved.  It wasn’t that I needed new glasses, again.

I did what I do best and changed my mind.  Who said that the measurements needed to be accurate?  Me!  So I just decided they didn’t need to be.  Simples!

P1060731This is how my plan looks at the moment.  I haven’t yet filled in the beds with the shrubs and herbaceous layer, but it’s a place to start.  Now we can really get going on the practicalities of creating our garden.

*How to Make a ForestGarden, Patrick Whitefield, Permanent Publications [2002]