Two go forest gardening

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


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Fuel for free – the wonders of wood

Imagine yourself in the French countryside in a little stone house, built when people wore four layers of clothing as standard and heating was limited to an open fire.  Then go outside and realise that it’s minus 14 degrees and the water has frozen in the pipes.  Fun, fun, fun!  You might almost be in a situation out of the “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook”.  And yet, this is what we may well be faced with once we live in Bournac full-time.

Last year, the winter was exceptionally hard.  We were only there for a few days and missed the worst of the weather, but we heard horror stories of people suffering tens of thousands of euros of water damage and that others had burnt their way through €10,000 of heating oil.

Husband Johnny is from tough Irish farming stock – his grandmother cooked over an open fire until the 1960s, fuelled by peat that had been cut by hand – so he knows a thing or two about keeping warm.  He had been adamant that, if we wanted to be truly self-sufficient, we would need to solve the fuel problem from the start.

Freedom from fossil fuel has always been our goal and, since Bournac is in the middle of a Hundred Acre Wood, the obvious decision was to copy the French paysans and burn firewood.

You have already heard about the amazing Godin range that now squats in our kitchen, chunting away like the Flying Scotsman on a full belly.  We have also installed a little stove in the bedroom and have another two ready for the downstairs living area and the second bedroom (once Monsieur P gets around to finishing them).  But obviously they need to be fed, particularly the Godin which gobbles up a good 6-8 logs an evening.

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“I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day…”

This is when the lumberjack in John decided to make an appearance.  Why buy wood when he could cut it down from the surrounding land?  He could do a coppicing course, keep fit, use the Landy to drive across the fields and drag back the wood – the hunter/gatherer was being given his head and…

…this turned into a marvellous excuse to buy all kinds of rusty cutting implements from car boot sales and junk shops.  Imagine my delight when he came home with a 4-foot-long, double-end saw (and just who did he think would be on the other end from him?) which then lurched about in the garden shed, looking for an opportunity to fall on me and make its presence felt.

I lost count of the times I had to sign for ludicrously heavy parcels which a panting delivery person had lugged up the front steps of our London house.  These contained all manner of mallets, chisels and wedges for splitting the logs once John had felled a tree.

To practise his wood-splitting skills, John took to loading the Landy with wood that he found on building sites and making friends with tree surgeons who are only too pleased to get rid of large pieces of tree trunk.  Soon the back of our garden in London was piled high with logs.  Fortunately, we also have an open fire here so getting rid of them wasn’t a problem.

Then came the grand opening of the double-ended saw.  John disappeared in the Landy to drive to the top of our field in Bournac.  After an hour or so, I thought I’d better check that he hadn’t done himself and injury and – yes, you guessed it – found myself on the other end of the saw (as I think he had planned all along).2010-02-02 (17)

And what fun it was!  The teeth cut through the wood like the proverbial hot knife through butter and I felt fully justified in scoffing a massive cake that afternoon as a reward.  It was also really satisfying to work together as a team and to cut the wood together in less than half the time it would have taken Johnny on his own.

I’ll blog more on how John has organised his wood-cutting activity because it is a free and sustainable source of fuel and you don’t need your own personal forest to provide the wood.

But now, I’m going to light the fire in the sitting room here in London because my fingers are frozen from typing this and it’s not going to cost me a penny!


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Where there’s muck, there’s worms

I’ve got worms!

The last time I made that announcement, our family doctor curled his lip and said, “How very distasteful!”  But I was five and I had been eating dirt.

This time, I am delighted with the news because the worms are back where they belong – in the dirt in Bournac.

When we first started planting (see Chapter 7: Help, there’s a house in our garden), we discovered that the earth around here is made of clay with a lot of limestone and some house debris thrown in just to make life interesting.  And not a worm in sight.

I am a big fan of worms.  I am happy to pick them up with in my fingers; I always cover them over when I find them in the garden and I am distraught if I find I have skewered one on a garden implement by mistake.

(There now follow scenes of worm violence that may upset some readers…)

My interest in worms started in biology class when I was 13.  We had been instructed by our science teacher Mrs Aidley each to bring a worm for dissection, causing much squealing and murmuring in class.  Since she had mastered the one-line put-down of pubescent females, no one dared arrive sans worm and Mrs Aidley then proceeded to pick them out of various jam jars and sandwich boxes and place them in a glass beaker.

What ensued has stayed with me ever since. She poured alcohol on the little pile of creatures and I can still see them thrashing about in their death-throes.  A dead worm was then distributed to each girl – I was pretty miffed because I’d dug around for a good 20 minutes looking for a big, fat specimen and was handed back a spindly character, probably just entering worm teenage.  We then had to cut them open lengthways with scissors and rummage around for worm brains and organs.  Imagine the sights and sounds of 30 scalpel-wielding schoolgirls hacking their way through a head the size of cotton bud.You can tell that this particular biology lesson scarred me, not just the worms.  I blame Mrs Aidley – I can still her standing on the platform at the front of class, holding up the voice box and wind pipe of a cow that she had managed to wrestle off a farmer.  Unfortunately, the wind pipe was still attached to two massive lungs.

But I digress…

Earthworm tunnels

Earthworm tunnels

Worms are vital to the health and structure of soil so when they’re not there, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong.  Unfortunately, there’s no missing worm hotline so it was up to us to encourage them back.

Worms burrow away happily, depositing worm poo through the soil and creating tunnels lined with worm goo which is high in nitrogen.  Plant roots seek out these tunnels and grow through them, sucking up the nutrients left behind by the slitherers.

There are different steps you can take to make your garden an earthworm mecca:

  1. Keep the ground covered in organic matter – in another words, mulch with leaves or compost, rather than stones.  The worms will pull the mulch down into the soil to eat it.  Next autumn, notice how fallen leaves start poking up out of the soil – an earthworm party will be going on somewhere nearby.
  2. Keep the soil moist – the best way is by mulching, but watering also help if there is no rain for a while.
  3. Only use organic products in your garden – above or below the soil line.  Are you more likely to want to swim in water that is clean and pure, or splash about in a load of toxins?
  4. Avoid digging the ground – even a quick turn of the soil will kill the micro-organisms (mycelium) that help with the decomposition of organic matter in the soil, thereby ensuring a constant supply of readily available nutrients for plants and soil-dwelling animals, such as earthworms.  You will also disturb the worms’ network of tunnels which can take years to establish. If you want to aerate compacted soil, stick a fork in and wiggle it about gently.
  5. Feed them – bury kitchen waste (raw, not cooked) in the ground at intervals.  The worms will travel between them to snack on the food and drag nutrients along in their wake, as well as mixing the rotting matter through the soil for you.

We did numbers 1 to 4 and within a few months, I found that the beds where we had mulched were teeming with worms. It will still take time for the worm action on the mulch to improve the soil, but we’re off to wriggling start.

To paraphrase Kevin Costner, “Feed them and they will come.”


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But me no butts…

With the shelter belt sprouting nicely, it was time to focus on another vital aspect of our forest garden: how to water it.  You will remember from Chapter 4: Not catching raindrops and Chapter 8: In praise of the Landrover that we had already been thinking about how to ensure our garden doesn’t turn into a mini dustbowl when we’re not there.

One of the main concepts of a forest garden is that it should be self-sustaining, with the different layers creating a microclimate and protecting the soil from evaporation.  We are several years away from that and, despite furious mulching, our beds need help to get established.  With summer temperatures passing 40 degrees and rain coming in very short, sharp thunderstorms, we need to find a way to harness every drop that falls.

Having lugged two 350 litre water butts down on the top of the Landy at great expense, we trotted along to our local hypermarket only to find the place rammed full of water butts.  Fortunately, we were able to walk along the lines of them judging them “horrible, horrible, ugly, my God that looks like a mutated vegetable!”  Johnny and I would easily win the Justification Dance on Strictly…

Then we caught sight of a tall, slim version which actually didn’t look too bad and decided that two of them would fit perfectly on the end of the house, leaving our 350 litre behemoths hidden around the corner.

2013-04-21 compressedEvery so often, life presents me with yet another reason why it was a good idea to marry Johnny.  He learned how to do loads of random things on an engineer’s course in the Army which come in handy every so often.  This time it was the ability to make concrete.  He set about making stands for the water butts, using the slats from a futon base that a neighbour had thrown away.  I provided cups of tea.

The tricky bit was going to be cutting into the downpipes to fit the diverter, particularly since the guttering is made of zinc.  I was just having visions of rain spurting out from ill-fitting joints when I heard the rattle of Monsieur Pioche coming down the lane.  The man has an uncanny/fortunate knack of turning up just at the right moment.

He studied the instructions for fitting the diverter and announced that he and his team would do it for us to avoid any “pépins” – hiccups.  John got a bit sniffy because he’d been looking forward to another opportunity to get his toolbox out, but we were dispatched with a shopping list to the French equivalent of Wickes.

The following day, Monsieur P turned up with his “team”, his trusty side-kick Pierre, a talented joiner/mason/plumber/water butt installer.  Monsieur P thinks it’s hilarious that you know him as Monsieur Pioche (pioche in French means pick, as in pick and shovel) and he suggested that Pierre should be known as Monsieur Patate (Mr Spud).  Pierre looked decidedly unimpressed by this and, since I’d quite like the remaining doors and windows put in straight, I’m sticking with Pierre…

I left the two of them puzzling over the diverter and various bits of plastic pipe, hearing things like, “So where does this bit go?” and “No, no, not like that.”  Then the sound of a saw cutting into metal.  I only returned to offer them a drink, which they always refuse.  I’m not sure whether this is because they have developed camel-like qualities or that my coffee is not up to French standards.

A couple of hours later, Monsieur P announced the work to be finished – the water butts were installed and we now just needed some rain to test them.  I looked up at azure sky and brilliant sunshine.  How typical!  Still, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on the weather over there since we returned to London and I’m confident that the butts will be filling up nicely.

Now we have to work out how to get the water out of the butts and onto the plants when we’re not there.  I wonder if the engineers have a bright idea for that.

Maybe some rain tomorrow?

Maybe some rain tomorrow?