Two go forest gardening

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


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Living in harmony with nature

The first principle of permaculture is to observe and interact. Once we have learned its ebbs and flows, we can design our environment in harmony and partnership with nature. This takes time, but that’s something we have had plenty of since buying our house in Bournac nine years ago.

Time to notice the seasons passing and how the sun changes its angle and direction throughout the year. Time to notice the different wild flowers that show their faces as winter turns to spring and then summer. Time to notice when insects appear and make themselves useful, or a complete nuisance.

The abundance of life is astonishing – grass and wild flowers grow waist-high if land is left just a few weeks untended; frogs burp and croak as soon as the sun goes down; bats and birds make their nests in any nook or cranny of abandoned buildings. We are very fortunate.

In Bournac, life settles into its natural rhythm, untroubled by mobile phones, emails or Britain’s Got Talent. We get up when we wake, go to bed when we’re tired and eat when we’re hungry.

And the wildlife just carries on around us – it was here long before us and with a bit of luck will be here well after we have gone.

The challenge for us is managing our little corner of this constantly growing and developing system from a distance. Nature is constantly outdoing us.

Last year, the UK experienced record rainfall. In Bournac, the temperatures soared to 40 degrees and everything shrivelled, even the raspberries which live in semi-shade. I spent the first week of our two-week stay coaxing life back into the place after the ground had baked solid. John broke the serrated blade on the brush-cutter in an effort to control the brambles.

This year, the torrential rain has kept our fruit bushes and trees going strong, but rain to weeds is like spinach to Popeye.

So how on earth are we going to nurture our forest garden in the face of such a formidable force as Mother Nature?

The obvious answer is to use nature to our advantage, if only it will play ball. So keeping down the weeds means lots of mulching. What can we use to mulch? The mental grass that grows everywhere (provided it isn’t in flower or gone to seed) for one thing. And the brambles get nicely mashed up in the woodchipper. I have also used cardboard around the fruit trees which works a treat so long as it is securely fastened down, otherwise Fiona and Andy end up with a load of old boxes in their front garden.

Ground cover is also vital and one of the forest garden layers. The only problem is that, to grow, it needs a bit of a leg up or the weeds out-compete the plants which are, by definition, low down. I’ve chosen strawberries and mint because they are both supposed to spread quickly and they both prove themselves useful in the kitchen – and in a Pimms.

As I uncovered the strawberries, smothered by some weed that was twice their size, they gave me a look that said, “You expect me to grow big and produce fruit and push out runners…?!” I gave them a placatory ash top dressing and talked to them in a Prince Charles voice.

The mint, which is the Kevin the Teenager of herbs, had spread out, put out loads of roots and insolently pushed the goji berries out of the way. I think it could end up being a bit troublesome if I’m not there to impose a curfew on it by hacking at it occasionally.

Elsewhere, brambles sprout in unlikely places. A root has established itself in a tiny hole at the side of a drain and no matter how many times I cut off the shoot, it comes back time after time. I’ll have to try pouring boiling water on it. The only trouble is, I think a frog lives in the drain (more on Bournac wildlife next week).

Maybe I’ll have to cave in and ask someone to tend the place while we’re not there. But that feels like cheating. I want to be able say that the forest garden is a success because of our hard work. On the other hand, it would be nice not to spend 50% of our holidays cutting the grass and picking bramble thorns out on our fingers!


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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?


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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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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]


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In praise of the Landrover

2013-03-16 (2)Driving a car that is shaped like a brick is an interesting experience. But when it can also pull an army surplus trailer, fit 30 bags of horse manure in the back and run on recycled chip fat, it’s the forest gardener’s must have accessory.

I am writing this sitting in the kitchen in Bournac, listening to the roar of the stove (John has done is best Gene Hunt impression to “fire up the Godin”), the massive 650 mile drive to get here now fading to a vague memory. This always happens thankfully because, similarly to what I am told about childbirth, if we remembered the agony, we probably wouldn’t bother to do it again.

As usual, we braved the journey in our beloved Landrover which at the best of times can manage 70mph if we are using the overdrive and are following a lorry downhill. The quickest we have done the trip is 17 hours, the slowest 32, but in fairness the alternator had broken and left us stranded on the Paris périphérique. Having found a replacement battery, we had to continue the journey without switching off the engine in case it wouldn’t start again.

For this trip, we had the brilliant idea of strapping two rectangular water butts to the roof which made the car look like a vehicle from the Wacky Races. Johnny had already warned me that it would mean a slower journey with more stops for fuel, but we hadn’t bargained for the effect of the wind buffeting us around the motorway. I’m glad J was driving in the first leg because I could see him tussling with the steering wheel.

2013-03-16 (4)On our exit from the motorway in Paris, we were flabbergasted at the price of the toll – almost 10 euros more than normal. The same happened on the next leg – another great price hike. It was only when we reached the last péage that we realized what was going on. We had spent five minutes wondering where the ticket was, only to find it two feet above the level of my window. There are sensors as you enter the lane that read the height of your vehicle and we were being taken for a lorry! Sorry François Hollande if your ears were burning – we had been bad-mouthing the huge increase in tolls, thinking they must surely be another bonkers indirect tax increase brought in by the socialist government when in fact it was because we were unknowingly driving a juggernaut.

We left London at 10am and arrived in Bournac at 5am the next morning. Not bad going considering that we rarely got over 55mph and, rather embarrassingly, kept getting overtaken by lorries along the way.

I have already mentioned that our Landy smells like a chip van and this is because we have fitted a converter to it that allows it to run on vegetable oil. This has got to be the greenest thing that we do despite the rather odd smell that accompanies us wherever we go. Once we were stopped by French customs officers who asked to see in the back of the car. He started sniffing very deliberately and then announced, “Ça sent bizarre ici.” When he saw the dog, he backed off. How insulting! How could little Lucy ever smell as bad as the Landover?

John has perfected his refinery set up in the shed in London. He collects used cooking oil from a local hospice and drips it several time through a filter shaped like a windsock. It took a while for me to realize why all our clothes were also stinking of chip fat – he had been putting the filters in the washing machine when they got too clogged up with gunk. It’s a wonder that our marriage has survived this long…

And the great thing is that the engine will run on any kind of oil. John once found 5 litres of out-of-date massage oil and slung that in the tank. For a short while, the Landy actually smelled quite pleasant, of almonds. Which makes me wonder what would happen if we chucked some lavender oil in there. It would certainly take cyclists by surprise. Now they just get stunk out at traffic lights.

2013-03-21 (7)

Lots of lovely compost for the raised beds

So having arrived in Bournac, we made the most of having the Landy with us this time. I was determined to start on the raised beds in the garden and this was going to require a significant amount of soil and compost. Pas de problème! We just chucked buckets of mole earth and forest floor in the back, along with odd bits of fallen wood that we found along the way. You’d have trouble doing that with a Citroen Saxo.

2011-11-01 (2)Perhaps the most loveable thing about the Landy is the effect it used to have on Lucy the dog who left us in June last year after a long and happy 18 years. Now we are left with many fond memories of her snoozing away on my lap, driving all over the place. In fact, when she was hospitalized in France for four nights, it was only by taking her for a drive in the Landy that she finally recovered from the stress and got better.

2011-05-04 (1)aThe leaky sunroof is sealed up with Vaseline, the heating burns your face while your knees freeze in the draughts and John wears ear-plugs to prevent himself getting a headache from the noise of the engine. BUT we love our Landrover and will never be without one. Creating our forest garden and living a sustainable life would be so much harder without it.

Go out and buy yours today!