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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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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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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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.

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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!


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Help, there’s a house in our garden!

You would have thought it would be impossible to mess up digging a hole.  But I can tell you now, it’s not!

Back in Bournac, we were so excited about planting that we decided to ignore the old army 7Ps adage (Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Planting – or something like that) and just do it.

One of the main tenets of forest gardening is that we replicate the structure found in nature.  This means planting the garden so that the vegetation forms the layers that are found in a forest.

        1. ‘Canopy layer’ consisting of mature trees
        2. ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees
        3. ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes
        4. ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs
        5. ‘Ground cover layer’ of plants that spread horizontally
        6. ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers
        7. ‘Vertical layer’ of vines and climbers

We already had the benefit of the old ornamental cherry trees which line the lane on one side of our garden so we decided to go straight for the low-tree layer and plant some fruit trees.

I had visions of peaches and nectarines drooping off overburdened boughs, but those dreams were nipped in the bud by everyone we spoke to.  “It’s too cold up here/there,” we were told by Monsieur Pioche, Monsieur Dubois, the owners of the wine chateau B&B, the garden centre man…  Try as I might, I couldn’t find any dissenting voices so my fantasy was knocked firmly on its head.

John’s idea of growing olive trees was unceremoniously laughed at too – the French don’t mask their feelings like the English – and we could see people thinking, “Townies! And English ones at that.”

But John was puzzled.  If olive trees were such a ridiculous idea, why were they on sale at the garden centre in Gaillac?

And then we learned another invaluable lesson: each area has its own climate.  It is part of the French concept of terroir, the unique combination of climate, soil and geography that produces the distinctive growing conditions in an area.  Gaillac is only 30 kilometres from Bournac, but it is also 300m lower and it benefits from the microclimate that exists in the “golden triangle” of Gaillac, Cordes and Albi.  This is why the area is stuffed full of vineyards.

For Bournac, we needed to buy plants that would survive 40 degree heat in the summer and -14 degrees in the winter.  Cherries and pip fruit were the ticket.

In our determination to respect the ways of our adoptive country, we waited patiently until 25 November so that we could adhere to the saying “A la Sainte Catherine, tout bois prend racine !”  According to folklore, if you plant your fruit trees on St Catherine’s day, they will put down strong roots.  It was even given a five minute slot on the evening news: “People all around the country have been planting fruit trees…” accompanied by clips of assorted gardeners toiling over their holes.

Being fruit tree virgins and after the rather frank reaction to our original plans, we thought it best to be guided by the garden centre folk so we hooked the trailer up to the Landy and off we tootled to fill it up.

A lady in a headscarf and pinny greeted us.  She had the lined face of one who had spent her life outside and the broadest Tarnais accent.  She would surely know a poxy pippin from a robust russet.  But then she started digging out our selected tree with a fork and a lot of levering back and forth until it came free from its moorings with an unpleasant ripping sound.  With a wide grin, she lifted it out, waving about its rather broken-looking roots.  Johnny and I glanced at each other, but were too polite to ask whether she had actually killed it.  We’re definitely going to have to toughen up!2010-11-25 (12) compressed

Five trees and seven shrubs later, we arrived back in Bournac just as the rain started.  Oh, joy!  But at least the trees would be well watered once we got them in the ground.  We had two cherries, two apples and a pear – five holes to dig.  We reckoned on an hour for each, then a cup of tea and massive cream cake to celebrate.

Like I said, surely it was impossible to mess up digging a hole?  Well, it’s not.  What we hadn’t bargained on was what we would find on hitting the ground with our spades which turned out to be useless.  So we tried forks, no better.  John resorted to a pick which lasted about ten minutes before the handle broke.  Soon our fingers ached from prising out of the soggy ground stones and bricks and roof tiles and not a few rocks.  What the heck was going on?

The story goes that Farmer French became quite successful and, as the inhabitants of the hamlet died off or moved away, he bought up their properties.  Eventually his family owned most of the land and since times were moving on and machinery was l’ordre du jour, he splashed out on a shiny, new tractor.  Unfortunately, the hamlet had grown up without anticipating the day when Farmer French would want to drive his monster truck down its lanes and the huddled buildings allowed no space for it to pass.

With the French battle-cry of “Pas de problème!” Farmer French put his foot on the gas and bulldozed a path through the settlement, leaving a swathe of rubble behind him.  The hamlet, which had once housed 66 people, now comprised four dwellings, a couple of barns and lots of stone.  Over the years, the traces of the ruins were covered over by the rampant vegetation and, by the time we bought our house, nothing could be seen of the old hamlet…

Paula trying to look happy with her 6 inch hole

Paula trying to look happy with her 6 inch hole

…and then we came across it when we started digging holes for our fruit trees.

After two hours of back-breaking work, we had managed to dig down about 6 inches – and the garden centre lady had said we needed a 1 metre x 1 metre hole for each tree!  At this rate, it would be Christmas before the trees were all planted.  The rain was coming down in buckets, which was turning the soil into clay and our feet were twice their normal size because they were covered in grey, sticky mud.

Thank goodness for the trusty tractopelle

Thank goodness for the trusty tractopelle

And then as if by magic (again), the rattle of Monsieur Pioche coming to our rescue.  He comes to check on us every now and then when we’re in Bournac.  We’d like to think that it’s because he’s worried we’ll do something stupid, but I’m sure we provide him with some good material “You’ll never guess what those English have done now…”

He was polite enough not to laugh too much at the sight of us bedraggled and mud-covered in front of our piteous little hole as he drove his tractopelle to the rescue, not for the first time.  You can see from the photo just how much rock we were up against.

We found out some time later from Farmer French’s family that three houses had stood in the area we now think of as our garden.  Heaven knows what else we are going to find when we get on to creating the main beds.  We will have to work hard to bring the soil back to fertility after having hosted all that building material for so long.

2010-11-25 (17) compressed 2010-11-25 (18) compressedEventually we were able to put all the trees to bed.  Even with Monsieur P’s help, it was dark by the time we finally had our cake – and a massive plate of bread and cheese.  But our trees can now spread out their roots and get ready to produce fruit for us and those who come after.

Maybe the Army has a point – a bit of PPPPPPP will be a good idea for making sure that everything else grows in the right place!


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A foot in the past, a foot in the future

Bournac from air 2 blogWhat exactly started us on our journey to self-sufficiency?

Nursing our little house back to life, we began to sense that we were entering into an ongoing story, that we would make our mark and then move on; that others would come after us, just as we had come after all the people who had lived in Bournac over the years.  And with that thought came the question: what is our part in all this?

At this point in my story, I’m going to ask you to imagine hovering over Bournac watching the progress of the works on our house as though you were able to speed up time.  Men are walking around and climbing up and down ladders like Charlie Chaplin.  There’s even a lady builder lugging around packets of floor tiles like… well, like a very competent artisan actually.

The sun comes up and goes down over the course of a year.  The trees blossom and bear fruit and the oaks turn from deep green to browns and golds before falling just as the snow arrives.  A year has come and gone and the house has a new roof, new floors, new doors and windows.

Monsieur Pioche has worked his magic and resurrected our old ruin.  He tells us that the house possibly dates from the 14th or 15th century.  In fact, when his brother-in-law researched their family tree, he unearthed a document showing that one of his ancestors lived in our house in the 15th century.  What’s more, he was a mason.  Monsieur P is particularly pleased about this.

2007-02-01 (3) blog2007-02-19 (5) blog2007-03-07 (1) blogjune 2007 22 blogAnd now, baked earth tiles are lying ready to be polished.  A huge Godin wood-burner is waiting to have its inaugural fire lit.  Shutters are anticipating their first lick of paint.  The San Andreas fault in the end wall has been zipped up and the bathroom which was once only attached to the rest of the house by a metal strut is now cemented firmly in place.

Monsieur P has guided us through the design, staying silent when we’ve proposed some of our stupider ideas, such as having a fireplace in the kitchen as well as a stove.  We later countermanded the work after finding out that the Godin is capable of heating a room of up to 450m3(!) and he shrugged Gallicly, saying, “I thought it was a bizarre idea.”

Now the fireplace has been recreated in the living space upstairs.  The end room downstairs which, when we bought it, was three feet high with a massive pillar in the middle has been turned into a laundry.

The design of the house has made the most of every aspect of the building.  Stone has been cannibalised from demolished walls and beams have been re-used in different locations.  Only the most eaten have been ditched (the goat-sounding thingies obviously did get in at some point before moving on to more inviting surroundings – see Chapter 2).

While we were still chipping off plaster, we uncovered a long blocked up window and the original front door to the house.  We also discovered that what is now our back bedroom used to be the kitchen.  One of the windows still bears the remains of the old stone sink and drain and there are scorch marks on the wall left by the open fire.  Six stone niches sit at ceiling height, four on one side, two on the other.  These would once have been situated on the external walls of the house, open to the elements and creating an updraft to carry away the smoke.

Farmer French's wall safe

Farmer French’s wall safe

In a couple of rooms, we found two roof tiles embedded edges together in the wall.  Monsieur P explained that these were hidey-holes for valuables.

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Air conditionning 15th century style

Once again, the house was a functioning home.  Its history was continuing and we were just two in a long line of custodians.

And what else would we leave behind?  We felt on the edge of something even more exciting because now we could turn to the land.  How could bring to it the same respect for its traditions and work with it to benefit from what nature has designed?

Where to start?

What better way than to consult the founding father of self-sufficiency, John Seymour, author of “The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency“.  So we set off for Ireland to learn how to do it on his small holding…

Join me next week to find out how we learned to use a peening anvil and a heavy duty pounder and a pig becomes my new best friend!