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.
- ‘Canopy layer’ consisting of mature trees
- ‘Low-tree layer’ of smaller nut and fruit trees
- ‘Shrub layer’ of fruit bushes
- ‘Herbaceous layer’ of perennial vegetables and herbs
- ‘Ground cover layer’ of plants that spread horizontally
- ‘Rhizosphere’ or ‘underground’ dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers
- ‘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!
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…
…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.
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.
Eventually 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!