Two go forest gardening

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


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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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Learning from the self-sufficiency master

What would you say if your husband bought you a book for your birthday on how to slaughter a pig?  I can’t say I was too impressed, particularly since I’m a vegetarian.

Seeing the look on my face, Johnny grabbed the book and flicked over to a more edifying page – this one on growing root vegetables.  Still not exciting – it didn’t look as though I was getting anything that smelled nice or with frills on.  I felt rather like the owner of a cat being presented with a delightful, chewed-up bird.

Johnny is from Irish farming stock so the land is already in his blood.  Being born and raised in Manor Park (one of London’s less salubrious suburbs) only added to his resilience and ingenuity.  As a boy, he spent summers working on the family farm in County Mayo and has memories of lifting bales of hay from dawn to dusk, barely having enough strength to raise food to his mouth at the end of the day.

Small wonder then that books on how to shear a sheep and make a compost toilet were top of Johnny’s must-read list and he spent many a happy moment leafing through my birthday present, reading out snippets and making comments, such as “we should learn to make hurdles” and “we should build a bread oven.”

John SeymourThe book in question is the bible for anyone wanting to launch themselves on the path to a sustainable life – The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour (ISBN 0-7513-6442-8). There are others that we have read since on forest gardening and permaculture design, but this book was certainly my first glimpse at a-whole-nother world of living with the land.

You can just imagine then how thrilled Johnny was to discover that the current owner of John Seymour’s small-holding in Ireland still runs courses on how to become self-sufficient.  So we packed the Landy up with wellie boots, gardening gloves and smelly chip fat (more of this in another post) and rattled all the way down the M4, along the windy roads of western Wales, after six and a half hours finally arriving in Fishguard, then onto a ferry for a three-hour tossing about on the Irish Sea, staggering off into a massive passport queue and then getting completely lost in the lanes of County Wexford looking for our rent-a-cottage.  I remember thinking, “This had better be worth it!”

And it was!  JS had created a vegetable plot and orchard around a beautiful stone cottage which now houses the current owner and his family, as well as a dozen or so hens, and a pig.  Even though the weather was grey and damp, I could see fruit weighing down the rows of bushes.  Now I was interested.

So for a week, we learned how to prepare the ground for planting, to sow seeds and manage the crop as it grows.  We made beer and baskets and learned how to scythe.

Here’s how the professionals do it:

And here are our efforts:

And before you laugh your head off, I’d just like to say “IT’S NOT EASY!”  You have to keep sharpening the blade as you go, but not before peening it on a peening anvil.  I love that word – it always makes me laugh in a Carry On kind on way.  Perhaps we need to take our tops off to realise our full scything potential!

I have already mentioned the pig – the family had christened him Hamlet because he was going to come to a sticky end (presumably using the instructions in the JS book).  To me, he was Bacon Sandwich and it was love at first sight.

Each lunchtime, we would be provided with a tasty dish prepared by the lady of the house.  Usually this meant Bacon Sandwich’s predecessor served up in some form or other, although as veggies, we were able to avoid eating our little friend’s relative.  When I talked about having a pig in France, the others couldn’t understand why.  After all, a pet pig would just eat without producing a yield.  I do get this very practical point, but I don’t believe that “yield” can always be explained in tangible terms.  I certainly got a high yield of happiness from my friendship with this little fellow.  I gave Johnny a very evil eye when he suggested that “we could always get a man in…”

The week passed very quickly as we planted and weeded and picked and packed.  We were having a lot of fun with a heavy-duty pounder which knocks fence posts into the ground until the lady of the house pointed out that we were only securing chicken wire for peas to grow up, not building a corral to keep in cattle.  But we could do that now, if we wanted to.

The final day was rainy and grey, the perfect day for making baskets because the damp kept the willow supple.  If you’d asked me ten years ago what I would be doing now with my ideal man, you can bet that it would not have been making baskets together, but the simple repetitive action of weaving the willow back and forth and watching our baskets grow from our fingers’ work was hypnotic.

The peace we found working together side-by-side that day continues with us now in Bournac – whether we’re painting the endless wooden ceiling slats, pruning the million trees or simply collecting cow poo, we’re a team and we’re one.

So, as we packed up the Landy once again and set off smelling like a dyspeptic deep fat fryer, we reflected on what we had learned from the Master – that everything has a purpose in a self-sufficient system (and sometimes more than one), nothing is ever wasted and, boy, does this life make us happy!