Two go forest gardening

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


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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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In Bournac this week

For once, I am writing in real time from our kitchen table in Bournac.  On it sits a vase of lilac which is perfuming the entire room.  Bushes everywhere are weighed down with the mauve and white blossom of this most elegant of flowers.  The countryside is finally waking up after what locals tell us has been the worst spring they can remember.  Given that some of them are ancient, that’s a long time indeed.

On Wednesday when we stepped out of the plane at Toulouse, we were hit by 30 degree heat and the sweet scent of things growing.  I even managed to get sunburn because I’d forgotten what it’s like to be in sunshine.

But since then a dastardly north-westerly has been blowing, flattening everything that’s not nailed down.  I have been tying raspberry canes to stakes and attaching extra ties to our fruit trees for fear they blow over and snap.  This morning when John went to use the garden hose, he discovered it had frozen up.  It’s not always Jean de Florette hot down here.

So we’re here to tame the weeds that have a party every time we leave for a couple of weeks.  The warmer temperatures and constant rain have provided the ideal growing environment.  But I am pleased to announce that the grass clipping mulch I put around the raspberries and blackcurrants last month has worked a treat.  They are sprouting away happily with nary a weed in sight.

Johnny as usual reserved the fun of strimming for himself.  I guess it’s a boy-thing, but he just can’t wait to wreak havoc with his petrol-driven brush-cutter.  I remind him that a vital part of self-sufficiency is to be independent of oil products, but he comes out with some reason why he can’t use his scythe.  He hasn’t got the right type of blade or his peening anvil is back in London.  I give up the argument and rush out to the garden with my shears to cut around all the plants that are not weeds.  I have learned the hard way that a boy’s eye doesn’t distinguish between weeds and fruit bushes.  Unfortunately, I forgot to mention the violets and cowslips.  The former are now bald and the latter quite decapitated.

It's wine o'clock after a hard day of digging.

It’s wine o’clock after a hard day of digging.

Our days follow the same timetable: breakfast, a bit of work, elevenses, a bit of work, lunch, a bit of work, cake o’clock, a bit more work, dinner, bed.  It’s easy to lose track of time here, but every day at 12 o’clock and 7 o’clock, the chime of a distant church bell reaches us on the wind.  For ten minutes, the bell of St Pantaléon (otherwise known as St Trousers) faithfully calls its parishioners to lunch and dinner.  The fact that the bell has never called us to a church service says a great deal about the importance of food to the French.  In my mind, I saw an elderly, bent-over, little priest in a black robe and Don Camillo hat tugging on the bell-pull for dear life, crying, “Allez, tout le monde à table!”  My fantasy was shattered when someone told us the bell was on a timer…  Such is the price of progress.

Speaking of French food, we thought that we had had all the surprises that French cuisine could present to us.  In this part of France, hunting is a way of life and restaurant menus are a long list of various bits of game: wild boar, venison, hare, guinea fowl.  These dishes usually involve a generous helping of goose fat.  Then of course there are the various bits of insides that the French love so much: sweetbreads, kidneys and our all time favourite…gizzards.  I had to look this up and, according to Google, it’s the “muscular, thick-walled part of a bird’s stomach for grinding food, typically with grit” and it’s particularly delicious served in a salad (yes, a salad).  We like telling our French friends that gizzards were our little dog’s favourite treat and watch them trying to hide their look of disbelief.  Anyway, we passed a menu board this week announcing the starter of the day to be nems aux gésiers aka gizzard spring rolls.  It almost made me regret being a vegetarian.

And then we went into a supermarket and at the till, right where shops like to put sweets and chocolates to tempt customers as they queue, we saw the most delectable-sounding confectionary: bonbons au lait d’ânesse…donkey milk sweets.

We took our pulses, veg and yoghurt and hot-footed it back to Bournac to cook dinner.  I can just hear Monsieur Dubois’s voice, “Mais on n’est pas des oiseaux…”  But we’re not birds…  Being veggie in France is not easy.


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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!


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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!