Two go forest gardening

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


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I saw a mouse. Where? There on the stair…

Last week, I waxed lyrical about the pesky greenery that takes over the garden the moment I turn my back.  Not only does the flora keeps me scratching my head, so does the fauna .

If this doesn't scream, stamp on me, I don't know what does!

If this doesn’t scream, “Stamp on me!”, I don’t know what does.

There are some less than welcome little people inhabiting the place and humans do not always tolerate living side by side with them.  I must have been a Buddhist in a past life because I find it impossible to kill anything (except perhaps those giant cockroaches in Australia and I had no problem whacking them with a boot so that their legs parted company with their body – uuuggghhhh!).

The French attitude to insects and other creatures that aren’t in the right place is to choke, trap, electrocute or shoot them (OK, not the insects perhaps).  There are at least two aisles in the local supermarket devoted to sprays, electronic bug zappers and poison.  The poison is particularly nasty and I categorically refuse to let John buy any since it works by chemically melting the insides of the animal.

But he has a thing about mice which I do understand since they are decidedly untidy little beasts who are never bother to housetrain themselves.  Doing a quick Google search, I find that their droppings are responsible for everything from salmonella to the hanta virus.  They also have the annoying habit of chewing up upholstery to make their nests.

While on Army manoeuvres in Canada, John learned the importance of hanging up food to prevent it being eaten by bears and he decided that if it worked with bears, it would work with mice.  Soon, carrier bags of food were festooned from rusty old nails in the beams of the kitchen ceiling – very practical until something smelly started to drip out of the bottom and onto our heads.

Thank you so much for my lunch...

Thanks for lunch…

The tipping point came when I stupidly left out a bowl of walnuts and we returned two months later to find them scattered around the kitchen with a tiny hole bored into each shell by sharp teeth. The corpse of a solitary mouse was sprawled on the floor among the debris and I don’t think I was being fanciful in thinking there was a contented little rodent smile on its face.

John was revolted and insisted on getting some kind of trap so I relented, but made it very clear that he would be on the fast track to divorce if the trap involved any kind of snapping.  He returned with a contraption that described itself as “humane”, a little plastic box that closes on the mouse so it can be released outside unharmed.

For several mornings, Johnny rushed to see if the trap had worked, was disappointed at finding it empty and then apoplectic at spotting mouse pooh deposited at various locations in the kitchen.

It was time to bring out the big guns.  I watched as John spooned Nutella into the trap and tossed in a walnut for good measure.  The words “little sod” were mentioned several times.  If he’d had a moustache, he would have twirled it.

The next day was cleaning day and John was busying himself with the hoover, sucking up as many spiders as possible while I had my back turned (he thinks I don’t know about this arachnicide).  I noticed the trap on the floor – closed.  When I pointed this out, John said, “I know, there’s one in there.”  And I went mad again because the poor little thing had been stuck in there, quaking in his little mouse boots while John hoovered around him.  Rather than listen to me bleating on, John took the trap away.

Fifteen minutes later, he returned.  The mouse, he said, hadn’t wanted to come out, whether through fright or the pure practicality that it was now too fat to back out after eating all the Nutella and walnut. He’d released it at the bottom of the field and said grudgingly, “If it finds its way back from there, it will deserve to live in the house.”

Thankfully, we haven’t seen Mickey since and now have electronic alarms which emit high pitched frequencies that both mice and spiders don’t like.  If only they’d work on whatever is now scratching about in the roof…

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Sssshhh! Don’t tell them I found a way back in…


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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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Foraging for fruit in France

The amount of free food that hangs off the trees and hedgerows in France is quite astonishing. In England, foraging has become cool. Books like the Thrifty Forager and the antics of Hugh Fearnley-Doodah have made it socially acceptable for the man (or woman) on the Clapham omnibus to don their Hunter wellies and head for the local park to grub about in the bushes searching for blackberries.

In our local park, the centuries-old mulberry never gets the chance to ripen its berries. Fathers hoist their children on shoulders and encourage them to pick the fruit at whatever stage of ripeness, just in case some other father passes by later with outstretched offspring. No sooner has the child put the fruit in its mouth than it is spat out unceremoniously because it’s too tart. Such a shame since a ripe mulberry is, in my opinion, well worth risking a broken leg to reach it.

In France, it’s different. There are so many fruit trees and berry bushes that everyone is rather complacent.

Johnny and I were (and still are) so excited to find that we have eight quince, two fig and innumerable wild plum trees littered about our property. One year, I picked a basket of figs, thinking that if we didn’t eat them, we could give them to our French friends as a gift. But Monsieur Pioche said, “J’en ai en pagaille.” – “I’m up to my ears in them.”

2010-06-28 (4) compressedThen we took 10 kilos of plums to the owners of the winery-cum-B&B, the chatelaine declared that wild plums were “sans intérêt” and that they buy the plums they use for jam-making at the local shop! Talk about coals to Newcastle.

We haven’t yet got to grips with the niceties of French law when it comes to picking fruit by the wayside. In England, it’s quite simple – you can pick any fruit which hangs over from private property onto the public highway. I’m not sure that French law would be quite so public-spirited.

I did once see a man screech to a halt on a very windy hill and dash about in a somewhat suicidal manner, picking up sweet chestnuts. And we spotted an enterprising chap standing on the roof of his car to pick the cherries from a tree which I’m pretty certain belonged to the vineyard it was standing in. Still, if he hadn’t liberated them, the birds most certainly would because I have never seen anyone else pick them in the nine years we have been driving past.  The only way I knew that our cherry trees produced fruit was because the birds had gobbled them up and sat on the porch by our front door to poop out the stones.

2010-06-28 (6)compressed

A furry fuzzy quince before it develops into a golden globe

Even the squirrels have so much to eat that they don’t bother raiding the hazelnut or walnut trees in Bournac. This means that there are always plenty of nuts for us in September. I even bought a mechanical press to make walnut oil which I found at the equivalent of a car boot sale, but of course the French have a much more charming name: vide grenier or “empty your attic”. It was less than half the price I would have paid for a new one and was a tremendous bargain for about half an hour. But then, with the press was blocking the view out of the rear window, I reversed our hire car into a telephone pole and was charged 400 euros to repair the damage.

What else will you find hanging off trees in the French countryside?

  • Squidgy, sweet and sour rosehips, bursting with vitamin C – although you have to be careful not to swallow the hairs in the core.  They are apparently what itching powder is made from.
  • Kaki fruit – also known as persimmon – which are only edible once there has been a frost, otherwise the tannins will make the inside of your mouth shrivel up like the baddie in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
  • Blackberries – ok so perhaps not hugely exciting, except that French BBs are much mellower than ours and need to be eaten raw. I find the flavour completely disappears when they are cooked – the complete reverse of our berries.
  • Mirabelles – golden cherry plums which have a honey-sweet smell and flavour. They are prized for making tarts, but Johnny made a fabulous mirabelle wine, using just fruit and sugar.  Our chateau-owning French friends even said we could “tutoie” them (use the familiar form of “you”) after drinking a couple of glasses!

Of course, apples, pears and plums all abound and figs are almost as common.  Last year, our figs were so sweet and fragrant that even Johnny started eating them.  I’m going to try distilling them down to a syrup to use as a sugar substitute and to avoid having to resort to Dulcolax.  That will be this year’s challenge, along with learning how to bottle plums.  We carted 20 kilos back to London in the Landy last September, but I can’t see myself getting quite the same amount back in my hand luggage on easyJet!


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4. Not catching raindrops

2006-01-28 (2) blogWho would have thought that there would be such extremes of weather in the Tarn? We certainly hadn’t anticipated  foot deep snow falls or 44 degree summer blast furnace. Nor had we given much thought to the gallons of rain that get dumped in a few hours at various times during the year, while the rest of the time, the land dries out to a dust bowl.

Over time, we have come to know each of the personalities that make up the Tarn weather. We are now designing to make the most of the each season. But in the beginning, we were pretty clueless…

The fact that in days of yore Farmer French had built a large water cistern alongside the house should have given us a tiny clue that maybe water would be an issue. Its walls were a good metre thick and it was taking up prime position overlooking the valley. It was the only thing we agreed with the architect on – the water tank had to go.

In a fit of good sense, John decided that it would be best to make a hole at the bottom of the lower wall so that the water could escape slowly (any excuse to get his tools out) and he spent a pleasant afternoon chipping away like Clint Eastwood escaping from Alcatraz. By the end of the first day, he had gone about 6 inches into the wall and had rather a sore back.

Not one to be deterred easily, he went back to chiselling the following morning when he heard the lorry-rattle of Monsieur Pioche. John speaks no French and Monsieur P speaks no English and when I am around, they communicate through me. When I’m not, I have it on good authority that they get on like a house on fire, shouting loudly at each other and giving Marcel Marceau a run for his money.

John therefore made chopping movements at the wall and pointed exaggeratedly at his work-in-progress. Monsieur P scratched his head in a way that we have come to understand means “What the hell are they up to now?”

2006-04-26 (1) compressedAttendez,” he said and disappeared behind the house. A couple of minutes later, he chugged around the corner in his tractopelle. John saw it all happen in slow motion – the arm of the digger reaching over the wall of the water tank, pulling back with a jerk and the water cascaded out like Noah’s flood.

“But, but…” John was saying, his chisel limp in his fingers as Monsieur P leaped down from his machine, beaming from ear to ear.

Pas de problème!”

It would not be last time that our attempts to lead a simple life would have Monsieur P looking at us as if we were actually just simple.

RIP water tank.

Enter the well.

Yes, we were very excited to be the owners of a well which lived in a little house of its own, built into the wall of the garden.

“Hurrah!” we thought. “We can channel rain from the roof into the well and have a constant supply of water for the garden.”  There was a satisfying splosh each time we threw in a stone and the water seemed very deep because we could barely see the surface moving.  The lady from the Mairie was going to be very disappointed each time she came to read the water meter.

2008-04-29 (43) blogJohn rigged up a bucket and rope to the ancient winch and I was allowed to give it an inaugural lowering. It took a few goes before I realized that the plastic bucket needed to be chucked down at an angle so that it would fill with water – this should have been my first clue. I heaved up the first load of water to find the bucket half full of water and – piercing shriek – dead mouse. Not drinking water then, at least not for humans. The poor little mouse had obviously drunk quite a lot before exploding.

After a couple more goes, it became clear that the depth of the well was not deep at all. We started wondering how we could get it cleared out. Romantic thoughts of what we might find occupied a couple of evenings’ conversation over dinner, fuelled by the story the builder had told us of the World War II arms cache found in a nearby village. The area had been thick with Resistance groups at the time so maybe there was an oilskin of sten guns down there. I could even see the Time Team putting in a trench.

A few days later, the farmer came down to feed the cattle. He’s a jolly chap with a mop of white hair and a ruddy, smiling face and the broadest Jean de Florette accent. He burst out laughing when I told him of our plans.

Inutile,” he announced. Not worth it, hopeless, waste of time – we got the message. So inutile in fact that, after trying to get the water flowing from the well himself, he had resorted to digging out the spring at the bottom of the field so that his cows would have enough to drink.

“So no guns then?” I looked at John for some sign of optimism, but he just shook his head, patted my arm and carried on clearing up the mess at the ex-water tank.  Back to the drawing board…

Lessons we have learned #4: Things are usually as they are for a reason.


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1. It could happen to anyone

You know how it is. You go on holiday and you come back with a house.

You might construe this as a moment of inattention, careless even or, as my parents declared, “downright irresponsible”.  I had to agree that this particular purchase trumped any other impulse buy I had ever made.  “And it needs so much work!” they wailed as they surveyed the lack of windows, doors, electrictricity supply… (the list is quite long so I’ll stop there).  Not for the first time, they were shaking their heads, wondering what on earth we thought we were doing.

It had all started a few months earlier in a jaunty little conversation with our hosts at the chambre d’hôtes.

“How much would you pay for a little house in the country around here?” I asked, thinking that Madame would give me directions to the nearest estate agent.  Instead, she put her finger in the air with a “Ah!” and started talking animatedly to someone at the other end of the phone.  We were lucky, she told us, Monsieur Dubois was free to show us around some properties.  She had in fact given the estate agent directions to us.

I looked at John who was wearing his what-a-waste-of-time face, but by then a car was pulling up and we were shaking hands with the agent.  Even as we set off behind his car, we were arguing – John had been looking forward to a nice long lunch and a not-so-petit rouge.

“Apart from anything else, we haven’t got any money to buy a house,” he said, then shut up when he realised he couldn’t talk and concentrate on keeping up with the Alain Prost driving the car in front.  His mood did not improve as we were shown around a house with termites and a house in a valley so deep you would only see the sun at midday.

And then there was Bournac…

2006-11-19 (13)At the end of a downhill track stood a cluster of stone houses in varying degrees of delapidation and, behind them, nothing but the fields and forest of the Tarn.

Looking out at this view, I had tears in my eyes at the unfairness of life showing me this place.  We could never afford somewhere so perfect, so unspoiled in England (unless one of us discovered a connection to the landed gentry).  OK, so the asking price was twice the amount I had thought of paying and yes, maybe it did need a little work, but look at that view!

John was mooching around, wiggling bits of wood which might once have been a window frame and testing the give in the floorboards.  I noticed that Monsieur Dubois waited for us outside the house.

April 2006 114As we climbed back in the car, I said nothing, not out loud at least, and off we went to look at yet another three properties, of which I have no recollection because I could only think about the house I would never have – and that view.

At the end of the day, when I asked John what he thought, he made the shock announcement,

“We have to have number three!” and promptly asked Monsieur Dubois for a dotted line to sign.  It made me glad I’d married him.  Then he started chuntering on about how to convert the manger and pig pens – never had I seen him more enthusiastic, the best sign to me that this was absolutely the right thing to do.

We headed to Toulouse airport somewhat heavier than we had arrived, weighed down by the document we had signed stating that we were obliged to buy the house and, if we didn’t, we would have to pay for it anyway – no gazumping mullarky allowed in France.

Thus, we were destined to become les nouveaux Tarnais, with no idea how to renovate a house, let alone how to do it in a foreign country, just an overwhelming sense of optimism over experience and the hope that we could somehow scrape together the purchase price.