Two go forest gardening

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


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How not to sell a sofa.

Enter Paula and John outside a shop in Albi, south-west France. The sun is shining; they are enjoying the slightly euphoric sensation induced by the huge café viennois they have just consumed at the café in the square. They proceed through the shop’s sliding doors and behold a two-seater sofa upholstered in pale linen and covered in vintage printed cushions.

John: Do you see what I see?
Paula: What, the sofa?
John: Yes.
Paula: Yes.

Both stand staring at it lovingly.

John: Wouldn’t it be perfect for our bedroom? We could sit in it and look out over the valley.
Paula: It would, wouldn’t it?
John (pointing at a small tent card inscribed in curly French writing): What does that sign say?
Paula: No sitting.
John (puzzled): OK….

Paula approaches the counter, where a man is sitting reading. After a few minutes, he looks up, nostril curled.

Paula: We really love that sofa. Would it be ok if we sat on it to try it out?
Man (with a shrug): Oui.

Paula and John scoop up the cushions and take turns sitting on the sofa, imagining what it would be like to be looking down the valley from their bedroom.

Paula approaches the counter again.

Paula: Would you be able to deliver…?
Man (interrupting): Non.
Paula: We may not be able to get it in the back of our car. Would you be able to hold it for us?
Man: Non.

Paula and John huddle, weighing up whether the sofa would fit in the back of a Citroen Saxo.

Man: When are you coming back?
Paula: June or July.
Man: Well, come back then. We’ll have one in stock.

Paula and John look puzzled.

Paula: Do you have a tape measure we could borrow to measure it please?

The man sighs, and, instead of passing the tape measure to Paula, comes around the counter and half-heartedly pulls it out and announces the length of the sofa. He turns to go back behind the counter.

Paula: Could you also measure the height please?

The man ungraciously waves the tape measure in the general direction of the sofa.

Man: 64.

He scuttles back behind the counter.

John: I think it will fit, but I’d like to measure the car first.
Paula (to the man): Do you think my husband could borrow your tape measure to see if the sofa will fit in the car?
Man: I’ll write the measurements on a business card.
Paula: But we’d like to measure the car.
Man: What kind of car do you have?
Paula: A Citroen Saxo.
Man: It won’t go in. I couldn’t get one in my 4×4.
Paula: We’d like to try.

The man grudgingly hands over the tape measure and Paula makes a big show of staying and examining all the items for sale in the shop. Ten minutes pass and John comes back:

John: Yes, it will fit, just, but we might have to keep the backdoor open. Do the feet come off?
Paula (to the man): Do the feet come off?
Man: I don’t know.
Paula: Well, can we see?

John and the man turn the sofa over and start unscrewing the feet. The man drops one on the floor.

Paula (to the man): Would you have something to wrap it in please?
Man: Non.

Paula and John huddle again.

John: We could buy a shower curtain.
Paula: I could put my coat over it.

A lady has come out from the back of the shop and is taking an interest in the conversation. She disappears again behind a curtain and returns with an armful of bubble wrap.

Lady: Will this do?
Paula: Oh, thank you. That’s perfect. Can we park outside?

The lady gives Paula directions.

Paula (to the man): We’ll buy it please. (She gives him her debit card.)
Man: No cards. Cheque only.
John: What now?
Paula: We can only pay by cheque.
John: Ffs.

Exeunt John and Paula.

Fast forward to John and Paula going to a shop that sells haberdashery and buying two metres of cushion piping to tie the back door down, collecting the car and navigating the tiny streets of Albi to arrive in front of the shop. There are bollards outside the shop which means only one car can pass at a time. Paula and John jump out of the car, just as a van pulls up behind them. The man has also come out from the shop.

Man (to Paula): Quick, you need to be quick.
Paula (getting back in the car): I need to move for him (she indicates the van behind).
Man: Oh, forget him. You’ll never get the sofa in otherwise. Besides you should have parked over there (indicating behind the van).
Paula (finally losing her temper): Well, it’s too late now. I’ll go around the corner.

Paula parks and runs back to the shop. She and John heft the sofa and manage to get it into the back of the car with the back door closed. The man stands around ineffectually waving a brown paper bag containing the feet.

Paula (to the man): Bravo for the Citroen Saxo, a great French car!

Paula and John drive home.

John: What just happened?
Paula: I have no idea.

Author’s postscript:

The sofa fits perfectly in our unfinished room. We have already sat in it gazing down the valley. However, on putting the feet back on, we discovered that one is cracked. I wonder how that happened… I suspect that had we waited until June, the shop would have gone bust because of the man’s incredible sales ability. Astonishing…

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Hunting, shooting and, er, more hunting…

It’s that time of year in France when people of all shapes and sizes don a fluorescent yellow jacket with a ridiculous hat, and walk around toting guns. Yes, it’s hunting season again, when the peace of the Bournac countryside is shattered by the crack of rifle shots, the baying of dogs and the thought that any minute I might get a bullet in the back of my head.

Hunting is apparently highly controlled in France. To obtain a hunting licence, you need to pass a theory exam which tests:

  • your knowledge of wildlife (presumably so you don’t shoot the neighbours cat or child),
  • your knowledge of hunting, including hunting techniques and vocabulary (“It’s ok, it’s only a flesh wound!”)
  • your knowledge of rules and laws (which can then be forgotten once you have your licence)
  • your knowledge of arms and munitions (aim the pointy end away from you, preferably at something you can see)

You then have to do a practical test where you simulate hunting (cut away to Marcel Marceau miming how to chop up a wild boar), shoot at coloured targets (some of which are permitted targets and some not) and then shoot a moving target (hopefully, not the person you have surprised in the undergrowth who is now running for their life).

Whether or not these steps produce careful hunters is up for discussion. Not all the French people we know are keen on their presence. They need to observe certain rules, such as not hunting within 150m of someone’s property. I guess someone needs to invent a bullet that will stop once it reaches a boundary. Monsieur Pioche says he always tells hunters to move on if he sees them near his property. Another friend feeds the deer that live around her house in the hope that they will stay close by and stay out of the hunters’ sights. And we once met a very irate old lady standing at the end of her garden, shaking her fist and haranguing the group of hunters that had just gone past with a colourful “Fouttez le camp, bande de connards!” – “Bugger off, you bunch of wankers!”

But hunting is said to be the second most popular pastime in France after football. It’s part of national culture and we have to live with it – we are after all guests in France (imho).

So in hunting season, where can you tool up? There are of course hunting, shooting and fishing shops on high streets, but why not satisfy all of your ammunition and webbing needs while you do your weekly shop? Yes, the local supermarket can supply you with bullets and targets while you pick up your Oranginas and camembert. In fact, a radio advert told us there was 30% all weapons and ammunition at a local shop for a limited period only.

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Gun covers, holsters, binoculars and bullets – everything to meet a hunter’s needs

I’m not sure that Johnny and I will ever find it not funny to shout to each other as we pass the ammunition cabinet, “Darling, how are we off for bullets? Have we got any left? Did we use up the box when we shot last night’s dinner?”

The French think we’re off our rockers.


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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.

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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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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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Where there’s muck, there’s worms

I’ve got worms!

The last time I made that announcement, our family doctor curled his lip and said, “How very distasteful!”  But I was five and I had been eating dirt.

This time, I am delighted with the news because the worms are back where they belong – in the dirt in Bournac.

When we first started planting (see Chapter 7: Help, there’s a house in our garden), we discovered that the earth around here is made of clay with a lot of limestone and some house debris thrown in just to make life interesting.  And not a worm in sight.

I am a big fan of worms.  I am happy to pick them up with in my fingers; I always cover them over when I find them in the garden and I am distraught if I find I have skewered one on a garden implement by mistake.

(There now follow scenes of worm violence that may upset some readers…)

My interest in worms started in biology class when I was 13.  We had been instructed by our science teacher Mrs Aidley each to bring a worm for dissection, causing much squealing and murmuring in class.  Since she had mastered the one-line put-down of pubescent females, no one dared arrive sans worm and Mrs Aidley then proceeded to pick them out of various jam jars and sandwich boxes and place them in a glass beaker.

What ensued has stayed with me ever since. She poured alcohol on the little pile of creatures and I can still see them thrashing about in their death-throes.  A dead worm was then distributed to each girl – I was pretty miffed because I’d dug around for a good 20 minutes looking for a big, fat specimen and was handed back a spindly character, probably just entering worm teenage.  We then had to cut them open lengthways with scissors and rummage around for worm brains and organs.  Imagine the sights and sounds of 30 scalpel-wielding schoolgirls hacking their way through a head the size of cotton bud.You can tell that this particular biology lesson scarred me, not just the worms.  I blame Mrs Aidley – I can still her standing on the platform at the front of class, holding up the voice box and wind pipe of a cow that she had managed to wrestle off a farmer.  Unfortunately, the wind pipe was still attached to two massive lungs.

But I digress…

Earthworm tunnels

Earthworm tunnels

Worms are vital to the health and structure of soil so when they’re not there, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong.  Unfortunately, there’s no missing worm hotline so it was up to us to encourage them back.

Worms burrow away happily, depositing worm poo through the soil and creating tunnels lined with worm goo which is high in nitrogen.  Plant roots seek out these tunnels and grow through them, sucking up the nutrients left behind by the slitherers.

There are different steps you can take to make your garden an earthworm mecca:

  1. Keep the ground covered in organic matter – in another words, mulch with leaves or compost, rather than stones.  The worms will pull the mulch down into the soil to eat it.  Next autumn, notice how fallen leaves start poking up out of the soil – an earthworm party will be going on somewhere nearby.
  2. Keep the soil moist – the best way is by mulching, but watering also help if there is no rain for a while.
  3. Only use organic products in your garden – above or below the soil line.  Are you more likely to want to swim in water that is clean and pure, or splash about in a load of toxins?
  4. Avoid digging the ground – even a quick turn of the soil will kill the micro-organisms (mycelium) that help with the decomposition of organic matter in the soil, thereby ensuring a constant supply of readily available nutrients for plants and soil-dwelling animals, such as earthworms.  You will also disturb the worms’ network of tunnels which can take years to establish. If you want to aerate compacted soil, stick a fork in and wiggle it about gently.
  5. Feed them – bury kitchen waste (raw, not cooked) in the ground at intervals.  The worms will travel between them to snack on the food and drag nutrients along in their wake, as well as mixing the rotting matter through the soil for you.

We did numbers 1 to 4 and within a few months, I found that the beds where we had mulched were teeming with worms. It will still take time for the worm action on the mulch to improve the soil, but we’re off to wriggling start.

To paraphrase Kevin Costner, “Feed them and they will come.”