Two go forest gardening

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


3 Comments

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!


4 Comments

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?


Leave a comment

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!