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.

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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.”


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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!