Building a Potager

P6600754My vision for our garden was always to create somewhere enchanting; somewhere that had a romantic feel, I imagined a place where one could float around while wearing a swirling skirt with a glass of champagne in hand. I didn’t want anywhere that would be taken too seriously, instead I wanted somewhere that would delight the senses, fuel the imagination and be easy to maintain. But above all else there had to be somewhere that provided edible treats. If you have ever eaten a warm sun-ripened tomato straight from the vine, you will know that the taste far outweighs anything bought in the chilled section of the grocery store.

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An Oasis in a French Village

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Walking down the hot dusty street, time passes slowly and for most of the day not a soul can be seen. But at certain times the village comes to life; first thing in the morning when the children arrive at school, and again when they leave in the afternoon. That’s when the pavements bustle with life, and excited gaggles of small people skip back and forth haphazardly on pavements. There’s also a cluster of activity around the boulangerie just before midday when each household chooses a victim to pop in and collect baguettes for lunch. This little spurt of movement happens again around 7pm, as the afternoon sun fades away into the welcome cool of the evening.  Read more

Everything’s Coming up Roses

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If anyone followed me around in the car this week they would think I had gone quite mad. I have been stopping, hopping out and taking photos even more than usual, and I don’t just raise my camera and shoot away – I cross the road to my chosen subject and smell. I breathe in the most heavenly perfumes, wonderful old fashioned scents, and if I draw a blank and there is no fragrance I am extremely disappointed. Read more

Outdoor Living

 

P6080854It would be most unusual to find a house in the French countryside that did not have some seating outside; somewhere to read, to eat or drink, or simply to rest a while and pass the time of day.  Taking a stroll in any garden always fills me with a sense of calm and so it is only natural to want to linger and perhaps find a quiet spot to sit and spend five minutes in complete peace. It gives us a time to think and reflect or just to be at one with nature. Read more

A TALE OF CONTRASTS

“Variety is the Spice of Life” – so they say, and in my case it certainly would appear to be true!

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The summer holidays are here, the children have finished school and with the long hot sunny days the grass has turned brown from the lack of rain.  The kitchen floor tiles are permanently marked with wet foot-prints as children wander in and out from the pool.  Wherever I go I seem to stop to pick up a bikini-bottom, a swimming-towel, or a pair of goggles – all dropped here or left there; but I don’t mind too much, these are the signs of summer and the children are winding down from early starts in the cold wet rain of winter and spring.  People drop in for supper, always casual at this time of year, with plenty of fresh produce from the garden, and either friends of the children are always here or our children are away at other people’s houses. There are tents on the lawn, and screams from the pool;  it’s all part and parcel of having five children and I love it!

Early morning is the peaceful time; the soft golden hour between 7.00 and 8.00am is a favourite time of the day to wander down the garden to watch the ducks lumbering across the lawn as they wake up, wings flapping as they learn to fly. It’s akin to watching giant amphibious aircraft struggling to leave the ground. Much noise, much effort, and little to show for it still.  The cluck of contented chickens foraging in the flower beds for breakfast competes with Fritz as he improves his teenage morning crow; being a small bantam rooster, it’s a quiet crow, almost tuneful but not too overpowering.  Our potager is now hugely productive thanks to our well and the ancient, but incredibly effective pump, without which I would feel supremely guilty about endlessly watering, a necessity considering we have had no rain for weeks.  When we first arrived here I looked at the huge old tank, the rusty pipes and archaic system with doubt and dread, now in the height of summer I have come to love the old pump, it groans into life with the press of a switch and I have learnt what an incredibly valuable commodity it is.

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The aubergines are growing fast, their vibrant deep purple fruits fattening each day and the watermelons are now the size of small footballs.  Admittedly, some of the garden is now somewhat overgrown, but it’s a dense sea of green with beautiful colours – a strong piece of kitchen garden with an organic life of its own. One or two of the lettuces have taken to adulthood (there are only so many you can eat) – Roddy has suggested one variety should be called ‘New York Skyscraper’, so vertiginous are its heights. Each morning I expect to find it toppled, a small tiny axe lying beside it. Potatoes lie in wait under a dark brown loam, and some of the larger courgettes have turned into marrows, lying hidden like anacondas under the jungle of leaves and flowers. Everything, of course, tastes just tinglingly delicious.

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We are feasting daily on tomatoes still warm from the sun, peppers, lettuce, cucumber, those courgettes, those freshly dug new potatoes and sweet carrots; all accompanied by our terrace-beds of herbs and the freshest of eggs from the chickens; it seems like such a pure simple life which in turn fills us with energy. Until around midnight, at which point someone turns off the energy and I wilt into bed, satisfied but worn out.

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Bentley loves the French summer sun – he spends most of his day lying in the warmth on the doormat!  The kittens are now 10 months old and although they hunt together at night, during the day they are completely independent. Rory loves nothing better than to curl up somewhere in the house, usually  in one of the childrens’ bedrooms, where he buries himself deep on a chair under cushions or surrounds himself with a duvet so he can hardly be seen; there he sleeps, content and undisturbed for most of the day.

 

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Clara, by contrast, likes to follow me around, and whenever I go near the vegetable garden at the very far end of our garden she magically appears at my feet from the bushes and her lizard-hunting.  Rubbing around my legs, she purrs continuously as I stop to pick tomatoes or a cucumber.  She often stops and lies at my feet when I pause for thought – I think I have never known a cat like her.

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The calm of this semi self-sufficient summer lifestyle is in complete contrast to the vibrant life of the coast a mere fifteen minutes away where the summer season has started in earnest.  Already the roads have double the amount of cars and our village is buzzing with life and traffic; holiday-homes have opened their shutters and our little bakery is no longer a 30 second wait for one’s baguette; sometimes you have to wait a scandalous minute or more to be served!  The beaches are busy and the hotels are filling up, and the camper-van season has started on the country lanes.  All of this is good though, as the financial life-blood of provincial France sorely needs this artery-opening season – without a good, successful summer, households go cold and hungry in winter. Roddy and I suspect this is why the local attitude to the tourist and visitor here is respectful and courteous – it is a refreshing attitude compared to those places which have a 12-month tourist season. From what we have seen, the local population do really seem to happily put up with any inconvenience that might occur, content in the knowledge that by being busy now, they can enjoy the rest of the year sleeping on their wads of Euros, tucked away under hard mattresses.

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Earlier in the week friends took us to the Luna Park at La Palmyre.  As it’s name suggests, this park is only open at night, from 8pm until 2.30am.  There’s little point in getting there until it is dark as that’s half the fun; the neon lights and electric atmosphere pulsate against the night sky, and considering sunset is not until around 10pm at this time of year, it means a late night!  We arrived somewhere around 10.30pm and left in the early hours, several dozen Euros lighter but laden with soft cuddly toys and other winnings from various stalls!  It was all a complete opposite to our life in the village, with its quiet country lanes and fields of yellow sunflowers. In the dark of the night as children weaved and bobbed amongst the throbbing lights and excited rides, I had a glimpse of a totally different way of life, where one can imagine shady deals taking place behind the bumper-cars and illicit kisses being stolen behind the cardboard cut-outs, where danger may lurk in the shadows; a delicious blend of excitement and surprise. Of course, nothing happened, and the children had a great time; and so did Izzi and I, as we chaperoned the small people from one stomach-wrenching ride to another, and from coconut shy to the splash of the duck-catching stall.

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As we drove home, small people asleep within minutes in the back of the car under a great sprawl of stars above a sleeping landscape, it was astounding to think that the pulsations of the fun fair are a mere fifteen minutes away, this is the home of ClubMed here, a zoo, hotels, waterparks and campsites.  It’s not somewhere I would want to go every night, or even every week, but very occasionally it is the greatest of fun! As we hurried home our headlights picked out the nightlife in the marsh, where eyes glowed behind rushes and where dark forms scurried from shadows across the road – I knew in the morning I would be back at work with the hoe and the pitchfork – a complete Freudian contrast to the evening.

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LOCAL ARTISANS – THE PAYSAGISTE

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Michel Libouban left school at 15, and decided then that a life on the open sea was for him. Never one for classes despite good marks, he was keen to get out and do something for himself from an early age. However, after one trip on the high seas he realized his mistake and took up a station in a commercial bakery, instead. After six months or so of repetitive work on what was basically an assembly line, he then realized that his love for nature may provide an answer, and so he signed on as an apprentice ‘paysagiste” – someone qualified as a horticulturist who plies their trade as a gardener and garden designer – a very honest metier in France. Years passed, and as he qualified through a long 10-year period of study he met his wife at college, and settled down in a small village close to his parents, both doctors in the seaside town of Royan.

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The rest of this blog today should of course now be about his life in the fields and gardens of his countryside, and how at the age of 45 he is now at the peak of his career, caring for the plants and flowers of the rich and famous. But something is amiss, and Michel finds himself at a crossroads in his life as a result of many converging differences. It makes me wonder whether this is happening right across France, or perhaps across Europe, and perhaps overseas.  But first, we need a little recap.

Anyone who is visiting France and loves gardening will try and include a visit to the formal gardens of Versailles. If you have never been to Versailles but have even the merest passing fancy in a rose, you should make this trip. The gardens at Versailles were designed by André Le Nôtre and are proof that French gardens reached their clearest expression in the 17th and 18th centuries under Louis XIV and Louis XV. It was at this time that gardens provided a symbol of status, and their importance to lifestyle and culture at this time cannot be overestimated. The traditional French garden tends to have a strong symmetrical axis and is very structured which is in contrast to the English garden which reached its height with the Romantic movement in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. English gardens of this era highlighted the variety of nature and its capacity to inspire the imagination; they usually included ponds or a lake, rolling lawns doted with animals, large trees and spaces of natural fantasy rather than geometric constructions of nature. Ironically by the late 18th century the trend of the English garden had spread, and famously, even Marie Antoinette had a small English garden created at Versailles, where she would dress in simple muslin garments and milk cows.

Versailles is a little out of reach for a day trip and some photos for you all, but we have Rochefort, ten minutes to the north of us, which is of course a town developed by the same Louis XIV, and it too has gardens and public spaces that amply reflect the thoughts of those gardeners from the era – it’s fascinating to see the formality of layout and planting which has continued up until today.

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As a result of these entrenched traditions, the paysagiste is regarded as a true artisan in France and French gardens are for the most part still considered to be a symbol of pure art. French gardeners tend to have a far more formal approach to gardening than the English or Americans, and French gardens are much copied and aspired to around the world, especially two of its main parameters -the parterre and the formal potager.

It was armed with these thoughts in mind, therefore, that Roddy and I set off for a morning with Michel to discover all the secrets of the life of a French landscape gardener. Walking into Michel’s garden to meet him it is immediately clear that this is the garden of a professional. Although small and haphazard due to the constraints of space and lifestyle, everything is very clearly thought out in terms of planting and plant selection – indeed, Michel specializes in plants and their biological needs, and he tries to instill that line of thought in all he does. However, not many of his clients are of the power and ilk that Louis XIV brought to the table, so the first shock of the day came when he said that the vast majority of his local clients, ordinary people with modest means, tended to lean towards a Mediterranean style in the Charente Maritime. Oleander, cyprus, olive, agave, pines, succulents of all sorts, grasses and other hardy bushes and shrubs that easily adapt to both the searing heat of the local summer, and the cold, wet salty winds of the autumn and winter. He added that even though France has that tradition of formality, life has changed, and no longer does anyone have the time or the inclination to run a team of hedge-trimmers, lawn-mowers and dedicated groundspeople that is required for a large formal garden. It’s an era of low maintenance and slim budgets, of adaptability and fortitude, and a substantial knowledge of rocks and gravel.

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One of the main exceptions to the local style is the continued use of roses, in great profusion and in a huge variety of colours, that permeate every corner of every garden, street and hedgerow. The Charente Maritime is an area where I have never seen so many roses growing both domestically and wild, and so of course, Michel has one too, a huge rambling bush that climbs to about 25’ high against the uphill wall of his neighbour’s barn. Above it towers a fig tree, which is another staple of the area’s greenery – it seems every home has a fig tree somewhere which in turn leads to at least one table at every brocante or vide-grenier selling la confiture !

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As a designer, Michel says much of his time is spent choosing plants and trees for his clients, and expressing their desires on plans he lays out according to their desires. Mixing colours and height, and transforming an area from a piece of burnt lawn into a manicured Mediterranean sub-space is relatively easy in terms of manual work, but the overall transformation is almost solely due to the finely tuned details he has acquired over the years as you can see from one of his projects from start to finish below. (the following four photos are courtesy of Michel)

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As we walked through the vast nursery that was our first stop of the day, Michel started to educate us on the myriad of plants that surrounded us, and it became bewilderingly clear to me that this was a man who knows intimately and instantly where each piece of his jigsaw goes, right down to the details of the correct substrate in which to plant his choices. Calling out names in the French vernacular and the latin nomenclature, I was suddenly very aware that this was the son of two doctors, not merely a country person familiar with some greenery. Each huge shed we came to, was full of one family of plants or another, and Michel called out to them familiarly. I was utterly amazed at the amount of variety in each hothouse and when Michel explained that this was one of France’s largest commercial nurseries, I understood. It counts LeClerc and Gamme Vert amongst its clients……

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As the morning progressed we moved from one location to another, from nursery to irrigation depot, and from wood-yard to tool-shop. As we rode along in Michel’s battered truck, potting-twine and weathered working-gloves around our ears, we learnt more and came to understand that despite the appearances and the business, Michel was worried. He was explaining how he has a swarm of bees in his roof  and when I asked when he was going to get them removed he looked at me horrified, the truck swerving slightly across the road, and said he had no intention of removing them, and he waved airily at the countryside around us.

“Where will they go ?” he asked. “There is nothing out there any more for insects ! Your garden, and my garden are probably the only natural gardens in the village – that is why we always have bees in our flowers.” He banged his fist on the wheel in emphasis. “All the fields around the village – there is no goodness in them. That is why there are no birds anymore – they have nothing to eat, no insects, nothing……” and he dwindled into silence.

In the quiet that followed I looked across at Roddy and he was already asking the question before I could form the words; “Do none of your clients have organic gardens ?”

Michel shook his head sadly in answer. “Not many,” he replied. “Very few. And sometimes, even after a few months, they find it easier to go back to the weedkiller and the poisons.”  Monsanto.  He seemed to spit the word out the window.

We talked more then, and it became apparent that Michel was worried for his business. A man of principal, who pays his taxes, and a man of integrity who loves nature so much he has as many weeds in his garden as we do, it seemed there was a rising tide of legal but cheap day-gardeners emerging, under-cutting him at every turn. Increasingly, his clients say they have no need of his weekly garden care, as someone else is there instead, cheaper and quicker. Cheaper because they use the clients’ own tools, and cheaper still because they have no insurance and no tax to charge. Indeed, some clients can claim back money from the government for using the lesser artisan. Quicker of course, because they are not as thorough as Michel.

Coupled with all of that, is the way the new breed of un-qualified gardeners indiscriminately use chemicals and pesticides, little knowing what the real danger of them is, sometimes with no clue as to how they work or why, and ruining the goodness in every garden they visit. Michel explained that as he has got older, he has seen many people from the industry, from his early years, fall ill or even die as a result of ignorance when it came to the products they used to use, it’s now in later years that they are paying the price for this ignorance, it’s a really sad story.  In half an hour we learnt of some terrible practices once used in the commercial industry, and discovered a long litany of crimes against nature that humans have committed in the past 40 years or so. Michel was concerned there was no future for him, nor for the true qualified artisan with a wheelbarrow, and perhaps none for his bees and other friends. We all became a little quiet.

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As the morning came to a close and we returned home, I realized that people who garden naturally really do more for the environment than many think – it is not just a question of doing “good”, it’s really a question of doing as much as one can at a time when the world is growing smaller and less friendly for all the wildlife and insects that a garden depends on. It may have taken a Frenchman in a battered truck to illuminate some of the ideas I had read and thought about, but it is a lesson I will not readily forget. As we walked into our driveway and a cloud of small honey-bees rose from the honeysuckle hedge, I understood even more – I knew where they were going to spend the night and I knew we were doing the right thing, weeds and all.

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HEN-ZILLA AND THE MOLLYCODDLED DUCKS

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The children have just started two weeks of spring holidays, which makes me really happy.  Friends coming and going, sleepovers here and there; it’s like Picadilly Circus but I love it.  It also means there are a few extra pairs of hands to help in the garden; there is just so much to do at this time of year and weeds seem to grow overnight.  We have been working so hard in the newly formed vegetable garden, and we spent the afternoon on Sunday planting out tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and hot chillies which are Millie’s project.  We also put in some lettuce, salad greens, cucumbers, watermelons and courgettes.  The children planted because that’s the fun part while I hoed up weeds and raked!  Our beans we sowed a couple of weeks ago are now about 8″ high and the peas are shooting up.  There are rows of tiny carrot tops peeping through the soil, along with the spinach and potatoes – it’s all so exciting.  We have had to fence it to keep our dear feathered friends out, or else they would think we had planted a feast just for them, and we included the row of ten grape-vines inside the fencing because I read that chickens love grapes and we would not have a grape left if they were within their reach.  Next project to hand cut all the grass under the vines!

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Dear Rosie is being a very dutiful hen; she has less than a week to go now and we are all so hopeful we might get at least one chick.  She leaves her nest briefly around 11am each morning:  the routine is always the same as she wanders up the garden, stretches her legs and looks around.  The others are really quite nasty to her as she is no longer “one of them” and they peck at her and chase her away if she comes too close; it’s actually rather sad to watch.  After ten or fifteen minutes she swiftly heads back to her nest and carries on coddling her beloved eggs.

Eleanor is now also broody, sitting on two eggs and a ping-pong ball to make up the numbers!  Our sweet, lovely, docile Eleanor, she of the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party fame, has turned into Hen-Zilla.  Each morning when we open their door, she comes out straightaway clucking that special phrase of cluck we’re now getting used to; “Get out of my way, I’m an important broody hen with eggs to sit on; out of my way, out of my way, I need to eat, no time to waste!” and she is back inside and on her eggs within ten minutes, having made quite sure that we all know exactly how important she is!

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But the real time-wasters are Penny and Adrian, the pair of ducklings we were given at the Farmers Market nine days ago.  Most of the ducks sold that day no doubt were bought to be fattened and intended for the table.  They would have gone into a large sandy enclosure with an old pond in the corner, where the last blade of grass would have long since ceased to exist.  However, Penny and Adrian have entered a life of luxury, and are enjoying the pampered mollycoddled life of a pet duck!  When they arrived, a temporary run was made for them, along with an old paddling-pool filled with clean cool water.  The next day a new home arrived.  A brand new dog-kennel was put together and filled with straw.  Chairs were placed near the enclosure and the children would sit and watch them, chatting and laughing, the ducks getting used to people and their endless talking!  The chickens came and took a look, wondering what all the fuss was about and who the new arrivals were.  Penny and Adrian ate and swam and loved all the attention.  Then just when they really thought life couldn’t get much better, it did – in fact it got a whole lot better.   Yesterday the temporary fence was removed from around their paddling-pool and their deluxe house – they are free to wander in the garden along with the chickens.  Their permanent pond is under construction, yet another project!  The chickens take little notice of them and the cats have decided they are definitely too big to hunt and wander away.  Bentley, being Bentley, totally ignores them.  The ducks waddle around, they flap their tiny wings and run across the lawn – if this is what life is all about, it really is pretty good.

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The garden is changing on a daily basis; it’s like a video on permanent fast-forward and everything is growing so fast.  The first roses on a south-facing wall are blooming

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I love the Arum Lilies, simple perfection

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and the Tamarisk is never still, always moving in the breeze

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We’ve also been walking, lots and lots of walking; it’s such a perfect climate at the moment, not too hot and not too cold and everywhere is so stunning.  Hedgerows with sweet scented lilac,  tall grass waving in the breeze, waiting to be cut for hay.  The bright yellow of rapeseed cuts a colourful swathe across the landscape.  Blowing dandelion seeds and making wishes.  Childhood memories and carefree days.

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Whenever we come home and walk down the driveway I am greeted by the beautiful flowering horse-chestnut.  All the trees are incredible and in full leaf; one half of the garden is now a canopy of shade.  Sometimes I just stand and stare.  I call the children over to look at them as it’s all too easy to forget about the trees.  They are just there, a part of the garden, and we do take trees for granted.  But I like to draw attention to them as they are magnificent, hundreds of years old, and only then, standing looking up at the giant lime tree, do we all really see how huge it is.

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