I haven’t spoken much english since I arrived which is brilliant, rather daunting and restrictive when it comes to anything but the simplest conversation but never the less, brilliant. Everyone here is extremely patient, understanding and encouraging and although I make mistakes, I am making myself understood and am able to follow conversations better than I thought I would. French television is great for learning, as the images give good clues as to what is going on, but you need to follow the conversation to really get it. I seldom do really get it, but just enough to follow dubbed episodes of “Bones” “CSI Miami” “The Mentalist” and the like. I have my vocabulary book where I write new words and phrases that I come across and study in my free time. Unfortunately it is so long since I have done any learning like this that I appear to have forgotten how to learn. Practical items stay put much easier than others, drawings tend to help too, the grammar book that I brought with me is OK in the tiniest of doses but my brain turns to mush far too fast for my liking. Can I get a new one please?
When I arrived I was given a few initial tasks and then a choice of possible projects to get my teeth into during my stay. That was good as I had time to mull over the possibilities whilst I cleared several borders of summer annuals, did a bit of general weeding and tidying about the place. It was then that I discovered that I could probably work without a break for the rest of the year and not really make a huge dent on this park.
Revamping the rose garden was discarded first. I am not a fan of roses in the first place and the fact that the whole border was wall to wall Oxalis did not fill me with joy. Oxalis is one of those dreaded weeds than people end up hating with a passion, it is small and quite pretty when it first arrives, probably by seed or hidden in the compost of a purchased plant, it looks as if it can do no harm. At the end of the season when its pink flowers are over and the grey green clover like foliage start to look untidy, is probably pulled or dug up and thrown away, that is when the fun starts. For clustered around the main roots is a gathering of tiny bulbils, they don’t hang on very tight, and unless you know that they are there, most of them will end up scattered over the surface of the flower bed as the plant is removed, ready to start the next generation the following spring. That is what had happened here, probably for the last several years. The border would have looked good for a few months, then wham, up they’ll all come again in the spring, as if nothing had been done at all. Been there, done that with countless other weeds, and given the option, didn’t fancy doing it again.
Pruning and cutting down trees would be much better left for another month when all the leaves have fallen. The sap will have returned to the roots for the winter and salvaged trees will fare much better. Those to be removed will be easier to see, cut, fell and clear away afterwards, it would have been great fun though.
I wanted to leave a lasting improvement behind, and also, hopefully inspire Daniel into gardening with a bit more passion. He mentioned the potager a couple of times and was proud of the tomatoes that he harvested and served at dinner, we had courgettes too a couple of times but it was nearing the end of the season so there probably wouldn’t be many more. There was talk of a lettuce glut earlier in the summer where he had planted a dozen tiny plants from the market and immediately sowed a whole packet of lettuce seed at the same time. The result, hundreds of lettuce ready at the same time, everyone gets sick of eating lettuce and no more are planted. Easily done and a good lesson learned, just sow a few every few weeks through the season, vary the varieties and leave gaps in production so that the pallet gets a break. Do I need to say more? I took the potager challenge.
My task, to create an interesting, easy to care for, well defined vegetable garden in an area amongst the trees. Initially I tried to convince Daniel and Patricia that a sunnier position would be favourable, but after hitting resistance, a lack of suitable alternative sites and spending plenty of time out there, it’ll probably do just fine. The soil is terrific, much better than elsewhere, I learn later from Michael, an old chap that pops in to help with the horses and feed the chickens, he used to live here, and likes to see what is going on, that it is the same the area used to be for vegetables years ago. Much of it has been swallowed by the advancing army of trees, but a sizeable area is clear, cultivated and ready for a makeover.
The idea was simple. Just gather some smart looking, flat stones from around the place, there were enough of them lying about, form a border around the outside of the area, a path up the middle and “voila” one potager ready to go. Set the stones into the soil so that they retain the garden on one side and provide a good edge to mow over on the other, it suddenly becomes easy maintenance and very smart.
In practice it was two weeks of hard work. To start with most of the easily accessible stones were far too large to handle easily, even with two people, then the whole area was much more uneven that initially imagined and thirdly, the underlying soil was hard as rock after the long dry summer. None of this deterred me, it just became more of a challenge. I rolled rocks out of bramble thickets, hefted them over piles of rubble and gathered them for transportation by tractor trailer. Then I set out string lines for guidance, dug, raked and positioned my stones. None of them were the same thickness, so it meant a lot of placing of stones, removing, scraping of soil, replacing, stamping and general faffing about to get each one straight and level. The sides of the first half went in without to much difficulty, the central path was more interesting, it was much more difficult to get the stones back out if they were not immediately flat and level, which, of course none of them ever were. Daniel assisted when he wasn’t otherwise occupied which was a great help and also excellent for my vocabulary skills.
After two weeks the major construction stage was over. We weeded the plot and removed as many perennial weed roots as we could, it’ll make life a lot easier next year, I am sure. Then the rotorvator came out of the shed and made quick work of turning the soil into the most wonderful fine tilth, I hope that I end up with soil like that to grow my veggies in. We moved the strawberry plant collection to their new home, set to and planted onions, shallots and broad beans for the spring, built supports for the raspberries and replanted them to profit from the sun. Demolished high areas of ground and used the spoil to fill in the dips around the outside, ready for a handful of grass seed at some stage. On my last working day we constructed a compost bin near by for easy use, I was asked to signe my name on one of the stones for posterity and over lunch made a long list of other things that need doing around the place for the next lucky volunteers. The weekend off and then on to my next adventure.