A composting loo with a view

October 2017

We have, at last, an upstairs bathroom! What began life as a temporary green house for sowing seeds, then became a spare room for guests, then a bedroom for our two children and finally, it has evolved into a family-sized bathroom, complete with composting toilet.

Inspiration came from various images found online and we loved the idea of ‘old meets new’. It’s a rustic bathroom with a touch of modernity, maybe not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to ours and I’ll explain why in the rest of this post.

We had a blank canvas to work with and since we had no intention of installing a flush toilet, we were not restricted by waste pipes. There was plenty of room for a bathtub, but this is an unnecessary luxury for a house that’s trying to save water and be eco-friendly so was never on the agenda.

Here is a list of our initial requirements:

  • a compost toilet (due to the success of our downstairs composting loo, it was a must for upstairs, even if it’s a bit more effort to empty the bucket!)
  • a walk-in shower (for the ease of showering the kids and a luxury for us, when you have been brought up showering in baths)
  • rustic furniture (made-to-measure by Pete)
  • rustic pipework for shower (copper or brass, for example)
  • a rustic sink unit (wine barrel or wooden work bench)
  • lino flooring (due to the uneven floorboards, tiling was never an option)
  • house plants (to create a relaxing oasis and make the most of this rather large, south-facing room).

Here’s a look at some of the images that inspired us and how they are reflected in our bathroom:

 

SHOWER
Although all the shower components were purchased separately,
the walk-in shower, as a whole, is the most expensive item in our bathroom,
totaling nearly 70% of our bathroom expenditure.
I wasn’t willing to compromise on this particular ‘luxury’!
I loved the patchwork tiles as soon as I saw them in an online picture (see above)
and managed to track them down from a tile supplier in Toulouse.
They cost us more than we initially intended but we don’t regret our purchase,
at least not at the moment.
Perhaps we might in twenty years’ time when our children ask
what possessed us to buy such ghastly, out-dated tiles!

 

STORAGE SHELVES
Our shelves are removable to provide access to the pipework in case of any leaks.
My dad did all the plumbing…so far so good!

 

SINK AND UNIT
I initially wanted to incorporate the sink into an old wooden barrel
(we even bought the barrel second-hand) but it would have been too high for the kids to reach
and so we decided on a stone sink, with a waterfall, bamboo-style tap.
The sink unit was designed and made entirely by Pete
and began life as an old fireplace mantel,
a beautiful piece of wood given to us by one of Pete’s friends,
who was renovating his house…I wonder if he regrets giving it away now!

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DRESSING TABLE
We bought the mirror second-hand for a bargain 12€
and Pete framed it with pallet wood, before making my dressing table (his own design).
It is very large and extremely heavy, but our generous-sized bathroom can take it.
It’s just missing a stool. Hint hint!

 

COMPOST TOILET
The design of our second composting toilet differs from the first
as the sawdust is stored in a removable bucket, to the side of the toilet.
This means we simply remove the bucket and take it to the shed to refill it with sawdust,
plus the kids can reach it easier than the downstairs one which is built-in behind the toilet.
For added privacy, there is a screen with a floating shelf (for one of the plants)
and it hides the toilet from view when you walk into the bathroom.
I guess not many people have a toilet with a view!


PLANTS

I carefully researched plants that thrive in humid and light conditions
and this is what I came up with:

Areca palm – the largest plant in our bathroom which is very easy to look after and impressive to look at.

Aloe vera – a useful plant to have in the house (which I bought last year and brought up from the lounge).

Snake plant – a hardy plant that filters toxins from the air.

 

 

 

Peace lily – a striking flower that also purifies the air (it is not kept in direct sunlight).

Umbrella plant – it wasn’t chosen specifically for the bathroom but it was beginning to suffer in the lounge so I brought it up to the bathroom and it has since picked up.

Zamioculas (Emerald Palm) – my favourite plant that is nice to look at, easy to look after and doesn’t need much watering.

 

 

I am still on the look-out for a fern and an orchid, but I’ll see how I get on keeping these ones alive first.

FIXTURES AND FITTINGS
Once we had decided to get a black shower and black taps,
it seemed we needed a bit more black here and there to bring it all together,
so we went for a rustic lantern light and a cubic suspension light
(chosen because they both take E27 lightbulbs,
which we got for free earlier in the year from mesampoulesgratuites.fr).

 

COLOUR SCHEME
The paint was chosen in accordance with the tiles, four different colours for four walls,
but a bit of thought went into them all the same.
The vibrant yellow represents the sun
and brightens up the bathroom with a Mediterranean feel.
The pastel brown wall represents the earth and soil
and reconfirms our connection to it.
The pale blue wall represents water
and the pastel green wall represents life (renewal, nature, energy).

 

So what exactly did it all cost?

Upstairs bathroom costs – Sep/Oct 2017

Item Supplier Costs €
Tile glue Carro Discount 25
Patchwork tiles Comptoir Toulousain Carrelage 204
Mastic Bricorama 4
Shower base Cdiscount 260
Shower Ebay 170
Shower plug and overflow Amazon 23
Shower screen Ebay 200
Sink Groupon 70
Sink tap, siphon and plug Amazon 56
Large mirror Le BonCoin 12
Black mirror and hooks Ikea 31
Paint Deco Troc 34
3 Buckets Ebay 30
Plants Point Vert 25
Hinges Bricorama 18
Lino Bricorama 77
Ceiling light Amazon 19
Lantern light Amazon 42
1300 €uro

 

 

Labour (carried out at weekends by Pete) and all the wood for around the window, shower base, shelves, sink unit, dressing table and compost toilet was Free (with a capital ‘F’)!

A lot of thought went into this bathroom and I think Pete has done an amazing job. I particular love taking a shower while enjoying the view of the countryside. There are no curtains at the windows and no shower curtain to protect our modesty. Protect it from whom? Out here, in our countryside retreat, there is nobody. Just us, an average family of four, trying our best to live a happy, sustainable life, and my parents, who now live with us full-time and have at last started calling it ‘Home’.

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Horrendous honey-robbing hornets

September 2017

A whole month has passed and thankfully, it has been flea-free! Back to normal Chez TêteBlanche, no fleas, box tree moths or wasp spiders around here, just the odd house spider or two, oh and a gigantic hornets’ nest in next door’s barn! One evening when Pete was playing football, I left the outside light on so he could see when he got back. When he returned, there were swarms of these giant Asian hornets flying into the outside light and kitchen windows. It was like a scene from some horror film! Luckily none of them got inside the house and they quickly dispersed when we turned the lights off.

The Asian Hornet, otherwise known as an Asian Predatory Wasp (Frelon Asiatique in French) has an “especially potent venom” in its sting that can be dangerous to humans and multiple stings have caused fatalities, especially in Southest Asia, from where they originate, so a swarm of them is, quite understandably, terrifying.

What’s more, these invasive hornets pose a risk to honeybees as they kill them to colonise their hives and steal their honey. As if the declining honey bee population didn’t have enough to deal with! There could be serious consequences for global agriculture if the number of Asian Hornets continues to rise and the number of honey bees consequently falls.

Next door’s barn is currently empty and up for sale and the owner invited me to, reluctantly, peer inside to see the nest, which is in the eaves of the roof and leaking what I can only assume to be honey. It is about half a metre in diameter and has the most awful, pungent smell. Even more worryingly, it is located not twenty metres from our front door! I just hope she gets somebody round to deal with it sooner rather than later, and preferably, when we’re not at home! I advised her, all the same, to report it to the INPN (Inventaire National du Patrimoine Naturel) for their records.

Here is a map that shows how the Asian Hornet has colonised much of France
since the first nest was discovered in Aquitaine in 2004:You will also find the links to two articles: one about how they may yet colonise the UK,
and one proposing a solution in the form of a hornet-eating Sarracenia plant.
Asian hornet to colonise UK within two decades without action
Hornet-eating plant could save France’s honey bees

The mere thought of an invasion of giant hornets leads me to believe that maybe the fleas weren’t that bad after all, which, in turn, makes me start itching and as much as I appear to love talking about insects, the truth is, I would much rather be talking about the joys of autumn! So here you are, a selection of some of the tastiest AUTUMN RECIPES I’ve come across recently, that have been tried and tested by myself, using a lot of home-grown produce and that are completely meat-free. Just click on the recipe title for a printable PDF version and give them a go.

SLOW COOKED BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND LENTIL CURRY
Thanks to Sweetpeasandsaffron.com, I just can’t quite believe how easy this recipe is, it almost feels like you’re cheating! For even stronger flavours, I substituted one garlic clove for a teaspoon of Fenugreek and instead of curry powder, I used a homemade curry paste. I served it with Basmati rice and naan breads I made in the bread machine.

ROASTED PUMPKIN AND CHICK PEA HUMMUS
A quick and easy dip from Taste.com.au
The only change I made was adding a little extra lemon juice and some sesame seeds. The kids love it with carrots.

SAUTEED SWISS CHARD
Swiss chard just has to be one of our Autumn/Winter favourites and it is real easy to grow. Once I had discovered this recipe from Geniuskitchen.com, I never tried any other swiss chard recipes. What’s more, it is the perfect accompaniment for Butternut and blue cheese bake!

BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND BLUE CHEESE BAKE
Thanks to Allrecipes.co.uk, I will definitely be making this dish again. I left it in the oven a few minutes more than I should have, which meant some of the breadcrumbs got stuck to the bottom of the dish, but despite appearances, it tasted delicious.

 

Next month’s longer blog post will undoubtedly be the unveiling of our new upstairs ‘family’ bathroom, complete with composting toilet. Not convinced? Just wait ’till you see it!

Invited and uninvited guests

August 2017

It’s August and it is peak season for visitors Chez TêteBlanche! Most of our guests have consisted of family and friends who we have welcomed with open arms:

Pete’s twin brother, Paul and three of his kids

My brother, Rob and his girlfriend, Rhian

My mum’s best friends, Jeanette, Janice and Alyson

However, we have had quite a few (hundred) unwanted and certainly uninvited guests in our house this month… in the form of fleas! Now to most people, fleas are a bit of a taboo subject, as they are often associated with dirt and grime. Who would ever dream of admitting that they have had a flea epidemic in every room of their house?!

Truth be told, the very point of this blog is to cover the highs and lows of permaculture-living in the countryside and I will openly admit that yes, we have had fleas in our house and no, we definitely haven’t stuck to ecological methods of insecticide to get rid of them!

We first noticed them on the dogs, of course, who sleep in the house and have previously been allowed full access to all rooms, including upstairs (not any more!). Until this year, the dogs had never had any fleas before, but I’m not convinced they were solely responsible for bringing them inside, for there were fleas all over the garden too. They could be seen jumping on us when we were sitting on the grass. Everybody keeps telling me it’s the year of the tick, but as far as I’m concerned, it is, without a doubt, the year of the flea!

Desperate measures meant we had to throw out my mum’s extra-large shaggy rug but worse than that, it got to the point where we couldn’t even go upstairs without fleas jumping on us. When your kids start drawing spots on their animal pictures and you wrongly mistake their drawings of flea-ridden cats and dogs for leopards, it starts to dawn on you that you might just have a problem on your hands!

We tried everything, from flea collars to neem oil sprays, cheap shampoos, expensive shampoos, room and upholstery sprays, soapy water traps and finally, our last resort was a lethal aerosol room-fumigator! As the month draws to a close, I can safely say we are over the worst of it and with the cooler temperatures upon us, we’re seeing less and less of them with each passing day.

While the fleas seemed to be making themselves at home inside, outside we had an invasion of quite a different kind…the Box Tree Moth (Pyrale du Buis, in French). Our neighbours had already mentioned their anguish at the destruction of their Box Tree hedges, due to the invasion of leaf-eating caterpillars. The word ‘anguish’ is no exaggeration. If you take a look at this Box Tree Moth timelapse video, you can understand why it was so upsetting for them to see their beautifully well-kept hedges eaten away into nothing in a matter of days.

Yet, these caterpillars have since turned into beautiful moths that seem quite taken with our favourite Persian Silk tree, providing us with a wonderful, fluttering show of black and white. As far as I know, the larvae only eat Buxus plants, so our Persian Silk should be fine.

While we’re still on the subject of insects, arachnophobes, look away now! I just have to show you this photo of the first of many wasp spiders that have also chosen our garden for their home this year (I’ve increased the photo size so you can see it in more detail, it is quite spectacular).

This is a female and although she is not poisonous, she bites (apparently)! I’ve had enough uninvited guests for one month so as long as she stays outside, she’ll be just fine.

In between family visits, we managed to get a couple of nights away in a gite in the lovely Belcastel. It might be less than 30 minutes away from our house, but we might as well have been miles away. The gite had to be booked for a minimum stay of one week, but since my mum and her friends were only staying there for four nights, it seemed daft not to make the most it. We had glorious sunshine and the unheated, outdoor pool was the perfect way to keep cool, with a castle view to go with it.

We also paid the Gorges du Tarn a visit and spent a lovely evening catching up with our friends, Janet and David. The kids especially loved their salt water swimming pool, which was immaculately clean and warm, offering yet another amazing view!

More swimming meant a trip to Lac de Roucarié near Carmaux. It has a sandy beach and clear, shallow water…perfect for families.

Of course, having friends and family over to see us gave us the perfect excuse to explore some familiar and new sites. Here are a few photos for anyone who is interested:

If you live in the Aveyron and would like to show off some sites to your friends and family when they come over, you can apply to be an Aveyron Ambassadeur to receive a card which grants you free entry to exhibits and attractions (conditions apply). Click here for the link.

Making a house a home

July 2017

I can clearly remember when Pete and I first discussed buying Chez TêteBlanche along with my parents, and the all-important question he asked me. I had only visited the property once with my dad, and yet here we were, the four of us, about to make an offer on a house in rural Aveyron, that my own husband and mother had never even stepped foot in!

“Can I make this house a home for us?”, Pete asked me.

Without hesitation, I told him he could and of course, the rest is history (or if you’ve forgotten or you’re intrigued, you can read about it in the earlier pages of this blog!). We are now well into our second year here and slowly but surely, our home is starting to take shape, both inside and out.

I previously promised you some photos of the upstairs bedroom renovation and since the work is practically finished, I have quite a few to share. The small, dark cubby hole of a room we have been using for storage for the past couple of years has been transformed by Pete’s meticulous hands, into a sleeping area for our daughter:

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To access this small bedroom, you first have to go through the playroom, which can evolve into a study area as the children get older. For the moment, we are using the playroom as a temporary bedroom for our son, so Pete can get on with renovating the next room in the house, the upstairs bathroom! After the bathroom, all that will be left to do in the house will be Alexander’s bedroom, the landing and downstairs corridor, kitchen, outside terrace and our bedroom, which remains to be finished! I haven’t even mentioned the remaining work to be done in my parents’ rooms and the garden. If you haven’t guessed it by now, we are in this for the long haul!

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While Pete was busy doing all this hard work upstairs, I was outside in the garden harvesting courgette after courgette. They just keep on coming! We have also had a lot of success with butternut squashes, plums and some very tasty sweetcorn.

The outdoor beef tomatoes are starting to ripen, although after an early harvest of cherry tomatoes inside the polytunnel, the numbers now appear to be in decline, probably due to the extreme heat and lack of ventilation! Next year, I think we will grow all of our tomatoes outside, even if it does mean we have to wait that bit longer for them. Another idea that we have still to work on is our bean teepee! Although a vast improvement on last year, I just can’t understand why I find it so hard to grow beans! I tried to grow them up the sweetcorn, but they never amounted to much. I tried to grow them up the teepee, but only a few came through, leaving large, patchy areas…it’s not exactly the den I dreamed of for the children! I really do like the idea of a teepee, but I am now moving further towards the idea of an ornamental teepee for next year as a more permanent structure, with fragrant jasmine and sweet peas. As for the beans, luckily my neighbour is exceptionally good at growing them organically, by the kilo and not only has he given us loads of them to eat, he’s also promised to come and help me in the garden next year so my beans get the best start.

I really love the fact that we share each other’s home grown produce on the hamlet. We recently found an enormous, football-sized puff ball mushroom in our garden and there was plenty to share with the neighbours, even if some were rather dubious of our mushrooming knowledge in fear of eating a poisonous one! There is an abundance of apples that are just starting to ripen in another neighbour’s garden and they told us to help ourselves whenever we please. The children are in their element. You must understand that our son and daughter eat on average three apples each a day!  We have one old apple tree in the garden, which gives us a lot of fruit but it is not yet ripe, and a young, imported Granny Smith tree which we planted last year and has not yet produced any fruit. Maybe it would be financially advantageous to plant some more apple varieties this autumn, to assure we can meet the demands of our children’s tummies!

We have yet to harvest the potatoes, although only time will tell if we will beat last year’s 57 kilo stockpile. I am going to cheat next year and buy my potatoes already sprouted. I have found that as the potato planting season starts, all the local garden centres reduce their potato prices for clearance. As I had previously chitted potatoes in egg boxes on the windowsill with success, this year I mistakenly, tried chitting my potatoes in the polytunnel, thinking they would get the ideal amount of light. This said, it was surely the polytunnel’s humidity and heat in early spring that contributed to the somewhat lack of sprouting. I planted them all, nonetheless, on Easter Monday as is the tradition around here. Many have grown into plants that have already flowered, a promising sign. Many didn’t come through at all and I’ve since replanted carrots in their space. We shall see…

I will leave you with an article I wrote for Permaculture Magazine a few months back (when I was hoping for better things from my bean teepee!). It has just been published in the Autumn edition:

Don’t count your chickens…

June 2017

Our chickens have occupied so much of our time this month that inevitably, it is the subject of June’s blog post. At the end of May, we returned from our trip to the beach to find one of our eight White Sussex hens rather poorly. We researched her condition to discover she had vent gleet, a fungal, yeast infection that left her with a swollen, dirty behind. We did everything we could to help her condition: gave her a bath, cleaned the chicken coop and water carrier, added some apple cider vinegar to the drinking water and replaced the food tray. Sadly, still unwilling to eat or drink, she died a day or two later. Just one week later and we lost a second hen in the exact same way. Now it can’t have been the water or the food, and living conditions were good, so we can only assume it was the unusually high temperatures that caused it, unless anyone has any other ideas??? The chicken house gets extremely hot and the outdoor run is south-facing so we are going to look into extending it so that it incorporates some shade from the nearby trees, when the chickens are not free ranging.

But this still does not change the fact that we were two hens down. As a general rule, we have found that eight hens is a good number for a constant supply of eggs for our family of six (including my mum and dad) but they have not been laying as well since the weather warmed up so obviously six hens, averaging two eggs a day is not ideal. When a third chicken started to show signs of illness, we didn’t really see the point in buying new replacement hens just for them to die in our coop, for reasons unknown to us. This time, however, the apple cider vinegar seemed to do the trick. Her tail soon lifted up to a normal position and she was back to her usual self.

So what to do about the lack of eggs? We could have gone and bought two, three or even four new, ready-to-lay hens from Elevage Avicole de Mayran (a nearby breeding farm)…but we liked the idea of raising our own chicks and we had all the ingredients: a cockerel and six seemingly healthy chickens. Last year, the surrogacy method worked when our neighbour successfully hatched one of our fertilised eggs under his broody hen so there can’t be a problem with our cockerel!  Of course there is one major issue to contend with here, not one of our six hens has ever shown the slightest sign of being broody for longer than 24 hours and the neighbour’s hen doesn’t seem at all interested in having another chick!

This led us to the incubator method. We borrowed a manual 12-egg incubator from one of the parents at school. Sure, it was basic, but the school had used the very same one last year and Madeleine’s class managed to hatch three or four healthy chicks from it…it had to be foolproof! After four days of egg collecting, we put eleven eggs inside and turned them twice a day until Day 18. We candled them on Day 7, but since it was our first attempt we decided to leave all eleven eggs inside, just in case we had misjudged our visual readings (we were not using a genuine egg candler and we are very much in unknown territory when it comes to egg hatching and chick rearing). On Day 17, I noticed that one of the eggs had a maple syrup-like blob on it, which Google signalled to be a sign of rottenness. I removed the egg immediately, sealed it in a freezer bag and tossed it in the bin. We did experience a few short power cuts over the three week period when my dad was doing the electrics in his room…and the temperature went down a degree or two during the last few days, but when Day 20 arrived, I was confident that I would see some egg pipping. Surely we would have at least one success?

I’m afraid not. Not a single egg hatched! Unwilling to perform an eggtopsy to find out what went wrong, on Day 26, I carefully placed all ten eggs in a paper bag and put them in the bin.

But, it wasn’t all doom and gloom…not wanting to put all our eggs in one basket, we had a back-up plan! Precisely one week after we put the eggs in the incubator, one of our hens decided she was feeling abnormally broody and started sitting on one sole egg! The next day, to my surprise she was still sitting there so I added two more eggs to her collection (I would have added more if only I had some, but then if I had had more eggs, we wouldn’t be desperately needing to hatch chickens in the first place!). She quickly accepted them and moved them underneath her, and there she sat quite happily until Day 11, getting down from the nest now and again to eat, drink and do her business. On this particular day however, she unfortunately jumped back on the wrong nest, where she sat for a good 24 hours before she returned to her cold eggs. Nothing seemed to be going right…how hard can it be to hatch a chick?

Still not wanting to admit defeat, on Day 17 we decided to move her to a purpose-built pen of her own, where she would not have access to other hens’ eggs. She literally growled at my dad when he tried to move her…he was wearing gloves which is always a good idea, wow can this girl peck! Once she had settled into her new pen, she got back on her three eggs and didn’t move (to my knowledge) for days. She had food and water and seemed to be doing ok, but Day 21 came and went and…still nothing.

So you can imagine the excitement on my face when I came home from doing the weekly shop on Day 22 to hear loud chirping coming from the pen! Sure enough, there was a little black chick stood shivering on its own. When we had moved the mother hen into the new pen, we thought it would be more comfortable for her to brood in a little wooden crate, but it’s a highly impractical nest for rearing baby chicks, which are likely to fall out, unable to climb back in to the warmth of the mother! We didn’t think that through! We seemed to to be failing in so many areas. Without hesitation, I scooped up the little chick and put it back in the box where it quickly scuttled under it’s mother’s wing. I got back just in time to save it. Any longer and it would probably have died from the cold.

Worried the chick might fall once again out of the crate, we took the decision to remove the crate entirely from the pen. Pete lifted her off the two remaining eggs, which I picked up and carefully placed on some straw on the pen floor. She quickly sat back on the eggs, with the little chick peeking out from under her wing. The next day, we discovered a second chick had hatched, but it seemed to have either splayed leg or a broken wing…either way, it had been rejected by the mother and died soon after. The third egg remained unhatched and the mother pushed it out of the way, for us to remove.

So, I can safely say I am now all chickened out. I seem to have spent an entire month dedicated to chickens and I have no plans to breed any more in the near future. So what exactly have we gained from all this? Certainly a lot of knowledge, through various mishaps and mistakes along the way, not to mention a ‘miracle’ chick that proved to us that despite our best efforts, mother nature knows best. I have put my newly-acquired heat lamp away in storage for the time being, and my mum has kindly offered to buy us two new replacement hens. At least now I can concentrate my efforts on the garden and leave Mother Hen to look after her little one, which might just turn out to be a cockerel after all that!

Oh, but there’s just one more thing that I have to take care of first…a little boy who has just come down with, you guessed it, the Chickenpox!!!

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

May 2017

A busy month saw quite a lot of progress on the house renovation, the installation of a new Velux window, a day trip to Cahors and a last-minute break on the Mediterranean Coast. Our last family holiday was to Lanzarote in 2013, so two nights on a five-star campsite in Vias Plage was a welcome break from the stress and fatigue that comes with developing a permaculture homestead from scratch.

It suddenly dawned on us that we had a potential four-day bank holiday in our midst (Ascension weekend) and as we are on a tight budget, we initially thought of taking our small tent and booking a simple pitch near the beach for 25€ per night. A mobile home on the same site was 280€ for two nights, which was out of the question! I was just finalising the booking for our tent, when I realised that despite it being a busy bank holiday weekend in France, it was not yet the holiday season in the UK, and thus I managed to find us a fantastic, last-minute deal through Eurocamp, which meant we ended up staying in a fully-equipped, air-conditioned, two-bed mobile home on the same campsite, but for an incredible 42€ per night. It’s always worth checking out rival companies for the best bargains…I should know, I used to do summer seasons as a campsite rep in Antibes, on the French Riviera!

In fact, staying on a campsite again, by the sea, brought back so many great memories: the sweet jasmine fragrance on every aisle; the delightful smell of Nivea suncream (which I call ‘summer in a bottle’), the traces of fine sand that remain in your toes, no matter how hard you brushed your feet down; the tacky bar furnishings and entertainment; and not forgetting the Pastis! It was like Pete and I had gone back to our roots, where we first met fifteen years ago. Nothing much had changed, almost like time had stood still. It made me feel giddy and young again, only this time round, we had our children to share it with.

When I used to go camping in France as a child with my mum, dad, brother and sister, we would always stay with Eurocamp. Their mobile homes are much more modern than the family tents we used to book, but the emphasis on outdoor living remains unchanged. Eating lunch with our children on the wooden terrace, under the familiar, green parasol made me smile even more to know that the enjoyment I got as a child was now being passed on to them. This is precisely what life is meant to be…sharing those special moments with the people we love, in the here and now!

Three days later and the Neverland fairytale ended as we headed back to the tranquillity of Chez TêteBlanche, but I wasn’t sad to be leaving the sea behind. Instead I found myself feeling totally relaxed, refreshed and looking forward to returning to the reassuring familiarity known as Home. It might not be a Mediterranean beach but it’s certainly not a bad view to wake up to!

View from our bedroom window of my favourite tree, Persian Silk

The beautiful, Persian silk flowers which fall early summer can be collected and used to make art work, as our children found out (with a little help from me):

After our relaxing break, we got straight back to the grindstone, Pete working upstairs on the house and me, outside in the garden, where my healthy broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage plants once grew…that is, before the flea beetles came and infested them! Flea beetles are small, black pests that love to eat leafy greens and when you knock the plant, they scatter in all directions, only to return later, seemingly hungrier than ever! We tried spraying them with soapy water but to no avail. These little blighters are very stubborn and they just kept coming back. I asked around for advice and tried putting dried celery leaves down to repel them…no luck either. My neighbour suggested soaking tobacco in water and spraying them with it, although I didn’t put this idea to the test. I found talcum powder to be a good repellent, the only problem is when we watered up, it washed it all off and it was a never-ending task. I gave up after two large tubs of talc. Finally, I found something that had to be worth a try, Neem oil. I had heard of this before for its benefits as a natural insecticide and head lice shampoo but never looked into getting hold of any. I’ve now ordered some TotalCare water soluble neem oil for plants, online from NatureNeem and BioCare neem oil for pets (since we have a bit of a flea issue with our golden retriever at the moment too). It hasn’t arrived yet as it comes directly from India, but I’m hoping I will be able to save my brassicas before it’s too late. Here’s a quick look at the damage the flea beetles have caused (the white stuff is the talc):


On a brighter note, our sweetcorn is doing rather well, it has to be said. It is our first time at trying out the classic permaculture principle, The Three Sisters: sweet corn, beans and squash. The beans grow up the corn, not only using it as a growing support but providing stability to the corn, a bit like a guide rope. Meanwhile, the squash pants spread across the bed, providing a good cover mulch, helping the soil to retain water and limiting growing space for potential weeds. Here, we are growing melons, butternut squashes, pumpkins and mange tout. We have 48 corn plants in total.

Inside the house, the installation of a Velux window in the roof has dramatically transformed a dark and dusty storage room into a naturally-lit bedroom for our daughter. As much as I would like to show you some more pictures of the upstairs bedroom renovation, it is very much a work in progress at the moment and so I have decided to wait until it’s finished, which should hopefully be mid-late July.

I can, however, show you some photos of our recent trip to Cahors…well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

The little things make the biggest difference

April 2017

Hurray, we’ve successfully managed to get quite a few little projects done this month, both inside and outside the house, and it’s made a big difference. At the beginning of April, the weather was so hot, our poor little plants were getting scorched in the polytunnel, and it didn’t help matters that I went to the market one very hot Thursday morning and forgot to open the polytunnel door before I left…oops! I was lucky enough not to lose every potted seedling I had that day! We quickly looked into buying a fitted polytunnel shade screen, but we couldn’t really justify spending 150€ on one. Our neighbour suggested we try a local garden centre, where they sell rolls of shaded netting and we subsequently bought three rolls of it (10m x 1.5m) at a bargain 14€ per roll. We then cut them into 5m lengths and placed them inside the polytunnel over each arc. The effects were noticeable immediately. Let there be no mistake, it still gets incredibly hot inside the polytunnel, but the netting blocks up to 80% of the sun’s rays, thus prevents the leaves from scorching. So far so good. I also added a straw mulch to the polytunnel beds in a bid to increase water retention.

Our next priority was to stop the cats from getting inside the polytunnel and digging up our seedlings. In no time at all, Pete rustled up a hinged door that can be closed from either side with a highly sophisticated device known as a rubber band! For the mesh, he simply stapled a fly screen to the wooden frame. Easy peasy…for a carpenter!

Project 3 was a wooden trellis for my mum’s sweet peas, outside the front door.

April saw the Aveyron burst into bloom with beautiful lilac flowers everywhere we looked, although we had no idea what they called in English, French or latin for that matter. The man on the plant stall at the weekly Villefranche-de-Rouergue market seemed the perfect person to ask and he just so happened to have one for sale. A Wisteria tree is its name (Glycine in French) and we bought one without hesitation to train up and around our front door. I am amazed I never noticed these wonderfully scented trees before. It’s as if I’ve been walking round with my eyes closed for the past two spring seasons!

My current project is to landscape the north side of the garden, now the old septic tank has been filled in and is out of sight. The gravel there had been surplus to requirements when the reed beds were installed and the landscaper had roughly spread it out with his Bobcat tractor to make a make-shift drive way, but I find it really untidy and it bothers me a lot. In hindsight, we’d have put a geotextile membrane down beneath the gravel to keep the weeds under control, but we didn’t really get a lot of say in the matter. It is a very mindful task, but I have begun levelling out the gravel with the use of a rake, a shovel and a wheelbarrow and I am hoping Pete will put a small wooden border down to separate the gravel from the grass. I plan to re-seed the grass and finish the dry-stone wall I half-heartedly started building around the house and hopefully, it will look much better than it does at the moment:

The vegetable garden is coming along nicely. We planted four different varieties of potatoes in five beds on Easter Monday and we are still waiting for the last frosts before we plant out anything else. We currently have an asparagus bed, two small beds of garlic, a large bed of onions and a bed of leeks…and the swiss chard we planted last August/September just keeps on coming! As for our autonomous sewage system, the reeds have started to pop through the safety grids and are expected to grow between one and two metres tall, before we need to cut them back. There are no unpleasant odours, just the odd frog to rescue from under the grid!

Inside the house, with the help of some carefully chosen soft furnishings, my parents managed to transform their ‘junk’ room, overnight, into a comfortable guest room for when my sister and her boyfriend came to stay. It still needs insulating and painting, plus the skirting boards and parquet floor are to do, but at last we have a guest room of sorts! Oh and I may have forgotten to mention recently but my “25 led lightbulbs for 2€”did actually turn up in the post and it wasn’t a scam after all…thank you MesAmpoulesGratuites.fr!

Until next month, here are a few photos of Belcastel and Rocamadour, courtesy of my mum and sister:

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