So here we find ourselves, in our seventh month of rural living in Aveyron, where we are continually making progress, in our quest for a sustainable life for our family. We might have read a lot about permaculture principles, garden planning and vegetable growing, but we’re learning as we go, putting theory into practice, mostly with success I might add, but with the occasional failure along the way!
There are just so many factors to contend with. We are still trying to understand the land and the soil, the wind patterns, the sun’s angle throughout the year, the temperatures and the climate. At the moment, our biggest concern is the drought. We’re currently experiencing what seems to be an endless heatwave, which I can only compare to that of 2003, when we were in Antibes, on the French Riviera. That particular year, according to Wikipedia, there were over 14,000 heat-related deaths in France alone, which were primarily elderly people who had no experience of such elevated temperatures and how to deal with them. As for us, the heat does make us tiresome and irritable at times, but we don’t feel like we are at risk of heat exhaustion. What bothers us more is the affect it is having on the vegetation.
I can’t actually remember the last time it rained and it is starting to take its toll on the plants. As much as we hate to admit it, we’re currently using l’eau de ville (tapwater) to water the garden twice a day. Regulatory steps have recently been put in place by Aveyron’s Ministry of Environment to forbid the use of a hosepipe between the hours of 8am and 8pm, although we already know through common sense that watering your garden at peak times, often with temperatures soaring into the late thirties, is quite simply a waste of time and energy. We desperately need to look at putting in place an irrigation system for next year. A well seems the obvious solution, but we would need to be sure that there would be a constant supply of water. Rainwater harvesting is good idea, providing it rains enough to fill your tanks! So we’ve been considering a DIY natural plunge pool or pond, which would serve as an alternative to the blow-up paddling pool we are constantly repairing for punctures, and would provide us with surplus water if the well and rainwater tanks weren’t giving us a constant supply. There is a good article about them on Mother Earth News. Obviously it is not something we could afford to do right away, but it would be a beautiful addition to our garden in a few years time, once the kids are confident swimmers of course.
With regards to our vegetable garden, we can only be proud of what we’ve achieved with very little money in a short space of time, but we are a little disappointed with our potato yield and there is a lot of room for improvement. We are already making plans for next year and we hope to build a greenhouse from the old window panes once the double glazing is done throughout the house in the autumn. This should back onto the chicken house, providing extra insulation for the chickens during the winter months, but in return, the chickens’ body heat will act as a heating source for the greenhouse at the coldest times if we build a screen or uninsulated wall between the two. Obviously we don’t want the chickens roaming free in the greenhouse to eat all our lovely winter greens, so a screen would serve as a barrier to keep the chickens out but let their carbon dioxide in, to help the plants in the greenhouse to photosynthesise. The plants, in return, will create oxygen for the chickens. Furthermore, chicken manure is great for composting. Is that not the most perfect balance of two independent organisms? Permaculture at its best.
Other improvements involve us framing the vegetable beds with wood, to keep the weeds out and the straw in, and make it generally tidier and easier to maintain. We hope to add another five beds and get the asparagus planted (as it takes at least a couple of years for it to get established). We will grow more potatoes for starters and the tomatoes will be grown up a trellis to give them more structure. We will grow much more spinach, kale and swiss chard (which we eat in large quantities) and we will stagger our lettuce growing, so we constantly have a supply of fresh lettuce. This year, we overdid it with the dill (there really is only so much dill one can eat!) and we will need to add stones to the herb spiral wall and add extra compost to give it more depth. This year, the coriander and parsley dried out quickly and didn’t have much soil in which to etablish their roots.
With a greenhouse, we hope we can at last be successful at growing chillies and peppers, something we have never been able to master. I planted sweet peppers and chillies earlier this year, but nothing became of them and they’ve wilted away, under the tomato vines.
We plan to extend the hügelkultur even further and grow strawberries and other berries in it, the whole length of the garden. It has to be said, the hügelkultur has proved to be amazingly good for growing pumpkins and butternut squashes. Now that is something we are good at growing!
Oh and not forgetting the fruit trees which are a delight to look at. We just can’t wait for the harvest! Pete had better hurry up and build us that drying rack!
We also have two beautiful ornamental trees, known as Persian Silk, that provide us with necessary shade.
The chickens are happy and we let them free range when we are outside in the garden. The dogs have taken to them quite well and only twice has our Lhasa Apso gone for them, with our Golden Retriever not seeming in the least bit interested. We get seven or eight eggs a day now, in fact we have so many eggs we’ve been giving them away!
And, right on queue, as I’m typing away, having just spent the first couple of paragraphs complaining about the dry weather, the heavens have opened and we are having our first proper downpour in weeks. The temperature has dropped significantly and it’s become very dark and gloomy, but I am so very happy to hear it hitting the window and I’m pretty sure the plants and trees will be glad of a drink….finally! Hurray.
Pete will be pleased that the temperature’s dropped too. He’s been working really hard in the soaring temperatures, trying to make the upstairs of the house habitable for us for when my parents arrive at the weekend. He’s knocked down a wall, rebuilt another, tried his hand at lime rendering (which we can highly recommend) and built a wooden support beam, which will not only be a major feature of our master bedroom, dividing the room into two parts, but will also support the loft and prevent the insulation falling on us! Here are some pics of his work so far:
For the lime rendering, we got the idea from the following blog on Survive France Network. We did, in fact, spend only 18€ on the materials, although there was only enough for the first coat, so I reckon it will have cost us about 50€ all together. Still, I love the finish and not a single bit of cement!
The school holidays began at the start of July (they get two months off, here in France) and we are loving spending time with the kids. We’ve discovered a great spot down by the Aveyron river, only ten minutes away from our house, and we went back to Belcastel, which is well worth a visit. For Madeleine’s birthday, she had a Frozen-themed party and for Alexander’s birthday, we all went to Monkey Forest or La Fôret des Singes at Rocamadour. Here is a round up of July in pictures: