A far cry from the cold, alpine winters of Chamonix, mid to late December found us sitting outside in the garden, enjoying the warmth of the winter sun on our faces.
It was quite surreal to be decorating the Christmas tree with the sun pouring in through the patio doors, but it made a nice change. My dad set to work, painting his lounge, and the cork insulation went up on the first outside wall.
We were a bit disappointed by the local Christmas markets as there weren’t many stalls and the vast majority didn’t seem to be selling anything remotely Christmassy. Mum and I agreed we could do a better job ourselves and have decided to do a Christmas stall of our own next year. Pete is rather sceptical, he reminds me that my mum and I have been planning to do a car boot sale for nearly five years now and we still have boxes of old clothes taking up unnecessary space upstairs!
Christmas Eve is a big occasion in France, I would go as far to say it’s the equivalent of Christmas Day in England…so we decided that while everyone was at home spending time with their families, we would spend Christmas Eve at Magicland with the kids (the local gymnasium, filled with more than ten bouncy castles…and the only place we could get a beer the afternoon before Christmas!). We were practically the only ones there and the kids definitely got our money’s worth.
For Christmas, Pete had made a huge wooden doll’s house for Madeleine (out of Alexander’s old cot) and she was delighted with it, that is when she realised Santa hadn’t actually brought her “a set of wooden shelves in the shape of a house!”. Alexander was thrilled with his Darth Vader costume and lightsaber, in fact I think he preferred them to his new red bike! We enjoyed a traditional English Christmas dinner, with carrots picked from the garden on Christmas morning and Yorkshire puddings. Much to my dislike, we managed to get our hands on some brussels sprouts at the local supermarket, so not one to go against tradition, I felt obliged to slip one on my plate! Being in France, Pete couldn’t resist some oysters, but I’m not a great fan of sea food at the best of times.
Outside, we’ve started clearing the area around the magnolia tree, which has been cut down, so that we can make a keyhole bed for growing vegetables.
The magnolia roots go deep down into the ground and removing the trunk completely has proved to be extremely difficult and time-consuming, so we decided that instead of removing it completely, we would make a feature out of it and use it as a central point for our keyhole bed. Similar to a herb spiral that uses maximum growing space, a keyhole bed would make a nice feature, with some additional flowers to attract insects, whilst increasing our growing capacity. To give you a rough idea, it might look something like this picture (with the remaining magnolia trunk in the middle), although I wouldn’t expect it to be as neat and tidy in our garden:
Our next door neighbours recently hired a professional wood chipper so they could clear some of their overgrown shrubbery. It meant we were able to get hold of some free wood chippings, which we’ve since laid down on the path of the polytunnel. The polytunnel is proving to be a gem…its location is ideal for getting every bit of winter sun. I’ve already started planning what to grow in our polytunnel next year: tomatoes, chillies, sweet peppers, basil, lettuce, peas and cucumbers. When the weather gets too hot in June, we’ll stop growing lettuces indoors and start growing them outside. Unfortunately, our polytunnel’s location also means that although it is great for winter sun, we have about a two-month period in peak summer when it gets far too hot for anything to grow and the plants just seem to go to sleep. Come September, everything starts growing again, which means we get quite a late harvest of chillies, peppers and basil. However, we have found that the extreme heat can actually kill the pollen, leaving us without a single aubergine this year! I think the trick is to get a head start with our seeds next year, so that the plants start producing before it gets too hot. We will try to learn from our mistakes and do better in 2017!
It’s funny when you compare our two years of vegetable growing, because we had successes in completely different crops. In 2015, we had fantastic quinces, pumpkins, courgettes and tomatoes, but hardly any chillies, peppers or potatoes. This year, we didn’t get a single quince, pumpkin or courgette, and we had some serious issues with our tomato plants, yet we got a good potato yield, loads of chillies, lettuces, cucumbers and melons. The trickiest part of vegetable growing, in my opinion, is timing. It’s trying to plan what goes where, with what and when. It’s easy to draw up garden plans in advance but the ever-changing climate can throw everything into disarray. We certainly don’t want to be left with empty beds like this year. Trial, error and perseverance will hopefully prove their worth next year! As the year draws to a close, we are two years into our project and we have much to learn, but I am quietly confident that 2017 will be fruitful in the Chez TêteBlanche garden.