Our long-awaited reed beds!

February 2017

It might be the shortest month of the year but so much has been going on around here, February has literally flown by. After numerous setbacks, work finally began on the reed beds, which are now fully operational, and my dad began working on the bathroom…which may be far from completion, but it’s a vast improvement on the damp and mouldy bathroom we’ve been using for the past two years! I’ve been busy in the polytunnel, sowing seeds, and planting perennials outside in our new, raised beds…oh and Pete and I ventured into the big city of Toulouse on Valentine’s Day, for our naturalisation interview at the Préfecture, in order for us to become French citizens. Be prepared for plenty of photos this month, especially of our mouldy bathroom (as it was), and of the muddy tracks left by the mini excavator that tore up quite a lot of our lovely, green grass.

Since we moved here, I’ve kept in touch with the family of the previous owner and was delighted to be invited over to the granddaughter’s house, so she could give me some of her perennial plants, that she has to cut back each year. As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t know very much about flower-growing, but having studied botany, Patricia gave me lots of advice and helpful tips. As soon as I got back, I got to work finishing off the raised beds (with a helping hand from Pete who made numerous wheelbarrow trips full of soil). So far, we have a stone circular bed, one made from spare roof tiles, one made from an old tractor tyre and a huge cast iron cauldron. Patricia also gave us a corkscrew willow tree, three hibiscus trees, and two ‘pêche de vigne’ trees that she had grown from the stones (she highly recommends growing peach trees from scratch, as opposed to buying them already established from the garden centre, as she believes they stand a better chance of survival). It is true that we have already lost a peach tree we bought in our first year here, and one plum tree, although we put it down to a neglect of water on our part.

So, now for the really exciting bit…for us anyway…our autonomous reed bed sewage system, commonly known as phytopurification!

The majority of rural homes in France that are not connected to mains sewerage have a septic tank, which stores solid matter, but in doing so prevents any oxygen reaching it to complete the breakdown process. This results in the production of sludge which gives off an unpleasant odour and has to be emptied, then transported to a wastewater plant for treatment. Phytopurification or reed beds offer an ecological alternative to traditional sanitation systems, so there is no longer the need for a septic tank, and any sewage (both grey and black water) is treated through the use of a vertical gravel filter, which is planted with reeds. While the solid matter remains on the surface, it reacts with the oxygen in the air to compost down, so there is no production of sludge and no bad odours. Any water is filtered down through the gravel, and biologically treated thanks to the microorganisms in the gravel. The reeds complete the process by absorbing the nitrates and phosphates from the water for their metabolism, effectively cleaning it. The clean water then trickles into a drainage area on our land, providing irrigation to nearby plants and trees. Genius!

Our vertical filter consists of two individual tanks and only one tank is used at a time to collect our waste. We have a manual valve which is alternated on a weekly basis to distribute flow between the two tanks.

The reed beds are relatively low maintenance. We have to cut the reeds back manually every autumn and the compost that forms on the top of the gravel needs to be removed approximately every 10 years and can then be used on ornamental plants. Apparently the first year requires the most weeding, since the newly-laid gravel offers the perfect growing conditions for absolutely any plant, not just our reeds.

So here’s a look at their installation, which took three and a half days by a team of three professionals:

Preliminary work
Before the professional work began, we had to move our wood store out of the way to make room for the new pipe work, and some bushes had to moved and odd branches cut, so the mini excavator could pass.

Stage 1:
Digging trenches for the new pipework and the filter tanks

Stage 2:
Delivery of three different types of gravel for the filter tanks
Unfortunately, the gravel couldn’t be used right away since there was a delay with the delivery of the filter tanks. Our installer was most unhappy as much of the work had to be put on hold.

Stage 3:
The huge filter tanks eventually arrived, four days late! They were installed, the gravel went in and the reeds were planted. 

Stage 4:
The pipework was glued together and tested. Grass seed was sown.
Sure enough, when we turned on the tap, water slowly trickled into one of the filter tanks. We were finally operational! Now we just need the grass and reeds to grow!

Since my parents still have a classic, water ‘flush’ toilet in their bathroom, we had to get the 1-filter vertical gravel system for the equivalent of six inhabitants to meet the legal requirements for our house. This system has cost us just under 11,000 €uros and must be considered an investment, bearing in mind there will be no further maintenance costs and the natural slope of the land means we do not need to run an electric pump. A traditional system with septic tank and sand filter would have cost us a minimum of 7,000 €uros anyway, so although it’s more expensive, we feel it is worth it to have an ecological and autonomous system. There are reed bed options available for houses with dry toilets only, which are, of course, much cheaper to install.

While all this commotion was going on outside, my dad was busy inside, knocking down walls, laying lino, tiling walls and plumbing in a new bathroom suite. The downstairs bathroom had been in a state since we moved in, but being in a functional state, it was not a priority when it came to renovating the house. Our initial priorities were insulating the walls of the house and installing a wood burner. With the installation of the reed beds, my parents could at last make necessary changes to the bathroom.

Here’s what has been done so far:

  • The individual toilet walls have been knocked down, to make way for a larger bathroom.
  • Once the walls were out of the way, the toilet had to be moved from the middle of the room to the corner.
  • The old shower and toilet evacuation pipes were filled in and the old septic tank became obsolete. We had it emptied for one last time and it has since been filled in with rubble.
  • The old floor tiles have been covered with lino.
  • The framework for a towel cupboard has gone up and a freestanding shower cubicle installed.
  • The new sink, shower and toilet have been plumbed in by my dad, using copper and PVC pipe fittings.
  • Tiling has begun on the walls and the electrics have been put in place for above-the-sink lighting and an extractor fan.

There is still a lot to be done, but it’s not easy renovating the only bathroom in the house when its six occupants are in desperate need of a shower! Hopefully next month I will be able to show you some photos of it almost finished. In the mean time, here’s what it looked liked before, when it was damp and mouldy, and during the initial renovation stages:

Finally, just to fill you in on our request for French nationality…
Pete and I had a very short but enjoyable stay in Toulouse for our appointments at the Préfecture early on 15th February. It meant that we had to spend the night of the 14th there, which, being Valentine’s Day, seems to give everyone the right to hike up their prices. Nevertheless, we decided to make the most of it and booked a small boutique hotel right in the very centre, where we found an authentic Chinese restaurant (so authentic, in fact, I had to teach myself how to use chopsticks in record time…either that or starve!) and a pleasant brasserie for lunch the following day, after two gruelling 90-minute interviews, to see if we are worthy enough to be considered French! The answer to that we don’t know yet and the French being French, we will have to wait another year to find out! Our interviews went OK, despite being asked random questions about French kings of the past, and the piles of paperwork we presented seemed to be complete and in the right order (which I gather doesn’t happen very often, judging by their reaction when I handed over two very organised folders spanning ten years of credentials).
We’ve since had to go down to the local police station for an interview regarding our insertion into the local community. The interview went remarkably well, that is until Pete bumped into a guy he plays football with on our way out, who couldn’t help but ask if Pete had knocked anyone else out on the pitch lately from fighting! It sounds like a joke and hopefully the chief policeman saw it that way, but in reality, it’s not far from the truth, and both Pete and the other player got a red card! You could argue that Pete could not be more integrated into the local community, he now has a reputation as a tough guy, not to be reckoned with…a somewhat Vinnie Jones of Compolibat! As for becoming French, we will just have to sit and wait…and wait…and wait. It is something we’ve become quite accustomed to during our lengthy time in France, where everything seems to move at a snail’s pace…at least, here in the Aveyron at least.

In any case, time is not worth worrying about…que sera sera. Spiritually-speaking, you could argue that time does not even exist…it is an illusion, a man-made concept that has enslaved the Western world, trapping us in the past and future, and leaving us struggling to live in the present moment. I’ll leave you to contemplate that thought until next month, I’m off to water my seeds!

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One thought on “Our long-awaited reed beds!

  1. Reed beds looking good, I look forward to seeing them in full growth (bloom?) 🙂 Excellent detail, I must think about improving our system this year.
    I do like you selection of raised beds.

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