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!

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

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Short but sweet

March 2017

It’s been only six weeks since February half term and we end the month of March with another two weeks of school holidays. In the interests of tourism and traffic flow, France is divided into three zones so that the school holidays can be staggered. It means the kids will have a really long, final term to endure before the summer holidays, but it’s just how it falls this year. Hopefully we can get out in the garden and enjoy our first barbecue of the year, with an abundance of fresh ‘Merveille des quatre saisons’ lettuces, 18-day radishes, ‘Perpetual’ spinach and ‘Black Tuscan’ kale at our disposal.

We are certainly putting our polytunnel to good use this spring, there are potted seedlings everywhere. I’ve got around forty purple broccoli plants on the go, cauliflowers, red and white cabbages, beef and cherry tomato plants, sweet corn, runner beans, lettuces, cucumbers, courgettes…oh and three, pesky cats that treat the polytunnel like it’s a giant cat litter tray and love nothing better than to chase each other on the roof, often digging their claws into the polythene, as they slide down the arched sides, leaving me cursing at them from inside. If anybody has any tips how to keep them off the roof, I am listening! As a matter of urgency, I must get Pete to build me a fenced gate for the doorway to stop them getting inside. An insect net, attached to a simple wooden frame should do the trick. Hint hint.

Outside the polytunnel, Pete has prepared a new bed where we will be growing sweet corn this year.

The locals deem it strange to grow sweet corn for human consumption as it is regarded as animal feed around here, and pesticides are often used for a higher yield. We feel that organically-grown corn on the cob would not only be a welcome addition to our home-grown produce but it will hopefully offer some necessary shade to the polytunnel which becomes intensely hot in the summer months.

The straw mulch and humanure compost we put on our empty vegetable beds at the beginning of the winter have been mixed in with the soil and the beds are ready and waiting to receive some plants, once the last frosts have been and gone (the ‘Saints de Glace’ fall on 11th to 13th May this year). The potatoes are busy chitting, the fruit trees are blossoming and the downstairs bathroom is looking better each day, although it’s not quite finished.

The kids recently went on a ski residential to Le Lioran in the Cantal for four days of husky riding, cable cars, indoor climbing and pyjama parties.

The older school kids had ski lessons despite the evident lack of snow, but they all seemed to have a great time. Back at Chez TêteBlanche, we appreciated the peace and tranquillity…for the first three days without the children, but I was excited to see them and relieved to have them back safe and sound on Day 4. It is the first time they have been away without us, although I think I missed them more than they missed me! I made the most of this spare time to work out at the gym and plant tomatoes in the polytunnel. Since there were no distractions, I decided to give guided meditation another go and I’m really glad I did. I have experienced a decrease in stress levels and an improvement to my well-being, on a physical, mental and emotional level. If you’re interested in trying it out too, there’s a highly recommended App called ‘Insight Timer’ which works wonders for day and night relaxation and stress relief.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got for this month as the garden demands a lot of my spare time at the moment, but next month I will hopefully have some garden projects to share with you as well as some photos of my gardening efforts both inside and outside the polytunnel. It has to be said, whoever made permaculture out to be an easy option is telling porkies. It takes a hell of a lot of time and effort to put the initial permaculture design principles in place, which is what we’ve been working on for the past two years, but we are literally learning as we grow. Yes, it can be physically draining at times…but is it worth it?
Of course it it! I can tell you that creating a flourishing vegetable and fruit garden from nothing is, without a doubt, an incredibly rewarding and satisfying experience. Now I think I will just have to stop myself there, for fear of sounding too much like Monty Don on Gardener’s World!

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!