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.


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!