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 MesAmpoulesGratuites.fr!

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!

Winter sun in Aveyron

December 2016

wp_20161211_007A 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.
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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.

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Before

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After

img_4578The 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: keyhole-bed

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.

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Reasons to love the Aveyron

February 2016

We’ve been living in the Aveyron for fourteen months now and during this time we’ve discovered quite a few things about the department and the Aveyronnais people who live here. So exactly what myths have we heard from others? What have we discovered for ourselves? And how much of it all is true?
brebis-aveyronnaisApparently the Aveyronnais are France’s equivalent to Yorkshire people when it comes to money, or so we are told! There are lots of jokes about it and people say they will try to get anything for free! I don’t entirely agree, although there is often the mention of an ‘échange de services’ (an exchange of services) for favours and small jobs that you wouldn’t dream of asking money for. I think it is the Aveyron equivalent to our “I owe you one” but since we don’t have a bar in the village, in return for a friendly favour, you might expect to get some plants for your garden or some freshly pressed apple juice, for example. Fruit, nuts, herbs, eggs and cheese are widely appreciated and if you’re really lucky, an extremely old bottle of eau de vie probably tops the list.  Of course, we don’t help people out in order to get something in return, but we have come to learn that should someone decide to return a favour to us, it is much easier to graciously accept the gesture than politely refuse it, and avoids any hurt feelings.
Pete finds it quite fitting that having grown up in Yorkshire, I chose the Aveyron to live, as I’m always bargain hunting and trying to get the best deals. I don’t consider frugality to be a negative characteristic of mine, I just find it amazing to be able to create something from practically nothing. It might be something as simple as a Christmas wreath from raw materials found in the garden or Pete’s creative furniture building from old pallets and off-cuts of wood, but there’s just something incredibly satisfying about Doing It Ourselves!

Another thing we’ve noticed about the Aveyronnais is that they are, more often than not, late! In fact, they are reknowned for it, and although you could argue that the majority of French people are pretty rubbish at time keeping, the difference here is the Aveyronnais have a genuine excuse for tardiness…le quart d’heure Aveyronnais! This amusing 15-minute rule means that as long as you mention it upon arrival, you can be fifteen minutes late for anything and still get away with it! It does mean, however, that we, being typically English and proud of our respectable timekeeping, are always the first to arrive for…well, everything!

You have to love the Aveyronnais for their love of food and drink. Typical hearty dishes include Tripoux (tripe, often served at breakfast time with copious amounts of alcohol!), Estofinado or Stockfish (a type of dried cod with potatoes, eggs, garlic and parsley), and my favourite, Aligot (a mixture of mashed potatoes and fresh Tome cheese, served usually with sausages).
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Everywhere you look, there are hand-painted signs by the roadside (usually made from an old pallet covered in a black bag and painted in white or neon) promoting various events, such as ‘Quine’ (the French equivalent to Bingo), ‘Belotte’ card game competitions, vide greniers (car boot sales) and various ‘Repas’ (communal meals proposed by local organisations, such as the hunting club, PTA, senior citizens club…etc). The list is endless. signsLast year, we went to our first ‘Quine’ in the hope of winning half a pig…of course it’s not bingo as we know it in the UK. The prizes are generally local produce or gift vouchers. The locals really do seem to take their Quine seriously. Needless to say, it was a rather stressful evening for us with our two youngsters running around, crawling under tables and occasionally bumping into people, who were doing everything in their power to protect their precious bingo cards from being knocked. We might just give next year’s Quine a miss!

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Back at Chez TêteBlanche, we have had to treat two of our hens with an anti-peck spray as they’re looking rather bald on their backs, and we have a third who is currently limping, possibly with a dislocated hip. We fear she may have fallen off her perch and landed awkwardly. We’re surveying her daily to check if she’s in any pain and to see if there’s any improvement in her condition, in the hope that we won’t have to kill her. If she stops laying completely, she is most likely unhappy and although I don’t like to say it, an unhappy chicken is only fit for the cooking pot!

We have made great progress with the polytunnel but rather than bombard you with hundreds of photos, I thought it would be easier to show you our efforts through a short video:

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Exactly how hard can it be to put up a polytunnel?

It is one more tick in the box for us, but we have much more work still to do:
– We need to make some side panels that can be opened to provide ventilation when it’s too hot.
– The inside needs to be marked out and the beds need digging.
– We need to incorporate some form of rainwater harvesting system near the entrance (to make watering easier)
– We need a potting station where we can work from, and some shelves for all our seed trays.

Oh, and let’s not forget the most important job of all…we have yet to sow all our seeds!!!
Presumably, that is my cue to get off this computer and get going on the garden!
A la prochaine

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The children, excited that we had some snow…shame it only lasted a day!

Escape to the country

January 2016

The new year has brought plenty of rain with it, which on a brighter note, has given me more time to work on my website and get my paperwork finalised for my teaching business.
1454318774After a lot of reflection, I decided to take the auto entrepreneur route, which was the simplest option available to me. I’ve come up with a way of combining nature and sustainability with a range of different English workshops for all ages and levels. Besides the children’s workshops I do already and the private lessons in Rodez twice a week, I plan to do a beginner’s workshop and a conversation class for Intermediates in my own village, from March to June. I have also received some interest in private tuition, so fingers crossed, it will take off! There is definitely a niche in the market for good English teachers here in the Aveyron and I would be stupid not to take advantage of it. I really enjoy teaching English and one of the biggest benefits is being able to plan my lessons around family life, so I will still get to spend plenty of time with my family and be able to keep up with the garden chores.

It’s funny to use the word chores, it brings to mind a long list of boring jobs that nobody likes doing. The truth is, I don’t mind feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, emptying the compost toilet (it’s surprising how heavy the bucket gets!), cutting the grass, planting new seeds, mulching the beds…the list could go on for ever. But, when it’s your own place, it’s actually very rewarding and even therapeutic at times.

copyrighterWhile the rain trickles down the windows, we’re sitting inside, enjoying the heat from the wood burner and starting to make plans for the spring. We hope to order the polytunnel in the next few days and hopefully we can have it in place by the end of February. We have decided to get a 4m x 10m polytunnel with possible side ventilation (which will be added at a later stage). The plan is to attach the polytunnel to the chicken house, for numerous reasons:
– Stability from the wind
– The East-West orientation will give it the maximum amount of sunlight
– It will serve as a barrier, keeping the chickens on one side of the garden and our vegetables on the other
– We should be able to knock an opening in the wall of the chicken house that adjoins the polytunnel so that we can let light and oxygen in for the chickens, and their warmth and carbon dioxide out for the plants in the colder months. There will be a removable grill across the opening so that the chickens can only enter the polytunnel when required. We might let them in to start with, so they can turn the soil and fertilise it, but once our seeds go in, it will be off limits to them.

IMG_3354We’re still getting plenty of eggs, despite the colder temperatures and we are hoping we might even get a clucky hen once the warmer weather comes, so we can get some chicks. Our rooster, Norman Slide, is doing a great job of looking after the hens, although there are a couple he has taken quite a liking to (evident through his excessive pecking of their feathers). I guess this is why the suggested ratio of hens to cockerel is a minimum of 8:1. In case you are wondering what the difference is between a cockerel and a rooster, Wikipedia has the answer:

“A rooster, also known as a cockerel or cock, is a male gallinaceous bird, usually a male chicken (Gallus gallus).
Mature male chickens less than one year old are called cockerels”.

Scan0013While we’re on the subject of animals, today was a sad day back in Bradford, when my mum had to have my old pet cats put down. Brothers, Max and Jack, were almost seventeen years old and had never left each other’s side. All that time ago, I remember going to choose a kitten with my younger brother and sister and having to decide between us which one we wanted…only we had two favourites. Max was the adventurous one, the kitten everyone would have picked, for his playful nature and cuteness. But then there was Jack, the smaller, timid kitten, whom we feared might be lonely and introvert for ever, were we to take away his loving brother. So, Mum agreed we could take them both…much to Dad’s surprise, when he returned home from work! Jack soon came out of his shell and the two were inseparable. They had a long, happy life and grew old and weak together, so when illness came along to them both simultaneously, it only seemed right they should die together.

It was only today that Pete and I talked about getting a cat. Pete’s not exactly a cat person, but when you discover a family of rats has recently moved in to your chicken house, an outdoor cat seems the logical solution, doesn’t it? If we do get a cat, it will hopefully sleep in the workshop, next to the chicken coop. Even if it doesn’t catch any rodents, it should scare them off. We’ll see…we do have to take into account the other members of our family, Gypsy and Clive:
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Now, to change the subject, how is our winter larder looking?
photoOur winter food stock is gradually going down, although we still have loads of pumpkins, quinces and chutneys. I tried and failed (twice!) at making quince jam, although the kids love the quince jelly which I mastered first time! My culinary skills still have a long way to go, but having my mum around should provide me with some invaluable tips and advice. I’m really looking forward to having my parents close by. I left home at eighteen to go to uni and I moved to France indefinitely, the day after I graduated, back in 2003, so I’ve not lived with them for a long time! It’s a busy year for them…Mum’s just turned sixty and retires in April, they have their 40th wedding anniversary to celebrate in September… and they’re moving into their own annex of the house they bought with us, later this year! Exciting times.

IMG_3530As for our vegetable growing, I’ve got nearly all the seeds I need for the year and I’ve already planted blueberry, cranberry and goji berry plants in pots, until they’re large enough to move to the garden. I’ve written out an initial planting list for the year, rotating the beds from last year and introducing new crops for this year, such as red cabbage, asparagus, garlic and cucumber. We still have another five or six vegetable beds to put in, but it will be easier once the polytunnel is up and we are more aware of space.

Another birthday has been and gone, but I don’t feel like I’m doing too badly for thirty-five. Pete and the kids got me a great surprise birthday present : two starter kits for making my own body butters and lotions. photo (1)My first attempt will involve a combination of eucalyptus, clary sage and geranium essential oils (which should not only create a refreshing fragrance but should act as a mosquito repellent).
For some recommended reading (and thanks to my sister’s recent gifts), you might like to take a look at:
Neal’s Yard Remedies – Healing Foods by Susannah Steel and The Clean-Eating Kitchen by Sara Lewis.
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