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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

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!

A new opening

November 2016

img_4157-copy“Don’t get too attached to the cats”, Pete had warned us. Try as we may, it was hard not to fall in love with our two little kittens, Coco and Jay-Jay. So, when I returned home from shopping at the beginning of the month to find our neighbour had apparently reversed his car into our beautiful Coco, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sad when she was handed to me, with his sincerest apologies, in a black bag. There wasn’t a mark on her, but a tiny trace of blood around her mouth. When the children came home from school, they had their first lesson about death as we buried her in the garden, and seeing their emotional reaction was harder for me to deal with than the actual death of the cat itself. However, it only got worse, when our 4-year old son looked up at me and said tearfully, “but at least we still have Jay-Jay”, who was absolutely nowhere to be found. Losing both cats in one day made me question if Coco had, in fact, been hit by a car, or if she and Jay-Jay had eaten some form of poison and I began searching in vain for the lifeless body of cat number two.

Two days later and we’d given up hope on ever finding Jay-Jay alive, until I heard from another neighbour that a lady in the next hamlet had seen a ginger cat wandering about in her yard and was trying to track down its owner. An hour later, and Jay-Jay was back safe and sound Chez TêteBlanche! The kids were thrilled to find him sitting on the doorstep when they returned home from school, which is more than can be said for Pete, when he came home from work to surprise us with two new replacement kittens. So, we now have THREE cats, yes three…ginger Jay-Jay, an all-black male called ‘Darth’ and a white female called ‘Leia’. After a week in the house getting used to each other, all three have since settled in nicely together in Pete’s workshop, where they are hopefully keeping the rats at bay. I am beginning to feel like the cat lady. We had better be careful they don’t reproduce or we may have a serious situation on our hands!

 

img_1723

Dining room, as it was just before we moved in.

I haven’t been able to write about any progress in the house recently, as it had been a surprise for my dad up until now. Since my parents have just arrived and are spending Christmas with us, I can now safely spill the beans. As you may know, my dad had to spend some time in the UK this summer due to a medical issue, so it meant he couldn’t be here renovating his part of the house. When we first moved in, just under two year’s ago, we had an extra large living/dining room which had folding doors, separating the two spaces and individual access doors to each. We soon scrapped the idea of a dining room, since we prefer to eat in the kitchen, and in doing so, we were effectively left with a spare room, which has now become my parent’s bedroom. In order to give them some extra living space, and a bedroom with a south-facing view of the countryside, a partition wall was built at one end (back in October 2015)…

img_3311

Partition wall put up between living and dining room- October 2015

…and a new opening created at the other, a couple of months ago, when my mum came out for a holiday. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of work left to do, but it now means my mum can start to make it more comfortable and do some decorating, and my dad can get on with the bathroom plumbing. Here’s a look at Pete’s work in photos.


Elsewhere, in the garden, we have also been making progress getting the land ready for winter and harvesting some late crops, such as white cabbage and beetroot. In fact, it is fair to say, that we have had more success this autumn, than we had throughout the entire summer. We now know that our vegetable beds were not properly prepared and we missed out on a lot of opportunities early summer, which left us playing catch up late August. However, a little effort at the end of the summer is now starting to pay off. We have carrots which should be perfect for Christmas, broccoli, swiss chard, kale, spinach, peas and a second harvest of chillies. Our tomatoes didn’t have time to ripen, but we made some green tomato soup which tasted great. We even have some lettuces starting to appear in the polytunnel! Unfortunately, despite last year’s pumpkin success, we didn’t get a single one this year, having planted our seeds way too late, but I simply refuse to buy them. We will just have to go without pumpkin soup this year and eat as much from the garden as possible.

The hedges have been trimmed, the shrubs have been strimmed and all the edges have been tidied and cut back. The grass has been cut one last time until early spring. The asparagus foliage recently turned yellow (after the first frost) and I’ve just cut it back before adding a layer of compost mulch to the bed. A few weeks ago, I took some cuttings from our marigold tree. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried to take a plant cutting but hopefully one or two might succeed (out of 30 cuttings). You see, beautiful as it is when in flower, we’ve decided we want to completely remove our oversized magnolia tree, to make way for some more vegetable beds. On the north side of the house, we have an untidy, somewhat gloomy spot of garden, which does nothing but depress us! Once the reed beds are in and the unsightly septic tank filled in, we can hopefully do some landscaping to this area, remove some of the horrible tyres which encircle nearly every shrub, and make it a productive and enjoyable place to be. It also means that we can keep all our vegetables in one area, which can easily be cordoned off from the chickens. The plan is to start clearing the area this winter, lay cardboard and compost mulch where we want the new beds and then hopefully, by late spring/early summer, we can get planting. It has to be the easiest way to prepare new beds, besides hours of unnecessary digging.

As for other news, there’s not a great deal to tell. Both Pete and I passed our TEF (Test d’Evaluation de Français) French test, which means we are about half way to becoming French citizens! Having never studied French whatsoever and learning the majority of it in the pub, Pete got a surprisingly high score, only one level below me (bearing in mind I have been studying French since I was ten years old and have a French degree, plus a massive student loan still to repay for the privilege!). We now each have to have a 90-minute interview in Toulouse in February, to present our completed dossiers and if that goes well, we will be given a final interview, before being given French nationality and a naturalisation ceremony at the Mairie. So Brexit, do your worst, we have our backs covered!

Our commune has been selected to be the first in the area to have fibre-optic Internet installed, yes you heard right, fibre-optic…in rural France! The posts have already gone up between Lanuéjouls and Compolibat and the cable is currently being fitted. Let’s just hope they continue it as far as the neighbouring hamlets like ours. It just goes to show that work does actually get done out here after all. In fact, every now and again, we hear about a new ecological government incentive that sounds just too good to be true, like when we got our loft insulated for 1€ (Pacte Energie Solidarité). The latest scheme is free LED light bulbs. We have just discovered that our household is entitled to five free light bulbs, so we quickly applied online, paying an additional 2€ for twenty extra. That’s 25x LED light bulbs for 2€, delivered in eight weeks. Now I thought it might be a scam, but since a friend of ours has already received his free light bulbs, it is a genuine offer, not to be missed (subject to annual earnings of course). So, if you live in France and pay French taxes, check out Mes Ampoules Gratuites to check your eligibility.mes-ampoules-gratuites-v2

Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid

May 2015

It’s such an exciting time for us. Despite a few delays along the way, mainly due to bad weather and a lack of money, we are slowly but surely making progress Chez TêteBlanche. We were perhaps a little optimistic in our plans to begin with and we have now accepted that after only four months here, we can’t possibly do everything at once. Hence, we still haven’t got any chickens, the vegetable beds are not finished and the grass is knee-high, despite it being cut by our neighbour only last month. Rome might not have been built in a day, but the French version has a nicer ring to it: “Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid” (Little by little, the bird makes its nest). We are well aware that it may take us years to get where we want to be, but nonetheless, it is immensely satisfying seeing things starting to come together.

While I have been off making friends with other permaculture enthusiasts in the village (and there’s not that many of them, I can tell you), Pete recently joined the Privezac veteran football team. While heading to the changing rooms for what he thought was his first training session, he was instead, whisked off in a car and taken to a flood-lit stadium in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, where it was the last match of the season. Thinking he would be spectating, he was quite surprised to find a bright green football shirt coming his way in the second half. Soon after, he went on as sub and ended up scoring one goal and setting up another two. Unfortunately, victory was not on the cards and they lost 7-3, but Pete seemed to have a good time and is particularly fond of his new ‘Rooney’ nickname, especially when its pronounced with a strong French accent.

As his final day of agency work drew near, Pete’s efforts were rewarded with the proposal of a CDI (a permanent year-round contract), which he accepted, of course, without hesitation. A full time job is not easy to come by round here and he is now in charge of his own workshop, making terraces and wooden frames for leisure chalets. It also means he gets all weekends and bank holidays off, plus the entire month of August, when the company closes for annual holiday. It certainly takes the pressure of us, knowing that we can meet the mortgage repayments and buy all the necessities we need.

The big ‘necessity’ of this month is a ride-on lawnmower. Kind though he is, we couldn’t possibly ask Gérard to manually mow our land again. The first and last time he offered to do it, it took him three days, and even then, he had to strim the last bit because the grass was so dense. We were so grateful, but we don’t want him to feel he has to do it again. So, after quite a bit of online research, we’ve gone with a ride-on McCulloch cross-mower with mulching kit. You can already guess what my brother’s going to be doing when he comes out to stay in a couple of weeks! It certainly beats turning the compost pile anyway.mcculloch cross

The first of five French bank holidays this month meant that Pete has made great progress on the composting toilet. Here are a few photos of it so far:


Now while we’re on the subject of composting toilets, I thought I might as well tell you about our plans for the new sewage system. When we bought the house, we were aware that the old septic tank next to the house was not up to ‘the norm’ and that tightened individual sewage regulations mean we have twelve months to get it replaced. I contacted the local SPANC (Service Public d’Assainissement Non Collectif), who gave me these three conventional sewage solutions for our needs:

1) An all-water septic tank and a sand filter (Fosse toutes eaux + filtre à sable)
Cheapest of the three options to install but not very eco-friendly, the large sand filter bed means it requires a lot of space.

2) A sewage treatment plant  (Microstation d’épuration)
Requires the least space but the all-water septic tank compartment requires more frequent emptying and it requires electricity for the pump.

3) An all-water septic tank and a compact filter system (Filtre compact)
The most eco-friendly of the three, using cocunut fibre filters, but expensive to install and maintain.

Funnily enough, our ideal ‘unconventional’ solution was not even mentioned by the nice gentleman at SPANC. The problem with the above solutions is that they all involve having an all-water septic tank or compartment, which relies on us having to pay a company to come and empty it every four years or so. We want to have an eco-friendly, sustainable system that we can maintain ourselves. The most obvious and only solution therefore, is PHYTOEPURATION: the treatment of domestic water waste by the use of plants, WITHOUT a septic tank. You might be more familiar with the idea of reed beds. Here are some examples:

Plaquette_aquatiris5_gallery_fullPhytopépuration-station
The overall cost for this type of system (with the use of classic running water toilets) is only slightly more than your average all-water septic tank and even less with composting toilets, and what’s more, both the French Ministry of Health and Environment and the SPANC now approve it through these two registered companies: Aquatiris and Recycl’eau, which means there is hope for us yet. Auto-construction is another possibility, which again lowers the installation costs, but it’s whether Pete would have the time to do it now he’s a full time working man! I could help him with the planting at least, in fact gardening is becoming quite a hobby of mine.

A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t even touch the soil without my gardening gloves on, but now, not a day goes by without my nails turning black with dirt and grit. I’ve transferred all my seedlings to the herb spiral and things are starting to happen in the vegetable garden! So far, we have potatoes, onions, swiss chard, dill, radishes, lettuce, carrots and celery. In the hügelkultur, the raspberry, red and black currant bushes are well-established and there are figs starting to appear next to the house. I’ve even downloaded some landscape gardening software so I can design our entire garden from scratch. Pete often tells me I should spend less time planning things and just get on with it, but I always like to have a plan and I thoroughly enjoy making ‘to do’ lists. It’s no wonder he despises these task lists of mine, which should really be called ‘Pete’s to do lists’!

As I’m the one writing this blog, it might often come across like I’m the brains behind all our ideas, but it really is a joint partnership. We are lucky that we share similar ideals and goals for the future…for our future, Chez TêteBlanche. Here’s a little peek of what it’s all about…


With regards to wildlife, it is mating season for the frogs who keep us awake with their frog chorus all night long and a couple of dairy cows seem to have found their way into the field next door, bringing with them swarms of flies. What can I say? Living in the country not only brings its pleasures, but its nuisances too.

Last week, a huge lorry turned up at 7.30am and two guys came to do the loft insulation, which involved them blowing loose mineral wool into the unused loft space, covering a total of 60m². IMG_2782They were gone within the hour, which to me, means that they were either extremely competent at their job, or that they had something better to do and rushed it. When I questioned them, they told me that the easy access via our front window as well as the efficiency of the powerful machine in the lorry meant that the job was quick and straightforward. I offered them a coffee, but they politely refused, telling me they did indeed have another appointment to keep, and swiftly went on their way. When I inspected the work upstairs, despite a bit of sweeping up to do, I can’t grumble. The house already seems warmer and after receiving the bill today, I can confirm that the cost of it all, as inititially proposed, came in at a whopping 1€ including tax, which has to be paid by cheque within a month! So, if you are a house owner in France and earn less than 37,000€ a year, you too, might be able to get your loft insulated for 1€ with the current Pacte Energie Solidarité campaign! Feel free to contact me for further details. I can assure you, it’s not a scam.