Gardening with nature


There are plenty of web sites which can help you with your gardening and I suggest you use the links from this web site. However, if you live in France you might be interested to know what we do in our garden. After 12 years we are now beginning to understand better what works, but we are still learning.

The situation is in a valley on a south facing slope. We have trees all around us, mainly oak, ash and chestnut. We have several springs which run in wet weather and a stream.

The climate here is more extreme, so far we have been down to -16C, but I think it could get colder. It has been hot, 40C, but I think it could get hotter. Some days in winter it can be quite warm, 12C, but then drop to minus numbers overnight. Autumn and spring can be even more extreme going up 25C and then dropping to almost a frost. Frosts can come quite late, (generally you are safe after the 13thth May) and  can come quite early, sometimes in September. Most plants are coping quite well, we are finding more and more which do thrive here. We don’t want to grow lots of plants that need to be protected over the winter months,  I’m not very keen on fleecy jackets for tender shrubs. However, we do mulch borderline plants with straw, or composted bark

Rain during the summer comes in the form of storms, which in nature are hit or miss. The summer of 2010 it seemed to be all miss so our plants were pretty desperate for a drink. We do water the vegetable garden and we do have to water some of the new plants. I have too many Dahlias, but we aim to grow plants which don’t need to be watered.

As we are in a valley, we do suffer from late and early frosts. Susceptible plants we try to grow higher up the garden or shelter near the house or chalet. Thankfully, wind is not normally a problem, but in  July 2012 we had a terrific storm which brought down 2 big trees above the garden and flattened just about everything else. We had to stake even the cabbages and sweetcorn.

The soil is wonderful, easy to dig, fertile and deep. It does vary, near the house it is very stony and the Ph is quite high. At the bottom of the garden the soil is heavier, with more clay. In parts of the meadow the soil is much poorer and stonier, slightly more acid. The top of the garden has much sandier soil, which varies in depth. Then we have a few areas where the soil is so well drained we can only grow the toughest of drought loving plants. For a gardener this is just wonderful as I can grow a vast range of plants. The Ph ranges from just over 6 to just over 7. The water from the stream is just under 6.5. We are in between the calcaire of Villefranche and the acid soils of Sanvensa.

The wild flowers are wonderful. I have tried to identify all the flowers, but the grasses are more difficult. We don’t have masses of diferent orchids, just a very long season of interest, starting in January with the Pulmonaria and ending this last year with the Scabious, still a few in flower in December.

The insects, beetles and other creepy crawlies are still very much a mystery to us. We presume they must overwinter in the stone walls, soil and decaying trees. The butterflies are wonderful.

The birds are a disappointment, lots of tits and the occassional dipper and wagtail on the stream. Hopefully, as the garden grows we can attract more birds into the garden to feed and shelter.

Other wildlife is plentiful, but generally it does not come into the garden.

We are so lucky and to keep it that way we are completely organic. We aim to protect and increase the wildlife value of our 8 acres of woodland, meadow and garden.

The woods

We cut some of the ash and oak for fire wood. Thinning the trees and taking out trees that are damaged. We copice the hazel for pea sticks and bean poles. Some of younger ash we copice for stakes and hurdles. Some of scrubby hawthorn and blackthorn we are clearing so we can introduce other trees such as mountain ash and allow the early purple orchids, solomn seal and aquilegias to increase. Dead wood we leave in wood piles and the very old chestnut we leave to rot in situ. The woods are in places very steep so we have cleared some of the paths to give easier access.

The meadow

We have a great variety of meadow flowers. One part of the meadow is fed by 2 springs so it is naturally quite damp with purple orchids, pulmonaria, cowslips and cranesbill.  Along the stream it is quite shady so here we have some wood anemones and snowdrops. The main meadow  has a lot of course tough grasses but each year we find we have more and more wildflowers.   Above the vegetable garden we have lots of wild thyme, origano and scabious as this area is in full sun and the soil well drained. On the woodland edge itself there is broom and heather.

Generally we cut the meadow once a year and remove the grass. Some of the grass we use as mulch, the rest I pile up in the woods, generally on stumps of trees which I am hoping to suppress We have paths which we keep cut right through the year. It is difficult to judge when exactly to cut the meadow, but we have found it easier and better for wildlife to cut small areas at a time so there is always some areas of long grass. Some areas need a second cut as some plants don’t like being shaded by the long grass. Other areas are cut a few times in the spring and are then left to flower. Long grass is usually cut with the strimmer or the brushcutter and then the lawn mower. Our main problem is the seedling trees and brambles, so once the grass has been removed I try to go through the area at least once to dig these up.

The meadow is much harder work than I expected, mainly because we are surrounded by trees which want to colonise the area.

The garden

There wasn’t really a garden here, just a few scattered shrubs and fruit trees. The soil is easy to dig so I have cleared the garden area by hand using a fork and a spade. The first year I removed the turf and we covered it with black plastic to rot down. It has worked really well and after just 18 months we have a big pile of soil. No doubt there are lots of seeds but some of those will be wildflowers which I can weed out or replant in the meadow.  I dig any new piece of ground 3 times, but I don’t dig very deeply, the moles do that for me. Each time I dig I leave the ground for a while so that any seeds can germinate. The ground is then pretty weed free except for brambles which never seem to give up.

The vegetable garden was the first area to be cleared and we have chosen the ground which slightly slopes, with maximum sun exposure. I have divided the area into roughly 4 sections for the purposes of rotation.

  1. French beans, barlotti beans and potatoes (followed by leeks)
  2. Tomatoes, sweetcorn and squash
  3. Root vegetables
  4. Broad beans and peas  followed by brassicas

The vegetable garden is quite difficult to manage as we now grow far too many tomatoes and potatoes and the tomatoes need a situation in full sun. I do always change the planting so there is at least 3 years between similar crops.

The first year I had to use fertiliser, but this has been considerably reduced as I now grow green manures, use farmyard manure and compost. I use a lot of straw to cover any bare ground in the vegetable garden.

We have several 1000 litre storage tanks and a 6000 litre water collection tank from the barn roof. We use these for watering the vegetable garden, mainly using goutte à goutte. When the springs are running we fill up the tanks and one can collect water from the roof of the chalet. It is not enough and at the moment we have to top up the tanks from the stream.

The flower garden is mainly near the house in the parts of the meadow which don’t have nice wildflowers. We are experimenting with different plants to find what works here. The majority of garden plants here, flower during the spring so we are particularly looking for flowering plants for other times of the year. Summer and autumn for the butterflies and late winter when the first insects start to fly. Shrubs with berries for the birds in winter.

We buy new plants small, firstly because it is cheaper and also because the plants establish quicker and need less watering. To fill the space I plant perennials which can be moved when shrubs and trees need more space and sow hardly annuals. The hardy annuals self seed, give masses of summer colour and attract the insects, they don’t need watering.

We have a shredder so we try to mulch trees and large shrubs.

We collect the fallen leaves, which after 2 years can be used as a mulch or for planting.

The pond is only tiny, but we love to see the frogs, the damsel flies and dragon flies

The grass near the house is rubbish, but it looks nice from a distance. It was full of dandelions, docks, plantain and couch grass. We cut it regularly and either use it in a thin layer as a mulch or put it on the compost heap. We intend to keep the paths as grass for the moment but the moles do make them very uneven. Any area of grass with wildflowers is left to flower.

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