WHEN WE built our new house here in the Languedoc about six years ago we had first to demolish a cherry orchard. We had mixed feelings about this, because they were handsome trees, arranged in parallel groves on a north-facing slope. In spring the
WHEN WE built our new house here in the Languedoc about six years ago we had first to demolish a cherry orchard. We had mixed feelings about this, because they were handsome trees, arranged in parallel groves on a north-facing slope. In spring the whiteness of the bee-loud blossom rivalled the winter's occasional blankets of snow, in high summer the shade made the orchard an agreeable place to escape the torrid sun, in autumn no painter or photographer could have wished for a richer palette of glowing colours.
But the trees were old, about 35 years, and there was no one to pick all those cherries, even if there had been a market for them. So down they came, all but about a dozen, assuring us firewood for the next five winters at least, and the bulldozers moved in to prepare a level platform for the new house.
The bulldozers dug up to 10 feet into massive layers of a compacted gravel to which, when it surfaces elsewhere in the neighbourhood, geologists bring their students and say (in French) 'these beds are 40,000 years old. They're glacial in origin, morainic detritus ground out of the underlying metamorphic strata and deposited as the ice melted and glaciers retreated'. Well, you know how they go on.
What they don't know about - at least, they've never mentioned it - is my pet theory. When rain comes in from the south, off the Mediterranean, it often carries with it a very fine sand, as fine as talcum powder and a light orange in colour. We call this Sahara dust, in the belief that desert sandstorms carry the finest particles up into the atmosphere, where they eventually mingle with water droplets which reach us as rain.
Sahara dust gets everywhere. It gets in through tightly-closed, double-glazed windows. It gets into the swimming pool, where it's sometimes too fine to filter out. It gets into the minute cracks and pores of the cement grout between paving stones, staining it an ochre colour. It fills the slightest irregularity in the outdoor painterwork, it leaves an orange film over garden furniture, it leaves a deposit on strawberries and tomatoes, and I daren't mention cars parked outside. It's an absolute pest. It's been raining Sahara dust for thousands of years, so that in time massive amounts have infiltrated into the gravel, acting as a binding agent, a sort of cement.
The upshot of all this is that our garden has had to be hacked out of a natural concrete. Where most peoples' toolsheds contain one pick-axe, if they have one at all, we have four, variously weighted but mostly heavy with effings and blindings over the cussed nature of the Moh-scale hardness of the ground and the early onset of bursitis, arthritis and lumbago due to herculean struggles to make any kind of tilth. Convicts on hard labour in Dartmoor had an easier time of it. We employed someone with a moto-cultivateur, a rotovator. It just skittered along the surface. When he tried to force the tines in, they broke.
Of course nothing has grown in this natural nuclear bunker for thousands of years, nor is there the least trace of any humus or vegetable matter.
Perhaps to compensate for failure, Monsieur Moto-cultivateur left behind his kind regards and a huge 10kg pick-axe embossed SNCF, which stands Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, the French national railways. (Having no official connection with French railways, maybe M. Moto found this pick was too hot to handle. I certainly get very hot handling it.) Any tiny success we have had with gardening has been entirely due to this massive pick, and I suppose I ought to give some credit to the massive amounts of peat, compost and fertilizer we lavish on the few square metres of compacted, Sahara-dusted, stone-picked gravel we have so far managed to beat and bash into plant-bearing docility.
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SOME FOLK learn the hard way. Before I came to live in France the best part of twenty years ago I got very excited about gardening in this wonderful climate. If all those border plants like lupins, delphiniums and hollyhocks grew quite well in the north of Scotland, how mightily would they flourish in the south of France! If parsnips did well despite the raw, nose-dripping Scottish winter, what massive specimens could we expect in the douce soils of the Languedoc? And the rhubarb, the Brussels sprouts, the runner beans . . .
Well, there followed a long catalogue of disappointments. The most dismal failure was my attempt to grow rhubarb. Perfectly healthy plants brought in from Scotland, where no kitchen garden is complete without its majestic stand of rhubarb, could only push out measly pencil-thin shoots which promptly withered and died. It was much the same with parsnips. If I had been in the habit of talking to vegetables I would have spent all my time expressing my condolences and deepest sympathy. As for the cabbages . . .
. . . but that's all behind us now. We've learnt our lesson. What with the barrenness of the soil and the problems with climate where temperatures swing between 45º on hot summer afternoons and -12º on cold winter mornings, with abundant rain in winter and drought in summer, with strong and unpredictable winds all the year round, there's only one way to avoid disappointment: bin any preconceived ideas you might have and look in other peoples' gardens to see what they manage to grow. I can tell you now; you won't find rhubarb or parsnips.
But we've had some agreeable surprises. A hedging plant that seems to thrive in the sort of natural concrete I described earlier is Eleagnus. We'd never heard of it before. It thrives on barrenness and drought. We can barely keep up with clipping it. Lawson's cypress, something that's probably in British blood, in its cigar-shaped varietal, thrusts heavenwards while you watch.
And what has pleased us greatly is maybe the exception to the rule that what does well in Scotland will fail in the south of France: on a trip to the Far North a year or two back, we bought a dozen aubrietia plants. Through their first winter it looked as if they were going to follow the rhubarb and the parsnips, but as spring came on so did they. With a vengeance. They were magnificent. Mind you, they're named after a French painter of flowers, Claude Aubriet. Maybe he knew something we didn't . . .
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WE DON'T see much UK television, so we don't know if those makeover programmes featuring Brits who buy old places in France and do them up are still in vogue or not. To us it seemed that the out-and-out leader in this field, unsung and unrecognised, was a German called Klaus Erhardt, a rock of a man, full of energy and learning. Starting 40 years ago, Klaus bought, house by ruined house, an entire hamlet of about 25 houses and cottages, a deserted settlement nestling in a high fold of the Espinouse mountains, sheltered from the tramontane (the Languedoc equivalent of the mistral) and watered by its own stream. It was - and is - called Bardou. Each house he rebuilt and restored, stone by stone, beam by beam, in the original style, with his own hands and those of volunteer helpers. He kept the cobbles of the original alleys and lanes between the houses and tapped the water of the Bardou stream. Klaus farmed sheep on the mountainside above Bardou, he let his restored houses to anyone wanting to escape the pressures of urban life for a bit, particularly musicians and artists, and he himself took a leading part in the cultural life of our valley.
He died a few days ago, one of the great expats, in the mould of Fitzcarraldo or Schweitzer. There can be few more lasting monuments than a village you have entirely restored yourself.