Welcome to the second post in the series ‘Grower Spaces’. Grower Spaces is a series of articles about people and their gardens. Their connections to and love of their grower space. I ask questions, people give answers and we illustrate it with photographs. There’s been a smashing response from people signing up to be featured and I’ve got a real variety to feature over the next few months. If you would like to be featured, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This time we are heading to France, South West France to be more exact to the garden of Susan Hayes who blogs at Our French Oasis. I do hope you find this Grower Space as fascinating as I do. All images c/o Susan.
What’s your name and where do you live?
Hi, my name is Susan and I live in the Charente Maritime department in South West France, about ten minutes from the coast in a small village set back on the first line of hills above a beautiful mix of salt marsh and water meadow.
How long have you lived where you do presently?
We have lived in this house for nearly a year, now.
Was the garden space a consideration when choosing your home?
Yes, a huge consideration. We wanted at least an acre and we also wanted established trees and interesting spaces. We have five children and we were adamant we wanted outdoor space for them, integrated into a garden – much like the sort of home many of us grew up with in our childhoods.
Describe your garden to us.
We have about one and a half acres of a well-established garden with several very old trees and a good deal of lawn. We have three linden trees, one of which is estimated to be over 500 years old, a row of huge plane trees and several ash, a red horse chestnut and a pair of beautiful magnolia grandiflora. There are also plenty of other small trees, including a row of hazlenut and cob trees that divide the lower part of the garden in half which on one side back onto to a large herbaceous border. The whole area was once part of a large estate and so our part is enclosed in the main by old stone walls. We also have an array of fruit and nut trees; plum, bay, cherry, olive, persimmon, peach, walnut, the aforementioned hazlenut and cobs, grapevines and the piece de resistance is an old gnarly fig tree which is truly enormous and sits in a unique sheltered courtyard to the side of the property beside our small guesthouse.
Nestled in one side of the garden relatively close to the house is the old laundry, which is beside a large well. We have designated this as a summer kitchen as it houses a large eye-level fireplace which was originally used to heat water, but now makes a fabulous grill and the children love to roast marshmallows there after a long lunch! The original wheel which used to draw water from the well is still in situ inside, although there is now also an electric pump and pressure-cylinder which we use to water the garden with – I suspect the pump and cylinder are about 70 years old! It has a beautiful ancient cobbled floor and all the original timbers in the roof are still in place.
I have also made a vegetable garden beside one of the large stone walls and included a row of ten old exisiting grape vines into the potager. There were four large old rosebushes here, and I left all of these and a large white buddlia in place and created the vegetable beds around them; this has added a certain amount of old-world charm and has given the newly created potager the impression that it has been there for decades, which is just as we wanted.
Which part of your garden is your favourite space and why?
Without a doubt this would have to be the vegetable garden. With the roses in the middle of the beds and a variety of wild flowers scrambling along and up the wall next to a huge bay tree, it is far from perfect but it has a truly relaxing atmosphere. I created this all on my own and I am extremely proud of it! At the time my husband was unable to move due to an infected foot which put him on crutches for weeks, however the garden could not wait, it was March and time to get things started and so I took on the task single handedly apart from involving the children with the planting and sowing which they loved. Not only will this be able to virtually feed all the family in the summer but it is also entirely organic. It is here that I learnt to prune my first grapevines, and I was terrified that I had been too tough on them as they had not been cut back or tended for years. However, with the advice of friends and much consulting of the internet I was fairly brutal and then watched and waited this spring, hoping I had not killed them. Sure enough, they have come back stronger than ever and look ridiculously healthy. The potager is a place where you can almost watch things grow, and I love showing all the developments to the children; although they have grown many things before we have never grown potatoes and they are fascinated by the plants that have sprouted from the little seed potatoes they helped plant. I cannot wait to see their faces when we dig up our first harvest of them, and serve them with a little butter and some mint from a huge bed by the kitchen. All our herbs seem to do exceptionally well in this climate too.
How much time would you guestimate that you spend in your garden each week?
As much as I can, obviously it is weather-dependant and then there are always so many other things to be done. Work and things about the house take up far too much time, sadly! However, I try to spend at least a couple of hours a day in the garden if possible, even if it is just to water pots and plants in the evening. We have six chickens and two ducks, so it’s a necessity to be out there at least twice a day, which helps me keep in touch, even if I do not touch a fork or a pair of secateurs.
Where do you store your gardening equipment?
The mowers, wheelbarrows and large items are in the large low barn where we also keep the bikes and our cars and store all the logs for the fire. In the winter months I found the summer kitchen was the perfect place for tender plants and geraniums, as there is plenty of light and it is frost-free. I also kept all the terracotta pots in here for the winter. In the boot-room and a smaller barn attached to the house I store all the smaller items such as trowels, shears, trugs and other tools. My husband has set up a small potting bench in there next to a tap and when the door is open in the afternoon the sun streams in and turns it into into a wonderful warm area to potter about in.
What’s you favourite item of equipment in your garden and why.
My big large ride-on mower which we semi-inherited with the house when we bought it. I call her ‘ Tank’! She looks big, heavy and cumbersome but she is actually rather agile and we have a great relationship together! It takes about an hour and forty minutes to mow all the lawns and I have learnt to maneouvre Tank into the tiniest of spaces. It is also while riding along, cutting away, that I have time to think; no one bothers me as I can’t hear what anyone is saying I have time to look at the plants, imagine where new ones will go, and generally become creative in my mind. It’s a wonderful time to really appreciate the garden and let my imagination run free.
Where do you generally buy seeds, plants and equipment?
We have a store nearby that sells both farming, small holding and gardening gear – it’s called Gamm Vert and is a well known brand throughout France. Here you can buy everything from outdoor-clothing to animal foods, fertilizers to plants, power-tools to paint and everything in between. They stock absolutely everything including wine, fruit, cheese, hams and other local produce. Their prices are good and the quality is excellent and they are only a couple of miles down the road. I also buy quite a few things from our local market held every Friday where a local lady sells the most perfect plants from her nursery. We also take cuttings from friends gardens and they take cuttings from ours.
How would you describe your style of gardening?
Informal and natural. I do not use any from of pesticides and therefore with so much garden weeds are an inevitable by-product. At first I waged a constant war on them but I soon realised that it was a battle I was not going to win and so I have come to terms with the situation and now realize that the garden does not have to be perfect to be fabulous! A few weeds in the vegetable garden also show it is ‘organic’ and to me this looks far better than the orange tell-tale sign of the dreaded RoundUp!
Where do you draw garden inspiration from?
Television programmes, magazines, blogs and other peoples gardens. I am always looking, taking note and I’m always eager to see other peoples ideas – there is inspiration all around. I find gardening evolves all the time and this is part of its fascination for me.
Have you any plans for your garden for the next few years?
We have just started building a pond. It was always a long term plan but has been brought forward by the arrival of a pair of ducks which were a gift from friends. We have a vast amount of old stone around the garden and the plan is to use this stone as edging, creating a pond that looks as if it has been a part of the garden for centuries. This will then bring me to another level of research – water plants! We are also going to take notes this summer as everything grows and then make plans to do what is necessary during the winter to bring it back into a little more order than when we found it – I suspect there will be quite a lot of trimming and cutting back at the end of this year ! Next year I suspect we may then plant a few more things !