And the winner is……… me!

I’m not much a newspaper reader, but since we moved to France, we’ve taken the Connexion, a monthly English newspaper for ex-pats. It’s very useful for explaining some of the more confusing aspects of French life, such as the horrendously complicated bureaucracy, or for knowing the exchange rate on the correct day for tax purposes.

A couple of months ago, at the end of an article on a famous gardener, they announced a competition to write about your potager, or veg plot; I decided to give it a go and spent a few evenings writing and editing, with feedback from Gemma. Finally I was happy with it and sent it off, along with some photos, then promptly forgot all about it.

Last week I received an email telling me I’d won! It would be an understatement to say I was gobsmacked – I don’t win things. The prize is two wine themed tea towels, which have yet to arrive, along with publication online.

So here it is.

Tales from the Potager: Jackie Cawthray’s story

From 20 square metres to 5,000 was quite the step-up for the novice potagistes when they moved from Yorkshire to the Gers – as we discover in the first of two winning entries to our Tales from the Potager competition

27 April 2021By Jackie Cawthray

When we took early retirement and moved to the Gers, we’d never had a garden to speak of; our Victorian terrace in Harrogate boasted a back yard of about 20 square metres. Suddenly we were faced with owning, and maintaining, 5000 square metres, most of which could best be described as a field.

A potager was a priority. We’d dreamt for so long of being able to grow our own fruit and veg, even though we had no idea how; it was going to be a steep learning curve. I found a jardin partagé in the local town, where I was welcomed with open arms.

I spent two mornings a week weeding, watering, planting and harvesting, but mostly soaking up as much information as my co-workers could provide, which they did with great good humour, sometimes highly amused by my mispronunciation of words I’d only read, never heard. I frequently came home with the panniers on my bike laden with produce, as well as occasional baby walnut trees that had self seeded where they weren’t wanted.

We put all this produce and knowledge to good use, digging our first potager between the cabanon and the garage; we built a New Zealand composting system, got manure from a neighbouring stables and began planting. The first year, we grew more spinach than we could possibly use; strangely, I’ve never managed to get it to germinate since. Friends and neighbours gave us tomato and courgette plants as well as seeds for peppers, physalis, broad beans and mange tout peas.

Soon the potager was too small – there were strawberries by the roadside, raspberry canes near the woodpile, cultivated blackberries in the park and where on earth could we put the five baby blackcurrant bushes we’d just been given?

We chose another location and started digging it out. The soil around here is heavy clay, though some patches of ground seemed much better than others.

We dug out the improved soil from the old potager, barrowed it to the new one and rotavated it in, along with manure and home made compost.

We came across all sorts of treasure among the bits of old roof tiles and lumps of concrete; there were old perfume bottles and very pretty bits of ceramic tiles, but best of all was the fire back, broken in two, inscribed with “Isabelle Mahue 1935”.

Who she was was a mystery to us till we were talking to an elderly neighbour one day; he knew Isabelle, whom he described as being as round as she was tall, extremely mean with money and who grew fruit and veg in her back garden, to sell on the market, which explained the patches of good soil. She died in the 70s and is buried in the little cemetery behind his house, so he took us to visit, explaining that the date on the fire back was the year she’d bought what’s now our house.

Little by little the new potager took shape. Keen gardening friends from England came for a busman’s holiday – it was great to work with people who know what they’re doing. I no longer have time to help at the jardin partagé, but the friends I made there are always happy to advise and are still amused by my mistakes, such as when I carefully potted up, nurtured and transferred a load of strawberry runners to the new potager.

They weren’t growing as I expected, so Christian came round to take a look – his diagnosis? They were all weeds, every one!

Watering during the summer soon became a problem; we’d got several large water butts to collect rain water, but this wasn’t enough and we didn’t want to use tap water, so my other half devised a system to pump the treated water leaving the septic tank across the garden, by way of an underground pipe, to a 1000 litre storage tank.

This helped a lot, but by August is usually still not enough; we have a well, but it’s very deep, 17 metres down to the water. Eventually we found a pump powerful enough to bring the water to the surface, from where it goes, by way of another underground pipe (thank goodness we bought a mini digger!) to the storage tank.

In spite of our occasional failures, we manage to grow enough tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, beans, onions, raspberries and blackcurrants, to name but a few, to fill two chest freezers, which see us through most of the year. I still get a real buzz from swapping seeds and plants with friends and neighbours and giving away stuff that I simply don’t have time or energy to process.

Last year our potager was a lifeline, we spent time we wouldn’t normally have free in the garden and as a result, had a weed free potager for the first time ever. It never ceases to amaze me how much better home grown fruit and veg taste than anything you can buy, as well as having all the other benefits of being organic.

I also love being able to compost not just kitchen waste, but all paper and cardboard packaging too; I buy as little plastic wrapping as possible, so we have very little waste to recycle or put in the commune bins.

It’s nearly time to start sowing seeds for this year … onwards and upwards, as they say on Gardener’s Question Time.

Work and play

You may well be forgiven for thinking that, after our limited rights to go out and live a normal life over the past year and a bit, we’d have finished the gite by now. But, ridiculous though it seems, you’d be wrong.

We started well enough, tackling jobs that had needed doing for years, though they were mostly, it has to be said, in our house. Then we did a lot of gardening; the veg plot had never been weed free before. But the gite? As time went by we found it increasingly difficult to motivate ourselves to do very much at all and we had a very slow winter. Whenever possible, Nick’s been out cycling, making up for the times it was forbidden. 

What we needed was a kick up the proverbial; it came in the form of a neighbour who runs a chambres d’hôtes asking if we’d be ready to take bookings for the lorry racing weekend in July, she was already booked up and was still getting enquiries.

We made a list of jobs remaining to be done; it should be perfectly feasible in the 10 weeks remaining, Mart gave our details to her booking lady and we set to.

Nearly 3 weeks on and the new bathroom is tiled, grouted, fixtures fitted and plumbed, walls and ceiling painted and window varnished. In the débarras Nick’s crepi-ed where the old chimney came out and finished the tiling, which I’ve grouted. He replaced the glass doors in the linen cupboard with wood and added a coving to the top, while I painted walls, ceiling and cupboard, and cleaned and varnished the beams. The end is in sight, at least in there; next we’ll tackle the kitchen.

Refurbished linen cupboard

The debarras; a few little jobs to finish now
The debarras
Just waiting for the heater and shower screen
The newly enlarged bathroom

We haven’t any bookings yet, but I think that not having en suite facilities is a disadvantage in these covid times, as people from different households can’t share facilities. But we’ll see what happens; it’s good to be making progress again.

In the midst of all this unaccustomed activity, we’re trying to take time off occasionally. After a very dry spring, the rain has been almost relentless in May, but last Wednesday was lovely. 

When Nick suggested we go out for lunch, it took me a moment to realise what he meant, as all restaurants and cafes are still closed, but we could put some food in the camper and find a pretty picnic spot; the camper is due its MOT next week, so it would benefit from a run anyway, not having seen much use over the past year.

We packed some thawed out soup and chilli and set off for Marciac, where there’s plenty of parking by the lake, and found a lovely spot, right next to a picnic table. There was some fishing gear stashed at the water’s edge, just down the bank.

As I prepared lunch, I heard a van pull up behind us and Nick talking to someone; there was a young man who wanted to know how long we’d be there as it was his fishing gear on the lakeside, he’d been parked there for two days and had just vacated his spot for a few minutes to do a bit of shopping. We said we’d move as soon as we’d eaten. He sat chatting for a while; if we didn’t eat the soup soon, I thought, the rice would be pudding, so I asked if he’d like some soup, there was plenty. Yes, he’d love that, so we ate soup, then stretched the chilli and rice to three servings. I think he regretted accepting the offer of chilli; the French, generally, don’t eat anything at all spiced and he found it too hot, though in fact it was very mild.

He brought a lovely cheese from his van to finish the meal and Nick made coffee as we sat chatting. He was taking a year’s sabbatical from his job as a psychiatric nurse; Nick misunderstood his job, (he had quite a strong accent), hearing “fermier” (farmer), instead of “infermier” (male nurse), so the poor guy was a little confused when Nick asked him whether he kept animals, or grew cereals. I think he had Nick down as a future patient for a moment, till the misunderstanding dawned on us and we could explain.

Once the meal was over we moved the camper and had a walk around the lake and into Marciac; we were only out for a few hours, but it felt like a proper break and set us up to do some gardening on our return, watching the solid, black, heavy clouds approaching while I planted strawberries. Shortly after we finished, the thunder and lightning started, followed by rain and a hailstorm. Fortunately the strawberries have survived.

Marciac lake
Marciac lake