After many emails back and forth, meetings at the house, and several other site visits by the tree surgeon and his associates who have also had meetings, phone calls, and exchanged emails with various people and departments at ERDF the decision has been made.
30 poplars will be felled and removed from site, with all roots being either dug or ground out (depending on location). Some chipped material will be left on site for us to use in due course for mulching and/or creating paths in the short term. Heavy machinery will be involved, ERDF will be switching off the mains electricity for a period of time, and the work is likely to take about three weeks starting in the latter half of September.
The “shaving brush” pollarded lime will also go, and one or two other trees will receive minor adjustments to keep their growth away from telephone and mains electricity cables.
This work represents a major financial investment for us, but it is an investment in safety as well as providing us with the blank canvass we need to enable new plantings to be carried out. After the very careful preparatory planning work our tree surgeons have done we are confident that we have engaged the right people to carry out the job carefully and safely.
I’d better make sure I take some before and after photos!
Eating warm, ripe fruit, in the sunshine, straight from one’s own trees is an intense joy that we discovered last summer. We probably won’t be able to grow much, if any, vegetables and salad as we are not at the house full-time, but we can enjoy fruit and nuts we’ve grown ourselves, and we’ve inherited a few useful trees.
We’ve inherited a lovely walnut tree, in the top left-hand, north-west corner of the garden. It has a pleasing shape and creates welcome, dense, cool shade in summer. The grass under the tree grows better than anywhere else in the garden so this is a very good place to sit. I hope to install a tree seat, one that circles the trunk. Internet research has uncovered a wide range of budgets and styles on offer, from quite basic circles (most likely for us!) to sinuous, highly decorative works of art. The partner of the lovely lady who helps us in the house is a carpenter; perhaps he might be able to help? The tree produced many walnuts last year, but we left them to the birds and local wildlife not having the time or resources to collect and store them. Next year …
A hazelnut close to the top boundary with the farmer’s field had long since grown into an unmanageable thicket complicated by various long-decayed structures. It has recently been bulldozed by Digger Dave and fuelled a splendid bonfire; I have no doubt we will replace it in due course, whether as part of hedging or a nuttery I don’t yet know.
A few small fruit trees, including apples, have been planted closer to the house in recent years and I’ve concentrated on some serious pruning this past winter to try and encourage them to increase their fruiting on better-shaped trees. I am not sure whether they have a long-term future in the master plan, but they are good for now.
Two very sweet green figs fruited prolifically last summer/autumn, as did a black fig above the swimming pool. All are badly in need of thinning out and pruning.
Other fruit trees include cherries, black and white, mostly eaten by birds last year, some small, bitter peaches, a caci which didn’t fruit at all last year and which probably doesn’t have much future given that it is directly on the boundary, a medlar, a quince, and a mirabelle which seems to have suffered from last summer’s drought. My one and only previous taste of a medlar was one that “fell off in my hand” at John Brookes’ garden, Denmans (now sadly closed to the public) a few years ago. I was entranced by the toffee apple taste and determined that one day we must have one. Last autumn I picked a number, left them to blet (soften & ripen), then attacked them with excitement. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the number and size of the pips would rather get in the way of the enjoyment of the taste and texture of the flesh. Perhaps they are best transformed into medlar jelly or processed in some other way?
Incidentally, in 2011 we were booked onto a trip called “Gardens of Persia” which was to be led by John Brookes. Iran is a country I’ve always wanted to visit (my travelling great-aunt Doris spoke very highly of her visits there), and the opportunity to visit with John Brookes (who has so many links with the country) was so exciting. Sadly the trip was called off by the tour operator a few weeks before departure as Foreign Office advice changed to “no travel” as a result of an attack on the British Embassy. Finding ourselves with an unexpectedly clear diary we decided to go to an event at the Garden Museum (reopening this week after its amazing redevelopment) and who should be there but John Brookes, also finding his diary unexpectedly clear! We commiserated together.
Cercis siliquastrum – the Judas tree
When we bought the property one tree close to the house had that familiar French look, with one year’s growth in twigs splaying out from each pollarded branch. The OH set about this with excited fervour and re-pollarded it, feeling he had become a real Frenchman in the process. Only the beret was missing. Even after the task had been completed we still had no idea what the tree was. As the spring wore on we soon found out as the distinctive strong pink, pea-like flowers of the Judas tree opened directly from the branches, and we realised that we had probably cut off valuable flowering wood. This year we did no pollarding and intend to prune more selectively after flowering has finished to retain more flowering wood for next spring. The tree is grown widely throughout our part of France, most self-respecting gardens having one. Stunning while in flower, very attractive when in leaf, and then stunning again as its autumn colours develop, it is definitely a keeper.
Right-hand photo shows the tree left unpollarded this spring.
Trees along the drive
A number of ornamental trees line the west side of the drive to the house, and are described below. There is little if any connection between them, almost as if they were just planted randomly when money was available to buy a new one, so the jury is out as to which might stay and which might go. The drive is about 100 metres from the lane to the house, quite straight, and offers the opportunity for some kind of avenue. What we currently have couldn’t possibly fit that description!
Popular in the 60s and (annoyingly) with some vague charm at times, nevertheless the least said the better overall. Did I mention the importance of dealing with its suckers and seedlings?
I don’t know what variety this is. I’d wondered what the thickened girdle around the trunk at head height was and the tree surgeon explained that ornamental cherries are grafted onto tall stems, not at root height like many other trees and shrubs. This might be widespread practice but was news to me. There is a certain beauty in the way the petals fall like snowy confetti, but that’s a very short-lived experience. This one tree doesn’t relate to any others, and the jury is out on whether it stays or goes.
Broussonetia papyrifera – paper mulberry
This is a quite outstanding tree on many levels. I’d never knowingly seen it before and am indebted to Twitter, especially Helen Brown of Little Ash Garden in Devon for identifying it. It is outstanding because of the unusual way the leaves grow in different attractive shapes, sizes, and forms; very attractive. But it is also outstanding because of its invasive nature. In the far East it was originally used in paper making, and then more widely introduced as an ornamental. However it is now included on the Invasive Plant Atlas. Ours had spread extensively and we had to spend many hours cutting these suckers and self-sown seedlings out and shredding the proceeds. Let’s hope those shreddings don’t propagate themselves vegetatively!
The pond area
Calling this area “the pond area” is either rather grandiose (was it catching? – I hope not) or it is looking forward to the future. In fact it is the lowest point of the property so is therefore a natural drainage point and although it isn’t really a pond at the moment it is damp and boggy much of the time so offers opportunities for development.
An area of (probably) self-sown poplar and willow scrub needs to be removed from this area. Two or three other small trees of reasonable decorative interest will probably stay as they provide shade close to the house and the orchids that grow underneath them are a delight.
These include a tilia cordata (small-leaved lime) which is also impinging on wires, this time telephone wires. However, I will fight for its right to continue as the scent of its flowers is quite exquisite, and the sound and sight of the thousands of bees revelling in the experience quite mind-blowing. A little judicious branch thinning can apparently ensure its survival in its current position.
We’ve now received the devis from the tree surgeons. The numbers are eye-watering, but we are talking about the removal of at least 30 trees so perhaps that’s not surprising. We’ve also received a first draft of the master plan from the landscape architect and my next task, after publishing this blog post, is to put together our feedback and thoughts on some aspects to develop further. Having spent much of the last 15 months working on the house, it will shortly be time to begin working on the garden. I can’t wait!
We have inherited a number of trees at Les Vinsonneaux. The estate agent poetically spoke of “driving up through your own parkland” … but that is rather grandiose language to describe what we have which is actually a real mish-mash. There may have been reasons why trees were planted in their positions; but I suspect there was little rationale. They are what they are where they are because of acts of random history. Many of the trees are now in need of considerable work, so this seems an appropriate time to record what we have and where we are in our thinking about their future management. This blog post deals with some of what I will call the big beasts.
Five large plane trees stand guard and mark the entrance to the property. When gates were installed attention had to be paid to their position to ensure sufficient space for vehicles to turn and enter the drive. Digger Dave says they are likely to date from Napoleonic times. Certainly they have been there a very long time and our tree surgeon pointed out that they have grown to form a single crown. High within that crown is a large nest which we thought last year was occupied by buzzards (of which there are many to be seen circling overhead) but this year opinion has changed to kestrels. Might kestrels take over a nest previously occupied by buzzards?
Last spring, the leaves began to wilt and look sorry for themselves shortly after they opened. Internet research indicated that this might be ‘plane wilt’ although our predecessors said “it happens every year”; certainly new leaves grew and the trees seemed healthy for the remainder of the year. We are waiting for our tree surgeon to observe this wilting, if it happens this year, and advise. Of course, the trees are so majestic that we will do what we can to retain them, but safety must always be a high priority and they are close to the lane. If they are infected with plane wilt we are told their life is limited, possibly only ten years from symptoms first becoming apparent. Many hundreds of plane trees are currently being felled along the Canal du Midi for this reason. We hope it will not turn out to be plane wilt as they frame the entrance so well and provide a tangible link to foregone generations. Here’s an article on the BBC website about the problem
A rather charming story tells that French farmers would always plant a stand of poplars to celebrate the birth of a daughter (see this blog post). Once the daughter and the poplars had matured the latter would be felled to produce income for a dowry for the former. The poplars would not be expected to stand for much longer than 20 years or so and indeed some local friends have recently harvested poplars at 15-years old. Ours are very much older than 15-20 years, probably at least three times that age. They are now very tall and long past their best with dying branches which look unsightly and shed dangerously on whoever or whatever is below.
One poplar blew down completely in the March storms (taking out a neighbour’s telephone wire), and others are very close to the main electricity cables. Something Has To Be Done. They will not be missed as they sucker and self-seed all over the place, and were never an ornamental garden tree, always intended to be a crop, but it won’t be an easy task to remove them.
The tree surgeons
We have begun working with a tree surgeon and his associates who have heavy lifting equipment and are now waiting for a devis (estimate) to remove unnecessary or dangerous trees and manage others that we want to keep but which need attention. They have visited a couple of times, and we’ve also had a visit from EDF to review the electricity cables which are compromised. I am hoping that we don’t have to wait much longer for the prices so we know the extent of the works that are possible. There isn’t likely to be much value in the wood that’s taken down, because of its age, but some resale value might help to mitigate costs. We will have considerable need of wood chippings for mulching and low-cost paths, so expect to retain some of the material on site. The tree surgeon asked me how much I’d like, “a couple of cubic metres, five cubic metres?” and looked a little surprised when I responded “a hundred cubic metres?”.
Two large weeping willows occupy a key area of the garden relatively close to the house, creating a distinctive look and offering useful dappled shade in summer. However there is no design rationale to their position as they are far from water so the jury is out as to whether they stay or go. At some point they have been pollarded but that was a long time ago and they have grown in a quite random and uncontrolled way since. They too shed considerable quantities of dead wood that has to be cleared before the grass underneath can be mown, and which also trails in an ugly way before it drops. The tree surgeon suggested they could be re-pollarded; the landscape architect suggested they should go. Decisions will be made in due course.
A large, old common lime tree was severely pollarded about ten years ago and now looks a little like a giant shaving brush. It also suckers extensively around the base of the trunk. Furthermore it is in a key part of the area which will be allocated to a new parking area in the master plan, so a long-term future it does not have. There are plenty of other examples in the gardens, villages and towns around us so the loss of this tree will not be felt adversely.
Leaf fall in autumn
The planes and the poplars particularly produced gazillions of leaves as last autumn progressed, and a hugely pressing problem was what on earth to do with them. The garden is too large and the leaves too numerous to gather them together for leaf mould (at least with the resources we had at our disposal in our first year). We discovered that one way local people deal with heavy leaf cover is to mow over the area, with the mower set to its mulch setting, to pulverise the fallen leaves, and then leave that mulch to rot down across the winter. I did collect some leaves, and put them on to the compost heaps, but generally we adopted this mulching method. Several times over the same area, at right-angles to the last pass, and one could hardly see that any leaves had ever been there. It might not be the ideal solution, but larger gardens demand new and fundamentally pragmatic solutions. I don’t rule out collecting a larger proportion of leaves for leaf mould in the future.
Trees on the skyline
We are able to enjoy many trees far outside our own property, on the skyline particularly on the west side of the property. We experience some amazing sunsets and these trees assume a starring role on these occasions.
Next time I shall write about the fruit, nut, and ornamental trees we have inherited
It has been an interesting few weeks in our family. Darling Daughter returned to work after maternity leave. She has a responsible job involving standing up for those who don’t have a voice any other way, and we are proud of her for her commitment to the dispossessed. Returning to work inevitably meant that GrandBoy Number 4 started at nursery. At the end of his first week he arrived home going down with a bug. By the end of that weekend he was sufficiently poorly that these GrandParents were called to action to look after him on Monday. Monday turned into Tuesday and he continued to get worse such that a visit to the GP led to a referral to the Child Assessment Unit (effectively Paediatric A & E) at our local hospital. He continued to go downhill and was admitted. Thankfully a diagnosis was made reasonably quickly and effective treatment followed which enabled him to return home after two nights (apparently a typical stay). Clearly there were a number of previously un-encountered bugs and this GrandMa caught several of them. I came out to France on Monday morning (other GrandParents being on standby just in case) absolutely heavy with cold, flu, bugs … call it what you will. I was sneezing so much that I was prepared for EasyJet to deny boarding. Fortunately they didn’t …
Tempest Zeus was on the rampage however and 160kph winds roared in an easterly direction across France from the Atlantic. My plane flew right through the storm. The flight was probably the bumpiest I have ever experienced and even the cabin crew, usually fairly poker-faced, were clearly relieved when we landed safely. I usually choose to sit at the front so was in a good position to observe.
So far, in our ownership of the house, we have always flown to France and hired a car on arrival. We usually fly from Gatwick to Bordeaux (BA or Easyjet who we prefer) although have occasionally used the Flybe Southampton to Bergerac route which we like but which never seems to be at the right times or on the right days for us. We have used several different car hire companies. Some were absolutely fine. One or two are so awful that we’ve blacklisted them. Sometimes we book through Holiday Autos, but often we click straight through to EuropCar from the EasyJet site when we book our flights. I’m quite relaxed about what car I’m allocated. I don’t mind whether its manual or automatic, smart or not. A benefit to using hire cars is the opportunity to choose a vehicle which suits your needs on that particular trip. So in our long summer visit last year we had three different cars, ranging from a small hatchback to a large Renault Espace (gorgeous car ideal to transport GrandBoys). We have also hired a minibus, and a van at other times. This time I was given a Dacia Duster … hmm … a bit basic but it goes from A to B and that’s all I need.
On Monday my drive to the house from Bordeaux airport was as straightforward as usual despite the high winds. It is now becoming a very familiar route but nevertheless I took extra care because of the extreme conditions. I turned left into the drive on arrival, stopped to open the gates, and looked to my right. A large poplar had been blown down by the storm. It had fallen towards the road but fortunately wasn’t long enough to extend beyond the ditch. It had damaged a couple of sections of our fence and, I later discovered, brought down a telephone wire. This is the first time we’ve experienced a tree down, but it is a common occurrence in rural France.
This reinforced our decision to prioritise the work on the trees. We have a number of poplars, planted decades ago as a crop, now long past their best. They are brittle and snap easily. Some are taller than, and encroaching on, the main electricity cables. So they need to come down. The tree surgeon and his associates are currently waiting on the electricity company for a meeting to discuss safety given the proximity of electrical cables.
There were two purposes to my visit. Firstly, this was “The March Visit” (in keeping with our desire to visit every calendar month. Secondly I wanted to run the mower over the grass, strim some key areas, and take weedkiller around all the boundaries. I realise some readers will be offended by my use of the “W” word. I will return to the topic in a future blog post as the issue is very far from black and white.
I’m in a busy work period so (as always) I have my laptop with me and have spent significant periods of time working (constantly being thankful that living in the internet age enables us to have this adventure in the first place). But I can adjust my working day to give me time outside to do garden work.
HOWEVER … firstly I have this dreadfully heavy cold and have felt awful. Secondly the weather has kept me inside. The wind was so strong on my arrival day that it would have been dangerous to try and work outside. And yesterday it rained heavily all day. So I’ve done little or none of what I came out to do. .
So, my plan to dash out here, do a bit of essential garden maintenance, and then dash back has been well and truly thwarted. Such is life divided between two homes and I’m reminded that I need to find someone to help me in the garden. A number of good gardeners operate in this region but they tend to take full responsibility for a property, strimming and mowing everything to within an inch of its life. And that’s not what I want. I want to find someone who will be a real right-hand person, who will understand that I’m head gardener and will be happy to operate alongside me under my guidance, doing the jobs that I just don’t have the time to do, but doing them in the same way that I would if I did have the time.
As I write this, in our little office in the centre of the house, I have been listening to the sounds of some critter or other rushing around the ceiling cavity above me. It is slightly disconcerting to be honest. But maybe they and their forebears have been here longer than us. I shall break for dinner in a moment (yellow chicken casseroled with local red wine). And then I shall sort myself out for the early start tomorrow for Bordeaux and return to the UK. The French Air Traffic Controllers have been messing around this week and a number of flights have been cancelled. I haven’t heard anything from EasyJet so am hoping mine isn’t one of them. I do need to be back in the UK tomorrow.
Almost every visit that I’ve made to the French house has included two recurring elements: collecting or taking delivery of new furniture (often bought via a Facebook group), and meeting with contractors. This visit has been no exception. I had bought another double bed which will go in the bedroom we have named Poppy (to add to the existing two baby cots and single bed). The previous owners kindly brought it over. And I’ve met with J the menuisier and M the macon, both of whom are involved with ongoing works. J has a few more shutters to instal, and is going to make a door to separate the office from the kitchen. Currently this opening is closed off by a VERY temporary solution installed as an emergency ready for last summer’s guests. M will be fixing the west face of the house, under the covered terrace, which is currently rather scruffy and possibly unstable.
When we embarked on this adventure did we fully realise that it would become a major hobby? Perhaps not, but we are nevertheless thoroughly enjoying the process.
Here are some photos that I took this afternoon on a quick walk around. They really do show the current situation warts and all! Here’s hoping that every blog post from now on doesn’t necessarily follow the same theme!
The west face of the house, under the covered terrace, to be renovated by the macon
The west face of the house, under the covered terrace, to be renovated by the macon
The west face of the house, under the covered terrace, to be renovated by the macon and shutters to be added by the menuisier.
The first of the poplars to finally come to the end of its life, this one as a result of Monday’s storm. Many more will be at the hands of the tree surgeon.
Poplars do have pretty flowers. One doesn’t normally get the opportunity to see them at close quarters.
At the entrance to the property several old wallflowers are seeding themselves around. They are very welcome.
This damp area, lying lower than the house, loosely described for the time being as “The Pond” is likely to become an exotic/tropical style area. I have always wanted to grow gunnera and this seems like the perfect spot. For the moment it is a complete mess!
Arum Italicum grows absolutely everywhere. In due course we will need to be very selective about where we allow it to remain.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this snapshot of a flying visit not without its difficulties.
A question we are often asked is, “How will you divide your time between the two homes?”. The answer is not straightforward as we both have busy working lives and family commitments. Some kind of answer will evolve over time but one principle we have adopted is to try never to leave either home abandoned and alone for more than a month or so at a time. A good way of measuring whether we are successful at doing this is to ensure that we visit every calendar month, regardless of the time of year.
I have returned today to Sussex from my February visit, made solo as R was travelling elsewhere for work meetings. Here’s a quick resume of my February visit:
I arrived in the midst of a tempête (very high winds) to find the electricity down and our farmer neighbour S zooming up and down the properties along the line trying to identify whether (and if so where) a branch might have fallen onto the line. Thankfully power was not off for long but in the meantime I thought it prudent to go in search of more torches. I bought the last one in our local Gamm Vert.
I spent some time looking ruefully at all the sticks and branches brought down by the wind, and all the leaves still hanging around from last autumn. What do other people do with so many leaves? We have gazillions, far more than can be put into a leaf-mould enclosure.
Leaves, millions of leaves
I collected an old pine wardrobe/chest of drawers, bought secondhand through a Facebook group, with the help of our trusty Man with a Van.
On Wednesday I had a visit from an arboriculturalist (arboriculturist?) and tree surgeon to review the future of the large number of mature and post-mature trees and to share information for the preparation of his devis (quotation).
A chimney sweep visited for the first time in our ownership of the property, and we now fully understand why the wood-burning stove in the sitting room wasn’t working … and will not do so again.
For the third time in succession I failed to light a bonfire. This is a major blow as my record as a fire-raiser was previously unchallenged. Can anyone recommend a fire-raising workshop?
The leaves of the Musa Basjoo had been fried by January’s very low temperatures so I decided to tidy it up. A tidy up turned into a bit of a massacre. However I hear that the grues (cranes) are beginning their migration so I’m taking this as a sure sign that winter is now on the wane and am trusting that I’ve not acted prematurely.
End of August 2016
Mid February 2017 after the massacre
The weather this week has been glorious, sunshine and rising temperatures. In sheltered spots the temperatures hit the high 20s.
In the shade of the covered terrace
By the south-facing front door
Digger Dave visited to talk about how we might adapt the perimeter fencing to be more successful at keeping rabbits and badgers out. There is enough open countryside for miles around to feel quite justified in asking them to stay on the other side of our fence.
Our trusty electrician visited to upgrade a junction box which will ensure that the final flaky area of electrics no longer trip when they feel like it. Electrics in France are very different from the UK.
I tried to help our lovely French neighbour C catch one of her chickens which had found itself in an area of no-man’s land between our two properties. I’m not sure what the final outcome was …
I did a bit of pruning, all the non-climbing roses and two large budleias. I don’t know what cultivar they are but last summer’s flowers were enormous and fragrant. I also hacked (I can’t say pruned) most of the hibiscus (not my favourite shrub) of which there are many. I don’t expect them to survive the master plan.
But I still haven’t managed to prune the small number of lavender bushes. They may be done for. If so it won’t be a disaster as lavender is a short-lived plant anyway and this is probably not a long term position for them.
We haven’t started planting yet so flowering interest is few and far between. Here’s one or two.
Daffodils almost out
The only snowdrops in the garden
The first lizard of the year appeared on the south-facing front of the house. Subsequently more appeared in the warm sunshine as the week wore on. I wish they wouldn’t lurk in the window frames, ready to leap out and shout “boo!” every time I open a window …
It was great to see the new French windows, traditional style, which had been installed in a downstairs bedroom since my previous visit. Further discussions took place about next phases of work with the menuisier (window/door/joinery man) and maçon (stone-mason). The shutters do need to be repainted …
Oh, and I treated myself to Eggs Benedict at Gatwick Airport last Monday morning prior to departure.
I will return to some of these topics in more detail in future posts. Which ones would you be most interested in? Why not follow my blog so you can follow along with our French adventure?