Thursday, 14 September 2017

Where Did Summer Go? We're Pruning Already.

May's post was all about planting, so it's difficult to believe that we've just returned from France having pruned our field of flowers. Lavender should be pruned every year to keep them compact and to prevent them becoming woody. We used secateurs to remove flower stalks and about a third of this year’s growth, making sure that some green growth remained.
Our lavender, like this one on the left, looks quite spindly, but for their first summer, we're very pleased that 80% survived the brutal heat. We had no choice but to plant and then leave them to the elements for 6 weeks while we came back to our UK jobs. It wasn't ideal but next spring we'll replace the ones that didn't survive.
Here's the same plant after a haircut! Pruning is usually done in late summer after flowering, unless they’re being grown for their oil in which case, they should be cut just after flowering. The down side of this is that you miss their beauty and colour throughout summer. I suppose it’s a bit like the old saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it! (Which always struck me as silly because if I had cake it would definitely be eaten!) It was back-breaking work and for almost a week we were walking around like centenarians. So now our field has been mowed, weeded, cut back and put to bed for the winter. Unfortunately our abundant crop of fruit went unused this season but thankfully our lovely neighbours, both English and French, made use of some of it by picking cherries during summer. I'm looking forward to learning how to make pickles and chutneys. Here are some of the photographs I took around our land this summer. You can click on the recipe titles below.
Blackberry jam recipe.
Grapes. What else but wine!
Apples. Toffee apple upside-down cake recipe.
Plums. Plum chutney recipe.
Walnuts. Walnut cake recipe.
We also have the beginnings of a drive and front wall. We used metal gabions filled with with white stone - robust and heavy enough to hold back built up earth. Next year we'll back-fill behind the cages and plant flowers on top to soften the lines. The driveway runs in front and to the side of our barn but only the base has been laid this year. We're waiting until we've built our new house before we lay the top layer. It definitely looks a lot tidier than the overgrown cacti and weeds that were previously growing there! Now we're back in England waiting for our house to sell and counting down until our big move. I wish I had a crystal ball to see if we will have crossed the channel before Christmas. I've been making some jewellery this afternoon - lavender flowers set in resin. When they've hardened and I've attached them to chains or earring findings, I'll write an extra post about how to make them.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Lavender Planting

First we had a lot of ground preparation to do. We'd previously had the soil tested and the results came back as prefect for growing lavender. (such a relief) However, the earth had quite a lot of clay in it so we added extra sand and grit.
After the sand was rotovated into the ground, we laid and pinned a weed barrier along the trenches and then burned holes in it at eighteen inch intervals with the help of a long-armed blow torch. We then dug out the earth ready for planting - they always say that preparation is the hardest task of any job!
So, with the rabbit fence secure and hopefully impenetrable and the trenches ready, we set about planting. We laid out the plants along each line and although it was hot, exhausting work, we enjoyed every minute of it.
Paul and I chose Hidcote and Grosso lavenders for their colour, scent and hardiness. They like well-drained, alkaline soil and hate soggy bottoms. (Don't we all?) It took a week to finish, but with the help of our daughter, Rosanna, my mother and our lovely new neighbours, Andy and Sal, we planted the whole field. Sal sent a text to say it had rained for two days after we'd returned to England, which was great news for the plants.
When our lavender field is established, we hope to open a small tea garden (only about 6 tables) under our mature trees during the summer months. Our little shop will sell our homemade lavender sugar for adding to biscuits, sorbets and jams. Lavender's purple flowers are well known for their relaxing properties and we're looking forward to making soaps, candles and bath oils that will help visitors to unwind for a good night’s sleep. (They'll also be perfect gifts to take back home, wherever that may be.) Lavender flowers can also be added to stock to create a tasty sauce for duck, chicken or lamb dishes and I'll definitely be adding it to cake recipes for the tea garden. The fruit on our trees are growing nicely in the spring rain and warm sunshine. I wandered around taking a few photographs of the cherries, apples and fig trees.
Paul fancies becoming a bee keeper and making lavender honey - I'll happily let him do that by himself.
Our nearest village is Aubeterre-sur-Dronne. We have been visiting for ten year looking for somewhere to buy, but it is only now that our children are settled and happy that we've decided to make the move. After all, we're only a one hour twenty minute flight away and using good old Ryan Air, it costs £14.99 for a ticket! We're also hoping that family will come and spend longs holidays with us throughout the year. This is Aubeterre, which is very special to both of us. It's our nearest village, about 7 kilometres away.
There's also a river beach in Aubeterre where we can relax or go kayaking. Our granddaughters, Hollie and Sophie, had a wonderful time splashing about, playing on the park and eating ice-cream. They were as good as gold on the aeroplane and playing in the field while we were planting. Having four generations enjoying the week together is what it is all about - family.
The twins playing in Aubeterre's river beach We have a lot of cutting back and pruning to do and Paul has made a start. He removed lower branches from trees with a chainsaw - a machine that frightens me. I hate them but there was no way he could tidy boughs and branches without it. We have a lot more to do on further visits.
And of course, there's always time for a little shopping!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A Flying New Year Visit

Following a seemingly relentless sixteen-hour car journey from Nottingham to Charente, we arrived with trailer still attached to the tow bar. Paul and I were taking building materials and a rotovator to store in our barn, ready for renovating the building and planting in springtime.
It was dark when we reached Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, but the smell was unmistakable. Sweet woodsmoke and the aroma of the Linden trees were redolent of a perfume. Christmas lights were strung around the square and a frost glittered on surfaces – even the statue of Ludovic Trarieux looked as if he’d had a sparkly makeover.
The following morning we drove a few miles to the tiny hamlet of Bellon and unloaded the trailer. I make that sound easy, but everything felt incredibly heavy in freezing fog and drizzle.
Paul and I walked around the field and the task ahead seemed so much more daunting than we'd first anticipated. It’s amazing how much the verdant canopies, long grass and fat hedgerows of summer, hide overgrown trees, un-pruned bushes and neglected land. It also became clear that our field was overrun by rabbits, which meant the added expense of rabbit proofing the perimeter. I love rabbits, but I’m sure they love eating lavender plants too!
A very welcome surprise was to be invited into a neighbour’s house for hot mulled wine and mince pies. Andy and Sal are also renovating their property in Bellon. They say that the sunsets are beautiful and if you’ve seen my Facebook timeline, you’ll know that I have a weakness for tangerine skies.
Paul and I spent New Year’s Eve in Aubeterre Square, waving sparklers and dancing to Leonard Cohen’s, Dance Me To The End Of Love. Have you ever watched the film, Scent Of A Woman? Here is a beautiful clip where Al Pacino, a blind, retired soldier, dances with Gabrielle Anwar to this incredible song. Click for song.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Lavender Gifts

Our plan is to open a modest gift shop when our little place in France has a blooming lavender field. Hopefully it will bring in a small income, along with renting out our shepherds' huts. I've been giving this some thought because I want to make our gifts, not buy them in. Here are a few pieces of jewellery I've already made.
Here I cut out an image of a lavender plant and glued it into place. I then chose some beads to complement the colours and attached them all to a length of chain and fixed a clasp to it. My first necklace for our gift shop!
Here I've combined a few of my favourite things; (I feel a song coming on...) books, jewellery and lavender. I made these tiny books using cardboard for the cover, then cut paper for the pages, sewed them together, wrapped the cover in lavender paper I'd downloaded and fixed them to earrings with the addition of a bead each.
Another necklace! This time with a little more decoration. I cut out a picture of a lavender plant and glued it to a cabochon. I've added a sterling silver leaf along with more beads - all attached to a length of chain, with an added clasp for securing.
I've decided not to stick with shades of purple as this would restrict choice which would inevitably limit customers. So I making jewellery with nature as a theme, whether it be colour, flowers, leaves etc.
Purple beads matched with sterling silver jewellery findings and a diamanté for sparkle. A girl needs sparkle in her life!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Capturing A Dream

Four months ago, 23rd June 2016, Referendum Day. What were Paul and I doing on that day apart from voting and praying that we stayed in Europe? Before the votes were even counted, we signed our Compromis de Vent to buy a barn and two and a half acre field in France.
Some would call it fool hardy, but we believed we were capturing our dream before it escaped. We want to plant our field full of lavender and create winding paths and seating areas around the land. Did we get our priorities straight? Of course not! We bought a tractor and two thousand lavender plants before we'd even bought our little piece of France.
Can we speak French? Un petit peu! We can order a meal, pass the time of day with strangers and smile...surely the universal language. I suggested we take French lessons but Paul assured me everything was fine because he could say, 'Zut alors! Mon pantalons est en feu.' Our worries about the language were over.
We love France, especially the south-west of the country. For many years we've been visiting Aubeterre-sur-Dronne and I've even written a novel set in the surrounding area. We're thinking of our future and how we can incorporate the things we love (writing, creating and nature) in to a way of making a simple living. What better than planting a lavender field and building a few shepherd's huts set in amongst the rows of blossoming plants to rent to holiday makers? That's the dream. It will take time, but there's no rush.
Lavender takes three years' growth before its oil can be extracted. Our only job for 2016 is to transport the tractor and rotavator attachment down to France and dig up the field. We're wintering the plants in England, in poly tunnels that have taken over our garden. The big planting event will take place next spring and we hope to bribe, beg, invite family members to join us and help.
The plan is to spend each summer in France, making lavender soap and other beautiful-smelling products in what are at present, rooms that once stabled goats. I'll add to my new blog fortnightly, if not with news of the lavender field, then with creative ideas using this beautiful plant. I made some lavender shortbread yesterday, so I may even post some recipes. Just to whet your appetite, here is a photograph of the tiny flowers I pulled from the plant before adding to my shortbread mix.