Designing & Creating a Permaculture Garden in Northern France
A French Permaculture Garden : Our first 18 days
Transformation is an awesome experience, especially when it's intentional. Throw in plenty of room for flexibility and growth and you have, well, a new life.
A good friend and I have been talking about visiting her house in the country since last autumn. She lives in the L’Aisne region of northern France. I live in Petaluma, CA and have always dreamed of creating permaculture gardens in France. One day, I receive her invitation by e-mail and say ‘yes’ to her generous offer. Gratitude pours out from every pore. I spend the next few months completely re-arranging life to make this opportunity my number one priority.
Photos, emails and a number of conversations later, the next few months are spent in a kind of dance with the universe—from praying for a loving, temporary home for my two cats to working things out with my boss so that my job will be there for me when I return. Good thing I'm motivated from a place deep in my heart- it's my secret to having adequate energy. After the place lands on the sweet ground of la mere France, the next two months—give or take some time for travel—are spent at the home of a talented and creative couple – Noelle & Michel – who have kindly invited me to live with them in exchange for a permaculture garden. More on this wonderful couple a bit later.
For Noelle & Michel, it's an opportunity to have a self-sufficient, low maintenance organic garden without pesticides or chemicals. We're also going to incorporate their love of Japan into a little zen sanctuary where they can decompress and rejuvenate after a busy day. For me, I'm living my dream and welcome this reality as a way of life...What if your life was just another way of saying 'your reality'?
A note about my reality. I'm one of those people who believes – from my own empirical experience – that happiness is the consequence of personal intention and effort. 'You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings', as Elizabeth Gilbert says. Elizabeth is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a book my buddy Mark gave me for Christmas in February. Well, to sum it up, I've participated so relentlessly in manifesting my own blessings, that I seem to have untrained myself do otherwise. Substitutes for la dolce vita just don't have appeal power, despite the media's relentless rhetoric of substitute activities and products. That said, if we have lessons to learn, life has a way of rolling them out until we discover the gifts in them, thus re-claiming more of ourselves in the process. Eventually we become unencumbered and realize we can design our lives as we like. The key for long-term success is that one's life design needs to be built upon well-scrutinized values and motivations. More on that later.
Back to self-sufficient gardens. Europeans – after losing virtually all of their old growth forests–only 2% remain today in Sweden and East Europe – have learned a few things. Their inherent love of nature has protected what exists of their second growth forests despite population and pollution challenges. Along with recycling, composting and rainwater catchment, self-sufficient gardening is practiced throughout Europe. So what's different about this one?
First, it's based on the holistic design science of permaculture, which is an integrated body of ecological design systems that mimic the patterns and interrelationships of nature. I don't want to lose you here, so the essential bit about permaculture is that it encapsulates ancient wisdom about sustainable (we're talking millenia here) food production practices in one integrated place. In other words, permaculture is a one-stop-shop of successful, common sense, long-term food cultivation practices that extend to entire communities. From communities then, to cultures. Chemicals, pesticides, machinery, genetic seeds and mono-crop agriculture have nothing to do with it.
Second – because of reason one – the natural food production system of this garden-to-be will create a feedback loop of nourishment to the earth itself. It's a terrific example of the macrocosm-microcosm perspective. Such a system has the power to regenerate ecosystems and provide enough food to nourish us sustainably, which is the big picture vision of life-as-we-know-it. Can you think of something bigger?
Everything else—from our economy to your valuables—is a man-made system built on top of the earth's inherent natural systems. Take a look around at everything in your life. Where did it come from...really? Yup, even your kids are a 95% carbon and salt water love cocktail! So, there's a lot of potential here on this microcosm plot of earth, fondly known as 'Noelle & Michel's place' in Silly la Poterie. For the geographically inclined, Silly la Poterie is in the department of Aisne in France's Picardie region. The 'Poterie' part indicates how the town got its name—the clay soil is perfect for making pottery. The nearest town (translation: where one can acquire baguettes, cheese, eclairs, wine, toothpaste, haircuts, petrol and such) is 2km. away in La Ferte Milon, home of the writer, Jean Racine. Jean's fame came from recapitulating the works of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates with a little je ne sais quoi. Not a bad way to get a museum named after you.
This region is wild, green, humid and gorgeous. Old stone farmhouses stand hectares apart from new concrete and brick homes. Our place was built in the 80’s, in olde English farmhouse style. In keeping with this theme, an apple orchard and fox house (translation: fresh chicken dinner nightly) were added. An ancient elm and willow tree add character and beauty to this lovely place. Across the street from our home is the l'Ourque canal, upon which pottery and likely clay were carried centuries ago. Things grow fast around here, except for a few unfortunate basil plants which the escargot of this region love as much as we do.
The dawn chorus here is ushered in by an old rooster who starts his crowing at 4:00 am without fail. The air—I kid you not—smells like warm honey and meadow grass. By dawn, the rooster is well outnumbered by fan tailed warblers, buntings, blue throats, sparrows, several large, somewhat clumsy pigeons and a pair of cuckoo birds, all sharing their morning news before starting their day.
At this point, I'd like to give you an overview of each of the eight weeks spent in this up-and-coming garden. As an other-country visitor, I exercised my right to become a tourist at any given moment yet in actuality, this only happened when we needed to fetch groceries and didn't really show up as an itch until the third week. In a nutshell, week one was about protracted observation and acclimation.
The first three days were spent settling in and absorbing the environment in addition to trimming rosebushes and two trees adjacent to our garden-to-be; a dwarf willowish sort of tree (still not sure of the name) and a large stately elm who presides over the driveway closest to the house. Leisurely promenades were made around the entire property several times a day for several days in which sun patterns were duly noted. Which areas received how much sun? What was already growing there? Where were the natural rain flow patterns? By day four, an initial sketch was made illustrating some ideas for a new garden plan that we could all ponder and discuss. Partly by osmosis, partly by seasonal change—the weather was becoming seriously pre-summerish—Michel began to mow the calf-high grass that covered our jardin-to-be. By Sunday (day 5) a dominant and scraggly juniper—about the size of a small car—was getting a serious 'number 1,' otherwise known as a coupé. Its days were, well, numbered—literally. On the day of it's first haircut, a gentle rain made it facile (easy) for Noelle and I to do a bit of earth contouring. Pathways were first visualized in sketches, after which pieces of cardboard were laid out to identify their actual location.
Transformation slowly became visible. The cardboard pieces are sprinkled with about an inch of mulch, courtesy of our friends, the once-tall grasses. With permaculture, everything has multiple functions. For example, as the juniper branches and boughs are cut, they'll be transformed by our chipper to eventually become pathway bark. The grass mulch that now covers the pathways will later be re-distributed as a mulch underlayer for fruiting trees and broadleaf aromatic plants—favorites of les escargots, so they need a little extra cushion of care. Leftover cartons (aka: flat pieces of cardboard) become key foundational elements for suppressing weeds and creating pathways. Bricks, rocks, or stones find new roles as pathway borders; leftover twine twisted into lemniscates become an open framework to support burgeoning tomato plants or beans...you get the idea. It's a win-win example of re-use in action, a far more preferred objective in the reduce-reuse-recycle universe. So I guess you could say we're creating a low impact, high benefit, closed-loop nourishment system, otherwise known as cradle-to-cradle design. We think it's best kind of impact for an over-populated earth.
As the juniper slowly becomes a dim memory, our visibility across the entire garden area expands. The garden's natural contours and newly created pathways are visible. So is the garage. Much like a painter surveys distant objects and decides to embellish, keep them in or not, Noelle and I visualize the garage surrendering to a tall, curving bamboo wall that crawls with flowering vines. Our conversation goes like so;
“Là-bas....,” says Noelle, gesturing towards the garage, with a hint of despondence on her face. “Oui...,” I respond, understanding instantly that the garage is something of an eyesore compared to the blooming roses and bountiful fruits we're visualizing. A gracefully curving bamboo form comes to mind, draped with flowering vines. “Bamboo....,”I say. Like a finely tuned instrument, Noelle instantly osmoses the visual. “Avec fleurs....” “Beaucoup des fleurs....,” I reply, smiling like one who has whiffed a fine wine before tasting it. Noelle turns to me and smiles. We smile together. The plan is done. We both know the neighbor down the road has loads of bamboo sequestered on his property. A friend in the nearby town of Troesne grows bamboo on her property and is happy to share it. We will ask and see what happens. It's just that simple. “Life is good,” I think to myself.... “Oui,” chirps Noelle affirmatively in a satisfied tone. Noticing that I hadn't spoken out loud, my smile widens. Geez, does life get better than this?
As if to remind me that even an idyllic life has an occasional downside, I suddenly remember the flat tire on the household bicycle. It's come down to this: 40-7 or 90-2; a toss up between getting it properly repaired for 40 euros (at current exchange rates, approx. $60) in a town about 7km away or buying a new one for 90 euros (approx. $135) about 2km away. On vera...
We visit the local school in La Ferte Milon—Lycée Professionnel Château Potel—on a pleasantly rainy Friday. The students of this agricultural school are helpful, sweet and friendly. Their plant selection is pretty good, focusing on most commonly successful herbs and flowers as well as a smattering of fruiting trees and shrubs. We invite the directeur to invite her students to come visit in June to learn a bit about permaculture practices and help create the garden with us, followed by lunch and refreshments. Again, on vera....
This has become my favorite French phrase, distinguishing a joyful life from one filled with unnecessary pressures and false emergencies. In fact, eventually one realizes that life has very few actual intensive pressures and that us humans create our own emergencies, pressures and Gordian knots. Being stuck in traffic to catch an international flight, being lost in a foreign country with no money or personal effects, or attending to a sudden major accident all qualify as intensive situations. I'm sure you can think of a few of comparable magnitude. Just about everything else, well, on vera.... This phrase works particularly well for me as it has become a matter of routine for me to visually design my life.
Today, I can honestly say that I like my life and am beginning to live my dream. So many years and pieces have gone into the making of it—even stuff I didn't know I needed to experience... By the end of the second week, a revised design plan including, of course, a transformed garage area is sketched out. We are all happy with the overall design and are eager to move into the next phase: the big ingredients—fruiting trees and shrubs. “Ces't super...genial!*”
Balancing out a jardin-centric two weeks, I take a few days off to be a tourist, counting romping wild rabbits at Château de Valgenceuse in Senlis, sharing long walks and homemade crouton-fromages and aperitifs with a delightful new group of friends.
I'm reminded yet again that when two or more people are in harmony with an idea, things just flow—really flow. And everything that has ever manifested began as an idea. How one brings it into being is where the rubber meets the road—otherwise known as life. I'm reminded once again of the macrocosm-microcosm thing. I get it in my bones. This really is what life is about....
* Here's a sequential translation: “Over there”; “Yes”; “With flowers”; “Lots of flowers”; “Yes”; “Let's see how it goes.” “It's great...terrific!”
As the garden evolves from sketches and conversation to cardboard pathways of sheet mulch, planting and watering plants, I'm reminded of how essential an understanding of the underlying principles of permaculture are ever present, being drawn from to enrich this vision much as a baby instinctively draws mother's milk to nourish themselves into wholeness.
This week revolves primarily around planning, making connections and visiting two key places--Parc du Chateau de Valgenceuse in Senlis and a somewhat local nursery or pépinière that meets all 3 of our criteria: Locally owned and operated; has a wide selection; and most importantly, carries actual fruit trees that grow successfully in this particular climate region.
Side note: One cannot assume the solidity of anything here, as most French--men in particular I'm sorry to say--are self-professed experts at everything, even if they haven't a clue about the subject. As an English-speaking visitor, it's assumed that we know even less, and thus be acutely unable to determine the actuality behind anything professed. So it helps to smile warmly while tuning in for the resonance of truth. In other words, how does what Monsieur Le Clerc is saying land for me? (assuming I understand him). Even with a translator by my side, such interactions lead to the discovery that a little relaxed chit chat accompanied by a bit of pastis or local wine reveals the man behind the curtain a bit better. All in all, c'est bien as long as we aren't planting citrus trees disguised as les prolifiques. And now back to the big park, where a much less complex arrangement presents itself.
Parc du Chateau de Valgenceuse is famous for it's elegant, commanding architectural and geographical presence whilst quietly serving as a safe haven for endemic plant life and a few hundred flop-eared rabbits, locally known as lapins de garenne. The Parc isn't open to the public until two weeks from today (le 19 Mai). As Noelle and I walk along the ample, grassy path surrounding the Chateau, we revel in the sweet fragrances of this generously verdant campagne. The path is littered with tree dross, whilst the trees themselves are pregnant with spring-green nubs of generously multiple rainfalls. Our shoes squish in the soft earth as we approach a clearing within the Chateau's wrought iron-fenced enclosure. Through this portal, the interior world of the Chateau grounds are revealed—along with the floppy ears of several dozen lapin who have made these grounds their home too. These rabbits know a good thing when they see it ~ people on the outside looking in to the luxurious freedom of their edible domain.
We laugh until their cuteness turns our laughter into a tenderness mothers can relate to. After we amble around to our heart's desire—our shoes covered in Spring mud—we make our way back home to a stew Michele has spent most of the day concocting. I just hope it isn't a lapin ragoût!
Tomorrow: Write to Colinda Papin about our permaculture project. See if we can get a local paper to run an article on it.
Please return to this blog in a few weeks for ongoing developments and the unfolding of the remaining weeks' progress. Thank you for visiting.
To learn out more about Regenerative Design, please visit the school I became certified with as a Four Seasons Permaculture Designer, The Regenerative Design Institute (RDI).
Learn more about RDI's Leadership Program.
Blow your socks off as permaculture in action greens the desert!