Thursday, November 29, 2018

The short life of a small oak

Obsessive, compulsive gardeners have many enemies - grass is a major one as it persists in growing everywhere it is not wanted for ornamental purposes whether in gravel-strewn paved or cemented walks. Those who are trying, sporadically, to 'garden' in what used to be woodland, also have to cope with tree saplings.    These are much harder to pull up, their roots seem deeper, tougher, not even killed off by mole tunnels.  The back 'lawn' at La Chaise is a field of two/three leaved oak saplings that have been mowed.

Some trees are nourished by the parents even - or especially - after death.   Here an oak sapling cannibal nursery.

A couple of years ago an oak sapling installed itself in the chicken house wall. Its first year I thought 'how photogenic, how cute'.   The second year I began to imagine what oak tree roots could do to a rough stone wall barely held together by ancient mortar.  The third year I would tentatively pull at it to see if it would let go. A trickle of dried mortar said not. Ever courageous, ever busy - the decision was postponed.

Look at me!   About to be a tree in the wrong place.
 Instead I pondered how on earth an acorn could have got into a crack, any crack, never mind that particular one, in a stone wall.   Chickens could not have done it, the beaks are too small to keep acorns whole.    Perhaps one of our many red squirrels (yes, please note boast, we have several pairs of red squirrels insofar as we can tell one from another) decided it would be a good hiding place.  And, since the sapling already showed about ten leaves, it must have been there some time, at least three years. So no traces of rodent scratches left after the torrential rains.

It might have been the grandchildren - but I have never seen the boys show any interest in acorns.   Sometimes they post them down mole holes and jump the mole hills flat.  The rain storms had considerably curtailed their outside fun anyway.   When the rain stopped, the sun and warmth returned and their attention turned to the pool.

The warmth gradually became excessive and pool time was postponed until later and later in the day. Even the chickens started to sulk and hide under bushes. Egg laying was definitely off.

This is what the sun did.

It solved my problem but I was still a little sad.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

My house has new corners.....

- new corners has my house.    

In all truth I should not use the plural because my house is only supposed to have one new corner. But that would not scan.  Indeed, I do not know in reality whether the house has its new corner yet.  It was supposed too be put in this September.  We thought it better to be elsewhere whilst the work was done. As the above picture shows:  it is work on a new corner of the Shepherd's Cottage - there only one corner stone had to be replaced.

This is the split in our wall which demands new corner stones - due to age and weather damage, not least the iron gate catch that heated and cooled at a different rate to the stones. Spot the invading, wall eating ivy...

As far as we know this is the first time since its building some 200 years or so ago that stonework has had to be replaced.  The reasons why one corner only (that is written in hope) has to be replaced are multiple but come down basically to the nature of the site and the type of construction.  Add in recent weather extremes

La Chaise new house, as it was in 18 whenever,  was built on a clay soil slope, probably with stones from the fields though the corners would have been made of quarried stone as were the door and window openings. There is a an old quarry at La Tour Blanche which is not very far away and which is purported to date back to Roman occupation times. But I suspect/know the new stone will come from a truly local quarry much nearer, it was not specified on the estimate.
This is the terrace we had built to try and anchor the base of the house - only it is the upper part of the walls that is heading down the hill

The forty centimetre +/-  field stone walls were/are held together by a mixture of clay, mortar and prayer. A previous owner added a fine outer layer of cement, we added an inner layer of 'crepi', a style of cement. Then added paint.

The fact that clay swells with rain and dries with heat, that the house had a very heavy Roman style red pottery tiled roof, did not help the stability of the construction.  We have made the roof lighter by successive re-tiling efforts but the house is still 10 centimetres wider at the top of the original walls than at the the bottom, all ten on the downward slope side.    It is held together by massive iron ties running through the attic and attached to an S in iron on the outside.  We added a massive triple T to hold the old and newer (relatively) downside walls together.

And this is what happens when the small tractor backs into the terrace...our first meetings with new stonemasons.

We have found a new stonemason to do the work on our house, and the others at La Chaise.   He says since the weather fluctuations, heat/wet/cold he is overworked.   His name?   Simeon Pierre - honest - a very local artisan.   His son is at school with our grandsons....

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

return of the wild orchids

It is wonderful to come back to the Dordogne in May after a long wet and cold winter.  Spring was suddenly unusually warm and now everything is in flower - roses, roses everywhere. There is a two foot high wild sage stem on the slope up to no: 8 green.

But the greatest news is that the wild orchids are back, the first wave of lazy purples, pyramid and scented orchids deep in the long grass near juniper bushes. The small meadow blue and brown butterflies, the occasional large white, hover around.

For some time now, ever since the juniper bushes on that rocky slope of land we refer to as 'Greece', started to die we saw less and less orchids.  There appears to be a strange form of symbiosis between junipers, orchids and ants, so the nearness of ant heaps and orchids to juniper roots would seem to indicate.

To my joy I saw the first orchids underneath young junipers along the fence of the horse fields.

The horse fields are still truly wild - because none of the La Chaise based golf fanatics have put a green on them.   Also it is several years since horses last pastured there and our 28 odd sheep and a random number of lambs in season make little impact on the two hectares.   Vetch and clover flourish, some cornflowers can be seen and, of course, 'horse-flowers' abound, known in other languages as 'lion's teeth' for their serrated leaves, edible when very young.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Playing with fire in Dordogne

Two of my favourite men were in front of the sitting room fireplace. Granpère was kneeling and muttering imprecations in alternating languages. Petit fils no:1, Nathan, swinging a small plastic jug, had stopped playing with his bath-toys in the bidet to watch 'Granpère'.   Nathan was muttering random questions in French and received unintelligible replies. 

 Nathan returned to his game. He opened the bidet taps. Grandmère, (me, aka 'Oma'), stormed into the bathroom.   Sighing she turned off the taps very firmly, returned to the kitchen to put more logs into the hearth of the kitchen range. She nudged them with the poker to make stand up. This way heat/flames would go straight up to the hotplate.   It was nearly lunchtime.

Granpère stormed into the kitchen. ‘I can’t get the wretched fire to light. Must’ve used at least four fire-lighters and two big fir-cones. Give up.’ He opened a fridge door, got out all the makings of a gin tonic, got in Oma’s way as she was fiddling with the range fire.

Oma's favourite toy

Lunchtime was called. Nathan let the water out of the bidet, first washing his hands, then pulled the bathmats over the puddles.

Lunch was eaten and both Nathan and Granpère left the kitchen to have their siestas, full of food and goodwill. Nathan talked to his peluches for a while before falling asleep. Granpère read a little, then fell asleep.

Oma went outside to select more logs for the range. This time she wanted half moon logs to put their flat sides down on the embers. This, she knew, would slow the burning so that the range would not need attention for the rest of the afternoon.Especially if she found oak logs.  She turned the draft control so that heat would be directed to the boiler for central heating.

Feeling curious, Oma went to look at the sitting room fireplace. She pushed at the blackened logs with the poker, moved the ashes with the tin dustpan. That was odd, both were extremely damp. Sighing (it is what Omas do best) she removed the damp logs and ashes.

Then she got some newspaper, rolled fire lighters in it and put them at the back of the hearth. Over these she laid some kindling, twigs covered in lichen, pieces of bark and crushed cageot, in a criss-cross pattern, tucked a couple of small fir-cones either side. All of it very flammable. She reached for the matches on the mantel, lit the newspaper, stood back to watch. A few twigs later the fire was ready to receive proper logs, crossed over each other and balanced on the fire-dogs.

Later that day Nathan’s Papa arrived to collect him. But he was distracted by Granpère’s offer of whisky English style. They sat before the sitting room fire and enjoyed their drinks with desultory franglais conversation between them.

Nathan was sitting in the next room. He was playing with a box of matches, tipping them out of the box, then putting them back, all with the red bit at the same end. He tried to see if he could make a little flame, like Granpère and Papa could. Suddenly Papa was standing there, scolding about the dangers of matches, fires, everything. Nathan’s lip trembled,’ mais Papa, j’ai étient l’incendie que Granpère à fait...’

What Granpa did next....

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Autumn: season of searing heat and fruit mania.

The autumn croci, leafless pale purple spears, arrived early - again. This year a full month ahead of the official date of 22nd September.  Some fruit has ripened early also but most, despite storms, is still hanging on the trees in a threatening manner. 'Do something' the leaves whisper as one passes, so awakening what I think must be an atavistic urge, the need to create stores for unkind winter. Or is it just plain greed in the short lived face of mellow fruitfulness?.

Here a short, apologetic detour.   Mi bad, very bad because I have so often mocked the manic fungi gatherers of early summer and autumn with their plastic bags, sticks, short Opinel penknives and desperate grubbing under the decaying leaves.  I do not like many fungi which may be why I have failed to understand their passion. But plums, or apples even blackberries or rosehips 

Plum madness - we cannot crumble them all - and I only made 4 pots jam!

when they are numerous, there is this compelling urge to jam, puree and freeze, soak in alcohol, all possible means of conservation, including on a smaller scale, immediate consumption. Mine, mine, all mine now - and for later.

There have been a couple of times when this compulsive picking madness was made clear to me.  Once, many, many years ago when I was younger and much more agile, I found myself perilously balanced on a rotten gate post attempting to pick about 6 blackberries.   More recently, I found myself half way up a damp, mossy bank, one foot in stream,other foot slipping downwards - all in an attempt to pick ONE, I repeat ONE chanterelle.....

Now, when I remind myself, I never go down the fields with a stick (as well as the ubiquitous basket).  A stick can wedge an aging foot as firmly as a stiletto trapped in the cracks of a London pavement.  Remember,remember, goes the walking chant, those that the sheep don't eat will feed wasps, beetle or just become fertiliser.   Not stupid, the sheep,they rub their backs agains the tree trunks to shake down the ripe fruit.

fortunately, sheep love apples, too.
As we sorted our stores, prior to beginning a more nomadic life, I found myself pouring 8 litres of home made fruit liqueurs onto the compost heap.   No jams fortunately.   And I still have, somewhere, a litre jar of peaches in eau de vie dating back to about 1990 or so....

Let us forget the ancient wisdom of west country peasants, - the more fruit or berries there be, the harder will the winter.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sun baked, or soaked

It is high time the 2017 weather gods came to their collective senses. We are now in the seventh month of their year and they are still behaving as though they are in the second. They blow tempestuous short term tantrums, hot, or cold or wet, sometimes a combination of two in a 24 hour period, other times successively but with no predictable order. Behaving exactly like human two year-olds.
one storm, with lightning, blew the top off an oak tree

At this rate the Périgord will soon be short of black cockerels and residents will no longer believe in the efficacy of chicken sacrifice. No one will predict whether this will lead to extra egg production, or less. But definitely more sleep for humans.

It is worrying, here at La Chaise, because it looks as though we might have a very good plum and apple harvest this year. The trees are heavily laden with as yet small fruit. Therefore what we want is steady warmth (not heat) with occasional gentle rain for the next two months. Then a gentle dry period for harvesting from mid September to end November because this will include the walnuts.
damson jelly, anyone?

A lot of our neighbours have suffered considerable damage to their early fruits, especially the vignerons who have seen hectares of their grapes destroyed by cold and wind. The grain farmers were also badly hit in certain areas, too wet, too cold.

The wonderful cherry harvest that hung with heavy promise on the trees did not materialise. This was not because of bird damage – they had had a surfeit of cherries. Unexpected rain came, the cherries swelled more and more – then rotted on the stem.

Sudden bursts of heat this July have dried up the grapes on the vines over our terrace. The vine on the Farmhouse pool wall suffered first as it is directly hit by the sun. Nice for bathers, not good for grapes.  My herb garden has suffered also - two thyme bushes have dried up, the Moroccan mint is looking sorry, the sage leaves are drooping.

Fortunately the previous owner here was briefly a vigneron, but using the wrong grapes.   So he had built a three chamber cuve or wine reservoir holding about 200 litres (we think).  This now holds rainwater so that potager and herbs can be liberally watered.  There are vague plans to attach a pump and a long hose...very vague.

Then, mid July, temperatures dropped from around 35C to bounce around 22/24C, no wind, sun covered by clouds. The tree crickets went into a sulk and shut up. Even the birds stopped their chatter. As I write – 21/07 – they are still silent.

This erratic climate is not just bad for vegetation and animals (I include humans in the latter category), even the old chalk stone houses are beginning to suffer. They move as their stones alternate between damp and dry. When baked, they break.

My kitchen window - minus shutter

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Send for the botanist! Soon.

The wild orchids with which La Chaise is plentifully endowed are tougher than their scarcity elswhere would lead the innocent to believe.  The very earliest ones, the lazy purples that look like red clover from a distance, are trodden on and sat on by the sheep.  I expect the lambs even taste a few.   I know that Alexandre mows those few that venture onto the fairways.   But every year they come back, especially under the clump of ash trees in the first field.

These are the ones to the right of the ash trees - so not sat on by sheep.

For some years, before sheep, we could always rely on orchids to come back in the same places.  The burnt tip, the pyramid, the scented, the hanging man were always under or around the rough pasture, known as 'Greece' to us, which was heavily populated by aged juniper bushes.

The insect imitating orchids were usually in the rough grass, just above mowing level - the fly orchid, the spider and bee orchids were relatively plentiful.  They seem to have since left us in favour of the other side of the sheep fencing, into the inpenetrable wild woods. On the other hand some  colonise the edges of small rural roads, carefully on the far side of the ditch so that the cantonniers with their heavy machinery do not fauche them. Our local, recently retired, cantonnier, used to carefully mow round the ones that had not retreated.

In the past couple of years the junipers in 'Greece' have died off - but new ones are coming in strange places.   One lot has decided that fate has destined it to be a hedge and so is lined up along the sheep fencing dividing the horse fields from number four fairway. Not so much a sign of plant intelligence as the logical explanation that they get neither eaten nor mown at the foot of a fence. So far, no orchids

The first year of the juniper move the 'serapia' type orchids moved from the upper slopes of the horse fields to the safe side of number three fairway, sheltering in amongst the pine trees.
Hardly visible ...

 We fenced them round but the sheep trod down the fencing. This year one has decided to become totally sheep proof - here it is, inside a new juniper bush!

Won't someone send a botanist, soon, please.    La Chaise has just got to be interesting to people interested in plants.