French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Baby birds of the year, etc.

Look what I found, nested just outside the window of what used to be the pink bathroom: baby pigeons. I thought of pigeons as city birds but here they are. I know for a fact that pigeon poo can quickly destroy a building; one of the things I looked for when I first visited the house was evidence that the birds had moved in, which would have meant structural damage far beyond what I could have afforded to repair. So I’m telling myself that wood will rot but stone can take the abuse, which I hope is true, and that they’re not pooping on the window, which I want to keep. Worst case, they are pooping on the shutter, which will be replaced, anyway, along with its rotting buddies, when I find a stack of cash to do the job right. So the babies stay; may they grow and prosper.


Missing stacks of cash are also keeping me from the landscaping that I want to do. Apparently there are so many tree stumps and stones in the ground, not to mention the “cadeaux empoisonné,” the debris that the workers abandoned all over the place, that there is nothing for it but to scrape the soil surface and start all over. Love to but that’s not in the cards right now. Instead I am trying to figure out what to do until my money tree bears fruit. It’s all about finding the right strategy.

I’m reading Christopher Lloyd’s book, Meadows. If I can’t plant a decent lawn (Julien just broke a lawnmower blade on a rock), why not make a virtue of whatever is already there? I’m hoping that the late, great Mr. Lloyd will show me the way. 

Next to the house, I’d prefer something a little more civilized. Long, long ago and far away, I wrote a thesis on a Harvard-educated Los Angeles landscape architect, Edward Huntsman-Trout.  HT is well known for his many commercial projects. That’s understandable: hardscaping, the core of a commercial design, lives. Plants die and get swamped by weeds or swapped out for easier-care substitutes. But when I spoke to his friends, they admired his character, first of all, and his knowledge of plants. They spoke admiringly of the way he used plants to shape spaces. In much of his later domestic work, he liked to borrow an idea from Italian landscape design. He would plant a more formal scheme near the house which, as the planting moved away, would become less formal, eventually blending into the surrounding countryside. 

I had the privilege and great good fortune to spend an afternoon with his widow at their house in Mandeville Canyon; at that time, that far back into the canyon, it was pretty wild. I was so taken with her that I didn’t really look much at the garden. She loved the house, which was his design, and spoke at length about that. So all I can really tell you is that the garden didn’t look designed. It looked as if it had always been there, waiting for the right house to complement it. Where were my advisers? The house and garden probably should have formed the core of my thesis; back then I was out of my depth and I’m sorry to say I missed a great opportunity. Anyway, for the next little while I’ll be studying the masters and hoping some of that brilliance rubs off.

Hollyhocks do well here. They self-seed and thrive in even the most awful concrete-strewn messes.  One day I stumbled into a garden center and found these little rangy bushes with flowers resembling my pink hollyhock volunteers. They are doing well and their horizontality complements their spiky cousins. So here they are out at a corner of the apartment, where I want to trend toward the fake wild. You see, I don’t get to blend into a forest. I blend into a lotissement. Visitors will have to use their imaginations. Still, it should be okay. Worst case I hope that visitors will think, “Oh, she’ll get to it eventually.”


Because I was traveling, I was a month without Jacques. That was a long, long month. Though I like to travel and Jacques likes to stay with Julien and his family, we are happy to be reunited. Here he is, trying to convince me that my best form of exercise is not rowing, not Pilates, not yoga, but chasing him and his little frayed toy all over the house. If I do sit down on that yoga mat he sits right in front of me and either talks me into giving him a little doggy massage or licks my face. Not a lot of stretching gets done.


He has also inserted himself into my meditation practice. When I bought the house I thought it would make a deluxe hermitage and so it has. However I can’t put the little zafu on the big cushion because then there is no room for Jacques and he will bug me and bug me until I make room for him. So I move the zafu and scoot over. Jacques settles in beside me and sits very still, a little white Westie mountain of calm, until the meditation timer goes off. Then he grabs his toy and makes me chase him around. I guess that’s its own way of living in the moment.


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Algae, too much algae

I’ll start with the pretty picture. Not my house, not me, not Jacques. No, thanks to a blog buddy’s suggestion, I was able to escape my algal difficulties by going to a Fete des Plantes, just outside Niort. Is that a chateau or just a really big house? Anyway, I picked up some lovely drought-tolerant, easy-care plants that I have not seen in garden centers here. I am delighted with them. Also it was nice to see that these people, who have a front garden multiples bigger than my entire property, have it under control. It gave me hope. Someday my lawn will come.


And here are the algal difficulties. You are looking at the pond at the house that I am selling and, in the meantime, make Available for holiday lets. I’m not sure this is the best pitch for it, but anyway… The pond is part of the municipal drainage system and must remain. Normally it’s quite pleasant, covered with duckweed, to be sure, but pretty and frog-filled. I have been a little worried about it. The previous gardener would cut back the bushes and just let the branches fall into the water. This cannot be good, I thought, so I let that gardener go, but too late. His carelessness turns out to have created huge problems. Julien tried to clear the pond with little success. He says the bottom is sludge filled. Trapped in the sludge are huge, fat branches, rotting away. He says it would take mechanical equipment to clear it out but the straight sides of the pond — the whole thing is cement-walled and I think has a cement bottom — plus there is all that water — make it impossible to get anything down there.

I need to get the house ready for renters, so I went over to review the current state of things. Oh, it’s bad. Apparently the algae is bad everywhere this year but so what. This algae is trespassing on my pond and it has to go. So I put on my rubber clogs and a bathing suit and waded into pleasantly warm water, pool net in hand. Jacques loved it. Oh the gaseous smells, as I disturbed the pond bottom. Oh, the squelching sounds, the froggy croaks. And the sludge, he couldn’t get enough of it. As I netted tens of kilos of thick algae, thick enough to prevent my new water plants from settling, Jacques attacked the piles of crud, pawing and biting it. As I cleared a horizontal cement siding, Jacques would run out and sniff the debris. Then he figured out that he could safely step right onto the sludge and attack the algae while it was still in the water. Terrier heaven: my water-averse dog waded in up to his tummy. The muddier he got, the happier he was.

Despite Jacques’ assistance, I cleared maybe 20 square meters of algae from the surface, for which the frogs are grateful. I found that it is possible to clear algae faster than it grows, for which I am grateful. I am left with a whole lot more, out in the center, which is too deep for wading. Maybe I can head out there with a couple of little flat-bottomed boats, one for me and one for algae, and clear it out that way. So where can I find a couple of those?

The water is clear but brown, thanks to the sludge and rotting debris. I decided to try some pond chemicals, which worried Julien. He likes the frogs as well as I do and didn’t want them hurt. Then he did some calcs and realized that my chemicals — anti-algae plus a couple of water-clearing agents — won’t even dent the situation out there. The pond is just too big. We both hope they don’t dent the frogs, either, though they are so diluted that I think my little croaking friends are safe. The next step is apparently to find some activated charcoal. Maybe a ton of activated charcoal. Then I can clear that out.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Not many people dream of moving to France so they can clear massive algae infestations. I sure didn’t. However I’m finding that I like all these garden challenges. Gardens are low-tech, easily understandable. They tire you out, so you sleep extremely well. Once in a while something pretty comes of it. For the pond, especially, I find myself driving to places I would never otherwise visit, aquatic plants being rather specialized, so occasionally a bit of adventure is involved. I think about this as I sludge-proof my car seats, so Jacques and I can drive home, looking and smelling like Mrs. Swamp Thing and her little Swamp Dog.

No YouTube uploads of the original, just the campy 1982 remake. Sigh. You’ll just have to imagine.