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by Sarah Heath | The Veggie Patch

Any self-respecting French country-dweller grows their own fruit and veg – it’s a matter of green-fingered pride. Actually, the fruit really takes care of itself – we are lucky enough to have so many different kind of plum trees, we could set up our own natural-laxative factory. But the veg needs love, attention and back muscles like an Olympic weightlifter. 

Our little attempts often warrant more of a “Patchy Veg” than “Veggie Patch” title and over eight years of trial and error – we are still trying and erring! But Mother Nature is amazingly kind and we have lived off the fruits (and veggies) of her patient generosity with increasing gratitude – you haven’t eaten a tomato until you’ve eaten a homegrown tomato (coeur de boeuf our particular favourites!)

We proudly tell our friends of our pure-as-the-driven-snow produce. Not a thimbleful of chemicals are used in their tender cultivation. What we don’t mention is the fact that the next door fields of wheat/sunflowers (depending on the year) have the living daylights sprayed out of them with bug-killers whose names generally end in “…cides”. But we’ve persuaded ourselves that the wind always blows in the opposite direction on these spraying days so nothing touches our delicate shoots!!!

My husband has now added to his back problems by having just prepared the ground ready for planting. We always buy our veggie plants from the Foire aux Plantes in Gaillac on May 1st. The town centre is closed and gardeners can meander through the myriad of stalls selling seemingly hundreds of varieties of courgette and strawberry plants. We can’t tell the difference between most of them and are a bit nervous to ask in case we get into tricky conversations about soil type and land drainage – of which we, embarrassigly, know nothing. But each year we excitedly come home laden with the beginnings of delicious meals-to-be. It’s a bit like a lucky-dip some years: you might be expecting a lovely harvest of cucumbers which in fact, turn out to be courgettes. And who knew that certain melon varieties stopped growing when they reached the size of apples?

The soil-toil involved beforehand is literally back-breaking. Annoyingly, we spent €500 on a shiny new rotovator (for the uninitiated, this is the machine which turns the soil) only to discover a few weeks later through our friend Sally, that a method called ‘no-dig gardening’ (creating layers of organic material on the growing area to make a rich, fertile substrate) means…… NO-DIGGING! But we are stubbornly determined to get our money’s worth out of the rotivator even if it means spending half our lives at the physio for back treatment.

Gardening is an on-going learning process and among the gems we have picked up from one of our neighbours is that you should never grow vegetables under a walnut tree. Apparently, these nutty trees emit an aspirin-like substance which can affect the growth of certain plants beneath it. If you fall asleep under one, you’ll supposedly wake up a bit woozy! (Note to self: definitely try this one day.) And where is our veggie patch? Yup – under a walnut tree.

(I’m keen to learn more from this particular neighbour: in Jesus-turning-water-into-wine fashion, he can seemingly convert anything in his garden into alcohol! We have sampled liqueurs made from magnolia-tree leaves and cherry-tree leaves among others…which we can’t remember after having drunk the first two!)

So, our veggie patch is badly situated: in addition to the nutty-tree situation, it is mostly because other people can see how unkempt it is (it’s right at the side of the lane). While our neighbours have their vegetables growing in grid formations so precise that the North Korean army takes notes, ours is in more of a hunt-the-tomato type formation. In our first year, we hadn’t realised that you have to tie tomatoes up a post. While we had plenty of tomatoes that year, we had nothing else as the tomato plants strangled everything else while happily advancing horizontally rather than vertically. As a result of its position, our little horticultural disasters are in plain view of anyone walking past. (In our defence, our neighbour admitted that our horizontal tomatoes were much nicer than his that year!)

But as already acknowledged, Mother Nature looks on us in resigned sympathy and helps us along. The time and money we spend on growing our own is probably twice what we would pay just going to the local supermarket and stocking up there, so…is it worth the effort? Being able to send the children to pick a few strawberries for breakfast, or being able to provide a friend with a red chilli for her evening’s curry when she found none at the shop, or eating potatoes which actually taste of something – yes, it’s worth it! And did I mention the tomatoes?

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