vegetables are boring

– or at least not interesting enough to keep posting photos of them on a regular basis.
The subject of kitchen gardens and sustainable small-scale agriculture, however, is endlessly fascinating.

We have just emerged from an intense two week Plein Air art course run by Diane Olivier from San Francisco. Cooking and cleaning and caring for fourteen Californians. Our potager just came ‘on-stream’ as they arrived, and provided a part of what we cooked – purple and yellow French beans, sweet peas, yellow and green courgettes, lettuce and rocket and spinach, plus a few tomatoes and red onions. The cool wet spring held things back this year.

Running parallel to our small  ‘histoire de potager‘  is Charles and Isabelle’s move away from wine-making to vegetable farming. They have many hectares lying fallow now, having taken the grants for uprooting their vines. Many of these ‘parcelles’ of scattered vineyards are too stoney for anything apart from olives. But their favourite lands at Lazagal are valley-bottom, and are very fertile. What was lacking  was water – or rather, a serious means of  irrigation, since there is a large well right there by the Lazagal stream.

This is the solution he came up with :

It’s a 206 cc Bernard side-valve single cylinder petrol engine, from the 50’s, coupled to an equally elderly pump for emptying wine-vats. It starts with one pull – and at tickover speed will pump 50 gallons per minute.

Charles and pump

irrigation at lazagal potager

He has around 150 tomato plants,  perhaps the same of potatoes, plus many peppers, cougettes and aubergines.  It’s all a month behind our stuff – but he sees it as a warm-up for next year when his involvement with the AMAP organisation will bring in some much-needed money.

An association for the preservation of a peasant agriculture ( AMAP) is, in France, a close partnership  between a group of consumers and a local farm, based on a system of weekly distribution of the products of the farm. It is a  contract, based on a financial commitment of the consumers, who pay in advance the totality of their consumption over a period defined by the type of production and the geographical place. This system thus works on the principle of the confidence(trust) and the responsibility of the consumer.

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the impassioned world of hoes

This is a foot-note/addendum/correction/apologia to the Hoe in Art and History post of April 3.  And other posts and pages on hoes.

Tara (whose surname may or may not be Chillington, it really doesn’t matter) has commented that I failed to mention Chillington Tools, who have been making hoes for a century:-

This is a question more than a comment.

How come with all what you have written here you do not mention possibly the worlds leading manufacturer of these tools who have been in business for over 100 years but show photographs of people who most probably are using them.

Tara – how could I refuse such a call? I have fallen well short of my intentions, which generally are to research what I write about, and link to where good things are to be found. So here goes:
“The Chillington Tool Company has been supplying the agricultural and construction industries with quality hot forged Hoes and Forks for over one hundred years. Using Quality high carbon steel, Chillington sets the highest standard for quality worldwide.
Chillington manufactures a large selection of patterns in a wide range of sizes.
Chillington Hoes and Forks are sold throughout the world under a number of different brand names, the most famous being the “Crocodile”.
All Chillington products are recognised as the hallmark of quality, durability and reliability.”

Now the fact is that in all my trawling through The InterWebs, the name Chillington never came up. Possibly the key to this lies in the sentences I lifted from their own site – ‘… sold throughout the world under a number of different brand names’.

Another aspect to all this is that as I live in France, and Google mainly in French, and France is a larger and more agriculturally productive country than the UK, with an active artisanal metal-working industry which supplies a number of large African countries that were former colonies – my slant on handtools and hoes might be less than UK-centric.

chillington logo

Chillingtons hoes certainly deserve their place in any history of the hoe – any company that has survived for 100 years merits our admiration. And it may well be firms like Chillington Tools that are studied by rising young economists, to discover how businesses can be sustainable, rather than get-rich-quick machines.

I’m always prepared to be told-off, and ready to make amends – and especially pleased to find myself promoting hoe-makers, whatever their nationality. Here’s to another century of worthwhile digging!

Posted in hand-tools, hoes | Tagged , | 3 Comments

good grub – bad grub

This blog has mutated: concerns with the wider world,  its Peak Oil problems and  economic ineptitudes, has shifted to a much smaller scale: the village and the kitchen garden. So I advise readers to leave here and plunge into the extraordinary intellect of John Lanchester in the London Review of Books for a wickedly incisive analysis of the Crash.

But if it’s more about bugs that you require, then here is an update on the handful I pictured on June 2.

rose chafer

Thanks to Raphael – go there now if you want see a really well-organised potager – I now know what I had in my hand. Not the larvae of the cicada. And thankfully not the evil cockchafer (or may bug, billy witch, or dung or spang beetle) – but the beautiful and benign rose chafer.

Cetonia aurata, known as the rose chafer, or more rarely as the green rose chafer, is a beetle, 20 mm (¾ in) long, that has metallic green coloration (but can be bronze, copper, violet, blue/black or grey) with a distinct V shaped scutellum, the small triangular area between the wing cases just below the thorax, and having several other irregular small white lines and marks. The underside is a coppery colour.
Rose chafers are capable of very fast flight; they do it with their wing cases down thus resembling a bumble bee. They feed on flowers, nectar and pollen, in particular roses (from where they get their name); which is where they can be found on warm sunny days, between May and June/July, occasionally to September.

The larvae are C–shaped, have a very firm wrinkled hairy body, a very small head and tiny legs; they move on their backs, which is a very quick way to identify them. Larvae overwinter wherever they have been feeding, that is in compost, manure, leafmould or rotting wood, and they pupate in June/July. Some adult beetles might emerge in the autumn, but the main emergence is in the spring when they mate. Following mating, the females lay their eggs in decaying organic matter, and then die. Larvae grow very fast, and before the end of autumn they would all have moulted twice. They have a two year life cycle.

Rose chafers are found over southern and central Europe and the southern part of the UK where they seem to be sometimes very localized. They are a very beneficial saprophagous species (detritivore), their larvae are the insect equivalent of earth worms and help make very good compost where they are often found in great numbers.
The metallic green colouring of the beetle’s surface is the reflection of mostly circularly polarised light, typically left circularly polarized light. When viewed through a right circular polariser, they appear to be colourless. Many species of scarab beetles (scarabaeidae) are known to emit typically left circularly polarised light ).

In his book Synchronicity (1952), Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung tells this story, starring a Cetonia aurata, as an example of a synchronic event: A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from the outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt the urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since.

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our Three Sisters garden

We have lost momentum in the communal potager at Sue’s.

The weather continues to be intermittently maussade with damp grey clouds blown in by the vent marin from the Med. Charles is too busy spraying the vines with copper sulfate against mildiou et oïdium, plus rigging up a 1950’s engine-and-pump contraption for irrigating his own grand potager, to plough our patch.

The big plan for Sue’s garden will have to be scrapped, and a smaller area worked instead. The plantlings are getting leggy. We have to do it by hand.

None of us fancy deep-digging a four-metre-square plot in temperatures of 26 C. Then it occurred to me that the Amerindian method called Three Sisters planting would suit exactly the plants I was raising – and that their  ‘hillock’ cultivation closely resembled the ‘ados’ method of this region.

There are many sources of info on 3 Sisters gardens on the web – but this came from an interesting discussion on the  women not dabbling in normal group-blog :

Corn benefits beans by providing a trellis.
Squash benefits both beans and corn by providing a way to cool the soil and reduce weeds.
The beans are the special key to this relationship … beans (a legume) draw nitrogen from the air and with the help of symbiotic bacteria (in the nodules) convert the nitrogen to a form that other plants (including the legume itself) can use.
Beans release sugars from their roots. The symbiotic bacteria like this sugar and by eating it become much more productive at nitrogen fixation. Eventually, the stored plant-friendy nitrogen is released in minute amounts to other plants and into the fuits of the plant as well as in the decaying material.
Another benefit of the 3 sisters is that it reduces the needed space. It essentially concentrates the growing area by combining complementary growing needs – thus we are able to produce more yield from a smaller space.

Whether planting a nitrogen-fixer with the non-nitro fixers has immediate benefit or not, is still debated in agronomy and plant physiological sciences. One researcher used a radioactive tracer to “follow” the nitrogen in a field of rye and clover (grass and legume, respectfully) and it found that 80% of the nitrogen being used by the rye came directly from the clover (this suggests there is immediate benefit and is why in many cultures the world over, legumes and other nitrogen-fixers have been planted with the non-nitro fixing plants (there are more examples beyond the 3 sisters and pasture).

Sweet corn developes an extraordinarily complex root-system, and needs 50 – 80 cms. depth. The soil was tilled only to 20 cm. – so I thought I’d dig the rest with just the one tool – a hoe (or azarda, or la trinque, or le cantonnier. Here’s how it went, yesterday and today :

The 3 Sisters are sweet corn, bean(or pea) and squash (or melon), and the plot was 4m. x 4m. So I thought – 3 rows of 3 ados. Corn needs wind to pollinate its neighbour, so I thought – stagger the rows. Squash needs space to ramble – so I should leave nearly a metre between each hillock and each row. It fitted perfectly.

step 1 of the three sisters garden

I try to measure these things – but my plans with posts and strings don’t work. What does work is the simple large step that a person can make, and then grind the foot in the soil. That’s a metre. These heaps have to be a metre apart. Getting them centred and staggered was a problem. Until I lined each dig-point up, and then made a cross with the hoe. I hoed out to the diameter that I wanted, and then hacked hard to bring up the compacted earth.

The big hoe is good at this – it’s long and sharp and heavy. Large compacted slabs of soil can be levered up, and dragged to the perimeter. Keeping a steady shuffling motion, all four points of the original compass can be worked up.

So far – so good : this is defining the perimeter. Then one attacks the middle – with renewed force, because this is nearing sub-soil, and it’s getting stoney. I left all this dull soil in a central heap, and then flung in a large amount of semi-composted muck.

Muck is a term that I gratefully import from John Seymour’s Self-Sufficiency – it means anything you can throw at the plants. Some people are extemely persnickety about what you put on, or under, your preciousnesses. Muck is his general word for everything he offers his. As a non-expert (indeed, an anti-expert) I like the idea of generalised ‘muck’. It has an Old English sound to it. He seems to say – it really doesn’t matter. What you throw on your plants, what you do with your compost. Very liberating. Give them what you can, what you’ve got.

The great thing about the long-handled hoe is that you don’t tread the soil. And in this circular bed system, you can stay outside the perimeter all the time. Earth and compost can be drawn in, and worked (because the hoe can hook-up, where a spade cannot) and you can keep up a satisfying circular shuffling motion around your ados or raised heap.

step 4 in the three sisters garen

I’m a light-weight, muscular man, of 59 years. And this is an emergency-digging situation. The big hoe was too much for Sue and for Mary – on their first try-out. But I feel that with a little training, they too could be hacking large chunks of sub-soil using the leveraging-power of the long heavy blade, and the long handle. I do think that technique and teaching can turn heavy-duty tilling into no-sweat gardening. Make that lo-sweat.

There’s no denying that swinging a big heavy hoe is tiring – but if the alternative is digging and wiggling with a spade and/or a fork English-style, with double-bent back . . . then sorry, I’m no fan. Make no mistake – this is peasant work. But in two short afternoons, Sue and I dug and planted all nine beds.

Posted in compost, garden, hand-tools, hoes, irrigation, raised bed, weeding | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

cooking compost and cicadas

If it seems that compost occupies my thoughts to a greater extent than say . . . yours – it’s because I’m looking after 10 bins at present. Five are our own, three are in our new shared kitchen-garden at Sue’s place, and the last two belong to the holiday house whose pool and garden I tend. Each one gets fed different stuff, cooks at different temperatures, takes different times to finish. And has different inhabitants . . .


These are cicada larvae (we think – I’ve put a few in a clear plastic container, and we’ll see what emerges . . . ). There are scores of them in our slow, cool, old compost bins. And when I mused aloud about their nutritional potential and how some cultures might drool over such a handfull, Mary (the unseen, unsung and Indespensible Gardener) suggested I entitle the photo :  ‘Grub’ . . .

There are few creatures that can survive a freshly-fuelled, well-mixed compost pile. For it to do its job of killing off mauvaises herbes and herbes persistantes, and wild seeds and pathogens – then temperatures of between 130 and 170 F. ( 57 – 77 C.) are needed. Higher than this and our friends the microbes take a vacation to cooler climes, or die in their trillions. Some concerned gardeners would rather not be part of such wholesale massacres, and only do long slow cool compost cooking. ‘A chacun, son goût’ – which actually means : I think they’re unscientific wimps. High combustion will indeed wipe out vast civilisations of microbes, as will washing your hands before eating, or boiling your kettle for a cup of tea.

Fortunately, this high-burn period of compost alchemy doesn’t last for ever, and new civilisations are soon happy to make the epic trek back to the centre of your personal Chernobyl, from the outer edges of your bin whence they fled when their own particular global warming got unbearable. Microbes, better than humans, can cope with these temporary discomforts. They are, after all, us. Just in a smaller, more adaptable form.

Size matters. The size that humans are, and the discovery/necessity of fire are intimately linked. If humans had evolved smaller – say mouse size – their need for fire would have resulted in tiny, precarious bonfires of straw and twigs – easily blown away or blown out by the the slightest wind. Humans upped to the size of mastodons would have had enough bulk to keep warm – without fire. The need/invention of fire was a result of our finely-balanced/pure-chance size : not big enough to provide our own heat, but smart enough to make heat for our skinny little bodies . . .

Well, so it is with compost heaps. There’s an optimum size, and the only sure way of cooling your heap is to reduce its bulk. Three foot cubic will get it cooking – two foot will cool it. The previous post showed me turning a cooling pile, and adding water (and of course air). The temperature dropped through the floor. For a day.

I went back there today with our room thermometer, which was showing a comfortable 27 C. as I walked across the village. Flip open the pile, and just a few inches under, the mercury shot off the scale : heading towards 77 C. and total genocide. There are months to go – and several turnings – before this lot ever gets near a plant. Going by my previous piles, each bin should be a writhing mass of slithery creatures, partying in a sweet-scented, crumbly black heap.

When the war is over, and the thermo-nuclear event has passed, in will come the creepies, and the crawlies, and our friends – the worms.

Now for the academic cavalry, courtesy of Google, and Washington State University :

“In aerobic composting proper temperature is important. Heat is released in the process. Since composting material has relatively good insulation properties, a composting mass large enough (3’ x 3’ or 3 x 3 metres ) will retain the heat of the exthermo-biological reaction and high temperatures will develop.

High temperatures are essential for destruction of pathogenic organisms and undesirable weed seeds. Also, decomposition is more rapid in the thermophilic temperature range. The optimum temperature range is 135° -160° Fahrenheit. Since few thermophilic organisms actively carry on decomposition above 160° F, it is undesirable to have temperatures above this for extended periods.

Eggs of parasites, cysts and flies have survived in compost stacks for days when the temperature in the interior of the stack is around 135° F. Since a higher temperature can be readily maintained during a large part of the active composting period, all the material should be subjected to a temperature of at least 150° F for safety.

Sometimes compost operators avoid prolonged high temperatures because the nitrogen loss is greater at high temperatures because ammonia vaporizes, which takes place when the C:N ratio is low. But there are other ways of minimizing nitrogen loss than operating at a lower temperature. The advantages of destroying pathogenic organisms and weed seeds, controlling flies, and providing better decomposition outweigh any small nitrogen loss due to high temperatures.

A drop in temperature in the compost pile before material is stabilized can mean that the pile is becoming anaerobic and should be aerated. High temperatures do not persist when the pile becomes anaerobic. The temperature curve for different parts of the pile varies somewhat with the size of the pile, the ambient (surrounding) temperature, the moisture content, the degree of aeration, and the character of the composting material. To maintain high temperatures during decomposition, compost must be aerobic. The size of the compost pile or windrow may be increased to provide higher temperatures in cold weather or decreased to keep the temperatures from becoming too high in warm weather. Experience shows that turning to release the heat of compost piles, which have become so hot (170°-180° F.) that bacterial activity is inhibited, is not very effective. When the material is actively decomposing, the temperature, which falls slightly during turning, will return to the previous level in two or three hours. Also, it is impossible to bring about any significant drop in temperature by watering the material without water logging the mass.

Variations in moisture content between 30% and 75% have little effect on the maximum temperature in the interior of the pile. The initial temperature rises a little more rapidly when the moisture content is 30% to 50% than when it is 70%. Studies show an important and significant correlation between the moisture content and the temperature distribution within the pile. When moisture content is high, temperatures near the surface will be higher, and the high temperature zone will extend nearer to the surface than when the moisture content is low. For example, in experiments at University of California during mild weather when the air temperature fluctuated between 50° and 80° Fahrenheit, the zone of maximum temperature in a pile with a moisture content of 61% extended to within about one inch of the surface while the maximum temperature zone in a pile containing 40% moisture began 6 inches below the surface.

Deeper piles caused higher temperatures and better temperature distribution, and subject more material to a high temperature at any one time. Hence, the actual mass of the material evolving heat is important in providing adequately high temperatures.”

There. Science is so satisfying. Not as much fun as faeries at the bottom of your garden – but in the end, more fascinating.

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marking time with compost

We’re waiting on Charles and his tractor to plough le grand potager at Sue’s. I’ve boxes and trays of plantlings that need to go in – watermelons and pumpkins, peas and beans, and 25 sweet corn. But with her L-shaped plot, there’s no point in starting a bed or two as the tractor will not be able to navigate around them effectively. And I do want this serious kitchen-garden prepared properly from the outset. It’s sunny and sheltered and has the potential to be our main provider of food.

But in the meantime, there’s always compost to attend to. After two weeks, the initial combustion has cooled to a hand-bearable 30 C. and the bulk has reduced by a third. Time to turn it all and re-stack it, with the dry outer stuff put in the middle, and the damp ashy material around the outer edge – then a spray of water every five forkfulls. The three bins become two, and eventually one. More space for fresh manure!

compost bins at Sues potager

I like the work – it’s cookery and alchemy and a visit to the bank, all in one.

our compost bins

This is Big Bin No.1 which has been cooking slowly all winter – today I’m barrowing it the 5 minutes walk acoss the village to Sue’s kitchen-garden.

If I keep up this rate of compost-production, the volume of soil will increase dramatically and it might be sensible to move to a raised-bed system now. It’s not something I’ve done before, and it costs money and time. But I’m not entirely convinced of its benefits. Here in the Midi a kind of raised-bed/ridged plantation is commonplace : the ridge is le billon and the trough or path is le sillon. As I write this, I’m checking the internet for spellings and info – and it’s apparent that there’s lots of experience on this in French, and in the French-speaking colonies. A regional term for it is ‘cultivation en ados’ where ados means a ridge or hump (remember: a dosser is someone who’d rather lie on his back, than do work . . . ).

This is particularly relevant to us, since we too have long periods of drought with intermittent flooding. And as I write I’m becoming more convinced that wood-planked raised beds are alien to this kind of clay terrain, and this climate.

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going organic

The wine we drink at home and you drink on one of our mosaic courses or painting holidays, comes from Domaine Isabelle in the village. Charles and Isabelle have become our best friends in France – but in all the years we’ve known them I’ve never worked in their vines.

breakfast in the vines

Mid-morning breakfast: Isabelle, her bread, their pâté, their wine – and Miga.

They have always practiced ‘ agriculture raisonnée’ – paying due respect to wildlife and conservation methods, and using the minimum of chemicals necessary.  Now they are going 100% ‘ biologique’ or organic – which involves even more work. And which involves me this week.

The rows between the vines – les sillons, as in Roussillon get regular harrowing,  to keep down weeds and aerate the heavy clay. But the gaps (les billons or cavaillons) between the vine-plants themselves pose a different problem : how to deal with the weeds without damaging ‘ les souches’ .

Up to the ’50’s, the work was done by hand – with the hoe and the horse-drawn décavailloneuse. The tractor speeded up the process – but the work remained the same : careful ploughing around every vine. It was the advent of powerful chemicals in the ’70’s that changed the  ‘nature of the game’.

decavailloneuse and alaric mountain

One man with a sprayer and a 5 euro bottle of glyphosate (initially patented and sold by Monsanto in the 1970s as Roundup) could do the work it took two men a day to do – in an hour. The double-bladed décavailloneuse above was brought out of retirement this week.

Below is a video of Isabelle and me, guiding the handles – with Charles at the wheel.

The trick is to help the curved bars in front of the ploughshare to strike – or stroke – the base of the vine. These guide-bars –  les tâteurs, literally tasters or feelersare linked by lever and spring so that the shares are retracted – just in time . . . But a ridge of earth with tough old weeds has formed at either side which frequently spoils the neat movement in and out. That’s where you see Isabelle battling to push the blade back out, or me yanking the lever back in before it rips out a vine. It’s quite physical – and you really shouldn’t take your eye off the ground for an instant . . .

Isabelle getting physical

The trick for Charles was to keep a steady line precisely down the middle of le sillon – the slightest deviation of the little front wheels makes a big difference 4 metres back at the blades – quite nerve-racking.

Two regional expressions of this work: tirer le régou, from the provenςal rega, a furrow; and tirer le crépis, a wavy line. Where the weeds are thin and le billon not too humped,  le tâteur can be left to work on its own. But our second parcelle were merlot vines – fragile plants compared to the cabernet, which is tough and supple ‘comme le chewing-gum‘ says Isabelle. She hates this particular parcel of vines. It was badly planted from the outset by the neighbour they bought it from : too closely spaced, and not trained to grow straight when young. So now we are pushing and pulling, swearing and swerving around these bent stems – and occasionally ripping them out. Our score was even at the very end – 3 all – when she lobbed her last victim onto the bonnet.

dead merlot

And the undesirable américains? Here’s one we we uprooted –

un americain

It’s a stump of the late-19th. century root-stock that all French vines were grafted on to, to protect them from phylloxera. Its advantage was the thick bark that the insect couldn’t penetrate – its disadvantage the fact that its grape-buds never develope. Its a hardy root with a love of life – but also just another weed that has to go.


By coincidence we both own identical ’80’s-style shades : les Blues Brothers says Charles, or the Gondoliers.

Here’s a link to a short video of a horse-drawn décavailloneuse, from 2006 near Nimes, as part of a demonstration  by Jean Clopes, au Mas de Theyron à Boisseron (Hérault) – and to the blog of Stephan Przezdziecki writing about the same work, up-country en Pays de Layon, Anjou.

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Big scythe and small tractor


This is where it starts. The scythe I bought months ago gets a taste of the whetstone and goes to work for the first time in decades. I was amazed at how efficient it was – sweeping aside the sheeves of grass into a heap in a way that a strimmer could not manage. Rythmic and moorish exercise – not noisy and back-acheing mayhem.


First things first : the grass and weeds have to go somewhere – so I’ve put together three bins from pallets I’d scavenged over the winter from building sites. With all the rain there’s several heaps that won’t all fit in. When I fetch in the horse manure next week I’ll mix it all up together, bin what I can and cover the rest with a tarp. It should all be ready come autumn, when a month of double-digging will see it all in the ground.


This is Sunday May 10, and most of the scything is done. I need to clear the back strip and straighten up the drive-way, but the dead trees are a nuisance – by law all bonfires are banned from April through to October.

Charles, our ‘petit vigneron’ and best French friend, spontaneously offered to help with the clearance.


The narrow little vine-tractor is handy in confined spaces; here he’s giving the ground a passe or two with the rotavator, to a depth of 5 centimetres. He has to change the kit on the back next week to do some harrowing in his vines – and will return to break up the next 20 centimetres.

Charles rotovating

As Raphael remarks on his blog Un Potager en Languedoc, tout stagne during this wet and cold spring. Early plantings of seedlings remain ‘stagnant’ in the cool soil – so we’re hopeful our late start won’t matter.

end of rotovating

The area now looks huge, and daunting – but with the three of us: me Mary and Sue, and Charles! – and a not too-ambitious first year plan, it should come good.

With two gardens to manage, plus our summer ArtHoliday courses, there won’t be the time to sit and blog. But I feel more confident now that we might be able to feed ourselves – whatever else happens in the world.

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A new big garden – and a new small blog

It’s been a month since the last post, and a lot has happened. A lot of rain has also fallen, making this one of the coolest and wettest springs on record.

Our potager is nearly filled now : 3 variétés anciennes de tomates, peppers and aubergines, calabrese broccoli and red cabbage, purple and yellow and green beans, peas, purple potatoes and red-skinned too, purple endives and spinach, rocket and various lettuces, artichokes and sweet corn, yellow and green courgettes, onions and shallots.

The  elaborate irrigation system lies idle as the rain sweeps in – we wage a brutal war each day against snails and slugs and weeds. French neighbours have been eating  cargolade, a simple catalan grilled snail dish. We have stupidly been throwing away kilos of the creatures . . .

The list above might seem satisfactory and sufficient – but the actual size of the plot is not big, and not everything will succeed. And there’s not room for a good supply of winter and spring staples.

Here’s a video view of it, a few weeks ago, in between the waves of rain:

There’s still a lot of lawn left – but that must stay, along with the pool, if our business is to continue. Painting groups sit out in the shade of the trees and draw; yoga groups do their moves there. Without ArtHoliday we are sunk. And I’ve been fighting to get our website back up in the first pages of Google so that we stand a chance of surviving the ‘downturn’ a while longer. It’s working: we’re now on pages 1, 2, or 3 for most of the relevant search-strings. Now we need the bookings . . . The new small blog relates to our ArtHoliday activities and is more of a ‘window on our world’  – brief reports on the changing season and wildlife, a glimpse of village life and events. It’s intended to illustrate our little corner of Languedoc for the benefit of those thinking of coming here for one of our walking tours or mosaic courses,or painting weeks or yoga. Some groups and people return each summer- and for them it’s a way of staying in touch with a place they’ve become fond of. It’s at

But in the meantime, between cloudbursts and hoeing and search-engine-optimizing voodoo, I’ve started on a new potager that is three times bigger, on some disused ground belonging to our best English friends here in the village, Sue Bradford and Steve Broadhead.


It was once a productive plot, now portioned off to some neighbours who have just cleared their patch. The rest of the garden remaining to Sue (a keen reader of George Monbiot, and PeakOil-aware), and now us together, is pretty unappetizing as a garden project.

The next post shows how far we’ve got in two weeks.

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Getting a handle on it

The handle or shaft length on a hoe is crucial for efficiency and comfort. Short handles may feel more familiar but they mean more bending over, and more strain on the back. Greg Baka of  Easy Digging is a strong advocate of the long handle and all his hoe handles are shipped 59″ long as he believes the correct ergonomic length should be between armpit and shoulder. It was on his site that I found the link to the report below, on the hoe in Africa.

Others – like  Simon Drummond of Get Digging who imports azadas himself and Kate McEvoy of Realseeds think shorter is better – 36″ to 47″. They are however united in their enthusiasm for the hoe. I discovered the advantages of the long handle, on spades and forks, in Ireland – but the grub hoe/azada/essade was largely unknown there. Here in le Languedoc the Robinia tree grows like weeds and provides me with strong slim and unrottable shafts from its straightish branches.

Andy Graham of  HoboTraveller filmed two girls in Kpalime, Togo, West Africa using the short hoe  here [also in Video Library, right]

The hand hoe is probably the most important tool for women farmers in Africa, but also one that causes them considerable problems.

IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development], FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] and the Government of Japan conducted a study of the agricultural implements used by women farmers in Africa. It found that, for a number of both cultural and economic reasons, most men and women farmers used primarily hand tools. The hand hoe is the tool most used in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Both men and women use it. In some areas, such as in the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso and parts of Uganda, it is virtually the only tool used by poorer women farmers.

But its traditional design creates problems for users. The study found some variations in the design and manufacture of hoes. Except in Senegal, the hoe is invariably of the traditional ‘chop-down-and-pull’ type, and with a short handle. The way the hoe’s blade fits to the handle varies from country to country. There hoes with a tang fitting, socket fitting or eye-ring fitting. The hoe with the eye-ring fitting is usually the industrially manufactured version, whereas those with the other two types of fittings are made by local blacksmiths. These are cheaper but more likely to need to be replaced annually because of their poor quality. Even these cost about USD 1.75, which is expensive for the poorer farmers, such as those in central Burkina Faso. Hoes with socket fittings are generally sold without handles, which the farmer or a specialized craftsman in the village can make from local wood.

The women in the study focus groups noted that of all their tasks on the land, weeding with a hand-hoe was the hardest and most time consuming job, causing both fatigue and backache. A major reason for this are traditional hoes’ short handles, which necessitates women’s bending over almost double to use them. Only in Senegal, where inter-row cultivation with animal traction is usually practised and long-handled push-pull hoes are in use, was weeding seen as less difficult. The short-handled hoe is effective and provides considerable control, but with some tasks and easier soil situations, a lighter, long-handled hoe would work perfectly well and be far easier for women to use. The hand hoe is therefore a tool that has room for improvement.  Given the obvious drawbacks for women users of the traditional model hoe – problematic handle length and weight – it is surprising that the hoe’s design has proven so resistant to change.

Different ethnic groups seem to be fiercely attached to the handle lengths to which they are accustomed. For instance, in the study area in Zambia, migration brought together ethnic groups from different parts of the country and with differing hoe handle lengths. While these groups have lived and worked together for many years in harmony, each group has retained its own accustomed hoe handle length. Attempts to introduce long-handled hoes, such as those by a German-financed project in Zimbabwe, have apparently been unsuccessful (at the time of the research). Lighter Chinese hoes have been imported into the countries of eastern and southern Africa, but farmers there seem to be unaware of these lighter hoes and buy whatever hoes are sold locally.

Choices in local markets are limited. The push-pull hoe in Senegal (similar to the Dutch hoe used in Europe) is an exception to the rule. It has a long handle and a farmer can use it while in an upright position. This hoe was introduced in Senegal in the mid-thirties. In central Senegal, it has now displaced the traditional hoe for weeding purposes. The study notes that as members of the French army the Senegalese were great travelers, and are therefore probably more open to the world and more innovative. Also, the light soils in Senegal make the push-pull hoe easier to use than in some neighbouring countries. What are the factors that have made the hand hoe so resistant to design change and innovation?

* There is a widespread belief (except in Senegal) that weeding is performed properly only when the worker is bent double and armed with a short-handled hoe. People who use hoes with long handles (the Langi tribe in Uganda and the Fulani in Burkina Faso, who are mainly nomadic herders; prisoners; or workers on commercial farms) are considered to be lazy and incompetent. In fact, the study found that length of the handle is very linked to culture, tradition and ethnic identity.

* Manufacturers of tools were found to undertake no market research, and are seemingly unaware of the changes that have taken place in African farming (e.g., women are now doing by far the most work on the land).

* Men are usually the ones who buy the tools, including hoes, even though their wives are more likely to be the tools’ users. The study found that even if they acknowledge that the women need lighter or differently designed hoes, the men still choose the traditional ‘male’ model of hoe when making the actual purchase.

* Women and men are often unaware of some of the hoe alternatives on the market or those alternatives are not available in many local markets. When women are shown the lighter models, they are usually interested in owning them. The study found that women farmers repeatedly complained about the hoe and said that they wanted a lighter one for weeding.

But handle length is another issue: Women seem to feel that a longer handle is inappropriate for them, even though it would be more comfortable for them to use. They are anxious to have improvements made in their hoes, but primarily in quality and durability, rather than in the hoe’s design. Some women (for instance, in Burkina Faso) did say that they would like longer handles for their hoes, but their husbands would not allow them.

Adapted from: IFAD/FAO/Government of Japan. 1998. Agricultural Implements Used by Women Farmers in Africa. Rome.

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