I’m gonna live forever!

I’ve become a huge fan of sempervivums over the past few years. I’m not sure what it is about them that attracts me so much – maybe the huge variety of colours and forms available, or the fact that they are so easy to grow.



The name sempervivum translates as ‘always/forever living/alive’. This might refer to the fact that they are evergreen, succulent perennials, or to the way that they reproduce. Also known as houseleeks, from the practice of growing them on rooftops, and ‘hen and chicks’, for reasons that will shortly become obvious, sempervivums produce via offsets. Each sempervivum rosette will quickly become surrounded by these little offsets, which will put down roots. The offsets (chicks) are initially connected by a stolon to the parent plant, but when the stolon withers they become independent plants. Sempervivums will flower after a few years, but then die after flowering. However, by then they will have created lots of baby ‘chicks’ to keep them ‘living forever’! Once the offsets have produced roots, they can be carefully removed from the parent plant, with an inch or so of stolon if this hasn’t yet completely withered, and replanted elsewhere. Even pushed into a crack in a wall, with virtually no soil, they are likely to establish themselves.

Sempervivums growing in wall

Sempervivums on a mossy stone wall. Note the offsets attached by stolons to the parent plant.

Although I don’t know its name, the type of sempervivum pictured above are found in quite a lot of the old stone walls and gravelly corners of my garden. However, I was very lucky to recently be given a whole host of new varieties of sempervivum as a birthday present (thanks Mum and Dad!). This seemed like a good place to list what they all are before I lose the labels:

Sempervivum arachnoideum tomentosum:

Sempervivum ‘Bronco’:

Sempervivum ‘Boule de Neige’:

Sempervivum ‘Black Mini’:

Sempervivum ‘Engle’s’:

Sempervivum ‘Maigret’:

Sempervivum ‘Purple Haze’:

Sempervivum calcareum ‘Extra’:

Four of these were planted in a lovely old stone planter that is almost part of the garden structure. As (it seems) you cannot buy horticultural grit in France, and sempervivums like a very gritty soil, I used a combination of terracotta crocks, pouzzolane (a sort of volcanic rock, sold as small chips for use as a mulch or to improve drainage), cactus compost (a fine, sandy compost low in nutrients) and then dressed the top with decorative limestone chippings – sempervivums are fairly unfussy about the soil they grow in, so I figured that this would do them no harm.

Whilst they look small in their planter at the moment, they will hopefully soon spread and start to fill it out.

SV in planter

Four of my new sempervivum planted out in an old stone planter

The other four were planted in a low terracotta pot, with some of my ‘special stones’ I have collected over the years for decoration:

SV in pot

The other four planted in a pot

The stones look even better once the pot has been watered to settle in the plants:

SV in pot wet

Sempervivums with decorative (wet) stones

Now can you see why I like them so much?


Signs of spring

In the past couple of days we have had frost, snow, sleet, hail, rain – and even a little bit of sunshine. However, despite the cold and particularly wet winter we have had, the first shoots of spring have already started to push through in the garden. This being our first spring here, it is very exciting, as I do not even know what some of them are going to be!

The clumps may be small, but I was very pleased to see these daffodils pushing through on either side of the little side gate:

Side gate daffodils

There are a few other small clumps of daffodils around the garden, like this one near the front door:

Daffodils by sempervivums

Then I have a few patches of what I think might be tulips, although for some reason I didn’t really expect tulips to thrive here. I hope they are and I hope they do! They are growing in very poor, stony soil, including on the edge of the gravelly driveway.

I know that these (first photo below) are crocosmia shoots, because I did see the tail end of them flowering last year, and the second photo shows what I think are more of the same, although they are in an area that was deep in wild plum saplings that I have cleared a bit, revealing new life.

Crocosmia shoots

Crocosmia shoots?

Do you remember my discovery of Madonna lilies (Madonna unveiled)? These are also in that area where I have cleared away a lot of weak and overgrown plum saplings. They have now started to produce their summer leaves and shoots – the winter basal leaf rosettes will die away.

And then my first, and almost only, spring flowers so far – a little clump of sparsely flowering white hyacinths. I have brought a few sprigs indoors and they scent the kitchen beautifully. There also seem to be plenty more flowering shoots coming through, even though it has already been flowering for several weeks.


In the hedgerows, all down the lane and around some edges of my garden, the Cornus mas are about to break into flower, and this one little sprig in my garden has opened:

Finally, my biggest surprise: I have noticed patches of these small rosettes of broad leaves pushing through the lawn grass in several areas since late autumn or early winter. They initially looked to me a bit like tulip leaves, but obviously far too early. Clearly quite hardy, I assumed they must be some sort of pernicious weed, but decided I should just leave them to see what they turned out to be.

And a few days ago it dawned on me, thinking back to early spring last year when we were house-hunting and I was spending a lot of my time identifying and recording wild flowers (see my Wildflowers page). It seems I have a lawn full of orchids: during a quick walk around in the rain I counted over a hundred!

They will come

At the start of winter, I decided to hang bird feeders to try to attract bird life to the garden. I got some fat balls and some seed for my seed feeder, and hung them out expectantly. Nothing happened. Day after day, they remained untouched. “They will come”, my Dad said to me, as my aunt had once said to him. “Just wait, and they will come”.

And a week later, they came. In their dozens. Within days it seemed like I was feeding every garden bird in the Tarn-et-Garonne. Word had obviously got around!

Now I find it hard to keep up with demand, especially as peanuts seem quite hard to come by in France. Here are some of my regulars:

Great spotted woodpeckers



Great tits




Nuthatch 1Nuthatch 2


Blue tits

Blue tit 1Blue tit 2


And the ground feeders:








Robin 2DSCN0905




Compost bins for free

I have just finished building my first new compost bin, to replace the broken plastic one that came with the house, and I thought I’d share with you how I made it.

I started by collecting old wooden pallets and breaking them apart. It is surprising how many pallets it takes to make one compost bin, especially as it is easy to break a plank when you prise it off the pallet. I think I used around ten pallets of various shapes and sizes to make one bin, although I still have a lot of the thicker bracing pieces of wood left over.

Planks from pallets

Stack of wood from dismantling pallets

To make each of the four corner posts I nailed two of the thicker bits of wood together for strength.

Compost bin corner posts

The four corner posts

I then cut lots of the thinner planks to length (1m) and worked out how many I needed to make a 1m high bin.

Planks for compost bin sides

1m planks laid out ready to make the back panel

These planks were then nailed to two of the corner posts, taking care before I started to make sure it was roughly ‘square’, by measuring the diagonals.

Back panel

Back panel

The side panels were made in a similar way, but only nailed to one corner post. I added a diagonal bracing piece, primarily for strength while I was carrying them around before the bin was assembled.

Side panel

Side panel

I then moved the panels to site and assembled them one at a time, again just nailing the planks into the corner posts.

Assembling the bin

Assembling the bin on site

A strong piece of wood nailed across the bottom helps hold it all together.

Main structure of bin

Basic structure of bin

I have to thank my Dad for the design of the removable front panels – he has done the same on all of his bins. A bit tricky to work out the placing of the wooden ‘hooks’ and the corresponding cut-outs, but very effective once done correctly.

Front panel attachment system

System for attaching front panels

The bins were finished with a bracing piece across the top to stop the sides splaying out from the pressure of the compost once full, a plywood floor – just to make digging the compost out easier, at least initially before it rots, and a coat of wood preserver.

Finished compost bin

Finished compost bin (awaiting final front panel)

I intend to build a second bin as soon as I can, so that I can turn the compost by moving it from one bin to the other – this speeds up the composting process no end. Then in time, I will build more and more as my garden grows.


‘No dig’ for victory (against weeds!)

Since I made my first few tentative steps towards clearing the vegetable patch (seeĀ Braving the veg patch) I have been wondering what on earth I have let myself in for. There are 18 months’ worth of weeds there, growing up to six feet high, and I dread to think how many more years’ worth of weed seeds in the soil. I was envisaging a hard winter of digging and weeding, with the weeds taking over again any time that I dared to take my eye off the area for a week or two. That was until I was recently reminded of the “no-dig” approach to gardening.

A wealth of information about no dig growing – pioneered by Charles Dowding in the 1980s – can be found on the internet, so I will not try to repeat it here. However, I will list what I consider to be the main principles of it from a practical point of view, and the main benefits.

No dig basics:

  • A no dig bed can be established on almost any surface, including a lawn, a weed-covered veg patch, or even on concrete.
  • There is no need to ‘prepare’ the soil that you already have, because the no dig bed will essentially be established on top of it. If it is built on soil (as opposed to concrete) this will eventually be incorporated into the bed, and any weeds composted, by the action of worms and soil organisms, giving an even greater depth of well-structured, fertile soil.
  • Existing weeds can be suppressed by a layer of cardboard. A good depth (8-10 inches or more) of compost, manure, leafmould or similar is then layered on top of the cardboard to create the beds. The areas that are to be paths – it is very important not to walk on a no dig bed as this compacts the soil – can be covered in wood chippings or straw.
  • Your plants are then planted directly into the compost, allowing good root formation, a good supply of nutrients, and greatly reduced competition from weeds, which will be suppressed by the compost ‘mulch’.
  • At the end of each year, after cropping, another several inches of mulch (compost, manure, leafmould) are added on top of the beds (NOT forked in!). The worms do the job of mixing the layers, creating drainage and aeration channels, and converting nutrients into a form easily absorbed by plants.

The benefits are numerous, but include:

  • No digging! My back, for one, will thank me.
  • Not having to worry about clearing the weeds from the area before you start.
  • Healthier and stronger plants, because of the healthy soil and abundance of nutrients.
  • No requirement for expensive chemicals.
  • More fertile soil allows for a greater density of cropping (the ‘square metre’ or ‘square foot’ approach – growing more plants in a smaller area, but mixing up different types of crop to reduce the likelihood of pest and disease occurrence, as well as growing successionally to reduce wastage).
  • Far fewer weeds to contend with. Weeds that were in the area to start with will be smothered by the cardboard and mulch, and will die off. Any weed seeds that land on the no dig beds will be less likely to germinate because the top inch or so of the no dig beds will dry out a bit, whilst maintaining good soil moisture underneath for your plants to tap into. Any weed seeds that do manage to germinate will be easy to remove from the compost-like bed.

So, I’ve made a start, collecting cardboard from the recycling bins beside the road to suppress the weeds. It’s amazing how much you can find – sometimes only limited by the size of your car!

I have prepared one half of the vegetable patch (or potager) – the other half may have to wait until next year. I did pull out some of the tallest and woodiest dead weeds, just to gain access, and then I went in with a lawnmower and mowed down the weeds. Goose grass, purslane, fat hen, thistles – you name it, I’ve got it. I’m putting my trust in this system – and a lot of mulch!

Potager - as was

Potager – as it was originally

Potager - structures removed

Potager – structures removed

Potager - weeds mown

Potager – weeds mown down

With the weeds mown down (but not collected up), I started laying down the cardboard, at least a couple of layers of thick cardboard deep. The bamboo poles are just to weight it down so it doesn’t blow away before I get the manure in.

Wheelbarrow full of cardboard

The first load of cardboard

First cardboard

Laid two or more layers deep

Cardboard weighted down

And temporarily weighted down against the wind

More cardboard

After a few more loads of cardboard, and a bit of rain

A few more sessions of cardboard collecting should do the trick, and then I will be onto my next challenge – sourcing a load of appropriate manure (fumier) from a local farmer, and somehow transporting it down to my potager.




Madonna unveiled

I have just got around to storing some seeds from a mystery plant that I found in the garden a couple of months ago. While clearing away some of the wild plum saplings from one of the borders, as well as a Strawberry Tree (see Strawberry Delight), I found several clumps of strap-like leaves growing, with some old flower stalks and seed heads still on some of them.

Lilium candidum leaves

Lilium candidum dead flower stalks

The flower stalks, brown and dried, were well over a metre tall, and quite sturdy. The seed heads looked a bit like daylilies (Hemerocallis), but the leaves are too short and wide, and the seeds did not look right either once I had extracted them.

Lilium candidum seed heads

I picked the dried seed heads at the time, and they have been sitting around drying further.

Lilium candidum seed head

Today I broke them open and found a large number of flat papery seeds in each head. After sorting the seed from the papery chaff, I have a decent pile of healthy looking seeds from just three seed heads, which I will store until spring or the appropriate time to sow them.

Lilium candidum seeds

Lilium candidum seedsI have found Facebook to be a wonderful resource for identifying mystery plants (search for plant identification groups), as well as all manner of other things, and it was Facebook to the rescue again to solve this mystery. What I have are in fact several clumps of Lilium candidum – the Madonna lily. These are the only lily to grow a basal rosette of leaves during the winter, which then die the following summer.

Lilium candidum - Madonna lily

Lilium candidum (internet picture)

I am pleased I decided to clear away some of the overgrown plum saplings, as I would never have found these otherwise, and any flowers they had next year would probably have been hidden. I will probably clear a bit more space around them now that I know what they are, and hopefully a bit of space, light and TLC will encourage them to put on a wonderful display next summer.


Leafmould – gardeners’ gold

Leafmould is one of the best free resources for your garden. Simple to make, leafmould improves your soil structure, is an excellent mulch and weed suppressant, and, sieved, can be also be used as seed or potting compost.


Leafmould (internet photo)

Being surrounded by acres of woodland, and with oak, ash and Montpellier maple leaves starting to cover the lawns, I decided it was time to take action before I missed the opportunity to make this black gold. Considering the quantity of leaves that I hope to collect, a wire mesh cage seemed the most appropriate container to build.

My leafmould cage is in a clearing in the woodland, backing onto the vegetable patch. The hardest part about the whole construction was trying to find six spots where I could bang in some angle iron pickets without hitting tree roots or bedrock. That done, it was just a case of tying some wire mesh to the stakes with cable ties or wire, and job done.

Leafmould bin stakes in

The stakes in place in the clearing, and the wire mesh ready to go on

The bin is about 3m x 1.5m, with the dimensions determined by the location I could get the stakes in, and the length of wire mesh I had bought (10m). The mesh is 1m high.

Mowing the clearing in the woodland to pick up the leaves, and mowing the front garden, provided a significant start to my first batch of leafmould, which should be ready in about 2 years. The leaves need to be damp to break down, so I will leave the leaves uncovered to allow the rain to do the job naturally. I will probably also need to build a second bin next year, for next year’s leaves. With luck, my first batch of leafmould will be ready before year 3, alleviating the need for a third bin.

Leafmould bin filling up

Leafmould bin starting to fill up

At least while the leaves are dry, I find mowing by far the easiest way to pick them up. Raking and bending down to pick them up by hand are all hard on the back. Mowing also has the advantage of shredding the leaves slightly, which will make them break down more quickly.

The other advantage of collecting your leaves to make leafmould, is that it makes the garden look much tidier!

Lawn covered in leaves

Garden covered in leaves

Lawn part cleared of leaves

Guess which bit I’ve mown…?

Lawn cleared of leaves

Tidy lawn!