Vegging Out: At Home In The South of France

Irish woman CAROL REID-GAILLARD‘s pastoral idyll at her home MAILHOS, in southern France, has inspired a blog and a passion for GROWING HER OWN VEGETABLES


dreamed of my own vegetable garden, of keeping chickens, cows, bees with my husband, Jean François, of wine and a salmon river, so, after too many years of Parisian life, we moved south-west to the Béarn to find just what was needed. The Béarn was where we had always spent holidays, fishing salmon and swimming in the cool waters of the Gave d’Oloron. When the question of where we should go and live came up, Ireland’s chance, with its sporadic summers, lost out to Mailhos where the sun shone warmly during the day, the rains fell when needed, and there were three unspoilt medieval villages and farmers’ markets within cycling distance, mountains to the south and the Atlantic to the west.

Mailhos is the house in which we live: a classic Béarnaise farmstead dating from the late 18th-century on 20 hectares of flower-laden prairies surrounded by a thick belt of mushroom-rich forest. We both love to eat well so, after analysing our soil, we devoured books on gardening, built a compost heap, turned the soil of the front lawn to grow over a hundred varieties of vegetables and fruit. Ninety deep holes were dug to plant 90 heritage and local varieties of fruit trees. The front lawn became our vegetable store while little by little, strawberries, grapes, raspberries, blueberries, goji, gooseberries, kiwi and blackcurrants found their own ideal home. Today 50 beehives provide a well-appreciated pollination service for kilometres around. Honey is harvested from the nectar of wild field flowers in March, black locust in April, linden blossom in May, followed by chestnut in July and heather in late summer, to restore the bees’ supplies for winter.

Eight Béarnaise cows are the centre of our small and compact universe. They are emotional, intelligent, affectionate and, first thing every morning, before even saying hello to my aggrieved husband, I need to go see if they are happy and healthy. Fed on grass alone, treated with homeopathy and medicinal plants, these marvellous creatures will, hopefully, be making cheese and butter with us by the end of the year. Eighteen bantam chickens forage as far as they need while avoiding getting snatched by our local team of hen harriers. They are kept solely for their rich, dark eggs and the fun of just watching these clever and quirky creatures interact.

The garden is hard work as the soil is heavy and back-breaking in early spring after the winter rains. The soil is never turned but just aired with a French grelinette fork, then weeded by hand before being planted or seeded as early as February. By April the broad beans and peas are heaving with juicy pods and asparagus is thriving. By June the summer planting is finished and there are plenty of early radishes, carrots, turnips, greens, summer leeks, courgettes and beetroots to feast on. First tomatoes in July and then it’s glut time, when there is too much of everything, so I end up spending those warm days bottling whatever I cannot use. This glut of aubergines, peppers and chillies and cucumber is my own fault as I cannot help seeding out too many plants, always fearful that one won’t work so why not grow 20? By August, kale, winter radishes, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, coriander and cress are planted out as soon as the sun calms its intensity and evenings are cooler. By October the broad beans and peas are sown and the cycle restarts!

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