nettles, or sow lettuce […] either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why,
the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. "
William Shakespeare, Othello
I love my little house. It's not much size-wise (55 square meters/592 square feet) but over the years I've come to prefer small living spaces. Less to clean and who in the heck needs more than one bathroom anyway unless you have a famille nombreuse (large family). We stopped at two Frenchlings so we don't count (and I've seriously rethought this over the years since the French tax breaks starting with three kids are phenomenal).
The house has so many nice features. It has two porches (front and back), tall windows that open wide, old fashioned cast iron radiators (perfect for getting bread dough to rise just right), the funkiest old chandelier (so ugly and odd that it's beautiful), porcelain door knobs, old pine floors in the living and dining rooms and tile everywhere else and I do mean everywhere (the previous owner was a tiler by trade and he did good work). Only thing missing right now is our Petit Godin and we're waiting on the Portuguese mason to come and raise the chimney.
As much as I love the house, I love the garden more. For a house in the city this garden is huge. The house is set back a bit from the street (thank God) and so there is a small garden area in the front as well as a larger one in the back. The previous owner put in two lovely raised beds and laid a stone patio so there's no grass to tend and mow in the front. When we moved I transferred much of what I had in the garden over at the old Flophouse to these beds. So far so good - the peonies, hydrangeas and roses seem to have survived the migration quite nicely.
As we turn the corner into spring, my attention is now on the back garden and here I'm being a more cautious. There has been a garden here since 1929 when the house was first built and the previous owner was a woman after my own heart - a gardener. The most obvious signs of her work which can be seen even in the dead of winter are the lovely lilac, the two forsythia and an abundance of old climbing roses. I did some investigating and came up with an old aerial photograph of the property and in it you can see that once upon a time there were other trees, bushes and hedges that are now long gone. There is an old well-established perennial bed at the farthest end and so far I've seen daffodils, peonies, ferns and other plants that are coming up slowly but surely as the weather gets better. I don't believe in radical do-overs when it comes to old gardens. My job as I see it is to work with what is already there so that past and present blend seamlessly together.
One feature of the back garden that deserves a mention is the huge stone wall that separates my property from that of the apartment complex next door. This wall is a little piece of Versailles history. Constructed in 1849, it originally ran from the octrois on the avenue de Paris and was built to separate Porchefontaine from the adjacent neighborhood called Petit Montreuil. Today the wall is still in great shape and my role here is to be a good caretaker of my portion of it so it will last for another 150 years.
So many potential projects here with what is not exactly a blank canvas. Starting with the principle that it is best to "make haste slowly" this is what I've been up to over the winter months:
General clean-up: It's always safe to start with what we can all agree is not desirable in any garden in any era: trash, weeds, dead wood, dying hedges. The last was quite the project. The previous owners had planted thuya hedges on both sides of the garden for privacy and I'm sure they looked fabulous for many years. However by 2013 they were overgrown and the one on the right side was sick sick sick - some disease that caused the branches to die and turn rust orange. It was too far gone to be treated (not to mention that it looked just terrible on the neighbor's side of the fence) and so, with the help of a small crew, they came out.
Ivy is pretty in pots but it's a nightmare in any other place in my opinion and when it comes to stone walls it's downright destructive. Armed with a pair of pruning shears, a sharp knife and a tall ladder, I took off all that nastiness that was happily growing in the crack and crevices of that beautiful old stone wall.
Pruning: Started in January and is still on-going. I started by removing all the dead wood on the climbing roses and more recently did a second pass to shape and encourage new growth. I also fertilized as soon as I saw the forsythia was blooming. Thus far I have been rewarded with lots of buds. These are old old roses and I'm going to do everything I can to save them. That said, they have a year to get cracking and I will replace them if they are beyond hope and don't produce to my satisfaction.
More recently I've been tackling some of the flowering shrubs and other hedges. Last Tuesday I put out three large bags for the weekly collect of déchets végétaux (clean green). I'm still waiting on the forsythia which has just started to bloom. I was at a bit of a loss as to how to prune those since I've never had them before in any garden I've actually owned or been responsible for. Thankfully my mother came through with a copy of Cass Turnball's Guide to Pruning. It's all there, everything you need to know to prune right, and a fun read too. Not only is the author a sensible sort, she's hilarious. The "Poppa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear" theory of landscape design had me howling but she is basically right and it's a good analogy to help you properly place trees, shrubs and ground cover in the garden.
Beds: Digging up the existing perennial bed was out of the question until I knew exactly what's there and from what I'm seeing now that was a good move. Would have been a shame to accidentally take out those peonies or daffodils. What I could do was buy some better soil and lightly work it into the existing dirt and cover the roots that were exposed.
No such problem with the bed that was created after the removal of the thuya. I brought the bed out about half a meter and bought huge bags of soil amendments that I worked into the old tired soil. The first beneficiary of this new bed? The neighbor's cat who said, "Cool, a new litter box!" and proceeded to use it as such. Often. Good thing I like cats or I might have reacted badly. Plus the poor thing has a collar with a bell which means that I and every rodent and bird in the vicinity can hear it coming a mile away. Kind of defeats the purpose of a cat. I'd say he's suffering enough and I don't need to add to the misery.
Planting: Since I didn't go to all that work just to make the neighborhood cats happy, I started planting once I had carefully reflected on what I wanted and what would work based on the size of the space and the light. The old thuya bed is the sunniest part of the garden so it seemed to me the right place to put my potager (vegetable garden). I started with the trees: a peach, two apples and a fig. The last was given to me by my neighbor as a "welcome to the neighborhood" gift. I was so grateful that when I bought the other trees at Truffaut's I chose les arbres fruitiers en espalier (espalier fruit trees) that I will train along our common fence. Very pretty and this way I won't ruin the light in her garden. Then I planted lettuce and sweet peas. The lettuce is already up. As for the rest of the bed, the plan is to put in beans, tomatoes and pumpkins. The tomatoes are already up in a little portable plastic greenhouse sitting in the living room. My spouse came home, saw it, raised eyebrows, opened mouth, shut mouth and prudently let it go. After 23 years of marriage, he knows better than to get between a woman and her seedlings.
Pot Rehabilitation: No, I'm not talking about cannabis, I'm talking about those old lovely terra cotta pots for flowers and small trees. The previous owner had tons of them scattered all over the garden (I'm still finding them under hedges) and on the patios. With such bounty there was no way I was going to throw them out even though they looked terrible (plus I'm really really cheap and I won't pay to replace something I had the good fortune to get for free). The inexpensive easy trick to making them look like new is vinager. Just pitch them into a bucket with vinager and water and let them soak overnight. In the morning throw them in the dishwasher. I'm about halfway done and there is something so satisfying in seeing the growing pile of pretty pots on the back porch.
Compost: Another source of marital discord over the years. I believe in compost much like I believe in the Virgin Mary. It's a mystery to me how it all works but I just know that it does. When all I've had is a few pots on a balcony I've thrown the kitchen waste in them and when I finally had a small garden in our ground floor apartment on the avenue de Paris I made small trenches in the beds with the worst soil and put the kitchen waste in them covered with a thin layer of dirt. Within a year the soil was better. Within two it started to be fantastic. My French spouse did not agree with my methods and he was convinced that I would be denounced to the garbage police and shamed and fined. Never happened because it didn't smell and I didn't put anything in there that would attract pests.
With the new garden I actually have room for a real tas de compost (compost pile). In fact the previous owners already had one in the back next to the lilac and behind the forsythia. It's pretty basic and made of concrete but it's a start. And to be absolutely certain that I do not continue with my evil ways, my spouse sent me off to compost class. Part of a local initiative called Opération compostage, it was one hour well spent last night at city hall. At the end I was given a brochure, a little plastic pot with a lid for the kitchen (complete with sticker explaining what I can and can't compost) and, once I signed the CONVENTION DE PARTENARIAT POUR LE COMPOSTAGE EN HABITAT INDIVIDUEL, a pretty little wood compost bin that we loaded into the car and took home. All free though I did agree in the convention I signed to submit to controls over my compost. Imagine my spouse's relief.
All this is just the beginning - the basics. I'm thinking more fruit trees (dwarfs) and a little pond next to the back patio for growing water lilies. The pots once I get them all cleaned up and planted will go in the front all along and around the stairs. I'm also contemplating a pair of small fountains on the front patio - get a little water action going there. And more roses everywhere - you just can't have too many roses, right?
All this is wonderful for my morale. I believe that gardens are magical places where wonderful things happen. Every morning I get up and walk my garden to see what new delightful thing is coming up or budding or blooming. Nothing is more soothing to me than digging in the dirt or just watching the sun as it illuminates the different areas of the garden during the day. It is miraculous. I do not know what the next year will bring but I plan to spend as much of it as I can watching living things grow and lending a light hand to help them along. Because I believe this with all my heart:
"Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden