We knew the synthetic putting green needed to turn into a vegetable garden.
The previous owners of our house had installed a long narrow putting green below the living room window. On-site golf didn’t particularly resonate with us, but the idea of growing our own vegetables — in moderation — did. (Is this a retirement stereotype, or what?) It was easy to visualize a raised garden on the footprint of the putting green. A bit more challenging to make it a reality.
Mike had come across a garden approach called the Square Foot Gardening, so we bought the book and studied it. Among the advantages of this approach is cultivation of a variety of plants in a small accessible area. I, who have a disturbing affection for spreadsheets, loved the idea of a gridded garden. The organizational concept is to make all the one-foot squares easy to reach; the garden areas are no more than 4 feet across. Perfect for our long thin putting-green.
Life is too short to be bending over all the time to weed the cabbage patch, so elevated was a necessity. That the raised garden surface would be visible from our living room was an added benefit.
I pulled up the synthetic green and its concrete barrier. I refined the layout with string and stakes, and made sketches and calculations for the raised garden frame. The design required large thick wood planks, wood anchor stakes, and waterproof lining.
Next step was to find materials. In the two local big-box stores like Home Depot — TriDôme and Brico Depot — we inspected our way through the outdoor lumber racks. Inscrutable labels: the French have a different word for everything! So we needed to walk slowly with phone translators in hand to figure out types of wood and their properties. It was all pretty overwhelming.
We then tried another place called Union Matériaux. It looked like a building supply company for contractors, but they were happy to talk with us. We sat at a desk and explained our project. The young man worked on his computer with us, drawing up the garden frame, and figuring out all our supplies, down to quantities of screws. Within a half an hour, he presented us a detailed proposal. Even though the Union Matériaux solution was a bit more expensive that what we think TriDôme would have cost, the ease and collaboration made it an easy solution. A few days later, all was delivered to our garden area.
We are fairly handy around the house, but we realized we needed someone more capable — and stronger — than we to build our garden box. One of our expatriate friends here recommended a multi-talented fellow named Owen. He is South African originally, but has lived in this part of France for about 30 years. He is a charming, enthusiastic man. He attacked the project and delivered our garden box in a day.
Now we needed to fill the box with soil! Soon after moving to this house, we learned that the soil around us is mostly clay. Our little neighborhood was built on former vineyards. Grape vines may be able to grow in this type of clay, but flowers and vegetables won’t. Therefore, we needed to import all the vegetable garden soil.
Geometry told us that we needed 2 cubic meters of gravel underlayment, and 5 cubic meters of soil for the raised garden and other plantings we anticipate.
We could buy bags of vegetable garden soil at the big box stores. We would need about 100 50-litre bags. In addition, we needed the two cubic meters of gravel underneath the soil. That seemed too cumbersome and expensive.
Union Matériaux had already said that they only offered decorative gravel; not construction gravel nor garden soil.
We found online only one local source for bulk gravel and soil, a company called Posocco. I studied up on French vocabulary about dirt and rocks, and we headed out in search of the place.
I called to get directions, but could only discern the equivalent of “the road to Limoux,” and Le Chapitre, which could mean “the chapter.” We know the road to Limoux, but the Le Chapitre meant nothing. No worries, we have Google Maps, right? The first place Google Maps took us was a house in a residential neighborhood. There was indeed a sign at the front gate with the name Posocco on it. But this was obviously not a gravel and earth distribution yard. I called the phone number on the sign to ask again for directions. A woman answered; we could hear a child practicing the piano in the background. Must be a family-owned business. Again: Road to Limoux, and Le Chapitre. Sigh.
Google Maps again: near the road to Limoux, but on the other side of the Aude River, was another pin for Posocco. Not exactly on the road to Limoux, but let’s try anyway. We found a Posocco sign, and at the end of a rough road, an opening full of piles of rocks and gravel, and a small building. Inside the building, a good-humored man agreed that we were still not at the correct place. He, fortunately, explained in detail how to get to the main location. He counted out the number of round-abouts and turns needed.
Of course, we miscounted the round-abouts. Halfway to Limoux, we agreed that we needed to turn back. At the first round-about we encountered (again), there was a small sign for Le Chapitre Bed & Breakfast. This felt very small-town: like, “Turn left where the steak restaurant used to be.” There was a Posocco sign facing the way we were then going, but invisible from our original direction. At the end of another pot-holed little road appeared more mounds of gravel, big trucks, and signs for Customer Parking! At last.
In the building, we found a man sitting behind a counter at a desk, and next to a little window at truck-cab height. We stood patiently at the counter as he dealt with one truck after another, presumably delivering and picking up rocks. While we waited, two other men came into the room, talking animatedly. When the desk man looked over to us and I tried to explain what we were there for, all three started discussing our project. They debated what type, shape and size gravel would be best for us. We just watched quietly as they figured it all out. At last, the desk man pulled out a laminated price sheet. He noted what we were asking for and the unit prices (per ton!) for soil and gravel — on a post-it note! Apparently we weren’t yet at the right office. He gave us a number to call to place the actual order.
We felt that we had made progress, for sure, but that we hadn’t found the end of the corridor yet. Time to give it a break, go home, and have a glass of wine.
We were visiting with our friends Georges and Michèle the next day. We told them our Google-Maps fueled adventure in search of gravel. Georges said that he knows someone at Posocco and would be glad to make the call for us. Yes! Merci beaucoup.
The next day, Georges texted that he had talked with his friend. He learned that we needed to buy the gravel and soil from Union Matériaux (!) rather than from Posocco directly. We could expect a proposal (devis in French: a very useful word it turns out) in the next day or so. As promised, the devis arrived by email, and it was much more expensive that what our post-it note showed, and the quantities were all wrong. But at least it was now from our new friends at Union Matériaux. I visited them again the next day, which was a very rainy day, and we sorted it all out easily. It turns out that Posocco had just partnered with Union Matériaux to be able to sell to individuals rather than in bulk to construction companies. The added cost came from packaging the gravel and soil in meter-cube bags and delivery to private residences.
Some days before, we had brainstormed delivery strategies with Owen, who had built the garden box. Mike and I had envisioned delivery of the bulk materials either in front of the garage or in the side yard by our cross street. Both locations would have required our transporting gravel and soil one wheelbarrow at a time to our new potager. Not a lovely prospect, but at least a lot of healthy exercise. Owen had looked around, and said we could arrange for the delivery truck to drive into the adjacent vineyard, and then deposit the bags over our wall and directly on the garden. It hadn’t even occurred to us. He asked if we knew the farmer; we said that we see him from time to time, and even occasionally wave, but that was all. I said that I would ask his permission the next time we saw him. Owen had just finished his work for the day, so he drove off. Five minutes later, he texted to say that he had seen the farmer, explained and asked permission, and the farmer had easily agreed.
At Union Matériaux, with gravel and soil purchased, we discussed this delivery strategy. It was still raining. In fact, we were in the midst of the wettest spring and early summer in about 50 years. It was all that anyone around here could talk about. All that rain meant that the dirt paths around the vineyard were muddy and far too soft for a heavy delivery truck. Now we needed to wait for a few sunny days and a dry vineyard. That wait turned out to be about a month. We kept looking out our living room window at this ark-like wood box. Spring became summer, and we didn’t have any soil for our garden.
At long long last, biblically, the rains subsided. Union Matériaux agreed that delivery was possible. The delivery truck driver skillfully backed into the vineyard, avoided the ditch between our wall and the vines, and lowered each cubic meter over the garden. Mike and I scrambled to rake out the gravel as it fell from the opened bags. We mounded the soil on top, and had the deliverer place the remaining soil cubes. Never before had we celebrated piles of rocks and dirt, but we did this time.
On to the good part: planting a square-foot-style potager. Happily, I marked the garden area spreadsheet with strings. We scoured the garden stores for plants: Chinese cabbage (Mike is going to make kim chee), lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, fennel, thyme, rosemary, chives, shallots, leeks, sage, and mint. We interspersed marigolds, petunias, and nasturtiums because they naturally repell some destructive insects — and they look great from the window. I added a drip-irrigation line.
While we aren’t ready to host a produce stand at the Saturday town market, we have at last started enjoying some lettuce, peppers and fennel from the potager. More produce to come as the summer progresses. The cucumber plants were so prodigious that we needed to replant them elsewhere. Who knew that some good soil, lots of sunshine and water, plants — and perseverance — will give you wonderful things to eat! Amazing.