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How to build a cheap potager in a French garden

Building our potager beds for very little money was something which had been on my French garden to-do list for months.

Our vegetable plot has been through several thought processes and incarnations – but first, we chose a sunny spot in the garden. It’s important that the beds will get enough light to be productive. Exactly how much you will need will depend upon what you want to put in there, but we chose to put three 4m x 2.5m beds of exposed earth with no edging up at the top left-hand side of the garden next to the fence closest to our neighbours.

Choosing the right place in the garden for our potager beds was important.
The top of the garden before the potager took shape.

Build a cheap potager in France: Preparing the ground

Digging out the turf which was in place and exposing the ground underneath was a hard job. We removed it by hand with a spade and turned it over to allow the grass to die off. We didn’t have compost bins at the time so this was a space and (somewhat) labour saving method – but it did mean that the ground was not usable for planting for several weeks longer as the roots of the grass (and more problematically for us, moss) decayed.

However, after those weeks of waiting, we were delighted to find that the soil underneath was of good loamy quality. We then used the electronic tiller – that we had picked up on Gumtree while in the UK for the princely sum of £10 – to break down the larger clods of earth and give us a smoother growing medium.

Once the beds were made they were great, they looked neat. But of course, over time the garden grew and the grass and weeds on the edging persistently made their way back into our hard-won soil. We came to the realisation that we would not be able to keep the potager as we had imagined with the time we have available to maintain it. We needed to create some kind of delineation between grass and vegetables to help us out.

Marking out the space we would use was easy, but digging the beds was tough.
The weeds won the war of edging the beds when our spring became busy with work.

What material to build with

There are lots of materials which can be used for the construction – a typical method in our old UK lives was to build our beds from the abundant and free resource of wooden pallets (choosing ones which were not treated with harmful chemicals which could bleed into the soil).

Pallets are easy to come by in the UK, but less so in our area of rural France.

We built almost everything in our old garden from pallets, Graham even replaced our decked garden steps with them when we were trying to save money in the last year of living in Bristol. Incidentally, they looked great and were even stronger than those which had been there before!.

Our Bristol vegetable patch.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case for us in France – pallets have a monetary value here and are not given away freely in the area of Limousin in which I live. Perhaps in more industrialised areas, they may be more available – if they are please feel free to comment below and let us know where, as I’m sure others will be interested.

So this pushed my brain into gear to try to solve the problem, initially without spending any money at all, while also creating something aesthetically pleasing.

Version two of the potager meant bringing down some old leftover planks of wood from the top of the woodshed (grange) and arranging them around the edge of the beds to create some separation. They worked. The grass’ encroachment on my beloved potatoes was impeded, and for a while I felt more comfortable with them.

Some quick and dirty recycled edging to hold back the grass tide, however the order of this deteriorated quickly as you can see.

Expansion and improvement

I mentioned the potatoes which I had planted earlier this year – we grow them every year as they are a staple of our diet and we appreciate good quality produce where possible. This year I bought a large 3kg bag of the Bintje variety seed potatoes from E.Leclerc for less than 10€. Great value, but when planting them all they completely filled our three existing beds (and to be honest, I overfilled them and had more for pots) so we needed more space.

I learned that covering the turf with a light occluding medium weakened that hard to remove moss and turf, so marked out and blocked off the light for another two beds of the same size to give us more space for other projects – however, that of course meant that more edging was required.

I had used all of the wood from the grange, and also on my thrice-daily visits to the top of the garden feeding and tending the chickens, I had fallen out of love with potager version two. With the harsh weather, some of the planks had shifted out of place, and the lack of a uniform look had clearly been noted by our neighbours who since version one had planted some small laurel trees next to their hedge. Clearly they were keen to hide the undeniable ugliness of our potager.

For me, frugality means spending our money where we get the best value for it, so with this laundry list of dislikes and our neighbours’ obvious discomfort, we decided that this project warranted a small spend, both financially and of physical effort.

A tidier potager bed in Bristol – overseen by head garden-cat Ralphy.

Very British problem solving

My automatic (and perhaps very British) response to the problem was to consider sleepers as a solid and easy to install edging (note, not railway sleepers due to the chemicals which they can be treated with) but as I researched this route I discovered that to edge our five large beds would cost over 1600€! To my mind, I’d rather just buy my potatoes from Carrefour for that price.

Sleepers were my first choice.

So we dove into Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration on how we might create an affordable version of this typical British allotment look – and found that even buying pre-made potager edging was going to be more than we were willing to spend.

Instead, we readied ourselves to put our building abilities to the test and hit the Castorama website with aplomb. Drawing out the plans and figuring out how we might construct the beds with the materials available to us (our rural store, while large, does not carry all of the ranges listed online, nor indeed deliver) was a fun task and drew out my inner-engineer.

Bringing together the materials to construct the beds.

We ordered the materials which we thought would work for us – rounded half lengths of treated wood for the edges and sharpened posts (piquets) for the corners and strengthening – as well as small metal brackets to tether the lengths together and A LOT of woodscrews!

Our Castorama shopping list

I was pleasantly surprised to find that collecting the materials via the Castorama click-and-collect service could not have been easier – being the first time we had used it, we were a little unsure how things worked, but it was all very self-explanatory when we arrived with our trailer and a receipt for our order.

Building a cheap potager bed

Building the beds was a pretty physical job. I am usually a pretty sedentary person. My work involves sitting at a desk in every incarnation of how I earn a living. Since walking Margot hasn’t yet brought me the peak physical fitness that I had envisaged (!!), there was a lot of stiffness involved in this two-day task!

The potager coming together.

Firstly we cut the straight lengths to size and then connected together with the ones which needed further length with small metal brackets. I laid them out next to the place which they would sit when constructed, and we brought together what felt like a kit for each bed, putting aside the screws and cut posts which we attached to the lengths so that we could knock them into the ground with a mallet.

Small metal brackets hold the longer lengths in place.
We plan to shred our waste wood from hedges and pruning to create a dry walkway around the beds.

Eventually, with a great deal of teamwork and balancing wood, we managed to layer-by-layer create the beds and screw the lengths into the posts. Bed-by-bed we could see the potager coming together, and much as we had hoped to complete the task in a single day, we took a brief break when our neighbours’ little girl came over with some homemade bell-shaped biscuits to fuel us in our task.

After a few restful moments on the bench, we conceded that version three of the potager would take longer than the light we had left in the day, and so we resolved to come back afresh the next morning.

At least now, we can clearly see when the weeding needs to be done!

The finished product

And – very unlike us – we actually did finish it! Usually, a working day or social commitment will mean that we might have to get back to a task when we have the chance, but pleasingly we were able to finish our construction in a few hours on day two and step back in the sun to admire our handiwork.

Four of the five beds which we built.
We painted on leftover wood treatment to seal the raw edges of the posts we used.
The finished potager under a French sunset
Our neighbours’ view is much improved.

We are incredibly pleased with how they look, and they are proving so much easier to keep neat and tidy – our neighbours even complimented them calling them “jolie”, so we really have done a good job at building a cheap potager in France. Perhaps it goes to show that the third time really is the charm!

The cost of this project will vary depending upon how many beds which you need to make, but we managed to construct these five at a cost of around 200€. This is a huge saving on the estimate for sleepers and I’m very happy with the result – perhaps even more now that these beds are imbued with a sense of pride at a job well done!

Find sold house prices in France

I’ve recently discovered a tool which I wish I’d had access to when I was looking for the cheapest place to buy property in France, amazingly it allows you to easily find records of sold house prices in France over the last five years… online!

How to find sold house prices in France
How to find sold house prices in France

Those who are already familiar with the French housing market will be accustomed to the very paper-based purchase process and much more personal experience of buying a home in France. To my mind, this is no bad thing, the cost of a home is likely one of the most expensive things which we will spend money on. To have a more human, traditional experience of going into the office of the Notaire, meeting them and the vendor in person is ceremonial and part of the charm of being in a country where a connection is often valued over expediency.

You can read about my personal experience doing this in my blog post here.

Comparing this to the very faceless – but admittedly convenient – remote conveyancing services which I have previously used in the UK I think that overall I would choose the French method if I had to do it again.

Sold property prices in France

I receive lots of messages on Instagram and via email asking me what I know about property prices per square metre, or how to find sold house prices in France – the latter question I can now answer more fully thanks to the discovery of a free French app created by Etalab which allows users to view the Demande de Valeur Foncière data (requests for land values) and sales in the French property market over the last five years. 

Find sold house prices in France
Choose the area of France which interests you
Find sold house prices in France
Find the town which you’d like to research
You can choose the specific property or land location by cadastral plan record

Click here to access the free tool directly

It’s also admittedly a great way to find out what your new neighbours paid for the house next door… but let us remember that with great power comes great responsibility! Happy data hunting!

Find sold house prices in France
Sold prices are listed along with sale date and property size

More info on the French real estate market

For those who are interested, the raw data for the app is produced by the General Directorate of Public Finances can be found here: https://www.data.gouv.fr 

My journey to living a slow and purposeful life in France

Living a slow and purposeful life in France was always the goal. The idea of sitting in the garden, drinking coffee and reading the masses of books which I have accumulated over the years (and not yet got round to reading) is something which I aspired to long before we started our journey to becoming permanent residents in France.

The problem with my dream is that it was a little idealistic for several reasons:

A bottle of cava on our coffee table in front of the wood burning stove - Living a slow and purposeful life in France
A relaxing pace of life in France was always my goal

Property in France is cheap, but the cost of living is not

It’s wonderful to be able to rent cheaply, buy a home with a small mortgage, or purchase a property outright – gratefully, these are all very achievable goals for a foreigner like me. However, I think it’s important to be reminded that there is a cost to living wherever you lay your hat. Basic expenses still exist even if you do nothing ostentatious. This might include:

  • Taxes
  • Insurances
  • Subsistence (even if you grow a lot of food it’s unlikely you will be fully self-sufficient)
  • Utilities (gas, water, electricity)
  • Repairs
Owning chickens can be a great way to produce your own food

For us, this has meant working – and working legally – including paying our taxes and social charges to ensure that we are contributing to the country and earning our right to stay. Setting our French businesses up to allow us to find customers and clients, and meet the minimum income requirements to be considered self-supporting on our Carte de Sejour application has been a stressful process.

We have been fortunate to have been able to use some of our rudimentary French language skills when organising ourselves, and at one point Graham had to complete a 30+ hour course in French just to be able to register as an artisan (a requirement which has now be annulled). It was pretty much a vertical learning curve in so many respects, but again one that we, now at eighteen months in, we feel that we have a good handle on and can manage without stress.

The right to remain in France

We are in the process of each acquiring our Carte de Sejour (for the most up-to-date information on gaining legal residency post-Brexit I highly recommend checking our the Remain in France Together website). Our fingerprints have been taken at our local préfecture and we are waiting for some kind of news – any kind of news (!!) – that we have been accepted. The Carte is the culmination of years of work to understand the system that we hope to join, so to receive this would really mean a lot to me – a formal recognition of our efforts.

Two large paper folders on the dining table - Living a slow and purposeful life in France
Our finished Carte de Sejour applications

Building my version of a quiet life in France

I found it pretty (naively) surprising that when I moved to France, my life didn’t suddenly just become very calm and tranquil – full of book reading and coffee drinking! My life in the UK had been hectic. I was worn out. The process of selling our Bristol house, closing my businesses and moving our things had depleted my energy to levels I had not known it possible to function with. I think I am still recovering from that exhausting process, just over eighteen months on.

Happily, I can now report that things have become a lot easier – but I do seem to have this habit of finding that life has become calmer, and then adding some chaos to it. I’ll take it to my therapist…!

Coffee and porridge on the table of our rustic French home
A slow breakfast in France

Adopting les animaux de compagnie

Adding pets to our life has been a very rewarding, but sometimes stressful process. Margot – our seven-year-old rescue cocker spaniel – is a wonderful addition to our home, but severely traumatised by her difficult earlier life. Being solely used to breed pedigree puppies, she had no understanding of boundaries, living in a home with people, she had no lead training, was poorly socialised and is chronically anxious. She has been a testing but joyful dog and I would not be without her, but bit by bit these small changes (smaller than moving countries I suppose) have accumulated to give a feeling of life being full, and so the books and films that I long to absorb have felt a little far away.

Margot our rescue cocker spaniel living a slow and purposeful life in France
Margot is the little lion we never knew we needed

If you’ve been following my Instagram posts you will have seen that we recently added a rescue kitten to our home – Percy – and that she too has become an adorable little character – but managing our small (currently) four-room home with three pets has become a bit onerous – so if you should see me somewhere on social media talking about adopting another animal anytime soon – STOP ME! It is lovely to have so many fluffy people in our home, but it does add to a) the cost of living and b) the time it takes before I’m able to have my first coffee of the morning, because of course, everyone has needs (hello chickens…).

Percy has recently joined our frugal family

Learning to say “no”

So the point of this post (I promise, I’m getting there…) is something which comes up again and again in my chats with you all on social media – how we all have to learn to say no to things, and to put boundaries in place to keep ourselves well and allow space to replenish.

I’ve not always felt particularly able to do that given the constraints upon us as a result of Brexit – the minimum income requirement being the biggest. It propelled me into a place of putting a huge amount of energy into my work, and as a result, I wasn’t especially available to anyone for a time, physically or emotionally.

I'm learning how to start living a slow and purposeful life in France
I’m figuring out what it means to me to live slowly in France

Ironically, 2020 was the year in which I decided that I would start living a slow and purposeful life in France. I decided to travel more and visit friends, to take regular time off work and to invest more in my friendships. Of course, thanks to COVID-19 that didn’t happen, and instead 2020 became another year of work being extremely draining. Not because I was throwing myself into it, but rather because of the collective trauma of our societies, it was throwing itself at me.

Working as a talking therapist going through the same issues as my clients in real-time was a first for me – and I imagine many therapists. But with new, extremely robust boundaries I found that I was able to navigate my way back to a place of calm, and get myself much closer to where I have for so long wanted to be – in the luxurious position of being able to choose whether I read that book, or drink that coffee, or whatever.

Because I choose to, not because I *have* to.

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