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!

How to start keeping chickens in France

If you’re wondering how to start keeping chickens in France then this blog post should come in very handy…

Chicken keeping French vocab

Generally, when we refer to chickens in French they are poules, not poulets.

poule – hen
poulet – chicken (to eat)
coq – rooster / cock

Allow me to give you some more useful chicken-related French vocabulary to start you on your chicken keeping journey:

poulailler – chicken coop
copeaux de bois – wood shavings
oeuf – egg
blé – corn

la terre de diatomées – diatomaceous earth
désinfectant – disinfectant
vinaigre de cidre de pomme – apple cider vinegar
coquilles d’huîtres – oyster shell

How to start keeping chickens in France
How to start keeping chickens in France

Building or buying a chicken coop

It is our responsibility as chicken owners to keep our girls safe. We are charged with protecting them from predators and illness. There are things we can do on both fronts when selecting the place that our chickens will live. One of the first elements of starting to keep chickens in France is to provide them with a coop.

The coop should be solid, free of rot and mould, dry, secure at night, well ventilated and have a way for them to access it without difficulty. It will need to be able to be closed up at night once they are in to keep them from predators and accessible enough to you for it to be able to be cleaned our regularly to guard them against pests and illness.

How to start keeping chickens in France
The first iteration of our chicken coop

This sounds pretty strict but its actually not that hard to achieve. You can buy a coop online now and build it yourself – or even get a second hand one from leboncoin. We ended up repurposing an outbuilding that had previously served as a dog kennel. Whatever you choose, just make sure you can clean it and it’s safe.

Creating a safe chicken run

The amount of space you will need for your chickens depends upon how many you have. We have six girls in a run which is approximately 5m x 10m. This is their morning and evening space. They come into here for food, water, shade, laying in their nest boxes and I shut them in here for safety from dusk onwards until their coop door is closed and locked later on.

The run which we have was also in place when we moved in. It is double fenced since it used to house chasse dogs, and there is a concrete base around the perimeter. This is helpful because it deters dogs/foxes etc from digging their way in.

How to start keeping chickens in France
The chicken run is approximately 5m x 10m

If you’re creating your own you will want the fence to be high enough to stop the birds from flying over it (ours is 6 foot) and made from gnaw-proof fencing – chicken wire is actually a misnomer – it’s not safe for creating a run as it can be chewed through – so get something thick and durable. We have a stainless steel chain link fence, but you can also get smaller electrified net fences if you have a smaller space or want to move them around.

Our girls free-range in the daytime in the top third of our garden, and we had to do some chicken proofing to ensure they wouldn’t hurt themselves and that the fences were high and sound.

Free ranging chickens in our garden
Free ranging chickens in our garden

Rescuing or buying your chickens in France

On asking ourselves how we would start keeping chickens in France, one element that was very important to us was that the hens were rescued. We love animals and the prospect of being able to save some hens from being culled at eighteen months (when egg-laying becomes less reliable) fit our goals perfectly.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon the association Poule Pour Tous who are dedicated to saving hens from the abattoir at that eighteen-month marker. You can read more about them and how they work here.

How to keep chickens in France
All of the chickens have their own personalities

The hens come from local organic, free-range commercial farms so they are in relatively good shape and of course have had their vaccinations. We decided to order five hens (and actually received six but we’re pretty sure Buffy is old and doesn’t lay) who arrived very carefully boxed and gently delivered to us in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. We immediately put them into their furnished coop with food and water and left them to acclimatise.

How to start keeping chickens in France
Sunbathing hens in their run

What followed was a crash course in chicken welfare and handling! We let the girls out some hours later and they loved their run. At the time it had reasonably high grass and lots of bugs so they made their most of scratching about and getting to know the place. By the evening they did not yet know that they should go into their new home so we corralled them in before nightfall. Picking up and holding a hen is a bit like holding a big tennis ball. You don’t need to squeeze her (she will be compliant) but you do need to be firm, and unafraid!

Raising your own free-range eggs

There is much more to chicken care than I could hope to include in one blog post – there are some excellent books out there on the subject and some great YouTube videos, as well as my Instagram stories where you can see how we get on with our girls.

If you’re seriously wondering how to start keeping chickens in France and considering going ahead and adopting your own hens, then I highly suggest reading up on everything first – and then going for it!

The whole process has been a true delight. The girls are friendly, happy and producing four large eggs a day on average for us. We can’t eat that many so often end up giving them away to friends as a gift and the quality is unbeatable in my opinion.

We get four (large!) eggs per day from our hens
We get four (large!) eggs per day from our hens

Plus you have the satisfaction of knowing that your girls would have been killed had you not intervened. Knowing the individual and very distinct personalities of all of our girls now, I am so glad they ended up with us. They have really enriched our lives and our cooking!

What if I want to go away? Can I leave my hens?

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked on how to start keeping chickens in France. Thankfully the answer is yes!

While it is important to let your hens out early in the morning so that they get as much sun and nutrients as possible for their health and egg production, it is also important that they are safely shut away at night to protect them from predation.

Chickens cannot see in the dark, so they naturally take themselves back to their coop once darkness falls (yes really!). They have a very prescriptive routine (and soon you shall too!) but one way to have a social life around that (or indeed a lie-in) is to install an automatic chicken door. We bought one pretty much straight away – for the sake of the girls, and ourselves – and we haven’t looked back.

The second iteration of our coop with automatic Chicken Guard door
The second iteration of our coop with automatic Chicken Guard door

Graham installed our Chicken Guard in a single day. It runs on batteries which last approximately a year and is self locking. The version which we have allows you to manually program the time into the device to set when it will open and close the coop door, but you can get the next level up which has a solar detector on it and removes the need to manually update it through the seasons. There is also a version for extreme weather.

You can see them and read reviews through my Amazon storefront here – where I have a whole section on chicken keeping and products that I recommend, including the excellent River Cottage Handbook on chicken keeping (below) which I consider my poule-bible!

In addition, there are also groups on Facebook (link below) where you can ask questions and learn more about chicken keeping. It’s all about the research – but if you have any questions or would like to know more do drop a comment underneath and I’ll do my best to answer!

Useful chicken keeping links

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