01 July 2009

About bugs, soil, and fruit

Here in the Loire Valley, we don't really have very many bugs at all -- we don't have window screens, for example, and don't need them, even when the weather is hot. The biggest problem with the lack of window screens is that birds and bats sometimes fly into the house, especially in the evening.

Here, the bugs exist in nothing like the numbers you get on the U.S. East Coast. I grew up in coastal North Carolina, so I know what I'm talking about. Here in Saint-Aignan we don't have much more of an "insect problem" than the SF Bay Area does. That's one of the nice things about living here.

The little red plums are ripening now.

However, there is some little gnat or fly or mite out in the garden that bites you and gives you a nasty welt. The welt is slow to develop but lasts for days, really itches, and finally forms kind kind of crust or scab on its surface. That's Too Much Information, I guess, but it really is a nuisance. I think the bug must live in the soil, because it's only when you scratch around in the dirt that you get bitten. I'm not sure it is even a flying insect. The bite is definitely not the work of a mosquito.

Pictures from this morning's walk with Callie

About soil-free gardening, I'm not convinced such a scheme would work here in Saint-Aignan. It sounds to me like a method designed for climates where basically no rain falls during the gardening and growing season — California, in other words. Maybe I'm wrong. We aren't having any rain right now, but we know full well that the rain can return any day and turn our summer into another very wet one. They had violent downpours and flash floods yesterday in Angers and Rennes, not far west of Saint-Aignan. The stormy weather is moving our way.


The fact that we have heavy clay soil in our yard — what a friend calls « de la terre à vigne », or "grape-growing soil," as opposed to the sandy or loamy river-bottom soil in which it's easy to grow vegetables — is a major problem in rainy years. Our clay and limestone dirt gets saturated with moisture and drainage is poor. Fungi, molds, and mildew take hold fast in wet conditions and cause plant diseases. That's what happened to our gardens in 2007 and 2008.


One man we know — he lives a couple of miles from us, at about the same distance from the river and at about the same "altitude" as our house — has a fantastic vegetable garden every year. The soil in his garden is gray and loose, while ours is brown and compact. At first I thought he was very lucky to have such rich soil for growing vegetables, including root vegetables like carrots and beets.

More tomatoes

Well, it turns out luck had nothing to do with it. When he had his house built 20 years ago, he had many truckloads of river-bottom soil hauled in and dumped on the ground to create a thick layer of topsoil that is ideal for gardening. Maybe that's what we should do. But given our basically flat piece of land, we'd probably also have to have major excavation work done and then have the poor grape-growing soil trucked out. It would make somebody some good concrete, I'm sure.


Meanwhile, the temperature yesterday hit 31ºC and the low this morning is just above 20ºC. That's impossibly warm for this climate. At 6:45, I noticed that Bruno the grape-grower is already out there on his tractor, tending the vines. He worked until about 9:30 last night — we saw him go by, on his way home, and we waved. He tooted his horn. He must be taking advantage of the hours when it isn't so hot.

Bruno on his tractor out in the vines at 7:00 a.m. on July 1

We had guests last night, and we sat out on the terrace with them until 11:30. It was very agreeable, as we say in French. By that time, the temperature had moderated. There were a few annoying flying insects around as it got later, but nothing dramatic. There are a lot of moths here. Then bats came out and swooped around, feeding. Callie found a hedgehog — at least we think it was a hedghog — and raised a ruckus for a few minutes down below, in the... hedge. Thank goodness we don't have skunks here.

Our guests were two American women, one of whom is a blogger. She lives in the Washington DC area. The other woman is her mother, who lives near Portland, Oregon. One was enjoying our pleasant summer weather, and the other thought it was almost unbearably hot. I'll let you guess which one thought what. They are in the middle of their second week of a Loire Valley vacation. We enjoyed getting to know them.


  1. Ken,

    Whilst waiting for the big overhaul of your garden with fresh topsoil, you may add Mushroom compost (if available) to the soil to loosen the clay before planting your veggies or tomato plants.

  2. Except for the bugs, when I hear you talking about the soil and the weather I could swear you live in my neighborhood! Clay soil is the bain of my exsistance!
    When I moved to MS I thought finally gardening heaven! Thinking of that MS black soil youfind in the Delta. The Pine trees should have clued my dumb a$$ as to the situation. Clay, clay,clay,clay!

  3. Just keep working compost into your soil, year after year, and you'll be able to change it. If you do just the small beds, it might not be too overwhelming a job.

    I'm glad the bugs aren't as bad as I thought after your other post. You do know what you're talking about, coming from NC. And Walt from NY... it's not much better (but a little).

    The photos are exquisite. Love Callie in the background of the plum tree pic.

  4. Ginny, slowly improving the soil is what we are doing and will continue to do. This year so far the weather is cooperating so our garden is doing great.

    Kendall, bon courage as we say in France. Maybe you should have some of that Delta dirt imported for your garden.

    TB, is mushroom compost another name for horse manure? That's what they grow mushrooms in over in the caves champignonnières in Bourré. We've been using horse manure in our garden.

  5. Ken,

    You've got me :-) I did a little digging . It is made in a hot composting process with straw ( mucked from horse barn), animal (poultry) manure and gypsum.


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