Posted in The Secret Gardeners: Book Gardens

Book Gardens: Digging, Digging and (Yes) More Digging

There may be a few of you reading, wondering (there also may not, but I know I’m wondering) where the blog posts about the garden have gone. We did one blog post, written by my mother, one video produced poorly by me and then suddenly nothing. The thing is, I wanted the content to be interesting and so far, well, it’s not.

The sort-of-before shot of the Merlin Garden

            Since the creation of the initial two we have been doing practically nothing but digging up grass. With many fields to turn into gardens and no digger to help us with the chore it’s up to the two of us and a couple of garden forks to do it all. And this isn’t just any bog-standard garden grass. In a small garden in England you may have a lawn that a lawn-edger can easily cut through, that’s reasonably easy to maintain. Our grass isn’t like this. Ours is full of weeds and wildflowers, built up over decades in the orchard. The root systems can be as much as a foot deep (even deeper if we’ve caught onto a heavy load of dandelions) and we keep finding the roots of old trees that’ve been left in the ground. Even dead they’re strong and hard to move.

            At our fastest we can manage a metre squared an hour, which is a poor showing when our time is often taken up by other jobs or the weather has stopped us from going out. Currently we’re in the process of digging out two gardens: Merlin and our Beatrix Potter vegetable garden. So far, as of 2nd May, we’ve been doing the job for a couple of months (since March) and we have dug up roughly a third of Merlin and a twentieth perhaps of Beatrix Potter. It’s hard going and it gets very dull. Sometimes we have to take a day off digging to do something else because we’re just so bored with the same task.

We’d just started digging.

            You can understand then why there hasn’t been much content. As much as I’d love to show the process behind creating our book-gardens, at the minute that would simply be many videos worth of us digging… and more digging… and more digging. It’s tedious for us so I’m not willing to put readers or viewers through the same thing.

            However, excitingly there has been some progress outside of digging (all in Merlin, as Beatrix Potter isn’t even close to get onto the next step). Merlin’s paths are partly down. I mean partly, in the sense that the main path around the width of the plot is there but the centre rambling path is yet to be completed. Each path has been edged with whatever was affordable. For the pond area it’s been edged with cheap wooden rolls (costing 2 Euros 50 each—we used roughly thirteen); the entry way’s edging has been done with old slate roof-tiles we had in abundance in the barn (so, free); and the centre path is going to be using straight unbendable wooden edging (around 4 euros at our local supermarket).

            At all times we’ve been trying to cut down on costs but the bill still goes up. We used cheap slabs in the paths to break them up and also to cut the quantity of gravel we would need. Even still, with a reasonably priced gravel (8 Euros 75 for 35kg, and a red gravel on sale at roughly 5 Euros for 25kg) we’ve still had to use a large quantity and that’s made the bill skyrocket. Each time hard-landscaping adds up it cuts into our plants bill which, for a flower lover like my Mum, hurts a lot. If it had been a normal year it may have been fine. We may have been able to open our business and throw the money earned there into our gardens but it just hasn’t happened.

We put the paths down before we finished digging. Mistake!

            The funniest thing is that in order to be allowed the time to do all of the work in the garden it’s helpful not to have guests, but that kicks our budgets for the garden (also, emotionally, not receiving guests has been draining). I realise that I’m not breaking into complaining about an issue a lot of people have in 2021, but just allow me this quick rant. I promise I’ll stop soon (I can promise no such thing as I have no control over future Amy).

            So, the paths are getting there. The pond is almost dug out and we’ve purchased the liner etc. ready to go down (but we’re avoiding it until the remaining grass has been removed). The Mediterranean bed has been planted after purchasing the plants before lockdown began again: Three types of lavenders make up the bulk of the planting, then we have salvias, two evergreens and a curry plant (because I wanted to use it in cooking). We also have plants growing for shady areas inside the house which we purchased last month as rootstock from Farmer Gracy.

The sticks marks where the shade of the tree falls.

            The syringa (lilac trees/shrubs) have been planted along with another evergreen and a rose down the side of the entrance path to lead your eye down to Merlin’s tomb (a big rock that was already there and I couldn’t even pretend I could move—thankfully it was perfect for the design). Next, after digging up the remaining grass we’ll be laying down the centre dark path and the hidden reading area. In total the Merlin garden will have three relaxing spots: a chair to read in secret just off the hidden pathway, a bench (yet to be purchased) next to the pond and a hammock (yet to be purchased) in Merlin’s bedroom in the centre. Originally the hammock was going to be a raised bed you could lay on but, after searching for clover for ages we decided to go the hammock route and plant underneath it instead.

The slabs only cost a couple euros each. Bargain.

            Videos will be coming but, I’m simply waiting until we’ve moved onto another step (a more interesting step than digging at the very least). Until then I’m considering setting up an Instagram account so that I can at least post pictures of the digging we’ve accomplished that day (or pictures from our visits to the local Pepiniere/grower). I’ll let you know if I decide to do ahead with it.

            Again, my apologies for not posting as often as I would like. Writing has become a bit of a struggle as of late. I wish I could say it was because of not having enough time, but I have that in abundance unfortunately. Instead my mental heath has been the cause of the block and has made it hard to concentrate on anything—or accomplish any of the multitudes that I wish I could be doing. I’ll try and update this blog as often as I can. The next blog post will probably be a review of the SortedFood App (an app designed by the YouTubers SortedFood to help cook during a week). Keep an eye out for that if you’re interested and thank you for reading.


The Literary Onion

Posted in The Secret Gardeners: Book Gardens

The Secret Gardeners: Creating Book-Themed Gardens

The doorway to what will be the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ garden.

Note from The Literary Onion: Hi. I hope you’re all doing okay, despite these very trying times. The Secret Gardeners, creating Book Gardens is a project both my mother and I are working on together. The blog posts will mostly be written by my mother, like the one below, and the videos are created by me. Hopefully, we’ll improve the more we go along but we hope you enjoy our attempts whilst we do. Thank you for reading.

THE PROJECT               

To plan and build a number of gardens (actual number to be decided) based on book themes at our Writer’s Retreat in Cotes D’Armor, Brittany, France.

We opened our Writer’s Retreat on 13 March 2020 four days before the first lockdown in France (so, well timed).  Between lockdowns and border closures we have had no visitors this year. 


We live in a semi-secluded valley with a few neighbours scattered around.  Our Retreat is an old Breton farmhouse (circa 1890’s) complete with outbuildings and 19,000ish metres squared of land (roughly 4 ½ acres).  A lot of this land is woods but we do have four distinct other areas where we hope to develop our gardens.  We will describe these in more detail as we go along. 

The entrance to the woods is a bit overgrown.


We are a couple of British expats (Mother and Daughter) who moved to Brittany in October 2019 with hopes for a new life and a new business venture.  Together with our long suffering husband/father (who also provides some of the labour but who, he says, is retired) and two dogs we moved to Le Stylo Noir (The Retreat) in February 2020.


When we first moved to France we lived for a while in our small holiday home before we bought the Retreat.

When the lockdown came we had to decide where to base ourselves. Since we had a few jobs to do at the Retreat we decided to stay there for, we thought, a couple of weeks until the lockdown was lifted.  We had taken clothes to last a couple of weeks and a small amount of furniture and personal possessions.  We had already moved some things: our book collection, pots and pans and bed linen.  So on 13th March (a Friday, *insert-haunted-sounds-here*) we moved to the Retreat. 

At the Retreat we only had an old gas bottle oven which was falling apart and no washing machine. This was still at the holiday home.  Needless to say the lockdown lasted a little longer than two weeks.  I washed the clothes by hand we’d taken with us, cooked on the gas cooker and we read a lot of books and watched too much Netflix. 

We got through the jobs quite quickly and wanted to get started on a veg garden but as all the shops were closed except supermarkets we couldn’t buy any seeds apart from a few packets in the local supermarket and a couple of bags of compost. 

By the time we were ‘released’ it was well into the growing season so we went to the garden shop and bought some veg plants, mostly late-tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, chillies, lettuces and, of course, courgettes.   We made the classic mistake of overwatering until we read that this wasn’t good for the plants and cut back drastically (note from The Literary Onion: this is putting it mildly. We watered twice a day, rotting their roots :P).

As time went by and summer came we made jam from our rhubarb and chutney from the plums in the orchard.  We had plenty of time on our hands as we had no guests so we renovated the small cottage at the end of one of our buildings.

The plants grew, one courgette produced plenty of produce and the other didn’t.  The beans and chillies did well but the tomatoes, like a lot of people’s, got blight and were disposed of.  We had quite a few pumpkins (in fact we’ve still got some stored away) and we spent a lot of time mowing the grass. 

This side of the Orchard is going to become ‘Merlin’s garden’.

And then in October we had our second lockdown.  Nothing to look forward to this time, just long nights and short days and even when the lockdown was lifted it didn’t make much difference.  There were no Christmas events or markets. Christmas Day was spent with the three of us and then Boxing Day was on Zoom with the other members of our family (when we could get through).


New Year brought some good news (Vaccines) and some bad (UK had really high Covid numbers and people we knew of were struggling to return back to their French homes after visiting relatives).  

Now, on 3rd February 2021 as I write, we are not in lockdown but it feels like we are waiting for another one.  We don’t really go out except for food shopping and a couple of other essentials (including getting the two cats we’ve adopted neutered, after we had to cancel their operation because of the previous lockdown).


We have decided that until the world is vaccinated we aren’t likely to get any visitors, so we need a project to keep us sane. The one thing we are not lacking in our current house is land. 

Our previous gardens in England (East Yorkshire actually) have been modest in size.  As we worked full time, we spent very little time ‘doing’ the garden.  We have always had a greenhouse so have grown tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and chillies most years.  However, any other vegetables were always a challenge as the soil in our gardens was heavy clay and resisted the attempts to make it any better by adding top soil or manure.  The most success we had was with fruit bushes and courgettes (which seem to grow anywhere).

We decided we wanted to at least have a decent vegetable garden.  We both enjoy cooking (daughter is a trained chef) and we miss some of the vegetables we were able to buy in England.  France’s supermarkets are very seasonal (this is not a criticism) and this is reflected in the vegetables for sale.   We use our local supermarket which is only small so it is even more restricted.  You can’t expect to find chillies and herbs every week.  Summer is the season for soft fruits and salads and winter is very much cabbage, cauliflower and squashes.  So in order to be able to cook some of our favourite dishes we are going to have to grow some of their ingredients and either store or freeze them. 

Whilst doing all the research on the vegetable garden for the coming year we decided, as we had a lot of time on our hands, why not plan more gardens as well.  We have a lot of grass on our land and we spend a lot of redundant time mowing it.  So any improvement which lessens the grass expanses would be time well spent. 

Every field is made up of grass, grass and more grass.

In September, we came up with our grand plan, as I like to call it.  We are a Writer’s Retreat so why not plan a few small gardens based on the books we have read?

We are going to concentrate on our plans to design and build our gardens and share them with other people in this blog and our accompanying videos on YouTube.

So here goes on our new life working on our gardens. Hopefully in late 2021/2022 we’ll welcome people to our Writer’s Retreat (with Gardens!).  

My first attempt at a Garden video. They only get better, I hope 😛 .