Sunday 30 March 2014

Think Twice about DIY

Something I thought might be worth passing on to anyone newly arrived in France – think twice about DIY!

Often it is no more expensive to have the job done by a professional. How does this work? Well in France there is a hefty tax on goods that you buy. In the UK it’s called VAT – here it is known as TVA – and it adds almost 20% cost to anything you purchase. The French government however, wishes to assist small businesses and so materials bought by a builder, roofer, plumber, electrician etc are taxed at a much lower rate. So, if you have a big job to do, it can be a good idea to employ a professional and save on the cost of materials. Of course you have to pay him for his labours but often the saving on the TVA is sufficient to meet his charges.

Not only that but the professionals also negotiate a discount from their regular suppliers so they can make a double saving – paying little tax on goods that they can obtain much cheaper than you. Some of the discounts they negotiate can be huge and if they want the work they can often be persuaded to pass at least some of that discount on to you. Last year the guy who laid my floor tiles obtained a 30% reduction in their retail price. The saving to me (taking account of the full retail price and the 20% tax I would have been obliged to pay) more than covered the cost of his labour.

In French law, tradespeople are obliged to quote a price for the job and once the price is agreed they may not add extra charges. In producing the quote, they describe the price of materials and their labour charges so it can be quite easy to estimate whether there is any saving or additional cost – and then, if necessary, negotiate a lower price by asking the guy to pass on some of the discount he has probably negotiated with the supplier.


Friday 14 March 2014

Long Distance Gardening

We bought this little house while I was still fully employed, working for the ‘man’ to pay the mortgage and see the children through university. So for a few years it was a ‘maison secondaire’. We came here when we could but often there were long periods between visits.

The garden was probably best described as a portion of a meadow. How to manage a garden from a distance? Is long distance gardening a realistic option? Well, yes it is possible to have a successful and productive garden so long as you don’t mind tall grass. We quickly learned that if you take any given plant or seed, put it in the ground and then ignore it for weeks or even months on end, it probably has a 50/50 chance of survival. The challenge therefore is to increase the odds in its favour even if only by a small margin.

One book, just one, was our best guide and strangely it wasn’t written with long distance gardening in mind. That book (which became our bible) was called ‘The No Work Garden’ by Bob Flowerdew. USA readers can get it here:
When we moved here permanently, house renovation, initially at least, took priority over the garden. But we needed to make the garden productive, we needed to eat. Here’s the best advice I can offer.

The first trick is to allow the garden to do what comes naturally. Our plot, it turns out was very fertile, PH neutral, deep stone-free soil, a sort of grassy meadow hedged by massively overgrown Lonicera. It stood in the heart of the country surrounded by huge oak and walnut trees. It was rural and rustic and that’s the way it would have to stay. The trick is to improve it rather than change it. We brought the hedge under control by taking two metres off its thickness and planted daffodils and cowslips. We also celebrated the random things that the garden decided to do of its own accord. Last year, for example, a yarrow plant appeared in the garden. Many would consider it to be a weed, for us though, it became a flowerbed.

Part of enabling a garden to do what comes naturally is to consider the location and plant whatever you can
find that thrives in your district. If it’s happy in your climate you’ve got a head start. So, our garden was planted with a selection of local apple trees, pear trees, cherry, plum and mulberry. All are thriving and producing fruit.

As for vegetables we have been successful with Globe and Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, onions, garlic, leaks, beans, peas and, this year, we have an excellent crop of grapes coming from two vine cuttings I stuck in the ground when we first purchased the house.  Whenever possible we planted perennial rather than annual and tried to tie our visits in to cropping or fruiting seasons. So, it’s worked reasonably well. We used to lose some crops due to lack of care or missing the optimum harvesting date by a few weeks but on every visit the garden managed to surprise us.

And then of course there is foraging. The local countryside is full of food - blackberries, sloes,  hazelnuts, walnuts and sweet chestnuts, crab apples, elderberries, wild mushrooms and the occasional giant puffball. The last one we found could have fed three families. Two hundred yards away we have the Rance Estuary – good for salt water fish but also good for Samphire the most delicious green vegetable I know and twenty minutes away, on the coast there is a bay rich in clams and cockles. Our hens in a mobile relocatable run provide eggs, keep the grass down and provide excellent manure and then each season there is a glut of something - last year it was cherries and plums. Neighbours unload their surplus and we turn it into jams, conserves, jellies and sauces. If you want more detail try Bob Flowerdew’s book, you won’t be disappointed.

Life’s pretty good really!