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Sowing the seeds for a new life in France

Becoming 100% self-sufficient is hard; it needs land, knowledge and commitment. In this, the first of a series on changing lifestyles, we take a gradual approach, looking first at getting your garden in line

Do not despair if you live in a flat with no outdoor space, you can become self-sufficient in herbs; given a balcony, you can grow tomatoes in pots; with a handkerchief garden, you can do more.

The first thing to consider when planning a vegetable garden is the soil. Is it heavy clay or thin dry sand? Or something in between? Alkaline or acid? Has it been fallow for years, treated with chemical products, or used for livestock?

Almost any kind of soil will benefit from extra organic matter. So as you clear the land, build a compost heap using the plant waste. You can also add animal dung to your compost, if you can get hold of it.

If you are gardening in pots, you can compost indoors using a wormery. These can be bought online and are small enough to fit into a normal kitchen. They do not smell and are the fastest way of converting organic kitchen waste into compost, to use as fertiliser. They produce compost plus a liquid feed.

The first crops can include leeks and root vegetables, to help break the ground up. Potatoes, swedes, parsnips and beetroot are all good.

Courgettes are great for beginners and children because the seeds are big, they germinate quickly and as long as they are reasonably well watered and in the sun, grow fast and crop very well. Just one plant will supply courgettes all summer long.

You also need to plan for a water supply. Again, how much water you will need depends on the soil and the climate, but recovering rainwater using water butts is the easiest and cheapest solution. You can also use ‘grey’ water in small quantities.

Reference books are always useful, as is keeping a gardening diary so you can easily rotate annual crops. But, especially at first, the best way is just to have a go.

Trial and error is invaluable – and remember, plants are programmed to grow, one way or another, so nature is on your side.

A certain number of failures and losses are inevitable. Some things work, some do not. The trick is to learn from mistakes and keep going.

For every plant that withers there will be dozens more that will thrive and grow.

Finally, January is a great time for looking through seed catalogues. They can be inspiring, making you want to get out there and dig.

First steps for David and Teresa

A small flat in Crawley, West Sussex, was home to David and Teresa Clay and they grew vegetables in the tiny garden, made their own bread and learned other culinary skills including brining, curing, smoking, preserving and fermenting.

But there was only so much they could do in an urban flat so they started house- hunting in France.

“The dream was a house with enough space for a small orchard, some chickens, and a wood-fired oven,” says David.

They found exactly what they were looking for in Gascony; an old schoolhouse with plenty of surrounding land. There was even enough room to set up a B&B business with four en-suite rooms.

Keen to have the outdoor space and to be living more in tune with the seasons, as well as getting on the road towards self sufficiency, they moved to Gers (32) in May 2016. Since then they have been converting what they describe as “a small piece of barren land” into a garden and an orchard. “A limited budget and constraints on our time have obliged us to make do and mend,” says David.

“We made raised beds from old dog cribs, cold frames from pallets, and a path from damaged roof tiles.”

They have also planted a small orchard which they hope in time will also be home to chickens and bee-hives. The saplings were damaged by deer so they quickly learned to protect new planting.

“We’ve also been busy making our own compost to enrich the heavy clay soil  with organic matter and we’re even considering building a compost toilet, but this is really still in the planning stage!”

The bread oven is coming along, however, built almost entirely from stones and earth dug out of the garden.

“We can boast some successes – inevitably, there have been gluts of produce (more than 100kg of courgettes last year) so we are becoming adept at various methods of preserving our produce.

“Foraging supplements what we grow: hedgerow jelly is a favourite and the neighbours have enthusiastically enjoyed our elderflower champagne.”

The Connexion will follow the progress of David and Teresa Clay this year as they continue their quest for self-sufficiency. Tell us about your experiences on these topics via

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