‘But my garden really isn’t very stylish,’ objected Irene Knightley when I first approached her about a Real Garden feature. She must be an incredibly modest woman, as this is one of the most romantic gardens I have ever seen.
True, La Ferme de Sorrou, a garden in south-west France, isn’t manicured to right-angled perfection. And all the more to their charm. This is a raffish, informal potager which keeps Irene and her boyfriend Fabrice self-sufficient year-round. And it is marvellous.
Irene has been working on the garden for 17 years, practising permaculture and organic gardening while rearing hens, pigs, goats and sheep. The site is former farmland with a stream running through, and ranges from very sandy to heavy clay. At both extremes, she has incorporated plenty of organic matter to encourage a bumper harvest.
‘My main concerns were shelter,’ says Irene. ‘The northern part of the site is very windy and exposed on heavy clay.
‘I’ve lost lots of plants but gradually the shape of the garden is coming together.’
Irene’s nickname on her blog is ‘hardworkinghippy’, and even though she now only spends six hours in the garden, she has clearly toiled long and hard to create such a beautifully peaceful garden. Even though it is primarily a vegetable garden, Irene can’t resist scattering flowers around the site. A large pergola, known as the gloriette, is draped with wisteria and virginia creeper, and irises and echinacea spring up among the pumpkins and herbs.
One of Irene’s key weapons in the fight against garden pests is her flock of chickens, which run completely free-range over the site. Once she has protected tasty plants such as Rhubarb, she leaves the birds to scramble around and consume grubs which would normally gobble up seedlings and tender plants. And they produce daily crops of enoromous eggs by way of thanks for such a splendid feast.
Irene’s gardening practices are as free-range as her chickens. She feeds hungry plants using a ’soup’ of comfrey, nettles and garden weeds; she builds new raised beds using the hugelkultur system, where dead wood from trees supplies the nutrients, fertility and organisms essential for a successful harvest; and the old bedding from her goat sheds becomes a mulch for the vegetables.
Irene is such an adept practitioner of permaculture that she runs courses on off-grid living, self-sufficiency, foraging and smallholding. Which means you can visit this beautiful farm for yourself. Just visit Irene’s blog, La Ferme de Sourrou to find out more.