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Postcard from France: The garden from hell

April 20, 2022

I’ve heard it said that when most species, including our own, are wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches will take our place as top dogs in the evolutionary hierarchy. That may be, but they’ll need to fight it out for supremacy with the dandelions.

I was reminded of what ferocious colonisers dandelions are when we returned to our recently-acquired second home in France. It was the first time we’d seen the place in the spring. As we pulled into the drive, we were greeted with thousands of the buggers, risen to a height they rarely achieve in England’s green and pleasant land. They’d already shed their flowers, and were ready to spread their seed far and wide.

It’s been eight weeks since we were last here, and what a dramatic transformation! A nondescript, reasonably under-control garden surrounding the house is now a meadow. Aside from the dandelions, we have buttercups, daisies, little pink flowers, irises and other plants that may have been put there by the previous owners or may have drifted in on the wind. Such grass as survived the stiff competition from other species is two feet high, for goodness’ sake.

On the night we arrived I dreamed of sentient green slime slowly enveloping rockeries, capturing the septic tank and heading for the house. I must have been reading too much about Ukraine. My wife’s reaction was “how lovely – our very own rewilding project”.  I have a well-developed irony detector, but in this case, I was unsure about whether she was being serious. But she knows I won’t tolerate incursions by green invaders. And she also knows how much I loathe dandelions.

So I began the fightback this morning. I took out the strimmer that we inherited from the previous owner, with the intention of cutting back the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the house. Unfortunately my attempt to repel the invader was a failure. Faced with an acre of jungle, the strimmer died before I could cut back more than a couple of square feet. What next? Agent Orange, or risk the monster petrol mover we also inherited?

Another problem is that the designated flower beds are now indistinguishable from what used to be scrubland. And what to attack? The previous owners were keen gardeners. There are plants everywhere that might be weeds or might not. Mme D. told us that there were wild orchids here and there. So when I start my mower offensive, what precious floral treasure will I destroy in the process? Unlike Putin, I have no intention of picking on innocent civilians.

Furthermore, I know no more about gardening than Jeremy Clarkson did about farming when he bought his thousand acres. In fact, the only things I know are how to kill a lawn by overfeeding it, and how to encourage aphids and blackfly to settle on our roses. The sad reality is that my horticultural expertise lies mainly in killing things, such as slugs, ants and other creatures that disturb my quiet enjoyment of our curated nature.

Just as well that in England we have the ever-cheerful Wes, who spends a few hours every couple of weeks repairing the damage I’ve done and generally keeping the place looking nice. It’s also just as well that he’s a diplomat, since over the years he’s had to respond to my wishes, only for them to be countermanded by she who must be obeyed. Since she signs the cheques, guess who’s the decision maker as far as he’s concerned?

Alas, we have no Wes in France. So we have a choice. Either I let rip with the mower and destroy the orchids, or we outsource the job to the guy our predecessors used, who presumably knows where the bodies, or in this case the precious plants, are buried.

Either way, if we don’t do something soon, the rewilded garden will be covered with four-foot tall dandelions and other monsters. At that point I suppose the only solution would be a scythe or some awful weapon of mass destruction we might persuade a neighbouring farmer to deploy on our behalf.

The solution must be found by August, because I very much doubt if our daughter would be too pleased to allow our four-year-old grandson to frolic through a garden of triffids when they come visiting. As a last resort, perhaps we could hire a flock of sheep, but I haven’t seen many of them in the area.

Most likely it will fall to me to do my inept best with the mower. However, since there’s plenty of rain forecast for the next week, will the Honda four-stroke end up being no more effective than a Russian tank bogged down in Ukrainian mud? It’s only now that I realise that one of the most precious hand-me-downs that we found in the house is a stout pair of wellingtons whose previous owner had feet the same size as mine. It’s the first time I’ve worn such footwear in half a century.

All that said, it’s still a joy to be here. As I write this, I’m sitting on a covered patio watching the dandelions leer at me as the rain comes down. Various exotic birds settle on our little barn, also known as the piggery. I haven’t a clue what they are, because my ornithological knowledge is limited to robins, crows, blackbirds and pheasants.

But I do know what I like. At night the owls hoot and what I suspect are nightingales engage in earnest conversation. The dawn chorus is a rapturous symphony of sounds that makes the version in our English garden seem like a string quartet in comparison.

I feel slightly ashamed to be obsessing about dandelions when a nearby country is in flames, people are dying in their thousands and my wretched, Brexit-stricken, COVID-rife country continues to put up with a lying buffoon for a prime minister while I look on with helpless impotence. But at least I can actually do something about the herbal demons invading my little domain. All I ask for is a manicured postage stamp of order. The rest of the garden can have its way, orchids and all.

A sign of impending old age, when your world shrinks and your ability to shape it declines in equal measure. But hey, lovely to be in France, and next week we have Macron vs Le Pen, not that you’d notice in this sleepy little neighbourhood.

The question is: which of them is the orchid, and which is the dandelion?

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