Saturday, May 17, 2008


One of Jules' first acts as our landlord was to assure us that we did not need a gardener. There's practically nothing to do, he said, as we all sat in the real estate agent's office. A few rows of lavender, a little rosemary, it will take care of itself. And besides, tending it will be amusing.

Dazed by jetlag and the rapid-fire French, we nodded. We had seen the house once, for about a quarter of an hour, and all we remembered for certain was that we liked it more than any other we had ever seen. And in the garden...there were lots of trees, weren't there? And some beds of perennials? We signed.

Then we moved in with our suitcases and children and dogs and mother. 35 olive trees. 12 rows of rosemary, the longest four the length of the house, the other eight the length of the pool: easily over a hundred rosemary plants. 11 rows of lavender, the width of the house: again, approaching 100. Assorted shrubs; grass of a sort; four wisteria vines climbing the terrace.

We mentioned to Jules, racing around the property in his summer uniform of unbuttoned linen shirt and khaki shorts, that this seemed like rather a lot. Mais non! it was nothing. A little weeding here and there and we would have it all under control. The olive trees were not an immediate concern--things that live for hundreds of years can stand a little neglect. But the rosemary and lavender had been planted a few weeks before and weeds were already sprouting. Jules' arrosage automatique--automatic watering system--came on three times each day and watered not only the drought-tolerant herbs but also the weeds that were thriving around them.

Once the furniture arrived and we found our sheets and towels and dishes and books, I looked at the perennial beds, at the thriving weeds. My mother and I--mainly she--made a valiant attempt at weeding, but it was more than a person could do. Especially if that person were not possessed of a truckload of tools and a bigger truckload of patience. In the evenings we would sit on the terrace and gaze down at the piddly amount we had weeded that day, and try to think of ways to combat the weeds.

To preserve the family honor, I should say that these are no ordinary weeds. Olivier told me, privately, of course, that Jules had discovered this wonderful new grass several years ago and planted it throughout the property. It spreads, both above and below ground; is tolerant to heat and cold, rain and drought. Olivier rolled his eyes and shrugged. Now it's everywhere. Partout, partout. We can't get rid of it. And he says it's my fault. But don't tell him I told you. The roots of this grass--which was partout the beds--go more than a foot into the clay soil, and can be as thick as my finger. They branch off, so when you think you've gotten one section out, you find that what you've actually dug up is an octopus of a root, with tentacles shooting out God knows where.

I tried--forgive me--herbicide. It did virtually nothing. The weed took a little of it every day, like Mithridates, and found that a little poison now and then suited it just fine. I tried digging it out, but I felt like Sisyphus, pulling a little out only to have it sprout back stronger.

Then one day I thought: what would I do if this were happening in my garden in America? And the answer came to me: mulch. Of course. It's what we do best in gardens in my city, or at least most reliably. Every spring and fall the streets smell of shredded tree bark, and on Saturday mornings we all fill our trunks with bags of bark, shredded and un, and sometimes we even order truckloads. We rake it under and around all of our plants, and, look, Ma, no weeds. Or not many.

I looked up mulch in the dictionary: paillis. I suggested to Olivier that I might put some paillis down in the beds. He frowned. Quoi?

Paillis, pour éviter les mauvaises herbes.

He narrowed his eyes. I explained. With us, where I live in America, it is normal to place something around the plants, and that makes the weeds not be there.

Olivier tried a different tactic. Why wasn't a gardener included in the contract with Jules? I have always thought that strange.

Because Jules told us we wouldn't need a gardener. He thought taking care of the weeds would be amusing.

This got a bigger shrug as Olivier's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. He shook his head. Wrong, all wrong. Another example of Jules' wilyness, I could see him think. You should not worry about the weeds. It will be all right.

And that was the end of the conversation. I asked other people, French and English, about mulch. Everyone had much the same response: they looked at me as though I must be confused about what paillis was. I started to doubt myself. Maybe there was something different about plants in France, or the ground. Maybe mulch was some strange American custom, like Pentecostal churches and modest bathing suits, something that just didn't translate, was untranslatable.

Then a few weeks ago a French friend showed me her vegetable garden. We were looking at her newly set out tomato plants, and she leaned down and picked up a piece of straw. This is some of the paille from last year, she said. I have to go and get some more.

I caught my breath. She had used paille--straw--to mulch her tomatoes. And she was going to get some more.

Trying to sound offhand, I said: Oh, you use straw around your plants?

Oh yes, of course, every year.

Hmm, I said. Then I went in for the kill. Where do you get straw?

At the cooperative agriculturel, of course. The next town over.

I found C. and the girls, ready to leave the party that minute and go buy a trunkload of straw. C. pointed out that the coop was unlikely to be open on Saturday night at eight o'clock, so we stayed on for dinner. I was at the coop on Monday morning, though. The gates were closed. No hours were posted. I parked in front of the gates for a few minutes, just in case they opened promptly at 9.20, but no luck, and eventually I gave up and went home.

The next day I was lucky. The gates were open and there were people bustling around. I explored the terrain: flats of vegetables in front of the main barn, where the caisse is; odds and ends around the caisse, everything from wooden clogs to wine corks to raffia to magpie traps. No straw. I went up the hill and found another barn. No one was around, and I wandered in.

The smell of straw and hay was potent. Suddenly I was back in the barns of my childhood, barns where there were always kittens to play with, sunbeams coming through openings in the hay loft, the reassuring warmth and lowing of the cows down below. I stood and inhaled for a minute or two, touching the bales of straw. Here I was at the end of my quest. I could take the straw home and scatter it under my lavender and rosemary and, finally, évite the weeds. It wasn't shredded bark, but it was better: its smell and texture took me back further than my last garden, all the way to the first garden I remember, my grandparents', and their rows of strawberry plants that I believed were planted every year just for me.

I turned and walked out of the barn to inquire at the caisse about the price. The perfumery next door to the coop was working, and sending up the smell of church incense, musky and rich and heavy, so strong that I could almost smell, under it, the old church smell of damp stone.

At the caisse I told the man that I wanted to buy some paillage. He rattled off on his fingers five different varieties of paillage.

I want the kind that comes in squares, I said. The kind in the barn.

He looked over his half glasses.

I sketched out with my hands: paillage, in a square, like this.

He handed me a pad and a pen. I drew a barn, and, in the barn, rectangles. He looked at it and shook his head. Allez, madame, trouvez un de mes collègues, et montrez ce que vous voulez à lui. Il peut vous expliquer le mot.

I smiled--my prize was still in sight, after all--and went to find the colleague. He was loading bags of manure into an elderly lady's elderly Twingo. I waited at a respectful distance until she had driven off. Then he turned to me and I smiled.

I would like to buy this, but I do not know the word. I smiled again. This always helps when I find myself in this position. We went into the barn and I pointed to the first group of bales. This. I would like this.

This is for goats, for eating, he said. He held his hand to his mouth, miming a goat eating hay.

I looked down at what I had pointed to. Then I smiled, again, and said, But I do not need this, of course. Another smile. I do not have any goats.

We both laughed at my joke.

Then I pointed to the straw. This is what I would like.

Of course, madame. De la paille. Some straw.

But what do you call this? I need to tell your colleague at the caisse.

It is paille, madame.

Yes, I smiled. But in this shape. What do you call this shape?

Ah. C'est une balle. Une balle de paille. Paille en balle.

I laughed, and this time it was not to be charming. C'est le meme mot en anglais, monsieur. It's the same word in English.

I went back to the caisse and explained what I wanted: trois pailles en balle, s'il vous plaît, monsieur.

But of course, he said with a smile. Paille en balle! Monsieur rang up my order. You should not worry, madame, he said. If I were in England, I would have the same problem.

And that is how I bought three bales of straw. I've put it out around the plants, and I like how it looks. If anyone asks me about it, I'm going to explain that this is normal, with us, in America.

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